Sunday, January 27, 2013

Note to Self: School Days

I've always been amazed at the things some parents will do when it comes to school. It's kind of amusing from the outside looking in. But now that my eldest is in nursery, suddenly those days don't seem so far off, and I wonder if I will be overtaken by the madness too. So while I still have the perspective of being a product of the school system, rather than taking my first steps as a producer for the system, I thought I would pen down some advice to myself for the future, when I might be less circumspect.

Disclaimer/Disclosure: The opinions stated here are entirely my own subjective viewpoint and conclusions, having gone through NYPS, ACS, NJC, university in the US and work in the civil service. I welcome differing views.

1) Grades are a poor predictor of future earnings

Looking at my ex-classmates 10 years on from school, the best students are definitely not earning the most. (Actually, what we should really be most concerned with is who is the most successful. But success, like happiness, is hard to define or measure, I think most people would see earnings as a key factor.) What does seem to work? People with rich Dads became rich - yes it's true, but you can't change your Dad. Perhaps more useful, people with better interpersonal skills, especially leadership, did better. So rather than sweating over the grades, developing a holistic person is really much more important. I feel I owe a lot to the Scouts for teaching me more life skills, and I think the choice of ECAs is at least as important as the choice of subjects.

The other thing I remember very clearly from my Psychology 101 class is that after some years have passed, the amount an A student and a B student remember from a class is the same. So I've always believed in spending my time learning more things, rather than getting perfect grades.

2) Better a small fish in a big pond (The advantage of branded schools)

First impressions matter, and one of the first impressions people form is which school you come from. And the strongest identity most people seem to have is their secondary school. Obviously it's not foolproof; the top student of a bottom school is probably more capable than the bottom student of a top school, but may create a less favourable first impression because you usually tell people your school, not your grades.

Another advantage of a good school is the networks you form, as well as to provide a more challenging environment.

3) Better a big fish in a small pond (Better opportunities in lesser schools)

I also experienced the flip side of the above statement when I chose to go to an average school like NJC instead of RJC. If I had gone to RJC, I would have been average. In NJC, being one of the better students afforded me many opportunities for more exposure, to represent the school in various ways. (Something I never had in sec sch.) It also meant I could focus on my ECAs and still get by in terms of grades for most of the two years.

Some people think you should put your child into the best school possible so they will be among peers who can challenge them. My personal experience is that you have to find the right balance because if you are in over your head, you will languish happily at the bottom. So it is more motivating to be in a school where you stand a fighting chance to be among the top.

Lastly, going to a less elite school will probably expose you to a more representative cross-section of society, which will give a more healthy perspective on society.

4) Learn (Chinese) language when young, or not at all

The best time to learn language is when you are young. Once you have it, you've got it. And if you don't get it early (and have no talent for languages), no matter how hard you struggle later in life, you never will.

In fact, if you don't get it early, don't even bother. Yes, China may be the next superpower, but there is no point wasting your child's life learning Chinese if he just can't get it. English is the international language of business and diplomacy and that won't change overnight. His time would be much better and happier spent adding to something he is good at. Up to the O Levels, I would easily spend half my total study time for each exam on Chinese. This could well be the reason I did much better in A Levels and in university, after I had dropped this deadweight requirement.

My lifelong challenge with LKY's Chinese policy ...

5) Learning how to learn

The key skill I want to teach my kids, is how to teach themselves. To be able to pick up a textbook, read it, and understand it.

I went through most of the schooling system reading/hearing stuff and hoping it stuck in my brain. This didn't work very well for me because I have a short attention span. I think a lot of my classmates learned things by rote; this didn't work for me either because I have a memory like a sieve. So my children are already genetically disadvantaged. Most people reading this can probably relate.

The breakthrough came in Sec 3 when my mother sent me to a tuition teacher to salvage my Math. All he did was sit me down and read the textbook with me, and from then on I realised that it really was possible to just learn from a book. Since then, I applied the same principles to sciences, econs and even humanities with a lot more success. I hope to teach my children this much earlier.

6) Let Go

When all is said and done, I must also remember that I can guide my kids up to a point, and then have to let them make their own decisions. So there is no point planning my kids' lives out in such great detail; just give them a good foundation and set them free.