Recently, on our local Tiktok FYP, there has been an interview circulating of professor who has taught in both international and local universities. In the interview she shared about her teaching experiences. She made the following statement which caught the attention of many people.
“When I gave students a problem, unlike in other cultures where they would ask me about the problem itself, the challenge, the purpose of it and all that, in Singapore, the first question is how many words teacher.”
I find myself guilty of asking that question. Regardless of the assessment, I’ll always think: “What’s the rubrics? What’s the word count?” “Why did I get a B+ again? I did everything Prof asked for.” We are constantly striving to please our professors, getting the highest grades and attaining perfection. In my opinion, that should not be what education; much less tertiary education, is all about. It’s not surprising that many professors and educators endorse this behaviour, since it fuels the education industry.
All our lives, we have been taught that “Grades are King”. Our many award ceremonies across all levels in the education system, puts the academically gifted on a pedestal. Sitting through each ceremony, every year, from 7 to 18 years old, it’s not surprising that most students dream of one day being able to stand on that stage too, even just for a fleeting moment.
While preparing for major examinations like PSLE, O Levels or A Levels, most teachers tend to train their students to adopt specific tactics and answer styles, to score and curry favour from their Cambridge assessors. For example, in our English examinations, there is often an abstract option like ‘what does happiness mean to you?’ where there is no clear cut structure in answering the question. Based on personal experiences, teachers would tell their students to not even bother with the question because its lack of clarity in its answers makes it the most difficult to score in. While chasing after the highest scores is a part of a teacher’s job, an educator’s obligation is to expand the minds of the young. Such focus on pure academic achievement stifles creativity, thinking beyond the box and blocks outlets of expression for students. Yet again, the opposing forces of practicality and creativity result in a never-ending conflict of what is ‘right’ for our next generation.
In class, we often roll our eyes at the kid who wants more homework, or asks questions beyond the syllabus because we deem it as a waste of time. We learn humanities subjects, which are supposed to be about fluidity and creativity, through structured step-by-step methods like PEEL. With such rigidity in our education methodologies, it’s probably understandable and somewhat expected that all we care for are the answer keys which in return gives us the grades we chase. Knowledge beyond the syllabus have been told to us as unnecessary. A famous motto most of us abide by: “If I don’t need it, I don’t want to know it.”
The core of the issue brought up in that Tiktok, lies in the way our education system is constructed. Beginning with Lee Kuan Yew’s speech on Singapore having scarce natural resources and possessing only manpower, there is a constant and pressing need for us to grow our talent through rigorous education in order to survive and thrive. We then adopted meritocracy, which credits people by merit, resulting in an inevitable goose chase for grades. The problem with defining merit based on academic achievement arises when the education system becomes an institution filled with bureaucracy, elitism and a rigid structure. We subconsciously restrict our limitations and thinking such that we are unable to diversify; being just cogs in a machine labelled efficiency.
Taught from an early age to follow rigid structures, creativity is suppressed and stunted from the start. Furthermore, by encouraging a conformational grade-chasing attitude in us, most will lack certain qualities and resources to break out of the system completely. With academic achievement and economic growth being prioritised, the thirst for knowledge is not rewarded for, because it is not seen as valuable by our community or our government.
Through the generations, it often feels like a piece of our intellect has been lost throughout the generations. Our forefathers were street-smart, adaptable and intelligent in utilising the scarce resources to thrive. Now, we are just academically smart, but intelligently stunted, minds not wandering or curious enough to leave the barriers of the 9-5, the office workers stereotype, the desk in the cold office. We are just cogs in a machine that never stops, instead of flourishing with innovations, creativity, and something to add on to our world.
Despite all the criticism, it is still difficult to change our mindsets and structures. Meritocracy and the bell curve rule and reigns to support our economical and societal structures.. What we can do, is perhaps try to break out of the mindless perfection-chasing behaviour, and quench our natural thirst for knowledge.
If we can break through the definitions of success that were imposed onto us, maybe all is not yet lost, and we can regain back our stolen intellect.