Friday, October 31, 2008

The virtues of a Christian school

Since we're talking about Christian schools, let me take this opportunity to extol the virtues of having your kids in one.

Quoting YY here:

"Personally on looking back I'm very glad my girl went to a Christian secondary school. It was a close-knit community infused with warmth & caring which tenderly nurtured her sensitive soul. My personal prejudice is that in a Christian school the emphasize on academic merits is less 'brutal' and the children are exposed to the idea that God is involved in every detail of your life, in your studies, your family & in your social life.

Whereas in a highly-competitive non-religious school (like RGS for e.g., but not exclusive to RGS) the ethos held up to be nonnegotiable are performance excellence, diligence & cut-throat competition.

In a highly-competitive, non-religious school there is not much time given to ideas that one has value & worth in simply being a unique individual--regardless of one's performance. I would imagine that ideas of 'caring for the weak ones amongst us' would be perfunctorily endorsed as a characteristic of a civil society, but without the kind of commitment to it that would come from a school run on Christocentric ideas of universal love & selflessness."

One of the main reasons we chose our kids' school was because it is a Christian school. At the school, the emphasis on values and nurturing spirituality is very prominent, which is what I love about the school.

I know schools, like companies and organisations, can make many lofty claims about their values that they don't actually uphold. But from what I can see at their school, they really do put their words into action. Everyday before school begins, there is devotion led by either a teacher or a member of the Pastoral Care team. A prayer is said, a verse read and a short story told to elaborate on the verse. During exam periods, the chosen verse is usually something the kids can relate to, like on God's guidance during difficult times. Every Friday, a member of the Pastoral Care team will address the kids during assembly, either telling a story or teaching a lesson from the bible. There is a prayer box in the canteen where any kid can put in a prayer request. The Parent Support Group collects the requests and prays for the kids. At the end of the school year, there is a Closing Service to give thanks to God for seeing them through another year.

Apart from these activities, because the school is a Christian school, it is a natural magnet for children and teachers from Christian families and this is another big plus for me. I like the fact that my kids are being surrounded by like-minded peers and teachers who uphold the same love of God and Christian values in their everyday life, especially during the impressionable primary school years. In one of Lesley-Anne's journal entries in p4, she wrote about being undecided as to whether she should become a vet or a dancer when she grew up. This was the comment written by her teacher:

Doesn't that just warm your heart? I'm pretty sure you won't find this in a non-Christian school even if the teacher is a Christian because it would be considered politically insensitive.

The Christ-centricism is very strong among the kids at the school. I recall an amusing incident when Lesley-Anne was in p1. She had tripped when she was alighting from the school bus and grazed her knee. As she clutched her bleeding knee in pain, a friend said, "I'll pray for you" and immediately launched into prayer for God to heal the knee! Of course in this case, it would have been more practical to help her to the sick bay but it was touching to see that resolute, innocent belief that God can fix anything. Faith of the children.

This is only my experience with my kids' school, so I cannot speak for other Christian schools. But I suspect it should be the same elsewhere. I have heard, for instance, that the Parent Support Group at ACS also prays for the students. Kenneth and I both studied at Catholic schools, and the focus on spirituality there was not so prominent. But then I do think there are differences in the ethos between Catholic and Christian schools, just like there are different practices in the Catholic and Protestant churches. (Just my opinion!!)

After having seen Lesley-Anne blossom after five years at her school and Andre two, I can say with absolutely certainty that choosing that school for my kids has been one of the best decisions we've ever made as parents.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Let someone else worry about DSA!

I had an epiphany last night.

Rather, it was at about 2.30am when I was in bed, unable to sleep. It started with comments on Lilian's blog about the Direct School Admission (DSA). For the umpteenth time, I'm realising how clueless I am about such things. I know that most GEP kids apply for DSA in p6 but I never knew that they had to take a General Ability Test even before they're called up for an interview, and that if they apply under the academic route, they should preferably have some special achievements in a particular area like maths or languages or science.

So upon reading the comments by a very in-tuned dad, I immediately started to worry about Lesley-Anne. Here's the background story: from what I've been told by the GEP teachers, most GEP kids are encouraged to go on to Integrated Programme (IP) schools at sec.1, the 6-year programme which skips 'O' levels and go straight to 'A' levels. These schools have their own school-based gifted education programme whose pedagogy is in line with what the kids have been learning under the GEP. However, there are only 7 IP schools and many of them are off-limits to Lesley-Anne. For instance, Nanyang Girls and Dunman High offer Chinese as first language and NUS High is catered for those extremely talented in maths and science. Many of the schools are boys' schools. Based on these limited choices, Lesley-Anne wants to get into RGS.

But here's the catch: last year, RGS has THE highest cut-off point in the WHOLE OF SINGAPORE. Phwaah!! We attended their open house this year and we learnt that their girls are basically the top 2% of each cohort. How's that for intimidating?

So I'd long told Lesley-Anne that if she really wanted to get into RGS, her best bet was through DSA. Then I found out about the DSA criteria mentioned above. Lesley-Anne is generally fine all around but she doesn't have any stand-out, knock-your-socks-off ability like some of those Math Olympiad geniuses or Sarah Chang-ese violin prodigies.

Which was what brought on the worrying last night. What if, what if. How, how. Then completely out of the blue, this message just whacked me at the side of my head: God will have a place for her. I can't really explain it but suddenly it became clear - if God thinks RGS is the best school for Lesley-Anne, He will clear the way for her. If He doesn't think she will thrive in that environment, He will create a place in another school for her. No amount of worrying or planning will change that.

Wah, really ah, God? I didn't really have to ask, I knew in my heart it was true. (I often have these strange conversations in my head with God - in Singlish no less. Like before any of the kids' exams, I sometimes pray, God, please, please, pleeeeeeease. Aiyah God, you know what I mean lah.)

Once that truth hit me, there was nothing left to worry about. I remembered how God had always led the way in terms of Lesley-Anne's education. Even before she entered p1, we chose the school she's at because 1) it is a Christian school, 2) it is relatively close to our home, 3) it is a co-ed school (so we wouldn't have to worry about Andre later). Since the school is more than 2km from our home, we had to volunteer to be able to register her at Phase 2B. For Phase 2B that year, there was no balloting (we were just two more applicants shy of balloting) so she got a place. When she was in p3 and went for the GEP test, we didn't think she would get in but I remembered distinctly asking God, "if you think GEP will be good for her, then give her a place." And what a blessing that turned out to be.

Don't think that I am a saint. Far from it. I squirm when I hear loud, zealous proclamations of faith, and overly pious people grate on my nerves. I don't pray as often as I should, I don't give thanks as much as I should, I miss church more than I should. But I know God is real, whether politically correct or not, and this keeps me straight. As you probably know by now, I'm an intellectual at heart - I overthink everything, I analyse things to death. The danger with intellectuals is that we do so much thinking that we sometimes start to think that we know better than God. So I constantly have to check myself and that's why my favourite verse from the bible is this lesser-known one:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." 1 Cor 1:18,19
I'm not advocating that we stop thinking altogether. Neither am I saying that since God will take care of everything, we can just slack off and do nothing. If you don't work at something, you can't expect God to call up a miracle and reward you. Not that He can't and not because I believe in that oft spouted phrase "God helps those who help themselves" (nowhere in the bible does it say that). It's more the fact that I believe as part of life's journey, God wants to develop the whole person - mind, body and spirit. Rewarding a lazy bum generally doesn't serve that purpose.

Ironically, after the epiphany, I still couldn't sleep because I started to think of how I would write this post! I'm so heartened by how some of you have commented that you found my blog useful. I'm not lost to the fact that there could be some divine intervention at work here as well - often when I start to write, I find that the thoughts flow very easily, as if someone is guiding them. When I read some of my back posts, I sometimes wonder how I came up with all those thoughts. Honest.

I couldn't figure out what label to give this post. I contemplated creating one called "God" but I baulk at giving God a label, so I'm just going to place it under "faith" and "parenting" for now. Can or not, God? Hmmm... I'll take that as a yes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

GEP science topic on electricity

You probably would have noticed that I post quite a bit on English and Maths, but nothing on Science and Chinese. The reason is simple: Kenneth and I divide the teaching subjects between us, so that we can maintain our sanity. Since Kenneth is a science graduate and took Higher Chinese in school, it was a natural division of labour - I teach English and Maths, he teaches Chinese and Science.

On paper, I passed Chinese at 'AO' level but in reality, I'm effectively monolingual. The irony is that my communications company offers Chinese translation as a service. Which means I have to engage only translators that I have complete trust in because for all I know, they could be translating, "Company XX sucks! It passes off rotten fish eyes as crab jelly!" and I wouldn't have a clue.

I also have no head for or interest in science, except perhaps in human biology. So you see, it's not that I'm biased against these two subjects - it's just that since they're not under my purview, I have no idea what my kids are learning for Chinese and Science. I don't even know what the syllabus is. (When I'm hands-off, I'm really hands-off!)

But my sense of fairness dictates that I should at least attempt to post something in this area, so I thought I'd give a glimpse into Lesley-Anne's GEP Science. GEP Science stresses a lot on practicum, which I think is great because it makes concepts come alive and is more fun than merely learning stuff from the book.

For p5, besides the regular pen-and-paper exams, their final mark for science takes into account daily work, two projects and one practical exam. As you can tell, it's pretty well-rounded. But I will state up front that I don't know how Science is taught and tested in the mainstream, so I have no idea if it's drastically different from GEP.

I won't post an exam paper here. I'm refraining from posting GEP exam papers of any kind because I know there are unscrupulous tutors out there who try to get their hands on these papers so they can charge their tutees for teaching at "GEP standard". Despicable.

But what I will share is one of the many hands-on, investigative lessons they do in class for GEP Science. This is one of the worksheets I took from Lesley-Anne's file this year. This was under the topic of Electricity and they did this exercise in groups of four. Each group was given the materials as stated in each question and asked to investigate. After they had completed the questions, the teacher went through the investigation with them and explained what the correct answers were and why. The groups who got it wrong the first time could then re-try the investigation, but this time with an understanding of how it's supposed to be done.

All answers provided below are the correct ones.

Hands-On With Batteries & Bulbs

1. "Moving electrons produce a magnetic field. The faster the electrons move, the stronger the magnetic field produced." Given 2 batteries, 1 30cm long aluminium foil strip and 1 compass, investigate to find out whether this statement is true or false. What happens when the electrons move in the opposite direction?

Observation: When one battery is used, the compass needle deflects a little. When 2 batteries are used, the compass needle deflects more. When the terminals of the batteries are reversed, the compass needle deflects in the opposite direction.

Explanation: The above statement is true. When an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is formed around the wire. The compass needle is actually a magnet itself.

2. Set up the circuit as shown in the circuit diagram below. By using only 1 wire, investigate how you can make the lighted bulb go out without disturbing the set up.


(The wire drawn above the bulb is the part that was added.)

Explanation: Electrons take the path in a circuit where there is least resistance. When the wire is connected as shown above, a short circuit of minimum resistance is formed and the electrons now flow through the new path. No electrons flow through the light bulb now and so it goes off.

3. Given only 1 battery, 2 bulbs and 4 wires, how can you connect a circuit to light up both bulbs such that when one bulb fuses, the other bulb remains lighted up? Draw a circuit diagram to show your answer.


Again, I'm no scientist so the diagrams mean nothing to me and I've no idea if what is taught is normal for p5 standard or difficult. Hopefully what I've shared is more meaningful to some of you!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Children DON'T learn from mistakes... and here's why

I came across a very interesting article on a fellow mum's blog and I thought every parent should read it. (Thanks Ad, for allowing me to share!) I won't reproduce the whole article here, just parts of it and give my views. You can read the article in its entirety here.

Basically, a study by Leiden University as reported in ScienceDaily (27 September 2008) revealed that kids below the age of 12 do not learn from their mistakes. How many times have you scolded your 9-year-old for making a particular mistake in his work, only to find, to your vexation, that he repeats his mistake once again? Apparently, this is not a case of bad memory or a callous attitude towards work.

Using fMRI research, Dr Eveline Crone and her colleagues from the Leiden Brain and Cognition Lab compared the brains of three different age groups: children aged 8 and 9, children aged 11 and 12, and adults aged 18 to 25. They found, to their surprise, distinct differences in the brain activity of the parts of the cerebral cortex that are responsible for cognitive control for the 8-year-old group vs the 12-year-old group.

In children of eight and nine, these areas of the brain react strongly to positive feedback and scarcely respond at all to negative feedback... Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. Adults do the same, but more efficiently... Their 'control centres' in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback.
This article was very enlightening for me. If you are like me and most other parents, we tend to scold our children for getting answers to questions wrong. And I believe primary school children are scolded the most for academic matters because they seem to keep making the same mistakes and need constant repeating to get information "drummed into their heads". Well, if this research is to be believed, we parents are actually impeding, not helping our children to learn!

Children below the age of 12 encompass the bulk of primary school kids in Singapore. The research shows that the brains of this group of children function very differently. Mistakes don't actually register, perhaps due to immaturity or lack of experience. More importantly, what registers most is positive feedback. I know this from my own experience. Eg. if I praise Andre for doing a particular sum right, he almost never gets the same type of sum wrong again. When he saw that his smiley face answer for a maths question had garnered so much positive reaction from the mothers here, he kept trying to replicate it in all subsequent papers!

This means that we have to re-think the way we teach our children, as Crone mentions:

These surprising results set Crone thinking. 'You start to think less in terms of 'good' and 'not so good'. Children of eight may well be able to learn extremely efficiently, only they do it in a different way.'... She is able to place her fMRI results within the existing knowledge about child development. 'From the literature, it appears that young children respond better to reward than to punishment.' She can also imagine how this comes about: 'The information that you have not done something well is more complicated than the information that you have done something well. Learning from mistakes is more complex than carrying on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible.'
This is my interpretation of what we should do as parents: instead of scolding our children for mistakes, we should approach the situation in a different manner. Correct the mistake but instead of focusing on what they did wrong, show them how to do it right and praise them when they get it right. They will remember it better.

It could be loosely related to something I read yonks ago, that if you focus your brain on an activity, you get subconsciously drawn towards it, whether it's positive or negative. Let me elaborate: if you keep telling yourself, "I must not eat that ice-cream", chances are you will cave and eat that ice-cream because all your brain can think about is that ice-cream! (It has conveniently tuned out the "I must not eat" part). Why do you think so many diets fail?

So if you instruct your child to keep telling herself, "I will not make careless mistakes", it might actually backfire because the brain has "careless mistakes" right on Priority No.1! Instead, I usually tell Lesley-Anne when going into an exam to tell herself, "I can do this well" or something like that. In other words, focus on the positive - what you want to achieve, not the negative - want you want to avoid. (Note: I have no evidence on whether this actually works, but I'm not going to risk the other!)

Going back to the article, I don't know if this new-found knowledge will enable me to help Andre learn better, but at least I know now what NOT to do (yah, I know it's hard, scolding is like second nature to us!) Or at least just until he turns 12, haha. (I mentioned to Ad, wah must be exactly 12? Macam like Cinderella like that!)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Andre's brush with autism

I realise that there are some parents who worry about whether their children have developmental disorders, so I wanted to share my experiences with Andre.
As a toddler, Andre was always happy and bubbly, though rather timid. In terms of physical development, he was right on schedule - walked at 12 months, ran at 14 months. However, in terms of speech, he was worryingly slow. By age 2½, he could only say a sprinkling of words like "car", "ball" and "no" (which is more typical of a 1½-year-old). He only called me "Mummy" for the first time close to his 3rd birthday.

We brought him to a speech therapist but the evaluation was inconclusive as he was too young. Interestingly, as his vocabulary slowly grew, at first it almost entirely evolved around vehicles - something he's crazy about. "Red truck", "big bus", "train", "crane" and his favourite "dig dig sand" (this was his name for the digger). In fact, every time we drove by a construction site, he would get all excited and exclaim, "Many many dig dig sand!" This was past his third birthday. (For a long time, his ambition was to be a truck driver, by the way).

Then we grew more concerned when we read up on autism and we realised that he had many of the symptoms, such as delay in speech, inability to relate to what is "realistic" and what is not, and constant repetitive behaviour. Eg. he would zip around on his tricyle or little car round and round exactly the same spot in the living room for long periods at a time.

Another symptom of autism that Andre manifested was an unusual focus on parts of toys rather than the whole toy. I had come across a pamphlet on autism which said that one thing austistic kids like to do is to spin the wheels of a bike and stare at it. Reading this gave me a big jolt as that was EXACTLY what Andre would do. He would turn his sister's bike upside down, spin the front wheel and watch it. Over and over and over again.

Andre loves cars. But instead of making the cars move or park or do other car-like motions in make believe play, he would just line them up in rows, sometimes straight, sometimes in circles (like in right pic). Once he had used up all his cars, he would remove the first car and start another row. He never actually "played" with them. And when he was lining up his cars, nobody could touch them or mess up the rows, that would trigger a screaming fit of anger and frustration.

When we eventually brought him to a child therapist for an assessment, she explained that this was apparently some sort of social deficiency in play. Since play is a way for children to re-create their social construct of the world, how they play is very revealing. In the therapist's room were a variety of toys, which she encouraged Andre to play with. He was drawn to a large dollhouse with many pieces of furniture. But instead of playing with the furniture, he took them all out and started lining them up in rows, like what he did with cars at home. The order was random, ie he didn't care whether it was a bed or a table or a lamp, he was only interested in forming patterns with them.

We only went back to the therapist for a couple of sessions. Like the earlier speech therapist, she couldn't confirm any diagnosis. But I guess since that was her rice bowl, she tried to make it sound like Andre needed to go for regular therapy to iron out his kinks. We just didn't buy it, I mean there must be 1001 different ways in which children develop, right? By then, Andre was making progress in his speech (albeit slowly), so we decided to take a step back, monitor his situation on our own and not be so quick to label him.

We know now that was the right decision. Andre is now a cheeky, well-adjusted 8-year-old who CAN'T STOP TALKING. He still enjoys arranging his toys (this pic on the left was taken when he was 4 years old) but he has also naturally learnt how to play in a social manner, without any therapy or rigid enforcement by his parents (imagine being told, "you have to play like this!")

Of course hindsight is 20/20. I'm not suggesting that all children be left to develop on their own. If your child does have autism, ADHD or other developmental disorders, early intervention is preferable. I know a child who was clearly autistic but whose parents were in denial and refused to admit he had a disorder. He was brought for an assessment only years later and confirmed to be autistic, wasting precious time that could have been constructively spent managing the condition. If you suspect something is wrong, I don't see any harm in getting a professional assessment, although if your child is too young, the tests are often inconclusive.

All I'm saying is that more often than not, what we think might be symptoms of a disorder are just the quirks in our children developing in their own way. So keep an open mind but don't be too quick to jump to conclusions. Child psychologists agree that the spectrum of child development is so vast and varied that it's impossible to mention every possible scenario. Such is the uniqueness of human beings.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Answers to yesterday's logic puzzles

Yesterday's headlines in the Straits Times read: "Markets Sink". When I saw it, I made a comment to Kenneth, "Wah, markets sink again."

Andre: "Hah? Which market sink? Must be flood, is it?"

Me: "Not that type of market lah, the stock market."

Andre: "Stalk market? You mean the one that sells plants?"

Everyday is a comic strip with Andre.

Anyway, here are the answers to the two logic puzzles I posted yesterday. No way I'm going to type out the loooooong solutions, so you'll have to bear with the small print in the images. If it's too small to read, click on the image, you should see a bigger picture.

Here's the working for Family Barbecue:

And this is the final answer:


Here's the working for R is for Rosebud:

And this is the final answer:


Did you manage to solve them?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Introducing logic puzzles

Since so many mums here seem to be taken with the model method for maths, I want to introduce you to my world of logic puzzles. I've been doing these for oh, I don't know, 15 years? I do them mostly at night in bed, before I go to sleep because that's the time I know I won't be interrupted by kids or work or other distractions. Also since I'm a night owl, I'm most alert at 1am in the morning when everyone else is asleep, so what better thing to do? (Kenneth says this habit is what will save me from Alzheimer's).

In my opinion, the best logic puzzles are by Dell and Penny Press (which incidentally are the same company!) I subscribe to both magazines which publish 6 issues a year each.

I realise this topic has absolutely nothing to do with kids and education, but I want to share the love for puzzles and if I have to justify this post, I'll say logic puzzles increase your mental capacity which is educational, so there!

So what are logic puzzles? They're word puzzles which you solve using deduction skills (a little like models in maths). Dell rates the difficulty of each puzzle from 1 to 5 stars (5 being the most difficult) so you can choose to do whatever you're comfortable with. Each puzzle has a little introduction of a (usually kooky) scenario, followed by a series of clues. Then a grid or diagram is provided for you to fill in your answer.

I won't bother to post a 1-star puzzle, those are very basic. This is an example of a 2-star puzzle:

Family Barbecue

Before putting their grill away for the season, the Livingstone family decided to have one more barbecue out on their patio. The family is comprised of a father, a mother and four school-age children (identified as the oldest, second-oldest, third-oldest and youngest). Each person made a shish kebab using one of three kinds of meat (beef, chicken and pork). Each also ate one of two kinds of grilled vegetables (corn on the cob and yellow squash). From the clues that follow, can you match each Livingston with his or her role in the family and the type of meat and vegetable he or she consumed? Note: Females are Denise, Marlene and Tanya and males are Kristopher, Preston and Sherman.

1. Sherman and Preston are both older than Tanya; a boy is the youngest child.

2. The two oldest children ate the same kind of meat.

3. Neither the father nor the mother ate the same kind of meat as the second-oldest child.

4. The only child who consumed the same type of vegetable as the mother is the oldest sibling.

5. The father didn't eat both pork and corn on the cob; at least one daughter ate both chicken and corn on the cob.

6. Denise and Preston ate the same type of meat; Denise and Sherman didn't eat the same type of vegetable.

7. At least one family member older than Marlene didn't have the same type of vegetable as Marlene.

8. The father didn't eat chicken but the mother and two of the children did.

This is the grid provided for solving the puzzle.

This is an example of a 3-star puzzle:

R is For Rosebud

Someone had been purloining the rosebuds right off of Clara Peabody-Clarke's prize-winning bushes. The distraught Clara asked her dear friend Jean Marble (known by her neighbours as the "Super Snooper") to ferret out the guilty party. After only one day of nosing around, Jean discovered seven different items, each of which belonged to a different suspect. Each of the suspects lives on a different street in the nearby village and has a different day job. As it turns out, all of the suspects were guilty and they all chipped in to buy Clara an expensive new vase to show off her lovely blossoms. From the information provided, can you determine the order in which Jean found each item, the full name of the suspect to whom it belonged, the name of each suspect's street, and each person's day job? Note: Women are Amy, Elizabeth and Margaret and men are Andrew, Charles, Edwin and William.

1. The owner of the third item Jean found, Margaret, and the one surnamed York are the antiques dealer, the travel agent and the postmistress (who is a woman), in some order. The owner of the seventh item Jean found, the suspect who left behind a button from his or her jacket, and the resident of Chandlers Alley are the grocer, the publican and the vicar, in some order.

2. The first item Jean found and the objects belonging to Ms Butler and the carpenter are the gardening glove, the initialed handkerchief and the boot, in some order. The items Jean found belonging to Edwin, the resident of Hastings Square and the grocer are the button, the bowl of potpourri and the secateurs, in some order.

3. The owner of the boot matching the bootprint Jean found in Clara's garden, Mr Jones and the travel agent live on High Street (which is where a female suspect resides), Lamplighters Lane and Queen's Circle, in some order. The owner of the sixth item Jean discovered, Charles and the one surnamed MacDonald live on Hastings Square, Peabody Road and Riverside Way (which is the location of a male suspect's home), in some order.

4. The suspect whose sleeve caught on the garden gate's latch and left a purple thread Jean found, William, and the publican, own the second, fourth and sixth items Jean discovered, in some order. The one surnamed Llewellyn, Amy and the antiques dealer are the owners of the first, third and fifth items Jean found, in some order.

5. The surnames of the owner of the seventh item Jean found, Andrew and the postmistress are Jones, MacDonald and York, in some order. The surnames of the owner of the secateurs Jean tripped over near the birdbath in Clara's garden, Margaret and the carpenter are Llewellyn, O'Rourke and Smith, in some order.

6. The suspect who left behind the purple thread as evidence, the one surnamed O'Rourke and the one who lives on Lamplighters Lane are Amy, Elizabeth and William, in some order. The owner of the fourth piece of evidence Jean collected, the one who misplaced the gardening glove and the vicar are Andrew, Charles and Edwin, in some order.

Note: when the clue says "in some order", it means it's not necessarily in the respective order that it was listed. This is the solving grid:

Since I'm been doing these for a long time, I generally prefer the 4 and 5-star puzzles as they're more challenging. The 5-star ones are usually so mind-bending that they can keep me up for many nights (sometimes to the point where I give up and take a peek at the answer for a clue!) But for newbies, the 2 and 3-star puzzles should be enough to keep you occupied for a while.

I'll post the answers maybe tomorrow and depending on the response, I might post more puzzles. Happy solving!

Friday, October 24, 2008

What time is it?

Quick aside: Yesterday was Andre's English exam. When he came home from school, he asked me, "Mummy, is it 'pink in health'?"

"You mean 'pink of health'? Yes. Did it come out in the paper?"

"Yah. I wasn't sure if it was pink or orange." Orange!!!!

"What did you choose?"

"Pink. I guessed lah." (Accusing tone) "You taught me blue, red, green, yellow, you never taught me orange!"

My mother-in-law just returned from a trip to Hokkaido and she bought loads of interesting stuff, especially for the kids. But among all the knick knacks she presented, this was what Andre was most enamoured with:

It's actually just your regular digital watch, nothing fancy. But for a boy who's never had a digital watch (he's always had the cartoon analogue types), the shiny silver metal and beeping buttons are just irresistable.

It took me one whole night just to adjust the time correctly as the instructions were in Japanese. No skill was required - it was more the random pressing of different combinations of buttons. I finally managed to do it, but I have no idea how, so don't ask me to repeat the task!

Andre has been wearing the watch day and night since he got it just over a week ago. His Chinese tutor was recounting to me how he kept looking at his watch during his tuition session, as if willing her to praise its beauty and magnificence. Aware of what he was after but faking ignorance, she told him to stop checking the time during the lesson or she would make him take it off. She told me she had to stifle her laughter when she saw that he was so torn between not wanting to take off his watch and being unable to stop admiring it. Finally, she put him out of his misery by praising the watch profusely.

At night when he's lying in bed, he would press the light button repeatedly just to see it light up in the dark. He also loves the stopwatch function which has led to a significant increase in our trivia knowledge. We know, for instance, that it takes 6 mins 43 secs to drive from our place to grandma's, that Mika's song "Lollipop" is all of 3 mins, that Lesley-Anne takes 7 mins 19 secs to take a shower and that he takes one hour to finish his dinner (although I wonder if he deliberately dragged out the last item just to see how long the stopwatch can run).

Yesterday, he came to me and asked, "Mummy, will you be going out today?" "Why?" He handed me his watch. "No more battery, can change for me?" One week - that's all his watch could tahan of his manhandling!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Using models to solve maths problems part 3

More maths problems using models, at the request of Lilian!

These two are found in the P4 CASCO Challenging Maths assessment book. Neither Lesley-Anne nor I could solve them last year (when she was in p4). Only when I re-visited them this year could I solve them, probably due to more practice. Lesley-Anne could only get Q1 right with some guidance.

Question 1:

Jack and Ali are given a certain number of maths problems to solve. If Jack solves 3 problems and Ali solves 1 problem every minute, Jack will have 12 problems unsolved when Ali has finished solving all his problems. If Jack solves 1 problem and Ali solves 2 problems every minute, Jack will have 42 problems unsolved when Ali has finished solving all his problems.

a) How many problems were given to Ali?
b) To finish solving the problems at the same time as Ali, how many problems must Jack solve every minute if Ali solves 4 problems every minute?


I'm guessing that some of us have a mental block with this problem because it deals with time. Since time is linear and not an object, we don't know how to graphically capture it in a model. It also appears to add another variable to the problem, making it harder to pin down. But notice that the question never asks how long Jack or Ali takes to solve the problems. In other words, time is not an issue here.

In cases where you have two different models, it's often important to find the constant that is valid for both models. In this question, the constant for both scenarios is 1 minute.

So I started by drawing the basic model for the first part of the question (right). The unknown shows the number of problems solved by Jack and Ali per minute. 12 is the number of problems unsolved by Jack. Easy so far?

Now we need to figure out the model for the second part of the question. If Jack solves 1 problem and Ali solves 2 problems every minute, Jack will have 42 problems unsolved when Ali has finished solving all his problems. Some people might draw the model this way (right). Add an unknown part to Ali and the portion after Jack's one unknown part is 42. Sounds logical, right? WRONG. (I marked a big X in case it escaped you, DON'T FOLLOW THIS!!)

Here's why - if you add another part to Ali, you will need to add 3 more parts to Jack, otherwise the first model doesn't hold true anymore (ie If Jack solves 3 problems and Ali solves 1 problem every minute, Jack will have 12 problems unsolved when Ali has finished solving all his problems).

Instead of having to redraw a model by adding parts, it's easier to just cut Ali's unknown part in the original model into 2 (below). Remember one of my basic assumptions of models (mentioned in my previous post), ie every unknown part should be equal. So I also cut each of the other unknown parts into 2. Since Jack solves 1 problem when Ali solves 2 problems, the entire part after Jack's one part is 42.

5 parts + 12 = 42
5 parts = 42-12 = 30
Therefore, 1 part = 30÷5 = 6

Ali has 2 parts, so 6 x 2 = 12

Answer for a): Ali was given 12 problem sums.

Next part should be quite straightforward. If Ali solves 4 problem sums per minute, he would take (12÷4) 3 minutes to solve all his sums. Jack has 48 (42 + 1 part = 42 + 6) problem sums to solve. To finish solving all of them in 3 minutes, he needs to solve (48÷3) 16 per minute.

Answer for b): Jack has to solve 16 problem sums every minute, ie Jack's mother is a sadist.

Question 2:

There are 500 male and 200 female employees in Company A. There are 400 male and 600 female employees in Company B. Some employees are transferred from Company A to Company B. After the transfer, the number of male employees is the same as the number of female employees in Company B and the number of male employees is twice the number of female employees in Company A. How many female employees were transferred from Company A to Company B?

This is what I call a "transference" question, ie there is a change in value from one scenario to another. (By the way, all the lingo is coined by me, it's by no means the standard in the maths community! All the tips and assumptions are also mine, based on my own experience. If they don't help you, by all means chuck them.)

First, I need to draw the model depicting the number of employees in both companies before the transfer. When you need to compare models, it's usually easier to draw in comparable parts than in one block with a value. Looking at the values given, it's clear that it would be easiest to draw in 100 employee parts. So this is the initial model (right). Each part represents 100.

Now we need to do the transfer. This is an interesting problem because it's an example of a case where the PROCESS of drawing the model (and not the final model itself) helps you arrive at the answer. Sometimes, we tend to attempt to find the answer first then try to draw the model to fit the answer (come on, admit it! I know I do!) but this really defeats the purpose of the model.

We know that after the transfer, Company B had the same number of male and female employees. This means that at least 200 (2 parts) male employees were transfered from Company A. So first we move 2 parts male from A to B (right, indicated by shading). Looking at the remaining parts in Company A, we can see that the number of male employees (3 parts) is not twice that of female employees (2 parts), in other words, we need to move more people.

Now, we know that from this point, we have to move an equal number of male and female employees from Company A to B, in order for Company B to have an equal number of male and female employees. Again by looking at the model (below), we can see that if we move 100 (1 part) male and 100 (1 part) female employees from Company A, we will be left with 2 parts male and 1 part female, ie male employees twice the number of female employees. Voila! Let the picture do the talking.


Answer: 100 female employees were moved from Company A to Company B.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Messy is as messy does

"A messy desk is a sign of genius" or "A messy desk is a sign of a messy mind". Pick the saying you prefer.

This is Lesley-Anne's desk (or what you can see of it):

It's like this 95% of the year, except after forced clean-ups, like during Chinese New Year and before visitors are expected.

In contrast, this is Andre's desk:

I think there is a more likely explanation. For Andre, the desk is about work (something unpleasant). So he almost never does anything here, apart from homework. Whereas for Lesley-Anne, her desk is a platform for work and creativity (poster paints and bead making kits amidst dictionaries and files).

For the record, I'm like Lesley-Anne. When I was an employee, my desk would strewn with files, piles of paper and design mockups, looking like it had been ransacked. So much so that my secretary, when she's finally unable to tolerate the mess, would attempt to restore order by cleaning it up for me.. without my knowledge. Upon finding out, I would grip my hair in horror and wail, "Now I don't know where anything is!!"

Whereas on Kenneth's office desk sits a computer, a single notepad, a pen holder with all working writing implements and a photo frame (of me!!) You can even admire the shiny wood polish on the desk.

So it's like mother like daughter, like father like son. Call it what you will, just nobody touch my desk.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Times table tricks

I'm counting down the days till the exams are over. As you know, these past few days were PSLE marking days, meaning school is closed. Having both kids at home together is no fun. For once, both of them have set aside their differences as they have a common enemy - their mum who has turned into a fire-breathing, revision-driving ogre.

Yesterday, I set some problem sums for Andre. He took the assessment book, then five seconds later, re-appeared at my side and said indignantly, "These are not problem sums!" Huh? "These are CHALLENGING problem sums."

Apparently I should have indicated the difference. Afterall, this is the same boy who, when he telephoned his aunt to tell her about his distinction in his piano exam, said "Auntie Anne, I got a distinction for my piano exam." Pause. "That means I pass, you know."

Back to revision. I know many parents are like me during exam season - we agonise over 1001 details in the school syllabus that our kids have to know and yet somehow elude them. So while I can't help you there, here are a couple of tricks on learning times tables, which hopefully can take away one more little thing your kid needs to know.

My tricks are for the 7, 8 & 9 times tables - the ones that kids tend to struggle with most. (For the others, you just have to do it the old-fashioned way, sorry!)

Many would have heard of this one for the 9 times table, but here it is anyway. Hold up both hands. Eg. if you want to know 9x7, bend the 7th finger (counting from left to right), as shown in pic below. The answer is 6 (all fingers before bent finger) 3 (all fingers after bent finger). 63! Tah dah! Fool proof, this one.


Here's another less well-known one but equally useful trick. It works for multiplication of any two numbers of 7, 8 & 9. Face both palms towards you. The ring finger stands for 7, the middle finger is 8, the index finger is 9. Say you want to know what is 7x8. Make the two corresponding fingers touch, as shown below:

Now count the fingers that are touching and all those below (5), that's your first digit. Then take the number of fingers on one hand above the touching finger (3), multiplied by the number of fingers on the other hand above the touching finger (2), that's your second digit. Answer: 56. Try it!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Using models to solve maths problems part 2

It appears that there are quite a few parents interested in the model method. Lilian posted a few problem sums on her blog which she says she had problems drawing the models for. Her son Brian actually got all the problems right, but not using the model method. That's ok - for PSLE, the examiners don't care what method you use, as long as it's correctly applied and you get the final answer.

I tried the sums and got all the answers within half an hour using the model method. I love the model method because it appeals to my love for problem-solving and helps me understand the concepts behind the sums. I hate learning formulas and blindly following them without understanding why, so algebra puts me off. But one boy in Lesley-Anne's class loves algebra and uses it instead of the model method, so hey, different strokes for different folks!

Here are the sums that Lilian posted. I'll explain step by step how I solved them using the model method.

Question 1:

In April, 40% of the people who went to the museum were children. The rest were adults. The number of women was 3/4 the total number of adults. The rest were men. In May, the number of children increased by 20%. The number of adults was the same as in April but the number of women became only 3/5 of the adults. Then, the number of children became 336 more than the number of women.

a) What is the ratio for the number of children to the number of men to the number of women in April?
b) How many people went to the museum in May?

First, I drew the model for April (on the right). Since 40% is the same as 2/5, 2 parts of the model represent children and 3 parts represent adults.

Then I needed to cut the 3 parts adults in men and women. I find that if you need to further divide a model, it's often easier to cut in a different direction.


In this case, instead of further dividing the columns, I cut the adult portion into four equal rows (right). You can immediately see that 1 row (1/4) is men, 3 rows (3/4) are women.

Remember each unknown part of the model has to be of equal value. So I also cut the children section into 4 equal rows. From here, you can instantly get the answer to part a) just by counting the parts.

Answer for a): Ratio of children is to men is to women in April is 8:3:9

Now we move on to May. I replicated the same model but this time, instead of cutting into 4 rows each, I cut into 5 rows each because I need to find out how many parts represent 3/5. So now, 3 rows are women (3/5) and 2 rows are men (2/5).

Same thing, since I cut the adults into 5 rows, I need to cut the children into 5 rows.

The number of children was increased by 20%. Since children are represented by 10 parts, 20%=2 parts. So I added 2 more parts to children (right).

There are 3 parts more children (12 parts) than women (9 parts). Since there are 336 more children than women, 3 parts=336.

336÷3=112 (this is the value for 1 part)

Since there are 27 parts altogether (count them!), 27 x 112=3,024

Answer for b): 3,024 people went to the museum in May.

(Lilian, like Brian, Lesley-Anne also got it right but used ratio to solve the problem.)

Question 2:

Brian invited some boys and girls, there are 20 more boys than girls. 3/4 of the boys and 2/3 of the girls managed to come. 19 children did not come. How many children did Brian invite?

First, I drew the basic model (right). Then we need to figure out how to cut the model into children who came and children who didn't come. Let's start with the boys. The tricky bit is that we don't know what fraction 20 boys is in relation to total number of boys, so you can't cut the model into 4 parts including the 20. But we know that 20 can be divided by 4, so what we can do is cut the unknown portion for boys into 4 and each of these unknown parts + 5 (20÷4) is 1/4 of the total number of boys.

We can also divide the girls into 3 parts (1 part didn't come, 2 parts came). But we need to ensure that each unknown part for boys and girls is equal, otherwise we can't compare them. I found the lowest common multiple of 4 and 3 which is 12, and divided both the boys and girls portion into 12 equal parts each. Now you can easily compare how many parts came and didn't come in the model below:

19 children who did not come to the party. This is represented by 7 parts + 5 children. Therefore, 7 parts = 19-5 = 14.
14÷7=2 (this is the number of children in 1 part.)

Total number of children is 2 x 24 parts + 20.
48+20=68

Answer: 68 children were invited to the party.

Lesley-Anne solved this problem using the model method.

Question 3:

In a school, there are 45 more students in Primary 5 than in Primary 4. In Primary 4, there are 18 more girls than boys. There are 12 more boys in Primary 5 than in Primary 4. How many more girls than boys are there in Primary 5?

Again, I first drew the basic model (left) then I cut the unknown portion vertically as such (right). Since there are 18 more girls than boys in p4, I marked the model accordingly (note: the unknown parts in the p4 row are equal in value, sorry for the improportionate drawing).









Since are 12 more boys in p5 than in p4, I extended the line for boys in p4 vertically across p5 (model below). Then I marked out an extra 12 boys. This means that that little piece in the p5 portion to the immediate left of 12 has a value of 6 (since that corresponding part in the p4 portion is 18). Since we know the portion representing number of p5 boys, the rest are girls.

Usually, the key to models is finding out the value of the unknown part. BUT in this sum, we're not required to know how many children there are altogether, only how many more girls than boys there are in p5. In the p5 portion, the girls and boys have one unknown part each so they cancel each other out.

We're left with all the known numbers, ie girls = 45+6 and boys = 12.
45+6-12=39.

Answer: There are 39 more girls than boys in p5. (Note: this answer is different from the one Lilian says was given in the assessment book which is 33, but I checked and re-checked and couldn't see how the model could be wrong. If anyone spots an error, let me know).

Lesley-Anne couldn't solve this problem as she couldn't draw the model.

Question 4:

A basket of 6 apples and 3 mangoes weighed 1kg 320g. After 4 apples and 2 mangoes were eaten, the basket with the remaining fruits weighed 760g only. If a mango weighs 20g less than 4 times the mass of an apple, find

a) the mass of the basket
b) the mass of the apple

First, I drew a model of the mango and apple (right). (Note: the 20g is an approximate, at this point, we don't know if it's more or less than one unknown part).

This question threw me off for a bit because of that darn basket which gives me 2 unknown values instead of 1. Then I realised that I could get rid of the basket by just using the fruit that were eaten, ie 1kg 320g (6 apples + 3 mangoes + basket) - 760g (2 apples + 1 mango + basket) = 560g (4 apples + 2 mangoes).

So I drew the model for 4 apples and 2 mangoes (sorry for REALLY bad pic!!).

From the model, we can see that if we want to convert the parts for the 2 mangoes into whole parts, we can just add 20g x 2 mangoes on both sides. So 12 equal parts (add up the ones for 2 mangoes and 4 apples) = 560g + 40g = 600g. Since all the unknown parts are equal, we can find 1 part, which is also equal to 1 apple.

600g ÷ 12 (parts) = 50

Answer for b): The mass of the apple is 50g.

We can also find the mass of one mango from the model - 50g x 4 (parts) - 20g = 200g-20g = 180g.

And since we know the mass of the mango and the apple, we can find the mass of the basket.

2 apples + 1 mango + basket = 760g
(2x50g) + 180g + basket = 760g
Basket = 760g - 100g - 180g = 480g

Answer for a): The mass of the basket is 480g.

I don't know if it's right that I got the answer for b) first and then a)! Lesley-Anne couldn't solve this question.

I'm no expert at models - I didn't consciously study the method, it's something I picked up along the way when helping Lesley-Anne with her maths. Which is why I believe that everyone can learn this, it just takes practice.

Using models to solve maths problems

I know there are some mums here whose kids are little mathematical whizzes. For the rest of us, maths can sometimes be a struggle, especially since many of the concepts are now taught differently from when we were in school.

In this post, I want to expound on the model method. The model method is used extensively in Singapore primary schools - it has largely taken over algebra which is no longer taught at the primary level. In my opinion, whoever thought up the model method is a genius because it allows seemingly convoluted word problems to be broken down visually, making it easier to solve (especially since most kids are visual learners). No memorising of complex formulas required.

The very basic assumptions of drawing a model are: 1) every unknown part should be equal, 2) the unit of measurement for all aspects of the model should be the same, 3) almost always, the key to solving the problem is finding out what is the value of a single part of the model.

This is a reasonably straightforward question on Fractions that you can easily solve using a model:

Margaret is 5 years older than Glenn. 1/2 of her age is equal to 2/3 of Glenn's age. How old is Glenn?


This is what Lesley-Anne did - first she drew Margeret's strip longer than Glenn's. The part that is longer is 5 units (since she's 5 years older than Glenn). She then divided Glenn's strip into 3 parts - 2 of these parts exactly cut across half of Margaret's. Since 2/3 of Glenn = 1/2 of Margaret, she knew that 1/3 of Glenn = 1/4 of Margaret.

Looking at the model, she could see that the portion marked "5" is the remaining 1/4 of Margaret. Each unit is 5 and Glenn is 3 units so 5x3 = 15.

Answer: Glenn is 15 years old. Easy peasy.

Here's a slightly more complicated problem on the topic of Money:

A shirt costs $16 more than a belt and a belt costs $65 less than a pair of shoes. Alex bought 2 belts, 2 shirts and 1 pair of shoes. He gave the cashier $300 and received $88 in change. What was the cost of the pair of shoes?

This (on the right) was the model Lesley-Anne drew. From here, you can easily see what Alex bought, that the belt is the cheapest item, each of the shirt and shoes cost $16 and $65 more than the belt respectively.

First, she found out what Alex paid altogether:

$300-$88= $212. This value represents all the parts in the model.

Remember what I said in my point 3 above, that we need to find out what is a single part of the model (ie one of those blank rectangles). So she took away the unequal parts, ie $32 ($16x2) and $65:

$212-$32-$65=$115. This value represents the 5 remaining blank parts.

Each part is equal and from the model, Lesley-Anne could see that the cost of the shoes is one part plus $65. So she did this:

$115÷5=$23 (value of one part)
$23+$65=$88

Answer: Cost of shoes is $88.

The model method is especially helpful for sums that call for transferance of values. These are sums that usually make my head spin just reading them. But once you employ the model method, you'll be surprised at how easily they can be solved.

This is a problem sum in an assessment book under the topic of Volume:

Bottles A, B and C contain 4.34 litres of grape juice altogether. 1/5 of the grape juice in Bottle A is transferred to Bottle B. After that, 1/5 of the grape juice in Bottle B is transferred to Bottle C. After that, Bottle A has twice the amount of grape juice in Bottle B and Bottle B has twice the amount of grape juice in Bottle C.

a) How much grape juice was transferred from Bottle A to Bottle B?
b) How much grape juice was in Bottle C at first?

Your head spinning yet? I know if I'd seen this question before I'd heard about the model method, I would have thrown in the towel right away and muttered something about MOE being mad. This is a p4 topic, by the way.

But since I'm now a model mum (hehe), no sweat! This is the model Lesley-Anne drew:


This represents the values AFTER all the transferring of grape juice, ie Bottle C has 1 part, Bottle B has 2 parts (double of Bottle C) and Bottle A has 4 parts (double of Bottle B). All the parts together are 4.34 litres.

Because 1/5 of Bottle A's grape juice was poured out (meaning it has 4/5 left), Lesley-Anne could immediately conclude that each of Bottle A's parts contains 1/5 of its original amount of grape juice (as she has indicated on the model). So she did this:

4340ml÷7 (parts)=620ml.

Answer: 620ml was transferred from Bottle A to Bottle B.

From the model, she could see that Bottle C has 620ml now. But she needed to take away what was transferred from Bottle B. Bottle B now has 4/5 of its original grape juice, meaning that each of its 2 parts stands for 2/5 (indicated in model). So this is what Lesley-Anne did:

620ml÷2=310ml (value for 1/5 of Bottle B's original grape juice)
620ml (Bottle C's current volume of grape juice)-310ml (transferred amount)=310ml

Answer: Bottle C had 310ml of grape juice at first.

Lesley-Anne solved this problem in under 5 minutes, all thanks to the model method.

The important thing is to be able to draw the model correctly, which takes time and practice. Sometimes, you need to convert units or get rid of one unknown before you can draw the model, but if you keep all the assumptions I've listed above in mind, you'll quickly get the hang of it. Then you just need to practise deciphering and understanding the model. Once you master this, I'm sure you'll never want to go back to algebra.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Maths drama

Had some drama at home on Friday. Since the exams are next week, I assigned some maths assessments for Lesley-Anne for practice. She did them readily enough but when I marked them, every other answer was wrong due to careless mistakes. Deja vu - has happened before as I described in my previous post on her issues with maths. When I asked her what happened, she turned sullen. Then she burst out, "Because I'm reluctant to do it!"

Ok, I know what happened here. This is not a child being overpushed and stressed (like I said, I don't give out a lot of work and certainly not during regular term time). This is a child who has been READING TOO MUCH OF MY BLOG and starting to wonder if she's a victim of the evil education system and overbearing parents.

Ha! I can't be maneouvered into feeling guilty that easily. I retorted, "Are you saying you got them wrong on purpose because you didn't want to do it?" Stuck. Pause. "No." "Then how can you say you got them wrong because you were reluctant to do it?"

Second attempt at guilt trip. "I wanted to do my own revision." "How?" "I'll learn better by going through my maths files and re-doing the corrrections." "Then why didn't you tell me this before I set you the assignment? If I knew that you had a lesson plan, don't you think I would have worked something out with you? Isn't it more accurate to say that you hate to be wrong so when you realised that you had made so many mistakes, you want to justify your actions and blame something else instead?" Silence. (I know I'm right. Why? Because Lesley-Anne is very much like me when I was young, in fact, I can practically see the wheels turning in her head.)

I must admit that I did yell just a little bit (the sulkiness is something that just sets me off, it instantly pushes my "irritated mum" button). But obviously all the blogging and chatting with you mums did some good as I was very conscious that I shouldn't belittle her or just focus on the mistakes. I explained to her why while it was great she had her own lesson plan, I needed to be assured that it would sufficiently cover all that she needed to know, especially on certain topics that she was weak in.

I asked if she could come up with a specific schedule on how she intended to revise the topics because with her tendency to procrastinate, a vague "I will revise all the topics before the exam next week" is unlikely to be effective. I know this from experience. During one of the holidays, she had to finish a project. She protested against my constant nagging and insisted she could manage on her own. So I requiesed. "Fine," I said. "I'm tired of nagging anyway. You manage your own time and just get it done however you deem fit." Even though I saw that the progress was slow, I said nothing. By the end of the holidays, she realised to her dismay that the project was far from done and burst into a fit of tears. Then it was mummy to the rescue again. So this is not a judgement on her character - it's knowing her strengths and weaknesses and helping her to manage them.

After some discussion, she came up with a comprehensive timetable with details on when she intends to revise what - it was quite impressive actually. For topics that she herself acknowledged she was weaker in, she agreed to let me set a short assignment for practice after she had done her revision. It's a win-win situation, I think. I'm glad she has taken ownership of her studying and so is she. In fact, almost immediately, the sulks disappeared and yesterday, she even asked me chirpily where the maths assessment book was and did the assignment without being told, because it was on her timetable.

It hasn't eliminated the careless mistakes (that would take a miracle, I think) but at least the attitude has improved considerably. Thank you God!!!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Journal entry

Since we were on the topic of teaching English, I thought I'd show an example of a journal entry. This was one written by Lesley-Anne last year.

Bunk Bed

I got a new bunk bed yesterday and since I was older, I got the top bunk.

How interesting it is to be able to see my room from a birds eye-view. It was exciting thinking about all the things I can do up there.

Only there is 1 disadvantage. I may knock my head on the ceiling. My brother has the same disadvantage. That is knocking his head on the wooden block holding my materess!

Journal entries are typically very short as they're written in a small notebook (you know, the small blue one all Singapore schools have been using for decades). It's just for the kids to express their thoughts or views on anything under the sun. As mentioned, grammar and spelling errors are not corrected and the teacher just writes a comment at the end of the entry.

In this instance, her teacher wrote this:

I think the casual tone and friendly interaction takes away the formality and usual stresses of writing, say a composition. This teacher gave particularly good comments, I felt, very personal and sometimes even constructive advice when sought.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Re-examining the objective of education

YY sent me the link to this video and it's such a timely reminder of what education is about, I just had to share it. (Thanks YY!)

Sir Ken Robinson talks about how somewhere along the way, the purpose of education has become narrowly defined as the pursuit of skills and qualifications to keep industry going. While this may sound cliche and oft said, the chilling reality is that in the process, the talents in our children may have inadvertently been stamped out or overlooked, causing them to miss out on what might have been true greatness. Could've, would've. Let's not ever be in that position.

Towards the end, this is what he says:

"I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip mine the earth - for a particular commodity. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children...

The only way we'll do it (avert some of the bleak scenarios of the future) is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being so they can face this future. By the way, we may not see this future. But they will. And our job is to help them make something of it."

Pretty powerful stuff. Watch the video - it'll make you rethink your views on education. (And don't worry, it's not one of those boring, preachy talks - this guy is highly entertaining).

I couldn't get the embedded video to load properly, so instead, I've provided the link here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How should English be taught in schools?

Warning: long post!

Following my earlier post on Andre’s composition skills, there was a debate on Lilian’s blog about education systems around the world and whether the Singapore system stifles creativity. For this post, I'm focusing specifically on the teaching of English. I’m cutting and pasting some of the comments here (Lilian and YY, hope you don't mind!)

YY, who’s in Canada said:

“It was a pleasant culture-shock for us when we saw my boy & his classmates' journal entries when he was in Grade 1 last yr. They were full of spelling mistakes but never-the-matter, the 'suggested' correct spelling is written unobtrusively under about half the wrongly spelled words without any 'crosses' implicating you're 'wrong'. Kids are encouraged to explore & express themselves freely without fear of making mistakes; if they don't know the spelling, just make out the word according to how it sounds. It's like the emphasis is on developing the confidence to put down on paper all their thoughts as much as possible, before developing the skills to follow often-arbitrary language rules that's culturally or historically dictated…

So he came up with these 'creative' spellings that reduce words to bare phonics: 'peyeno lesens'; a good 'pursen'; 'jakat'; 'elafant'; feeling 'nurvas'; 'tabl'; 'apl' (for apple); 'bamntan rakt'; 'avry sumar' I go to the 'beech'; 'rimot' control' I want to be an 'egeener' when I grow up... ; a 'speshl' toy.

I read somewhere that creativity has to do with not being afraid of making mistakes. So fostering creativity may have something to do with even small things like this... I'm not saying that not correcting spelling mistakes is one way to foster creativity, but it's within the the overall context & culture of not being so anal about everything having to be right to the extent that it cramps the free flow of ideas.


Lilian, whose kids have attended a prep school in London and are now in an American school in Moscow, said:

“The teachers in his UK school do not use red-inked pens, but green ones, how's that for some positivity? Green for go, red for stop. And there are no angry markings (unlike when mummy dearest is in charge), just the correctly- spelled word written at the end for the child to write say, 4 more times. But unlike in North A, I don't think British schools would allow spelling mistakes to go uncorrected. You know how proper they are…

And I definitely think he was getting a much better academic education over in the UK than here (in Moscow). They had specialist teachers for every subject there, even the artwork they produced were of outstanding quality. Over here, one teacher teaches everything (except music, art, IT and PE) so good luck to you if you get a lousy one that year… That said, the atmosphere here is a lot more relaxed. There are lots more project and team work. The kids in the UK seem more competitive.”

Here’s my take: Each style of teaching seems to mirror the ethos of the country, ie the Americans (and Canadians) emphasise freedom of expression, the Brits focus on proper usage and Singaporeans? Well, Singaporeans, typically Asian, focus on results.

I think there are two different issues here – teaching competence in the language and fostering appreciation of the language. Sometimes, one is sacrificed in the over-zealous quest for the other. I think the two extremes are reflected in the American and Singaporean styles – ie Americans foster appreciation (to the extent of not correcting mistakes) and the Singaporeans drill down to getting everything right (to the extent of dictating content).

I’m not sure if the British system is a good balance of the two, maybe. Using green ink instead of red to mark is a positive method of encouragement – I found this adopted at Morris Allen, a British tuition centre here.

Don’t take this personally YY, but I actually disagree with the American system because I feel that the emphasis on creativity above all else comes at the expense of competence. I think that could be the reason why Americans as a population have a poorer grasp of the language, especially written, than other English speaking countries. (Just my opinion! Don't shoot me!)

Since we won’t be migrating anytime soon (and possibly ever), I don’t want to write off the Singapore system just yet. Yes, it has taken a lot of flack but it has certainly proven itself in terms of building competence. Eg. Singapore has consistently churned out kids who win international writing competitions, and we are ranked 4th in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study despite not all kids here coming from an English-speaking background (coincidentally, the same score as Canada British Columbia, YY!) See? Results!

With regards to appreciation of the language, earlier this year, I was invited to give a talk to the GEP kids about what I do, as part of a programme to showcase different professions. They were very excited that I was a writer, even though I did explain that I'm not the JK Rowling type of writer whom they would be more interested in. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the kids were keen on becoming writers, even though it’s not the most prestigious or money-making (remember these are the high-flying kids, the potential leaders, doctors, lawyers, etc.) Obviously the love of the language is very much alive and the system didn’t quash that passion.

The system does try to promote expression without correcting mistakes (albeit to a limited extent) via the journal. Every kid has a journal where they can write about anything they want. Here, the entries are not corrected for spelling or grammar, the teacher only makes a comment at the end. Eg. when Andre wrote about his holiday, his teacher wrote “Sounds like you had fun!” One of Lesley-Anne’s classmates in p3 wrote pages and pages about how the government hates children because it makes them wake up so early for school and piles them with homework. (Must have been a fascinating read!) The teacher wrote at the end, “I don’t agree with your views but I see your frustration. Keep writing.” I thought that was very understanding and encouraging.

Having said that, I’m not blind to the flaws of the system. As many parents here have noted, there’s too much focus on correcting spelling and grammar mistakes in composition. Andre’s papers often have red marks all over, which must be very discouraging. I’m not sure they do any good anyway, because he only cares about the overall score, which again, is a problem arising from over-emphasis on results.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems is the standard of English among primary school teachers in Singapore. Like in Moscow, many of the teachers in the lower primary levels teach everything – English, maths, social studies, art, music, PE. Jack of all trades, master of none. Many of these teachers, sad to say, have a really poor level of English themselves. Grammar mistakes galore, even in the simple notes they write. A friend was lamenting how her son said his p1 teacher pronounced "kennel" as "canal" and told him to "on the computer". And this is in a mission school, usually known for good English! Aiyoh, how to teach kids like that? These teachers also don't know how to handle off-the-wall content, probably stemming from their own traditional experiences as a student. If Andre wrote “the furious fox came to eat John for his lunch” at school, I’m pretty sure it would be given a big cross because the teacher has no idea how to deal with such unconventional thinking.

But we’re not just dealing with an isolated educational system that's easy to replace as a single entity. We’re talking about an entire psyche of a population. I may consider myself an “enlightened” mum but my Asian roots emphasising achievement are still deeply entrenched. I suspect even if the MOE suddenly decides to adopt the American system, majority of parents here are not ready for it.

YY wrote that in Canada, “Asian kids win the vast majority of the academic awards despite forming only maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the student body. I was telling hubby that if not for the 2nd, 3rd & 4th categories, the white kids would have very few awards to win!! I was proud that one of the top Social Responsibility awards was given to a pair of Japanese twins (but being Japanese, it kinda figures too, doesn't it?)”

So at the end of the day, even when we’re out of Asia and in a Western system, our Asian values still take over! It’s a symbiotic relationship – the system shapes us and we shape the system.

I like what Lilian said: "But seriously, so many of you also went through the stressful system and you all turn out great, so something has to be said for the Sg education system".

It’s not perfect, but I’ll work with it and change what I can.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Liar, liar, pants on fire

"Everybody lies." - Gregory House MD. A serious topic for mid-week - what do you do when your child lies?

I will go out on a limb and say that every child has or will tell lies at some point in time. If you say your child has never lied, either 1) you are lying, or 2) your child has been lying to you about not lying.

It could be as simple as saying that he didn’t eat the cookie when he actually did, or that she didn’t know there was spelling that day when she really forgot to learn it. It could be lying by omission – your child not telling you there’s Chinese camp so he won’t have to go.

Whatever it is, I think I speak for all parents when I say that it’s devastating to discover that your child has been telling falsehoods. It’s the shock of realising that your little angel is capable of manipulating the truth, sometimes right in your face.

My first big encounter with Andre telling fibs was earlier this year. A few times, he came home from school with pen marks on his uniform. This really vexed me as the marks are impossible to remove. He told me his friend did it. When this occurred for the third time, I was fuming. I interrogated him and asked who the culprit was. He was very reluctant to say (this should have been a clue right there) but eventually, he said it was the girl sitting next to him in class.

So I wrote a note in Andre’s diary to his teacher telling her about the incident and asked her to deal with the situation. The next day, I asked Andre if he had shown his teacher the note. He said yes. When asked what the teacher did, he told me she had taken the girl outside the classroom and reprimanded her. Satisfied, I thought that was the end of the story.

Two days later, I received a call from Andre’s teacher. She apologised for not replying to my note earlier, she said she had just seen it as she had taken his diary to write a note to me. She went on to say that she had asked the girl what had happened and the girl admitted to drawing on Andre’s shirt, but also that they “drew on each other”. Upon questioning, Andre did not deny this.

I was appalled, to say the least. It wasn’t the fact that Andre had drawn on his friend’s uniform, it was the fact that he had deliberately kept my note from his teacher and engineered an entire story about his teacher punishing the culprit. A bald-faced lie.

When Andre came home from school, I asked him sternly, “Did you show Mrs Wong the note I wrote the other day?” He didn’t notice my tone at first and immediately said “yes”. I repeated the question, very fiercely this time. It was then that he saw the look on my face and he fell silent. Then his eyes filled with tears and he shook his head.

I’d never been so mad. After I got him to admit the whole truth, I gave him a long lecture about the ills of lying (and especially lying to his MOTHER). I meted out the harshest punishment I’d ever given him – two months without computer games. I knew this would hit home because the two months straddled the mid-year holidays and that was when he was looking forward to his computer games the most. I couldn’t sleep that night – am I raising a kid with low morals?

Since then, I’ve spoken to other parents and read up a little on why children lie (please note that this is for kids aged six to ten, ie it’s not fantasy or make-believe as is common with kids below six years old). What I’ve come to realise is that a child’s understanding of right and wrong is not on the same level of consciousness as an adult’s. Lying doesn’t make the child an unethical person. A lie is motivated by the desire to avoid getting into trouble, protect himself or win approval. Think about it, how often have we admonished our kids for being less than perfect, eg. breaking something or forgetting something? It’s no wonder that their first instinct when they’ve done something wrong is to cover it up.

By the way, all children lie, regardless of their maturity. I’ve encountered Lesley-Anne lying to me and a friend of mine caught her daughter, who is usually good as gold, copying the answers to questions in an assessment book. My own sister, who is now as upright and truthful an adult as you’ll ever find, once forged my mother’s signature in her spelling book to avoid getting scolded for her low marks.

It’s a delicate balancing act. On one hand, we need to emphasis the importance of telling the truth, but not out of fear of punishment, otherwise it has no roots. I have a friend whose son was less than truthful on one occasion. She grounded him but later found out that he had subsequently lied to cover up his initial lie. This is a frightening possibility - that instead of learning to tell the truth, our kids learn that they need to be smarter about covering their tracks. Ironically, when parents say things like “Don’t let me find out you’ve been playing instead of studying!” all the kid hears is, “I better not let her find out.”

The occasional lie is not indicative of a serious problem... until it becomes chronic. To avoid getting to that stage, it's important to try and instil a habit of telling the truth. From what I’ve read, these are some of the methods parents can employ:

1) Commend your kids for telling the truth. They are taking a risk by admitting their mistakes. Help them acknowledge their mistakes and accept the consequences, instead of focusing on the mistake.

2) If punishment is necessary, make it a logical consequence of the incident. Eg. if your child has broken something at home, don’t dock privileges, which just sends the message: “I’m taking away something you like because I don’t like what you’ve done” and creates resentment. Instead, commend her for telling the truth and ask her to help pay for the item, which fosters responsibility for actions. (Aside: Andre's no computer games punishment might seem contrary to this rule, but he didn't tell the truth in the first place and I did stress that the severity of the punishment was because he lied. He understood the reasoning and accepted the punishment like a man, not a single complaint).

3) If your kids lie, focus on the consequence of the lie, not the lie itself. Stress the importance of honesty and how telling lies can break the trust between the child and his friends, the child and his parents.

4) Most importantly, do not label. Don’t call your child a liar – labelling creates helplessness and may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, ie the child hears that he is a liar and starts to believe this is who he really is.

It takes patience and hard work. I’m the first to admit that I don’t consistently follow the above. But I’m giving it my best shot because I believe that a good foundation in the early years will save parents a lot of heartache later.
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