Open letter to parents rushing to enrol their kids in school

MARCH 6 — Dear parents who are super anxious about ensuring your children get into a “good” school,

Fear not.

When it comes to being cutting-edge and innovative, I have it on good authority that education ranks more or less on the same level as coal-mining. 

Thus the more-than-occasional mad kiasu rush to “get our kids in the best schools” may end up being like rushing to book a holiday in Port Dickson: The place is out-dated to a fault, there’s really no need for haste, the beach will always be there, it’s not exactly 6-star scenery and, heck, there are many alternatives to PD.

If an alien from Alpha-Coney-Doggy-Centauri invented a time machine, came to Earth and visited our planet 100 years ago, s/he or it would notice that only two things have remained “constant” throughout the centuries: Religion and — yes you guessed it — schooling.

In school, using apps for teaching/learning is considered “innovative” but upon completing school (or just about any time other than at school), the Web or Cloud is as optional as water. 

In school (and even universities), online assessment is almost taboo and face-to-face evaluation is secondary. In the “real world”, you have seven seconds across a table or room — not two hours in an exam room — to make a good impression.

Seriously, I’m not the only who’s saying that putting kids through school can be like deciding to take out everything fresh, creative, real-world and “dynamic” about them. 

The best thinkers in the world will also confirm that the “best thinkers” in the world are none other than children. They’re the most enthusiastic, the most inquisitive, the most experimental, the most fun-loving — and yet schools and adults have the audacity to teach them how to think?

At the very least, let’s not “rush” into it?

An early gap year

Malcolm Gladwell even proposed that maybe it’s not such a bad idea for our kids to skip a year of school i.e. attend Standard 1 when aged eight (not seven) or take a year off after Standard 6 and join Form 1 later. 

Unless you have serious child-minding logistic problems, I’d recommend this too. Just let your seven-year-old child study “informally” for a year, then enrol them at a later date. 

If the school won’t allow an older kid into a given level, why, just look for another school which will (as I said, plenty of options). The parents of reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen even took the entire family off the grid for a whole year. Just travel, relax and just bloody live for a change.

What are the pros of doing this early “gap year”? First, you’re saying No to this very arbitrary system of institutional conveyor-belt education which shoves every seven-year-old into Primary 1, which declares that every kid has to develop in exactly the same way, learn exactly the same things, and be tested in exactly the same tests, the non-compliance of which suggests that said kid “isn’t good enough.”

Secondly, you give your child an extra year or two to develop intellectually. Thirdly, who knows, it may just dawn upon you that other alternatives (e.g. home-schooling, online-learning, personal tutoring, etc.) may be preferable (see Note 1).

At the end of the day, as a parent, you’re stepping back and truly deciding what’s best for your kid. And that’s hardly a bad thing, innit?

True love of learning = Better EQ

Am I saying we should close down all our schools? Hell, no.

Great education is like great conversation. The details matter, but not as much as the growing relationship between the two speakers.

What’s truly important about education is whether a student is a) growing to appreciate the subject, b) more capable at performing real-world tasks and c) able to interact with people well d) thinking more and more like a scientist (or entrepreneur or philosopher and so on). 

So this gives us a clue as to the top criteria for picking a school: How caring are the teachers? How passionate are they about nurturing the love of learning in the students? Ironically, this could take the form of NOT being so “obsessed” about scoring As and distinctions.

If I was God I’d clear out all the clouds and write this in the sky : ’Scoring the highest in class’ should really be the lowest priority of education. As long as students don’t flunk their studies, there’s really no need to “idolise” your exams and assignments. 

Also, when a child learns out of joy and fulfilment (as opposed to “because I’ll be seen as a loser if I don’t get #1 in class”), s/he builds far higher EQ than otherwise. It’s a sad and commonplace thing to see “top-performing” students behave in an emotionally fragile and infantile manner. Even worse are the occasional suicides from the pressure of studying. 

But a suicide never happens over a day or even a week. It takes a whole lifetime of being part of a system which seeks to churn out success-obsessed subjects for the marketplace. If we’re not careful as parents, we’ll be throwing our children into the very jaws of this monster.

Without denying that institutionalised education has value (and is to some extent “necessary”), for the love of all things blue, at the very least let’s not rush into it?

Note 1: Gladwell admonished kids to get into school at a later age because this would give them an edge brain-wise vis-à-vis other kids i.e. a 14-year old may perform better in Form 1 than a 13-year-old. I’m fine with that kind of rationale, but I also think the very act of waiting (when everyone’s going faster faster faster) brings its own advantages.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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