Commentary: We have totally undervalued late bloomers
On the back of the release of PSLE results this week, it's time to question this concept of learning as a race against time, says mum June Yong.
SINGAPORE: In a world that celebrates young YouTube celebrities, start-up billionaires under 30, and reading at the age of four, it is easy for those of us with kids who seem to be lagging behind to worry.
Maybe your child is a little dreamy, learns at a slower pace, or simply uninterested in doing anything by the book.
He or she may be labelled “late” or “slow”, unable to keep up in the race for grades. He or she might be “normal”, usually taken to be unspectacular.
This child may be written off, looked down upon by peers, and have to face the frustration and disappointment of parents and teachers.
This might particularly be the case this week, when the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) results were released.
But is it really the end of the road for him? Or is this just the beginning of the game called life?
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
A friend of mine was this child. She under-performed compared to her peers, and eventually discontinued her studies after taking her N-levels.
Even at home, she was made to do chores while her siblings focused on their studies. But she overcame the challenges of life and is today managing her own vinyl flooring business.
What made the difference? Her people skills, her ability to learn new things and adapt to change, as well as pure hard work.
She had to learn to stand on her own feet at a young age. She could connect with people from all walks of life and found herself constantly learning from them.
She may not have developed the leadership skills she needed to run her own firm had she not tried so many different jobs early on in life.
As psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman puts it:
In wrestling with adversity, individuals learn skills important to success.
As a society, we hold onto rather fixed notions about success and talent. We imagine that progress can be attained in a linear fashion, when in reality success rarely travels a straight line.
Our assumptions have led to us to develop a well-oiled machinery that we funnel our children through, a high-stakes education system that reduces them to a number and suggests they are less or more able than another with a different number.
Sorting can be useful in that our sprawling scholarship system has given many identified promising youths from disadvantaged families a leg up.
But the pathway to achievement and contribution is often crooked and uneven. The experiences learnt along the way can prove invaluable to one’s life.
Life doesn’t stop when you exit the education system. We all know how you did at 12 or 16 is no prediction for how you might do at 25 or 35. Much depends on how you handle challenges and opportunities along the way.
Most people associate Michael Jordan's success with his talent, but what is lesser known is how Jordan took the advice of his coach to operate as a team-player, not as a singular star. By trusting his team-mates to make the final shot on occasions, Jordan went from good to great.
CELEBRATING DIFFERENCES AND GOING BEYOND GRADES
We have to move away from traditional notions of what success looks like. In a world of artificial intelligence and automation, why are we still urging our kids to follow old success formulas like robots?
My ex-colleague shared with me that he struggled through secondary school and junior college after being placed in a triple-science course. He read engineering in university but made a switch to the arts after two years.
He may have realised quite late in life that he had neither aptitude for nor an interest in the sciences but after he made the switch, he experienced a lot more satisfaction, success and affirmation.
Such experiences may help to support the recent move by the Ministry of Education to abolish streaming and move towards full subject-based banding in secondary schools by 2024. Subject-based banding allows students to take on subjects they are stronger in at a higher level.
The new approach recognises that every individual has different talents, and sometimes such strengths may show up later in life.
The introduction of Applied Learning also creates room for students to grow and discover their strengths, instead of pigeon-holing them by a single exam taken at the age of 12 and gearing up an entire primary school education to prepare for that test.
Don’t grades still matter? Yes but not quite in the way that we think.
Sher-Li Torrey, founder of Mums@Work, which supports women looking to relaunch their careers, revealed that employers are increasingly lowering their GPA expectations and considering other personal achievements apart from grades. She elaborates:
A hirer in an MNC in the finance industry once said that top scorers who have never experienced failure often cannot cope with the demands of the working world … When a graduate cannot talk about their life experiences and only has good grades to show, it is a sure sign that they will not adapt well to working in teams.”
LEARNING HAS NO EXPIRY DATE
Modern society is obsessed with speed. But when we emphasise speed, we risk being fixated about getting the right answers in the shortest possible time. We become impatient and shallow learners.
Maybe it’s time to question this concept of learning as a race against time.
What if the “late bloomer” is really the “just-in-time bloomer” – with certain traits and cognitive skills being ‘turned on’ at the right time? And the path of learning more like a flower that blooms when conditions are ripe.
It could be an inspiring teacher or an accidental life experience that eventually flips the switch. Or a parent who patiently tends to her child, allowing him space and time to explore his interests.
Slowness and the process of taking one’s time need not be synonymous with failure.
If we continue to believe that straight As are the only way to success, our kids who fall short of such fixed standards are likely to carry the baggage of “failure” for life.
What if in biding their time and not conforming to societal standards of achievement, these learners cultivate character, curiosity, and self-knowledge? And when the time comes and the right opportunity presents itself, they seize the day.
In so doing we are not romanticising lateness, but merely recognising that learning and growth has no expiration date.
A person may have done poorly in PSLE at the age of 12. Yet, in life, there are opportunities to learn, to network, to reinvent yourself, and to discover and deep-dive into the disciplines that excite you.
For many children and even adults, like the bird learning how to fly, falling may well be a way to gain enough wind in your wings to take flight.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.