SINGAPORE: For families with school-going children, time is a shrinking resource in Singapore.
Since my eldest daughter began Primary 3, and my second-born started Primary 1 this year, our time together as a family has been stretched thin – slowly but surely.
Outdoor play is now a rarity on weekdays. The siblings don’t get to play with one another as often as they wish. Even the time spent on bedtime rituals – such as reading a bedtime story, saying our prayers and hugging goodnight, is cut short.
In the recent Committee of Supply debates, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng spoke about the importance of giving children applied learning experiences to nurture innovation and a joy of learning.
Applied learning focuses on experiences that go beyond the classroom (and grades), so that children dabble in solving real-world problems. It also cultivates skills and interests in areas which are deemed relevant to supporting industries and developing 21st century competencies.
All secondary schools and more than 80 primary schools now offer an Applied Learning Programme (ALP). The ministry plans for all primary schools to establish an ALP by 2023.
By next year, more than 50 schools will offer Applied Subjects at O-Level, and 30 schools will offer MOE-ITE Applied Subjects at Normal (Technical)-level. These subjects, which are examinable at the O- and N-Level, include electronics, exercise and sports science, drama and mobile robotics.
I am excited that schools are moving towards this direction of applied learning. But the struggle for families remains real: How do we give our kids the time and space to experiment and tinker, or “apply their learning”, in view of the heavy workload and extracurricular commitments many of them have?
As the movie title goes, Something’s Gotta Give, so what needs to give in order to make room for children to play and hone their interests?
THE COST OF EDUCATION
Compared to her peers, my daughter’s schedule is relatively “light”. We have consciously avoided filling it to the brim. Currently, she stays back in school on one day for co-curricular activities (CCA), and has Chinese tuition and violin class once a week.
But her homework load has increased significantly this year.
Because she is one of the last few to get dropped off by the school bus, she gets home at around 2.30pm and eats a late lunch. She starts working on her homework at around 4pm; this may take her anywhere between one to two hours to complete, depending on the amount of work and its complexity.
This brings us to dinnertime, which takes about an hour. Then she gets a brief 30 to 45 minutes of play and relaxation, which includes packing her bags for the next day and culminates in a bath at 7.45pm. Finally, it’s bedtime at 8.30pm; realistically this means she nods off at about 8.45pm or 9pm, giving her about nine hours of sleep.
This non-stop action repeats on the next day.
While I’m glad that she still gets small pockets of time to do the things that she enjoys - such as tinkering with her Lego, reading and doodling - there are some things we seem to have lost while navigating this jungle of formal education.
She no longer seems interested (nor has the luxury) to head to the playground for a quick romp, declaring to me and her brothers that she has “five more pages of homework to finish”.
Once she had trouble solving a math problem, and I was coaching her through it. I showed her how to draw the model for the problem, and tried to break down the problem into smaller steps.
She eventually got there, but the process was filled with some tension and tears.
These signs tell me that she’s feeling a heightened level of stress over her schoolwork. They also make me wonder: In the name of owning a rigorous education system that is the envy of the world, and in the name of helping our children reach their fullest potential, what costs are we paying as a society?
PRIORITISING CHILDREN'S WELL-BEING
We’ve all heard of the rhetoric to move beyond grades, and focus on the process and joy of learning. Yet I know of kids who spend long hours navigating homework (both from school and from tuition classes) and sacrificing hours of sleep as a result. I’ve also heard of children who are scheduled for tuition or enrichment classes daily.
How can we talk about a joy of learning if we do not even have sufficient rest, or time to imagine and play?
Research has shown that kids with overly tight schedules are significantly less likely to score well on tests that require creative thinking. Other studies have linked time spent on less structured activities (such as social activities, play, and outings to the museum or zoo) with an increase in self-directed executive functioning, which refers to the ability to regulate thought and action towards a goal.
Executive functions are seen as critical predictors of success across a range of outcomes, including achievement in school and beyond. By over-emphasising studies and reducing time for play, are we placing the cart before the horse?
More importantly, what sort of values are we inculcating when we perpetuate a lifestyle that puts grades and achievement over our mental well-being?
IS NO TUITION THE ANSWER?
A friend of mine who is a part-time tuition teacher believes that her sons manage their schoolwork well because she applied a no-tuition policy right from the beginning. She says:
My kids know that they have to pay attention in class and do their work diligently, as there is no backup.
She makes it a point to keep weekends a work-free zone; her kids engage in free play right after school on Friday until Sunday after lunch. (They are discouraged from mentioning schoolwork.) As for expectations, she sets grade targets for each child based on their strengths and weaknesses. For example, her eldest son is strong in Math and Science, so the bar for these subjects is set higher.
If her children struggle over certain concepts, she would also spend time with them to iron out problem areas. As a tuition teacher, she sees the value of having one-on-one time to work on such weak areas.
You might say that she is a teacher and therefore equipped to teach and coach her kids, but what about the rest of us?
As parents we have the power to make choices for and with our children. If they are grappling with a specific subject or topic, by all means get the help you need, be it through asking the teacher, friends or hiring a tutor. If you do hire help, make sure that you set specific goals for both tutor and child, so they know the tuition is set for a specific goal and time period.
RECLAIMING TIME FOR PLAY
Reclaiming time for play and tinkering sounds idealistic in today’s rush for excellence and achievement, but the benefits abound if we make the effort to recalibrate our priorities.
Play is essential to development because it contributes to a child’s well-being; it also offers us a window to connect with our children and understand them.
Play is like the raw form of applied learning – it is when children can enter their most playful moments that they are able to let their imaginations run wild and create with glee.
Mr Ng said that all ALP subjects aim to “encourage exploration, ideation and creativity”. If we truly want to achieve these targets, there are some tweaks that need to be made by schools and parents.
For one, schools should look into reducing homework loads such that each child has some free time in the afternoons to relax and play. They should also consider replacing some of the traditional assessment methods with more collaborative or experimental forms of learning such as project work or group presentations.
Holistic education calls for holistic forms of assessment.
If the assessment scale can be shifted so that student achievement in applied learning subjects is deemed as important as achievement in languages, math and science, perhaps then a true diversity in the “many pathways” mantra can be reached, and students who are less academically inclined can have an equal opportunity to shine.
As for parents, let’s first give our children the joy of living by restoring balance in their lives. When children have sufficient time to play and de-stress, imagine and experiment, they will naturally be motivated to grow and learn, and have the tenacity to forge their own paths forward.
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.