Education is not a race

The article titled ‘Sorry, your child is not bright enough’ published in Today has been creating waves lately, at least where my Facebook and Twitter are concerned.

I’ve heard from some parents sharing about how the tuition industry and its proponents have ‘mercenarised’ education, and about how wrong it is that some enrichment centres reject children from entering if they don’t pass an entrance test. And we are talking about children as young as six here.

The idea about enrichment centres ‘streaming’ and selecting ‘the cream of the crop’ is appalling. I think it’s also very revealing about the way Singapore does education.

But my main focus here is on parents — who feel that if they don’t enrol their children in these centres they will get left behind even before they set foot in primary one. I know we live in an extremely competitive and ‘kiasu’ environment, and as parents, we only want to provide the best environment for our children’s intellectual growth and well-being. But have we ever stopped to think that all this pushy parenting and undue stress can be counter-productive to the learning and development of our young ones?

If you were a 6-year-old, and you’ve just been told that you didn’t make it into a particular enrichment centre because you didn’t do well enough on a test, how would you feel? What would it do to your self-esteem?

At best, the child makes it through, does sufficiently well through primary school and secondary level education, and lands himself a spot at a local university (something he might have been able to do anyway without the help of an external education provider at a young age). But at worst?

Perhaps we need to rethink the equation that child + enrichment courses = good grades = highly intelligent and eventually successful individual. Perhaps we need to rethink the entire concept of intelligence itself.

I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules for Baby, and it’s been a refreshing read. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School — a provocative book that challenges the way our schools and work environments have traditionally been designed.

In Brain Rules for Baby, Medina talks about the danger of hyper-parenting, and lists the ways in which it can potentially hurt our children’s intellectual development:

  1. Extreme expectations stunt higher-level thinking — pushing your child to perform tasks his brain is not developmentally ready to do can lead to them resorting to lower-level thinking instead of higher-level thinking and processing skills.
  2. Pressure can extinguish curiosity — where children focus their energy on securing parents’ approval instead of exploring their worlds.
  3. Continual anger or disappointment becomes toxic stress — at the extreme, this can create a psychological state known as learned helplessness, which can physically damage a child’s brain, and is deemed a ‘gateway to depression’.

Really, good grades are not the be all and end all. Don’t stress our young. Let them enjoy their childhood. If you really want to invest in their education, try these instead.

Spend time with them.

Nurture their love for exploration and discovery.

Model timeless values such as kindness and generosity.

Instill gratitude.

Read great books together.

Hone their social skills.

Emphasize the value of effort and hard work.

And perhaps, just perhaps, these will benefit them in all areas of life, above and beyond the academic realm.

I leave you with this quote from the book:

“Write this across your heart before your child comes into the world: Parenting is not a race. Kids are not proxies for adult success. Competition can be inspiring, but brands of it can wire your child’s brain in a toxic way. Comparing your kids with your friends’ kids will not get them, or you, where you want to go.”

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  1. says

    I am so appalled and outraged that the tuition centre can get away with what they are doing. And the message that they are sending to parents that your kids are “not good enough”. And what is the parents response? To believe in the lie and push their kids harder. I feel so disappointed about the education system in Singapore where they are still so grades oriented. I pray I will not be like one of these parents, ever.

    • says

      We are on the same page Susan. I guess it’s a lot to do with culture and the harsh realities of life too, so at the back of my mind, I’m also aware that it’s easier said than done.

      But as a start, a change in mindset is all we need in order for real change (in the way we teach our children) to take place. I pray that I won’t fall into the same trap too…

  2. says

    I read most of this post…my little one is a ball of energy today =) But what is going through my head from what I DID read is, it’s sad when these kinds of things are becoming SO mainstream these days. We are beginning the search for pre schools for our little one (year and half old). Most of the schools not only have rediculous amounts of tuition (FOR PRE SCHOOL!!!), you have to be interviewed and your child has to be put thorugh an exam. She’s going to play with play-doh and sing abc’s….come on people!!!! My child, according to the percentiles upon growth is small…never been about 20% (height, weight, etc.) Now is that to say something is wrong with our girl…HECK NO! Just means she is HERSELF. I hate how society has put a label on where children should be mentally and physically. Our kids are individuals. So we need to treat them like it!

    Good post!! Can’t wait to read more!!! =)

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Jessica. Wow, entrance exams for preschool level? I find it so hard to grasp the rationale behind that…and I don’t believe I’ve heard of such exams here in Singapore.

      • Petrina says

        yes. Entrance exams are compulsory for branded schools like Singapore Chinese Girls School – Preschool.
        International Australian Kindergarten etc…
        You will definitely not find exams in schools like PAP/Little Wings!

        That is the reason why the latter schools ain’t popular with parents since they don’t seem to develop the kids well enough.

        Eg: Not being able to write your own name before P1, not being able to memorize your multiplications tables by K2, etc…

  3. says

    Great write. You hit it right on the bull’s eye!

    I was reading about Finland’s education system recently. If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t about the way they work, you gotta read the below links.

    26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System –

    WIki Education in Finland –

    ‘According to Pepa Ódena in these centers, “You are not taught, you learn. The children learn through playing. This philosophy is put into practice in all the schools we visited, in what the teachers say, and in all that one sees.”
    Early childhood education is not mandatory in Finland, but is used by almost everyone. “We see it as the right of the child to have daycare and pre-school,” explained Eeva Penttilä, of Helsinki’s Education Department. “It’s not a place where you dump your child when you’re working. It’s a place for your child to play and learn and make friends. Good parents put their children in daycare. It’s not related to socio-economic class”.
    The focus for kindergarten students is to “learn how to learn”, Ms. Penttilä said. Instead of formal instruction in reading and math there are lessons on nature, animals, and the “circle of life” and a focus on materials- based learning.’

    • says

      Why compare SG with Finland?

      Wikipedia snippet on Finland: Forests play a key role in the country’s economy, making it one of the world’s leading wood producers. On SG: The Singaporean economy is known as one of the freest, most innovative, most competitive, most business friendly (country in the world).

      For positive comparison, we should find another country that has similar natural constraints, yet have totally relaxed citizens and government. I personally don’t know such a country.

      • says

        Hi Joemeister

        Thanks for the comment.

        Definitely, SG and Finland are very different. In fact, I was not comparing.

        What I am saying is that there is much that we can learn from their effective education system, to provide an environment for our children to learn and grow healthily, without the highly competitive ‘pressure points’.
        Every child is uniquely different and we can play a role in giving them space to bloom in their ways.

        Daniel Wong, author of the book ‘The Happy Student’ was on amLIVE last morning. During the interview, they talked about the possibility of being a happy and fulfilled student –

        Happy Thursday!

      • Katherine Ng says

        Good say, “teach children how to fish for themselves”…Same time, let the kids have the childhood! You can still find such teaching methodology in Singapore preschools if you put in a little effort to “hunt”. I found mine – Creative Preschoolers’ Bay at IBP for my 3 kids! They have all graduated, and we are going back for the 15th anniversay this year!

  4. says

    I read the article “Sorry, your child is not bright enough” with disgust. I am a sole proprietor of the learning and enrichment centre myself. I accept all types of students, except those who require special attention like ADHD, as I am not trained to coach these students.
    Although my centre accept children of different learning abilities, we do try our best to help the weaker ones as well. When a child has difficulty in learning or lazy to do work, we informed the parents right away. We want to put across to parents that the child’s achievement will depend largely on his/her diligence. We can teach them how to learn, but if they do not practice it outside tuition hours, then it is very difficult for them to excel.
    Education requires parent-teacher to work hand in hand for the child to succeed. Parents must know about this.

  5. says

    Well said June! I think in Singapore, the situation with kiasu-nism in parents is even more apparent. It’s easy to be pressured into getting your kids enrolled in all the enrichment and developmental programmes that’s available in your country. Thanks for the message and the reminder of what’s really important for our children 🙂

    • says

      Hi Andrew, I think I would avoid both extremes, as I’m not for a totally laissez-faire attitude to education either. I’m just saying that we should be more aware of the potentially adverse effects of unnecessary stress on grades and academic performance in the long term.

      Our children have far greater value than what grades and tests can ever measure. I hope this clarifies my view, but thanks for pointing me to that article. 🙂

  6. says

    OMG! My friend and I were just discussing about this type of ‘elite’ enrichment centers! Downright appalling and we are not even sure if the children’s progress is from their own ability or the centers’. Yes I agree, children should be carefree and have a childhood, this way they won’t turn out to monsters or psychopaths.

  7. Hong says

    The purpose of the “race” by the elitist is to separate themselves from the commoner at a later stage. I’ve seen what these elitist did :

    1. They would send their kid to Eton School house instead of locally run school citing of better education quality. these parent worked in stat board themselves.

    2. Rich enough to send kids for multiple subjects private tuition and will entice good teacher with top dollar (no money no talk)

    3. Rich enough to send their kids to overseas university despite a place in nus/ntu

    4. Apply and accept scholarship from government even though they can redeem their kid out of the bond later.

  8. says

    It is absolutely crazy to let these ‘Enrichment Schools’ to use such ploys to ENRICH themselves. Quite sure the operators earn >$1.1m (new pay scale for ministers) each by enticing gullible kiasu parents to pay $xxxx with ads that claim zzz of our students score yyy in PSLE! When demand > supply, parents PAY AND PAY so that Die Die must send their already bright (since they passed the tests) to EN…RICH the operators, not their KIDS. Daniel Wong in his bookThe Happy Student advises parents to help their children to run his/her own race. Success & Fulfillment will follow him when he pursues his heart’s calling and become self motivated. Check out THE HAPPY STUDENT – 5 Steps to Academic Success and Fulfillment.

  9. Stephanie says

    Well said and written..As an educator myself, I have to constantly remind myself about the minorities in my class that they are to be given equal attention and patience to help them to succeed at their best potential level though many teachers would have labelled them as weak and concentrate on the cleverer students…Parents play an important role in the family too as how they model to their children will mould them to be who they are…As a parent too, I have this pressure and tendancy to worry if I have parent my daughter in the right way or have I shortchange her and if she can be in par and catch up with her peers in school..So I will start thinking of sending her to phonics classes or areas that I find I may not be able to help…BUt I hold on to my principles that social, moral values comes first then academic…..Thanks for this article to assure me that I am on the right track….! ch3ers!

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Stephanie. I suppose by minorities, you are referring to a smaller proportion of students who may be behind academically? Yes, the pressure will always be there, but I’m glad that you are sticking to your priorities and values. I have faith that your daughter will blossom under your guidance and care.

  10. says

    I’m reading this iphone app book, titled (direct translated as the book is in mandarin) “Good Mommy is better than a Good Teacher”. The point this book raised is that alot of Mommies/parents lost track of what their roles are to their kids. Most of them become educators/teachers to their kids, failed to teach them social skills, communication skill, kindness, moral, responsibilities, etc. They are grades orientated, as long as the kids have good grades, go to good schools, these parents considered their ‘job’ done as their kids ‘excel’ in life.

    I was just discussing with my Mommies friends what we see nowadays, children are rude, bully those who are younger than them (mind you, the ‘bully’ parent was there watching all this while, without stopping his/her kid’s action), parent told her kid to throw the empty can of drink on the pavement (and there was a dustbin just few meters away, and they were going to walk pass it anyway!), parents watched their kids skating away in the food court, parents watched their kids threw toys merchandise on the floor (and broke some of them. The parents just stood there and watch.), children asking strangers for money, etc… The list goes on and on…

    My personal experience happened 16 years ago. I was in the normal stream just for the info. My Maths teacher told a few us to take up A Maths since we excel in E Maths. Hence we approached the teacher who taught A Maths then if we can take up the subject. He agreed to give us 1 hr lesson on it after school, every week. But it turned out harder than we thought, it’s a whole new different concept. That teacher didn’t have the patience and time to teach us, hence we self-learn on our own. We only had one lesson with him, fyi. That teacher didn’t even have the time to entertain us when we went to look for him to clarify some qns. He totally ignored us, gave us the ‘talk to the hand’ attitude. So we stopped bothering him, we tried on our own. But as we approached O Level, we simply cannot find time to continue to learn on our own, so we gave up the idea of taking the A Maths O Level papers. As the date drew closer, that particular teacher came to look for us… so rare! He told us not to attend the A Maths O Level papers as our inabilities to score will drag down the overall ratings/percentage for the A Maths paper. There, there you go, our world class education system, smacked right into our face in reality. I cannot imagine if my girl has to ever go through that.

    It’s really sad how our society turns out to be now…

  11. ASimpleDad says

    I read the article, reflected, and concluded sadly, that these things are allowed to happen because the majority of us parents let it. Not PAP, not “the elite”, not anyone else… it’s US.

    The truth is that the private education landscape in SG is market-driven, and these ‘elite centres’ survive only because the market allows them to. No demand, no supply. Period. Mums, dads on this forum, let’s not kid ourselves, WE are the ones who let this happen.

    I’m a single dad of two beautiful kids, and i love watching them grow. I don’t push them in school, i just allow them space within boundaries of responsible behaviour, ie: no PC time before homework/revision is done, do your chores, etc… I DO send my kids for tuition at a small cosy little centre near where we live, very kampung, and they attended the neighbourhood primary school right next to the elite one which despite having the means to attend, i did not put them in… simply because the staff on duty for P1 balloting were snooty to the core!

    I have seen uni-mates of mine change from free-loving liberal parents to tiger and dragon parents the minute their kids turned pre-school age, and have been totally surprised by how one’s values and priorities change almost overnight when faced with decisions on how ‘best’ to prepare our children for the challenges of the future. Sad Sad Sad.

    In short, there REALLY isn’t anything we can do about these ‘elitist’ places… as the MARKET will let them prosper… and continue to do so. Let’s be honest, as good and “unique” as Finland’s education system is, we are not, and will never be Finns… we just value different things as a society, and it shows in the things we spend our money on as individuals.

    I think we should stop laying blame on MOE and the powers-that-be for all the perceived ills of a fair and merit-based system… when the responsibility lies within us. WE are the problem, hence WE should be the solution. WE should spend more time with our kids, value them for who they are and will be, and STOP vicariously living our intended dreams through them. Let’s stop sacrificing our children to the gods of our own dreams and let them live out their own.

  12. chlorine says

    That is a good post which sends parents thinking if they are parenting right. I am a mother of 3, and am residing in Auckland now. Husband has a job posting here and we are fortunate to have a chance to experience life beyond Singapore.

    Like Helsinki, Auckland schools value learning through play. In the kindergarten, every child is running around to find different activities to engage in; reading, painting, playing with playdoh/puzzles/dress-up/drums, dancing, drawing using chalk on the floor, patting the hamsters, gardening, carpentry, etc. The list is endless. My children look forward to attending school here.

    It is with much apprehension that we’ll be returning to Singapore in a couple of months. I am worried about their abilities to adjust to sitting down (for 3 – 4 hours for preschool?) for formal lessons and being expected to write, spell or do multiplication. Education in Singapore is too stifling, with insufficient emphasis on creativity and building communication skills.

    Some schools are also placing their focus at the wrong markers, at getting the various MOE awards instead of developing the children and getting to know them better. Attempting to run schools like corporations has its pitfalls; everyone is trying to use figures to show results, but growing people is not a mere show of statistics. How do we measure values, morals, confidence and creativity? Singapore’s large class size has a huge part to blame too. 1 to 40, and an average teacher sees the students 5 periods a week – how well can he/she grow a child? How much can they do?

    Let the children enjoy learning, so that they will continue in their pursuit for more knowledge and passion, and not be like many of my peers who detest their jobs and yet remain in them, simply for the money and because they really have no idea what they want to do.

  13. ASimpleDad says

    Actually, I am in favour of schools being run like corporations… for the simple reason that we need our teachers to be accountable to their stakeholders, ie: us parents. There have been many innovations seen as a direct result, and as i mentioned in earlier post, our teaching service has done well with the software it has been given.

    I could go on and on ranting about the “entitled” younger teachers i see, and i am so thankful that “corporatisation” has resulted in there being fixed indicators to show these teachers what expectations they have on their shoulders. The weak ones will complain about their principals/colleagues/students, the better ones will play by the rules, and thrive.

    It is unfortunate, but as an “ex-insider” I know that many of the teachers who go on about how ‘persecuted’ they are by their Ps and HODs actually had quite low quality standards in terms of classroom management, teachercraft and pastoral care. Sad indeed for a once proud profession. Some ‘classic’ cases I have encountered involve teachers going in to classes unprepared, not assessing students regularly, having ‘talk cock’ (pardon the vernacular) sessions on the guise of Life Skills (when there is actually a pretty well written package to follow.

    Chlorine, I am sure returning to SG will be a challenge for your children. Don’t worry too much, children are VERY adaptable, and I am sure your’s will take on their new environment with a gusto! I suppose what you could do would be to get to know their teachers and then let them ‘look out’ for your kids. The numbers of ‘returning students’ have increased since the early ’90s due to SG Inc, and most of my erstwhile colleagues still in service would have something up their toolbox to serve their needs! Cheer up… at least you and your kids will have the shared experience of SG Ed!


  14. chlorine says

    ASimpleDad, thank you for sharing and your advice. 🙂 It is indeed sad that there are some black sheep in the teaching service. For many years, I was a teacher too, and one with my conscience clear. I worked really hard, but still think I could do more if I had more time, fewer students and lesser duties besides teaching. I used to work 12 hours a day in the school, then bring work home and wait till the children were asleep before waking up at 4am to mark. Teachers who wish to do their best for the students have a rather poor quality of life! Still, I am hoping that Singapore’s education system can be ‘kinder’ on the children and give them some space to love learning. Getting K2 students to spell ‘ambulance’ or ‘enormous’ doesn’t guarantee that they will all become righteous and discerning adults. I love my country, but also admit that I do contemplate leaving it just so that my children can have a more ‘holistic education’ – a phrase many Singapore schools like to use.

    • says

      Hi Chlorine, thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts. I confess that sometimes I too think about leaving the country for the same reason (along with others) but I guess that would be taking the easy way out.

      This discussion makes me think back to my schooling days and wonder how things could have changed so drastically in just 2 decades. It also makes me want to consider alternative forms of education, such as homeschooling.

  15. ASimpleDad says

    Hiya! Tell me about buzzwords! That’s the part about the modern education landscape which totally rankles me! Yes, I clocked in 12 hour days for the better part of my service years. Had a really tough P who demanded 150% from us tired souls.

    Where preschools are concerned I would look closely at some of the faith-based preschools. In my opinion, some of these places not only offer value-for-money, but an instructional programme which values the child as an individual. I find that teachers also work with an ‘added purpose’, which translates into a more supportive learning environment.

    I’ve often also wondered how we can produce a ‘kinder’ system as you mentioned. i suppose it all boils down to how much we, as parents, want to push our children towards academic success. I’ve heard horror stories of kids having two different tutors for ONE subject… just to provide them with “more practice”. Aiyo. Where got time to do homework and consolidate learning, let alone to GROW UP?

    There have been so many initiative which have come and gone over the years to try and lighten our children’s load… eg: content reduction – TSLN (1998), interactive IT (2003), the 5-day work week/TLLM (2005), alternate forms of assessment (2008), on and on… and what irks me is how school heads start to implement nominal forms of this at the onset, only to move back to status quo closer to exams. After a few months, it’s same-o, same-o! I would indeed take my hat off to the one Minister who can actually enforce these policies uniformly across our little island!

    So I’ve come to conclude that our exam system is here to stay, and no matter what our blessed policymakers do or say, the market will dictate that our kids MUST have all the As they can collect… simply because no parent wants his/her child to be the one who can’t.

    Hahaha… ruminations again. Have a good week, all!

    • says

      Hi A Simple Dad, thank you. I think you’ve added much insight to this post. I agree that as parents, we really need to ‘own’ our children’s education — I don’t mean start doing their homework but just to draw the boundaries and allow them the freedom to grow at their own pace and in their varied talents/interests. ‘Holistic education’ begins at home, and as parents, we must set the tone.

      I find it saddening that we see no other way but to swim along with the tide and ‘collect the As’. Quoting a Finnish expression, “only dead fish follow the stream.” Perhaps it’s time for us to rethink our priorities, and reclaim the way education is thought about, and done, here on our sunny shores. Have a good week too!

  16. Jennifer Burden says

    I like this post! I haven’t read “Brain Rules for Baby”, but I now want to put it on my list!

    I have read a lot about not focusing on reading on a young age and more on play. I see a dichotomy of mothers who feel that children need academic skills to get ahead before they start school (they start school at 5 yrs old in the US) and mothers who think play and cognitive learning is key before school. I’ve followed the play and cognitive learning and exploring path for my daughter so far.

    What you said about extreme expectations really resonates with me:

    “Extreme expectations stunt higher-level thinking — pushing your child to perform tasks his brain is not developmentally ready to do can lead to them resorting to lower-level thinking instead of higher-level thinking and processing skills.”

    Great post!

    Jen 🙂

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