Targetting East Asian Test Scores Will Bring East Asian Afflictions

The Prime Minister and the Federal education minister have set test scores in East Asian countries as the benchmark of education success. However, East Asian success has come at considerable cost. There is a very real danger that pursuing this new target will inflict Australian education with similar problems and undermine our successful education results.

Several recent media reports confirm that the emphasis on test scores in East Asian countries has brought some very undesirable education and social side effects. Two particular effects are intense parental pressure on children to succeed which leads to many hours of homework and private tutoring and a focus on memorization and rote learning at the expense of thinking skills and creativity.

Singapore is one of the countries held up as a model for Australia. But, all is not well in Singapore education according to its own Prime Minister and recent reports.

In a national day rally speech at the end of August, the Prime Minister of Singapore criticised “tiger mothers” who pressure their children from a very young age to excel at school by imposing extra homework and tuition out of school. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong implored parents:

Please let your children have their childhood! Pre-school is to teach the kids certain skills which are best learnt at that age, language, social skills, basic motor skills. It is not meant for you to prepare with the Primary One, Primary Two textbook and to drill the kid at three or four years old so that by the time he goes to P1, he already knows what the teacher is supposed to teach him. Education experts, child development specialists, they warn against over teaching pre-school children. You do harm, you turn the kid off, you make his life miserable. Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It is good for young children to play and to learn through play. So please, I have heard of parents who sent their children to two kindergartens. I read of parents, who send their kindergarten age children to tuition, please do not do that.

A recent article in the UK Times Education Supplement by a Singapore teacher also highlighted the intense pressure to succeed. It says that Singapore parents invest huge sums in private tuition for their children and that this is one of the main reasons for the country’s high performances in international league tables.

The official school starting age in Singapore is 6, but for many children, tuition kicks in well before then. Tuition after school hours is the norm and takes precedence over play….
Intensive tuition prepares Singaporean children well for future years of gruelling study. It is not unusual to see pupils clogging up the tables of cafes with their laptops and textbooks out of official school hours and at the weekends. When I walked into work at 7am each morning, the pupils were already studying before the assembly bell went off. Many didn’t leave school until 9pm after attending extra-curricular lessons. While I can see the appeal this might have to Western parents struggling to get their children to do their homework, it takes its toll during the day on sleepy teenagers struggling to concentrate in class.

According to the teacher, the education stakes are so high that it is not unusual for Singaporean parents to physically punish their children for under-achieving academically. Canes are on sale in convenience store in Singapore and sales peak in the build-up to important exam periods. In schools, caning is legal and widely accepted, although it is for boys only.

Such is the pressure on students to succeed academically that suicide is one of the top causes of death among young Singaporeans. Even teachers are under such pressure that suicide is a concern. As the teacher writes:

To my mind, any education system where it is necessary to put your teachers on suicide watch, as I was, in the run-up to A-level results day, is a system sick to its very core.

The learning focus in schools and private tutoring is memorization and rote learning. The teacher says that Singaporean students are clearly better than their Western counterparts at learning facts and regurgitating them.

This may explain Singapore’s excellent reputation for teaching maths and science but it’s a bit of a bummer when you’re trying to teach anything that requires critical and creative thinking. This, no doubt, is the product of long-term exposure to rote learning in Singapore schools and colleges.

Hong Kong is also seen as a model to follow. However, here also there are increasing concerns about tiger mothers and the pressure placed on children to succeed academically. For example, a Hong Kong marketing firm, Kymechow Communications, has just launched “a series of six videos featuring a tiger mother “from hell”. The campaign is designed to encourage Hong Kong parents not to do to drive their children to academic success. The videos can be viewed separately or together here.

A similar picture in other countries emerges from other recent reports. A recent article in the Washington Post by its veteran education columnist, Jay Mathews, reported on a small informal online survey of Chinese and Korean students. It shows that test results are everything in East Asian schools and teachers don’t let students forget this.

Instruction is by lecture and more lecture. Students are usually sitting the whole day, which can run eight hours or more, writing notes. One student said that weaker students never ask questions in class because the teachers “would be mad at you if you ask what they consider stupid questions.”

Sciences are often taught through memorization. Homework is a mountain of practice problems. If you get something wrong, you have to write out the correct answer repeatedly. Laboratory practice is rare because they won’t help much on the exam.

The emphasis on test results is so great that schools spend little time on art, sports or extra-curricular activities.

There is increasing pressure within these countries to reform their education systems to reduce the pressure on students, reduce private tutoring and to reform teaching.

According to The Economist magazine, there is growing concern in official circles in Singapore that students lack creativity and an ability to think laterally. This is being seen as a competitive disadvantage for Singapore in developing a knowledge economy based on innovation and inventiveness.

The Ministry of Education has been trying for years to encourage teachers to diversify their teaching. It has put millions of dollars into training its teachers to use more creative and student-centred techniques – basically more Western-style teaching techniques.

China’s Ministry of Education is so concerned about the burden of excessive studies among young children that it has published study and development guidelines for 3- to 6-year-old children to ease the situation. They emphasize the need to promote the physical, social and emotional development of young children and eased academic requirements.

In Korea, authorities have introduced a curfew on tutoring schools, or “hagwons”, which is enforced by late night patrols and raids to stop students studying beyond 10pm. The crackdown is part of a broader government effort to change school testing and university admissions policies to reduce student stress and reward creativity.

Clearly, Asian education is “not all it’s cracked up to be” as Anthony Welch, professor of education at the University of Sydney, recently wrote in The Canberra Times. He says the emphasis on test results imposes great stress on anxious parents and children and has pernicious effects on children’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

Australia is already seeing the effects of a one-sided focus on test scores. My School has made the annual NAPLAN tests the focus of teaching in the first half of the school year. Other curriculum areas are largely ignored, good teaching is undermined by endless practising of tests, and very young children are being stressed out by the pressure. Many parents are being drawn unwittingly into the “tiger mother” syndrome and private tutoring for NAPLAN is increasing.

Targeting East Asian test scores as the benchmark of education success will only exacerbate these effects. It increases the likelihood that the ALP Government’s legacy in education will have been to diminish it.

Trevor Cobbold

For more on East Asian education see Downsides to East Asian Education Success

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