Recently, I was invited to a Singapore Conversation session on education and while I was there, I was asked to give a soundbite for an MOE video that's to be produced for teachers and staff. There were many things I could have said but in the end, what I chose to say within the 2 minutes or so was the importance of letting kids have their free time.
This topic just happened to be topmost on my mind because Lesley-Anne was reading up on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and she became all excited when she came to Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.
"I wish my school knew this!"
When Lesley-Anne first started secondary school, she was full of anticipation. By the end of sec 3, she was physically and mentally exhausted. Don't get me wrong, it's not that she doesn't like her school. It's because her schedule had become so intense she barely had time to breathe. It's not just lessons. After school, if there wasn't some supplementary or enrichment class, there would be CCA. If it wasn't CCA, it would be some excursion or project discussion. When there's the rare occasion that there's nothing on or a holiday coming up, you can be sure the teachers would pile the students with extra homework. If the students protest, they're often told not to be lazy or have better time management skills. School holidays are a sham. There's never one where my kids don't need to go back to school for something or the other.
CCA is almost on par with schoolwork in its demands. In sec 1, Lesley-Anne was super psyched to be in band. She got to learn a new instrument and perform in a musical group. It was fun. By this year, she had grown thoroughly sick of it. Why? Band practices are 3 times a week, 3 hours each time. When the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) draws near, rehearsals intensify to almost everyday. The pressure placed on the band for SYF is intense. If they miss out on a Distinction, there is much hue and cry. The students feel the loss keenly and the school demonstrates its disappointment by cutting the band budget. Even during non-SYF years, the band is expected to put on school and other performances, again the justification for intensive practice.
This trend is not just for band, obviously. Lesley-Anne tells me that many students in the school choir over-practise to the point that they suffer vocal cord damage and have to go to the doctor to have a tube inserted into the throat to heal it.
Doesn't this strike anyone as ridiculous? I find that our culture is fixated on the maxim that if something is good, it's better to keep doing more of it. To the point where something that used to be fun and interesting becomes detestable and downright unhealthy.
We are grooming a generation of jaded kids.
I recently read a BBC News article on the importance of boredom and enforced solitude for creativity. Through interviews with authors, artists and scientists, Dr Belton, an education researcher found that free time allowed people to tap into their latent creative energies.
If this is true, then it perhaps partly explains why Singapore seems to have so much trouble in this respect. Our kids barely have enough time for rest, let alone time to be bored. When Lesley-Anne was very young, about 3 or 4, I used to see her sitting on her bedroom floor, just staring into space. I never knew what she was thinking about, I like to imagine she was in some childhood fantasy land, maybe with flying teddy bears and talking dolphins. She doesn't have time to daydream anymore. Today, when she has some free time, she catches up on sleep. She has learnt the art of sleeping anywhere - at the desk, on a cushion, on the bus.
My friend, Lilian, was recounting to me how at the International School in Bangkok, the students get to try out a diverse range of interests throughout their school life, eg in photography or music or art, and some emerge to be fantastic talents in these areas.
belief is this: it's not that Singapore kids don't have talent, it's just that
they don't have the time to discover them. Their schedules are so
packed with academic work that any such activity is considered extra
and comes out of their own time. Curriculum time seldom allows for non-core subjects, except in a cursory manner. Typically, by the time the kids have finished studying, CCA, tuition, etc, they're so tired the last thing they want to do is fill their remaining time with more stuff. All they want to do is veg out in front of the tv or computer because it's a shutting down mechanism. (Note that tv and computer time does not constitute boredom and does not increase creativity).
If children here are musical or sporting talents, chances are it's because their parents invested resources and made their kids carve out time to bear out these talents. That's why I'm sometimes a little sceptical about the DSA scheme. Although it tries to be more holistic by recognising talents other than academic, it focuses only on the end result and doesn't aid the nurturing process.
The truth is that passions and skills in areas like the arts and sports take time to develop. It starts with exposure, discovery, and trial and error. Then gradually, the child will come to see if he has a passion in it before the honing of the skill. The process is slow and it requires an extensive amount of time, something our kids don't have the luxury of. Because of the DSA, some parents are pushing their kids to accelerate their artistic and sporting potential for the sake of admissions at pri 6. When we rob the kids of the natural process of creation and development, we risk killing the passion because the objective becomes a pragmatic one and it all becomes too much, too soon.
I feel strongly that schools, teachers and parents alike have to recognise the value of letting kids have their time and space. What I said in the MOE video was that teachers (and parents) have to stop thinking that whenever the child has some time, they have to fill it. At some point, we've got to realise that filling time doesn't improve learning, it impedes it.
Less really is more.