Words by: Min Naung
Education is the most valued commodity in our country. However, despite this cultural focus on education, many parents have little idea of what their children are learning and what they want them to learn. They have a simplistic notion that eventually, a good education in some prestigious school followed by studying abroad will lead to a financially secure life and long-term happiness. And any obstacles that might jeopardize their children’s education will be easily mitigated by shortcuts. Is the child not doing well in school? Change his tuition teacher. Is the child falling behind? Switch to a school that gives better grades.
For overambitious parents, even grades are no longer enough. Their children also need to perform better than other children. In fact, our country itself has a culture of competition. Every year we announce a list of students who make the top ten in the national matriculations instead of honouring students who have worked hard enough to get As. Schools give out report cards with a specific section for a child’s position in the class. If both students get an A grade, the student who gets even one mark more than the other would get the first position. Such is our misguided expectations that it has led to our booming education industry. Fresh graduates, including myself, entered the education industry because the respectability and financial stability of the job of a tuition teacher is alluring. Top students compete for top positions while the underdogs rely on their tuition teachers to help them pass.
The problem with this way of thinking in education is that students no longer have the necessary skills or attitudes to succeed in life. Intellectual curiosity is repressed as early as Primary 4 or 5 as both students and parents became obsessively concerned with grades. Once, when I was teaching history and discussing with my students about how women’s role changed during World War I, only a few students were interested. On the other hand, when I told them that I’ll be giving the questions that I will ask on the exam, every single eye was focused on me (or rather the whiteboard). Curiosity emerges sometimes, but more children are obsessed with who has a crush on whom than the wonders of life and history.
But the lack of intellectual curiosity is not the only issue. Students are losing their ability to extend their understanding or to apply it. The most common mode of assessment in our schools – the written response – had become too corrupted that nobody remembers its original purpose anymore. Instead of providing students with the opportunity to communicate their understanding, ready-made questions and answers are provided to the students so that they can memorize it and parrot it back in the exams. And when the teacher lets the students write their own answers, the common solution is to copy long sections from the textbooks: “Is there a question about World War I? Where can we find information about World War I in the textbook? There it is. Okay, copy the entire paragraph.” And if you can’t find the answer, there’s always the tuition teacher at home to help you.
All this means that finishing high school without any disciplinary skills or understanding of core concepts has become a normal part of education. In subjects like history, for example, the emphasis is on understanding different perspectives in different historical sources and using these to develop arguments and relate the cause and effect. For many schools, however, history is the arbitrary study of facts from an encyclopaedic textbook written by an omniscient teacher. Many would graduate without even knowing what a primary source is, taking everything being taught at face value.
Not many people are aware of these concerns. Teachers are often pressured by the need to stick to the curriculum and deliver the course content in time. In addition, the lack of quality teaching resources – maps to help students understand places, documentaries and books to help students explore a topic by themselves, labs to help students’ curiosity grow – poses a great challenge for all teachers. At the same time, parents – even the overambitious ones – cannot be blamed for their misguided goals. Having lived through the oppressive military regime, parents understand the struggle for education more than anyone else. They believe in the potential of education, even if they do not clearly understand what education should be. The real problem is that after decades of repression, education – like everything in our country – is stagnating. And it’ll take some time before the entire system changes to reach international standards.
In the meantime, if parents truly are concerned about the overall well-being of their children, there are a couple of things they could do. First, they should – above anything else – abandon the unreasonable demands for their children to become the best in class and get the best grades. Instead, they should foster their children’s curiosity and encourage them to develop an interest in learning. Learning is an enriching experience and a continuous process. It continues even in the workplace as being successful in your job means learning constantly – whether it is communicating effectively or managing people.
Secondly, children should be encouraged to read a variety of texts beyond the what is being learnt at school to gain the skills that they could otherwise not develop in school. This translates to greater competency in school as well. Because I have been encouraged to read since I was young, I developed a natural tendency to read the textbooks ahead – especially when it comes to short stories and articles in the English textbooks. On the other hand, most students today have developed such an aversion to reading that the standard procedure has become “Read the question. Find the part in the textbook relevant to the question. Copy that part without bothering to understand it.”
At the end of the day, the most important gift we can give our children is not a report card filled with ‘100s’, but the resilience to keep trying and improve themselves and not to lose hope whatever challenges they face.
 This information is taken from the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies developed by the National Council for Social Studies