Are we grooming leaders or losers of tomorrow? (Stefanie Yuen Thio, BT, 5/12, p20)

Commentary by Joint managing director/TSMP Law Corporation Stefanie Yuen Thio, on the importance of nurturing life skills and creativity in students.

THE Ministry of Education has embarked on a welcome overhaul of our school system. The first thing to get thrown out is the emphasis on top scores. This year, there was no fanfare around the top PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) candidate. Instead, schools lauded the most improved student, and newspapers carried articles about those who made good despite a rocky academic start.

A friend once said this about the PSLE: “Students who study hard for PSLE get really good at one thing – doing the PSLE.” While I am all for a rigorous in-depth education, I am concerned that the extreme examination focus means students have scant time or energy to develop other talents and skills.

In our law firm’s recruitment process, I have repeatedly seen lawyers with the same deficiencies, even as they present a CV oozing with As and overburdened with glowing testimonials. To groom the success stories of the future, I believe we should address the gaps in our education system.

Most critically, we need to turn the tide on the extreme focus on examinations. By having so much riding on the outcome of exams (in some cases, from the tender age of nine when the Gifted Education Programme’s, or GEP’s, streaming tests take place), we give our children less time to develop other aspects of their character, talents and personalities. It also means that we give them a skewed view of how the world works.

First, there is the problem of hothousing. Our system rewards achievement – academic, sporting or cultural. If a Primary Three student makes it to the GEP programme or represents his school in tennis, he will have a better chance of entering an elite secondary school, which also improves his chances of getting into the university course of his choice. (By way of illustration, more than 50 per cent of each year’s Law Faculty intake is from only two junior colleges, showing how important it is to be part of the “through train” into those schools.)

There is thus every incentive to hothouse the child in his area of talent. There is scant time, energy or resource left over for the kid to try his hand at different things. We cannot bemoan the lack of creativity in our employees, or the dearth of entrepreneurs, when we had wrung the imagination out of them from the time they laced up their first pair of Bata shoes.

This leads me to another worrying trend – we seem to be producing clones. There is a “sameness” in the job applicants of today. Most come with strong technical credentials but lack people skills or independence of analysis. They have the same interests – travel, movies, spending time with friends. Contrast this with students we see from abroad, who have taken time off to build schools in Cambodia, trekked in the Amazon, started online businesses.

Lawyers (like other service industries) need to grasp a broad spectrum of topics. Not only must they master the law, they need to have a good understanding of the world their clients operate in and be able to effectively engage them. One key attribute we look for in incoming lawyers is a well-read mind. Sadly, this is a rarity.

At one job interview, a candidate told us that reading was one of his interests. Imagine our enthusiasm when we asked what his favourite book was. And our horror at his nonplussed response: “The newspaper”.

The sheer volume of data that our students have to grapple with as part of their schooling means that most have only the narrowest confines of interest and few are good at communicating with or engaging people. We are cheating them of a key area of development that is necessary for their future success in the working world.

Trial and error

Finally, there is the problem of building resourcefulness. The performance-centric nature of the system has resulted in our children’s academic DNA being programmed with this operating principle, made famous by one of the world’s best-loved educators, Yoda.

“Do, or do not. There is no try”.

But it is in trying, and failing, that we learn to pick ourselves up, come at the problem from a different angle, create an effective solution. Where once the focus was on IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional quotient), we are increasingly realising that AQ (adversity quotient) – the ability to deal with setbacks and create solutions – is an important skill.

The battalions of technocrats joining the workforce may be able to do copious amounts of research and painstakingly follow precedent but, when faced with a seemingly intractable problem, appear unable not only to work around it, but to even comprehend that it is their job to find a solution. Simply put, they have been nurtured in a system (one that is policed rigorously by gatekeepers called “exams”) which teaches them that there are correct answers and wrong ones.

They are therefore not prepared for the real world, where answers do not come in stark black and white, but rather in a messy kaleidoscope of “maybe”s and “that depends”.

If we want our future employees to be resourceful, we need a system where the trial and error of the learning process, and not just the top score, is the objective.
The goal of an education system should be to prepare the child for his adult life. That involves academic learning, but also the development of life skills. By hothousing our children, we have honed some of their muscles in extremis, while the rest have been left to atrophy.

As a mother who has experienced the blinding headache that is the PSLE year, I applaud our government for moving away from the unhealthy focus on academic grades. As an employer, I can confidently say that this change is not only beneficial but also outright necessary, if we hope to see a new generation of top professional and business leaders.

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