Unschooling A Rebel

The day, while riding on the MRT, my son suddenly started talking about dinosaurs.

“Daddy, how did the dinosaurs become extinct 65 million years ago?”

“A meteor hit the earth, clouds of dust obstructed sunlight, the earth’s temperature dropped. The dinosaurs were not able to regulate their body temperatures. Plants didn’t produce enough food to feed them and they all died out.”

I thought I gave a good answer right off the bat. End of questioning session? Not quite.

“What about dinosaurs in the sea? he asked. “Why didn’t all fish become extinct?”

Huh? How did he think of that? I had to change the subject.

I tried to teach my child with books.
He gave me only puzzled looks.
I tried to teach my child with words
They passed him by, often unheard
Despairingly, I turned aside
“I shall I teach this child?” I cried.
“Come,” he said, “play with me.”

A book I’ve been reading introduces a brave new concept. Actually the concept is more brave than new. It’s a book (published in Malaysia) on “home schooling”. Parents who didn’t think that Malaysia’s school system was doing their kids any good, shared their insights and experiences. They even criticised Malaysian schools for copying Singapore schools’ kiasu ways. While many Malaysians send their kids to study in Singapore, these parents feel that our system is draconian, homework is excessive and they certainly don’t envy Singaporean parents for collectively spending RM 2.16M (2008 figures) on private tuition and enrichment classes daily!

An interesting term cropped up in these discussions – unschooling. There is no such word in the dictionary, but those of us who have issues with the educational system would know exactly what it means.

For a person who can manage a 50,000 word book, it used to be difficult for me to visualise how people born with a learning disability (but who are otherwise brilliant) can have trouble composing a short essay of just 200 words. But he is my own son. Under the current system, he scores badly for composition, comprehension and problem sums. Take a look at the following question in his Math test paper.

Even normal adults would be stumped by such questions – let alone Primary 5 kids and those with a learning disability to boot. I can say that he is very good at Math. If I explained every problem sum to him in terms he can understand, he would have no problems solving them. Which means to say that if he ever encountered such problems in a real life situation, he would be able to solve them. Unfortunately, exam questions need you to visualise the situation based on a few sentences. That’s where he has a problem.

Interestingly, under the old system that I went through, he could have made it because Math was uncomplicated and time was given for students to slowly process and assimilate knowledge. Under the current “improved” and “enhanced” system, he will definitely not do well and quite possibly fail – even though he has an IQ of 120. He has immense potential, but sadly, the system targets his weakness and not his strength.

Below is my answer to the Math problem above. Sad to say, I’m not good at solving it using the method taught in school. I’ve treated it like an IQ question as I’m no fan of the model method. I did the wroking after obtaining the answer. My son understands the thinking process very well. That’s because he’s good at logical inference.

Some students are genuinely intelligent and they solve such problems with ease. With lots of tuition, practice and rote learning, even mediocre students can solve it by positioning the cookie cutter correctly. Yes, even a mediocre student (without language disabilities) can train himself to solve questions of this theme by practicing with different combinations of pens, pencils, books, magazines, bowls, spoons … They score well even without being very bright. The objectives of identifying geniuses, teaching thinking skills and identifying the weak are totally cheated and defeated by a multitude of kiasu maneuvers by parents and tuition centres. So schools raise the bar further and commercial tuition centres provide methods and solutions to cheat the system. It’s an endless struggle that leaves KPI-liable educators, their students and parents exhausted.

At the rate he is going, my son will probably be forced to take PSLE subjects at foundation level and be channeled into the Normal stream. Staying faithfully on the course set by the system, he’ll probably end up as a waiter or a mechanic. No disrespect to these jobs, but aren’t we wasting talent here? If a brilliant child is deaf, would you test and fail him with Oral exams? Chinese societies worldwide describe our system as 一考定终身. With all the tuition anxiety, exam stress and parents struggling financially to send their kids overseas, are people still unaware that something has gone seriously wrong?

I have nothing to say to parents who think their kids are geniuses, but there are quite a number of unfortunate parents caught in this situation. The favourite option is to send their kids overseas. To me, that’s just copping out. The other option is home-schooling. To most folks, however, quitting their jobs to play teacher is unthinkable. To me, playing to the same dysfunctional curriculum defeats the whole purpose of taking my child out of it. That’s why “unschooling” sounds sexier than home-schooling. It means detox. It means flushing MOE’s syllabus down the toilet bowl, designing our own curriculum that will bring out the best in our kids. The plus point is that our kids will be happier people. The downside is that how on earth are we going to find the time to supervise, let alone teach our kids and create our own curriculum? Kids without mainstream endorsement in the form of certification will also have trouble finding jobs in mainstream society.

Kids learn best when they are having fun. They learn best when they are interested and passionate about things. If I ever take my son out of the school system, travel will be a very important part of his learning. It won’t be anything like organised school excursions. His life will change drastically. My life will change drastically. It will certainly scare the hell out of the people around us, but I look forward to the challenges ahead. Who knows, my son may be employed for some unique talent rather than exam results. By then, distinctions will be so common that nobody will look at exam results anymore.

Children who are not able to go to national schools because of physical/intellectual disabilities are exempted from Compulsory Education in national schools. Parents of children with special needs do not have to obtain certificates confirming exemption from CE.

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© Chan Joon Yee

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