Sunday, December 11, 2005

Too much tuition is bad for your brain...

This post is about what I see as a rather unhealthy trend in Singapore society: the rise of a 'culture of tuition' that has become obsessive to the point that it defeats the very purpose of education.

Most parents in Singapore feel that tuition is necessary or beneficial for their children. In principle, the concept of tuition is supported by a rather convincing ideology which has nothing but positive connotations. This ideology says that there is no harm trying to improve your academic performance by seeking some guidance.

As a result of this kind of thinking, tuition has become a booming industry in Singapore. Tuition centres appear all over the island, and tuition-related advertisements can be seen at bus-stops, public notice boards, and in the newspapers. Parents who are not financially well-off are willing to part with their hard-earned money in the hope that their children can 'cope' with an increasingly stressful education system. Photocopies of 'top schools' exam papers' are on sale everywhere; and the 'Assessment Books' section in Popular Book Stores form a bigger and more crowded section than sections on 'Local Works' or 'English Literature'.

But what could be so wrong with 'tuition' when it is based on such a convincing argument? In my opinion, too much tuition does harm to your child in several ways. Firstly, it exhausts your child's physical and mental energies and lessens the time left for his brain to rejuvenate after school. Exhaustion makes the child unhappy and causes him to dislike the subject(s) for which he is being given tuition. Secondly, the child has less time to play, and playing is important for the development of a less uptight personality. Thirdly, and most importantly, tuition is based on a flawed pedagogical philosophy of 'coaching to or even beyond the point of understanding'.

Coaching per se is alright, but it is possible for 'over-coaching' to occur, with great harm to the intellectual development of the child. Overcoaching robs the child the precious opportunities for (a) discovering things for himself, (b) struggling and then succeeding in solving a problem by himself, and (c) feeling an enhanced level of self-confidence after achieving the above. It takes away much of the joy of learning and mastering a subject, and turns it into a cluster of banal chores that must be performed daily: doing exercises in assessment books, one after another; marking out vaguely difficult questions that they can't be bothered to struggle through by themselves, and then expecting a 'quick fix' by the tutor.

Overcoaching also prevents the development of a genuinely self-created and original 'kungfu of studying' by the student, which is likely to be crucial if he wants to really excel at the University level. The rationale is simple: everybody has different strategies of studying, and one must simply discover for himself the strategies or 'bag of tricks' that work best for him. The sophistication and effectiveness of such a set of skills can only come about with the practice and refinement over years of self-studying, not what I call 'over-reliant studying', which is overly guided by a tutor who may not even be that good himself.

I see no way that this Singapore-specific trend could be reversed, because of two reasons. Firstly, the culture of kiasuism sustains the tuition industry. People are 'kiasu' (literally 'afraid of losing') and will do everything they can to make sure they have some kind of competitive advantage over their neighbours' kids. Related to this is the fact that people are risk-averse, and risk-averse people would rather stick with the common approach of putting the poor kid through hours and hours of tuition. After all, this is what everybody is doing, so if the strategy is wrong, at least everybody suffers to the same extent. So unless every family in Singapore agrees to prevent their children from going for tuition, it is unlikely for this vicious cycle to be terminated.

Secondly, the prevalence of tuition could be the symptom of a deeper problem in the educational system. Is there something wrong about the syllabi, or the teaching methods in schools, or both? Why is there still a need for children to go through hours of additional instruction beyond what they go through in school during the official hours? Do teachers encourage students to go for tuition?

With that, may I reiterate the point that I wish to stress most in this post: that tuition robs your child of an opportunity to become a great scholar in his own right. He may become a great mugger, a reasonably competent student who knows how to get the correct answers to all the assessment books on the market, but that will not be because he has learnt how to think for himself or has cultivated for himself a unique style of studying and learning that will benefit him when he grows up. Everybody who practises enough number of assessment books can get A's. But what does this show about his cleverness? Not much at all. He will not be passionate in his subjects, because everything has turned into a routine, a routine of reviewing and regurgitation. Learning becomes a simple and predictable process of practice, rather than the exciting and unpredictable process of making enjoyable discoveries that it should be. When there are no longer any surprises within the educational realm, is it any wonder why creativity does not manifest when the children turn into adults and have to compete with people from other countries in this creativity-driven, knowledge-based, and innovation-oriented global era?


Blogger A.Ball.of.Yarn said...

an interestting post, and I have something to share too:

in my younger days, i was put through tuition for every imaginable subject.

chinese la, physics la, maths la, chemistry la...

it's quite tiring if one's schedule is too packed, but some scarifices have to made here and there. but still, i really feel that if you are able to get the right tuitor, he or she can actually re-ignite your interest in a subject made dead by some of the dead-er teachers in school. it's probably not their (the teacher/s) fault, but they just do not have enough time for every student in a class of 40; and just as they can sometimes see a quiet child as one beyond hope, their communicating that judgement through body language and other ways can actually make some children lose confidence in themselves.

i wasn't one of the most confident children around, but i'm actually grateful to my better tuitors, for inspiring me to maintain a healthy interest in some of the subjects that I was losing interest in. i laughed during tuition a lot, and it was all learning and fun. tuition isn't all bad really.:)

Sun Dec 11, 01:07:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous MM said...

Alas. As far as the negative effects of tuition are concerned, from my pitiful experience of tutoring, the negative "effects" precede tuition. Rote learning, lack of interest in subjects etc are prevalent. So, even without tuition, things are already bad.

All the tutor with the best of intentions can do is try to undo the harmful effects that schools already have on them and get them to think and learn for themselves. Told my kids that if I suceed in my job, I would lose my job.

Unfortunately, I haven't lost my job. Even if I do, it's probably because they want another tutor.

The worst scenarios I have heard (rumors) are those that involve school teachers telling kids to get tutors. Some don't say so but stimulate the demand for tutors by not teaching properly--and this is not because they are inept but because the syllabi in schools (SAP schools esp) are terribly huge. A mother once told me that other mothers complained to one another that their kids need tutors because things go too fast in school.

Education? Nah...

Sun Dec 11, 07:03:00 PM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

finally found time to comment on your post :)

Let me start with a coupla implicit assumptions that the article makes :) ... some of which the previous comments try to highlight. First, homogeneity among school educators. Second, homogeneity among tutors. Both may not necc be true.

School teachers in Singapore are a diverse bunch. Some are there for the sheer joy of teaching the subject. Some others for the love of children. Some just want to earn a decent living. The same thing with tutors. Some are there to kindle interest, some others just to pay for their university textbooks. I'm not saying that one group is better than the other, just that they are varied.

With that preamble, is too much tuition bad for Singaporean kids? Not necessarily. Tuition, which has a more one-to-one feel (ball.of.yarn points this out) can be very useful to kindle interest in various subjects among our kids. With the right tutor, things can very well for the kids.

The problem as I see it, lies in a few areas....

(1) Aim of tuition: If the objective is to do better in exams, then tuition is of little value. The aim should instead be to get the kid to develop a genuine liking for the subject so much so, that he/she can then begin self-study in a few months. In other words, the paradox is that the aim of tuition should be to do away with it :)

(2) The amount of time a tutor spends with the kid is usually once or maybe twice a week for an hr or two. Sorry to say, but this is way too little time for an average tutor to instill any kind of interest in the kids.

Tuition is not just about giving extra problems to the kids or dumping more homework on them. But alas, many tutors and even parents do not understand this. They gauge the success of tuition based on the school exam results.

The 'kiasuism' that you pointed out has rightly led to the proliferation of tutors and general tutorial standards to fall, I think. But does any part of this blame lie with our education system? I dont think so - but for the broader problem of stressing exam grades over love for the subject, our education system has very little to do with the tuition syndrome.

my two cents... :)

Mon Dec 12, 04:28:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Greetings everyone! :)

Ball.of.Yarn: wow, you're lucky! You've got good tutors. How come you got such good 'lobangs'? :)

MM: Oh dear, that sounds bad...But I do sense something similar to what you've described. Why is the workload so heavy these days?

Double Yellow: I agree with you and MM that the success of a tutor lies with putting the kid on 'autopilot' mode eventually, with an enhanced interest in the subject(s).

I think there are some forces at work that cause tuition to turn out like this today:

(1) Some parents dictate what the tutor should do. They insist that the tutor gets the kid to work through one assessment book after another. They do this because they want to see something, to see that the tutor is doing something. And it's also partly because the performance in these assessment books gives them some temporary reassurance or indication about whether the kid is "improving".

(2) This 'industry' is one in which wages are depressed: there is 'market rate' (e.g. $25 per hour), and even if you are really good in a subject and are serious about giving high quality tuition, you can't charge too far above this rate (Also, many families may not be able to afford your rate.) From what I have observed, even families who can afford it often want to get the cheapest tutor. Poor pay discourages the tutor.

Now, if they do make an exception and hire a tutor who charges a high rate (perhaps because of his credentials), they get a bit resentful that they are paying 'above market rate', and thus expect some immediate results or visible 'action' (e.g. actually seeing worksheets being done, etc). In the end, everything will tend to conform to this 'assessment-books/worksheets-driven' approach...

Mon Dec 12, 08:54:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous MM said...

Regarding pt1 about parents telling tutors what to do: it has happened to me although the mum was nice about it. Insisted that I make the son do "
"corrections" (quite pointless). Assessment books, of course. But other things: I can't give homework cos he has no time to do; too much schoolwork already.

As for wages, it sometimes depends. Some get lots of $ as they are current teachers. (One suspects they aren't worth more at all--perhaps they should even be avoided. haha). But I try my best regardless of the wages. though the best efforts aren't always appreciated by kids.

The other thing is also not that the assessment book approach is the simplest, but that tuition kids don't take to "creative" approaches well at all. They ask for it sometimes, but only because they (think they) can slack. Which is rubbish. the younger ones, esp, just want to play. And by this I mean they don't take well to anything remotely mind-stimulating. Perhaps this is because anything remotely related to "work" is to them already dull and horrible. (Kudos to our world class education system). And when I get them to go auto-pilot, they simply don't. No effort. Pure skiving sometimes. Again, the utter lack of interest is behind it. Why would anyone self-study and be independent when he hates studies in the first place?

Furthermore, sometimes innovative approaches take up a lot of time. (I mean, even the simple attempt to prompt independent thinking and responses take up a hell lot of time.)

You know what my small kids have told me before when I ask them to think: "I don't know how to think!"

I ask them to use a little bit of common sense: "I don't have common sense!"

Well... self-awareness at least?

Tue Dec 13, 03:49:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

hahaha MM, that last bit was hilarious! i've experienced something similar too...

Student: I dunno how to do this question
Me: Well, try
Student: I did but I dunno
Me: Well, show me what you've tried and we'll take it from there
Student: Er, actually I am not sure..
Me: Not sure of what?
Student: Of how to start?
Me: It doesnt matter. I need to see how you think, where you begin and how far it takes you. Just write whatever you think is the best way to approach the problem. It does not matter if you dont end up with the right answer.
Student: Er.... sir, can I go to the toilet?

HS, when parents tell me how to teach their kids, I usually tell them that I quit. You let me teach your kid my way. If you think you are not comfortable with that, then get yourself someone else. No loss...

About the pay of the tutor, I try not to go through an agency. Most of those guys are a rip off. On your own, its possible to negotiate better with the parents.

Tue Dec 13, 02:54:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous MM said...

Oh yes, double yellow! The toilet-going syndrome. They are such bad actors too. "Oh, very urgent! Very urgent!" I told my kid he will never win at the Star Awards... Actually maybe he will, given his penchant for over-acting.

Well, I stay for the money when the parents tell me "how to teach." Maybe I haven't met a really unreasonable one yet. Otherwise I may say: "You go and teach the kid yourself lah!"

Tue Dec 13, 09:29:00 PM 2005  
Blogger The Void Deck said...

The issue is perhaps one of managing parents' expectations and anxieties. If parents perceive that their kid is not doing well enough compared to other kids, they would try to sincerely ensure that their kid gets all the coaching they can afford.

Education is becoming some sort of competitive sport. Extra coaching, experimental learning from a young age like those neuro-something that boosts brain power. Nothing wrong certainly but maybe the rough criteria to see if tuition reaches a point where it does more harm than good is when the kid's
- grades worsen
- interest in subject declines

Wed Dec 14, 12:38:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi MM, your experiences are quite similar to mine in the past. I've since given up on tuition; it's just not worth it. The parent wanted to treat me as cheap labour: asked me to bring back assessment books and other top schools' worksheets to mark, at no additional pay! (The marking will take at least 2 hours) I was too poor at that time and agreed (or rather, had no choice but to agree).

Re DY's comment, I think it's really hard to ask for something above market rate - they simply don't want to pay, and the market is flooded with lots of not-too-bad tutors who are still schooling and willing to teach for peanuts pay anyway (e.g. $12/hr. Maybe cos it's just extra pocket money for them). Thank goodness, that was in the past. Thank goodness, man.

Wed Dec 14, 08:03:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Greetings, The Void Deck!

Re the 2 criteria you listed (i.e. grades worsening + interest declining): I feel that even if the grades stay the same or improve, tuition is still not good cos it distracts us from the lack of development of the student's own academic skill (he may become too dependent). He should get used to coping on his own without tutors, because at the university/polytechnic level, there's no tuition. If one is too used to having tuition, then the moment nobody is there to hold his hand, he may not feel secure anymore...

Wed Dec 14, 08:07:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Small announcement!

I'm going to change the design of my blog when I have the time (and add cool little icons on it - as many as Singapore Angle's blog)! (yes, I'm kiasu) :)

More links will be added too (e.g. links to other blogs, websites etc)! (as many links as Mr Wang's blog - yes, again..I'm kiasu) :)

Anyone out there who can give tuition in 'blog design and formatting'? :)

Wed Dec 14, 08:21:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous MM said...

$12 an hour? Spoil market ah?

The other thing I hate about tutioning is the way tuition websites/agents ask for your information when you register. Things include:
- IC no.
- "Are you a straight As student?" (Hello, can mug doesn't mean can teach, ok? and cannot mug doesn't mean cannot teach)
- List all your grades (I think even for subjects you don't teach)
- List all the schools you atttended. (ex-RGS students teach better is it?)

Wed Dec 14, 11:53:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Haha, yeah, I can't stand the way they ask questions! Really insulting at times!

One parent asked me: "Are you able to teach Primary 6 English huh? I want my son to get A* for English and go RI...My son loves to read. He has a lot of books...maybe he reads more than u... (?!)"

Thu Dec 15, 12:16:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Molly Meek said...

If you don't feel like taking up the job, you could have answered: "Before you get your son into RI, I suggest you get yourself into IMH. Will do your son some good."

Thu Dec 15, 12:54:00 AM 2005  
Blogger The Void Deck said...

Hi heavenly sword

Hmmmm Cannot disagree with you that tuition in our Spore context builds up a potentially unhealthy dependence on a supposed 'learned one' at an early age, sometimes regardless if the tutor is competent or not. Hmmmm some possible parallels with citizens' dependence on govt for direction in business, politics etc but that might be a long shot and a different complaint.

But there are surely instances when some tuition is neccessary but when to start how to start and how to end it? Sigh. Then the whole argument becomes relativist.

hahaha on problem parents and their expectations. Somehow it reminds me of that TV ad about this tennis coach telling a boy's dad about how crap his son is in the game but the dad only selectively hear supposedly good things.

Redoing your blog? Have fun and we look forward to seeing bells and whistles!

Thu Dec 15, 11:08:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Molly Meek: Well, as you know, Heavenly Sword is a peace-loving man, despite knowing the deadly Jiuyin Claws skill :) At that time I only thought that the part about her small boy reading more books than me was quite funny.

Hi The Void Deck: Yeah, I would agree that there are some circumstances where tuition might be necessary. I hope these instances will be minimized, that in Singapore, tuition becomes an exception rather than the norm....

I dunno if there are any blog-design software that can help me with it...will have to find out more. Also, will have to ask Master Trompe L'oeil (Ball.of.Yarn) how he put those cute snowmen pictures on his blog... :)

Thu Dec 15, 08:36:00 PM 2005  
Blogger MdmSng said...

Hi HS,
While all you tutors and ex-tutors talk about the adv and disadv of tuition, perhaps you can also read what some of my students have said when I posed a similar question to them in my blog? (This is not a shameless attempt to publicize my blog but I really feel this whole tuition issue needs to be looked at from various perspectives.)

From a teacher's standpoint, I would really want a day when there's no need for tuition, ie. 1) when the syllabus can be so pared down from the current voluminous requirements, that there's no such thing as not being able to finish teaching the syllyabus by Term 3.
2) when lazy students realise the only time they can learn anything for their exam is in class and not during tuition (many disruptive students disrupts lessons in class becos they have tuition as back-up).

But since the above 2 scenarios are not happening yet, I find myself sometimes recommending certain students take up tuition becos there is just no way an over-stretched teacher can give that one-to-one attention in school. So yes, I am guilty of it.

Thu Dec 22, 05:09:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Dear Venerable Mdm Sng :)

I am honoured by your visit to my humble blog. I've just read your blog and I must say that I'm impressed! (Impressed with the fact that a teacher is getting students to blog meaningfully - this is certainly a better approach than the approach which dismisses blogs as a frivolous, meaningless, harmful technology destined to breed incivility. Anyway, I've digressed...)

Re tuition, I can see your point...My post was written because I feel that this trend is getting slightly out of hand. A letter to the ST Forum even made a virtue out of tuition. I am wondering if Singapore is the only country in the world where 80% of the students have private, extra-curricular home tuition! Maybe one day I should e-mail the Minister of Education to discuss this issue... :)

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