Describe a childhood toy, or a game you played, which still means a great deal to you. Why is it so important? (English O-Level 2016, Syllabus 1128)

When I was nine, I spent a good number of months begging my parents for a chess computer. In those days of the floppy disk — when they were still truly floppy — that meant my parents had to spend a few hundred dollars on a child’s toy that was not guaranteed to last for more than a couple of years, especially when that child was somewhat destructive around fragile things. I was good at chess, though — I was already on the school team, and three years later I would go on to place fourth in my age group at a national tournament. My small but meaningful level of success really was thanks in part to the clunky chess computer my parents bought for me after enduring my begging and whining (their acquiescence was probably also due to the fact that they could no longer defeat their child at the game). It is probably obvious why the game of chess, while torturously boring to most people, remains important to me. The memories of learning, practicing, and winning certainly are dear in my mind, but the game still retains a romance that has seen me continue playing it to this day.

My first significant memories of chess centre around my mother, who taught me the basic moves, and then to love and hate the game. Our first matches were even, since we both were groping in the dark when it came to strategy. Slowly, however, I began to defeat her regularly. This was probably due to my more regular exposure to the game (while she did the housework, I could play chess against myself). I began to become accustomed to winning our matches, and thus became complacent and embarrassingly smug, when my beloved mother sprang the delightfully infuriating trap called the Scholar’s Mate on me, defeating me in a mere four moves. I was surprised, shocked, amazed, nay, utterly astounded! Apparently she had gone to her brother, an engineer who plays chess at a very high level, to ask for help in winning a final chess match with her son before she called it quits. He probably also told her that she needed to practice more to play at a higher level, something that a busy housewife who also took care of aged parents could not afford. That day’s defeat saw my mother taking me to the library for chess books which could further my chess education without making her pull her hair out in frustration, marking the beginning of a more serious approach to chess preceding the success I was to see on the national stage.

Now that I have done some growing up, chess no longer holds the same position it once did in my life. My preteen self could probably easily defeat me now, but I still have continued to play casually. Sitting down at a chessboard across from another human being, I feel the world slowing down, and there is a soothing intensity that accompanies a well-played game, even if I end up losing. I am unsure if those feelings are nourished by my childhood experience, or by the nature of the game itself. Playing chess above a certain level forces a player’s attention to become laser-sharp; anything less intense would mean an embarrassing defeat, somewhat along the lines of a tennis player losing because he forgot to wear the proper shoes. Of course, chess still reminds me of the sweeter moments of my childhood. Consequently, while chess takes up much less of my time now, the game itself is still dear to me. Numerous studies have also found that playing chess brings improvements in attention, concentration, and interest in learning (source).

Anyone up for a game?

(618 words)

Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?

My Twitter is back up!

Sometimes students look at the articles I’ve saved on my own reading list app (I use pocket), and they wish that they had a nicely curated series of articles (like mine) to read. So I’ve revived my Twitter account! I’ll be posting tweets with links to articles that I think people should read.

If you’re doing the O-levels, you should understand the vocabulary in these articles, at the very least.

If you’re doing the A-levels, you need to go one step further: please be able to analyse each article, and be familiar with all the underlying issues.

Happy reading!

One way Singapore’s schools make you stupid: the fixed mindset

Which do you believe to be more true? Consider the two statements while you read the post below.

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

I remember wanting to do well for some kind of IQ test when I was in Primary 3, so that I could get into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). My parents were obviously and understandably proud of me for passing the first round of testing, which was given to all the students in my school, but they told me that passing the test was unimportant — all that mattered was that I tried my best. The second round of testing was held on a Saturday, and was purely voluntary.

The school corridors were comfortingly quiet when I took the test. I was used to the corridors being a deafening maelstrom of prepubescent boys (ACJS, noisy kids in the 90s), and the silence only helped me to focus more on the questions in front of me. There were several questions I had trouble with, but I wasn’t worried about them. I figured that the other boys would be having problems as well. My confidence came from the happy fact of a machine telling me that I was a genius — the machine being one of those fortune telling machines that doubled as a weighing machine, at 20 cents a go. After being told by that machine that I was a genius, I spent way too much time dancing around my sister singing I’m a genius, I’m a genius! And if memory serves me well, I truly believed it — my parents’ friends calling me “The Little Professor” (I wore really thick spectacles) probably didn’t help my sister’s case that I was being an obnoxious brat.

It was thus an earth-shattering blow to my views of myself and the world when the test results came back. Something like: Sorry, Kevin has not been accepted into the Gifted Education Programme. Still, he is a very bright boy. Keep up the good work!

I had to relinquish my former status as a genius. As the months and years rolled forward, I would watch the GEP boys as they paraded around the school like the precocious geniuses everyone thought they were (and some of them did strut) with a mixture of envy and something close to disgust. It was a disgust at how proud they were of themselves, and a disgust with myself that I couldn’t be one of them. Mine was an injured pride.

It was in Primary 3 that I stopped consistently getting 99s and 100s for almost all of my tests — I started getting 95s and 96s, and in the case of Chinese, 85s (all over 100). My parents kept on reinforcing this message: just try your best, that will be enough. A 100/100 test score would have been meaningless to them if I didn’t put in my full effort, but a 60/100 score would have been wonderful if I had struggled with all my might to get there.

I persuaded myself that I was still trying my best, even though my scores were dropping. I comforted myself with the fact that, besides Chinese and Art, I was still close to the top of the class almost all the time.

These days I wonder: how much damage did that test do to me?

It gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were simply more intelligent than me, that they had something special in their skulls that allowed them to solve more difficult problems. Then there were those GEP students who were school athletes — those superboys gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were just downright better than me.

I was developing what is now called a fixed mindset of intelligence. I believed that people were inherently and naturally clever or stupid. I still believed in hard work, of course, but I came to view it as a half-and-half combination — hard work could only get you half the way, and you would need innate intelligence to go the rest of the way.

Psychologists now know that the fixed mindset causes drops in levels of motivation, confidence, and performance. I developed the fear of doing badly in tests, because that would only confirm that I wasn’t a genius. I was focused on scoring well, because that would help to strengthen the belief that I was still more intelligent than average, even if I wasn’t a genius.

On hindsight, the test probably had these effects on me:
– I probably gave up faster upon encountering hardship (like a difficult math problem)
– I probably was focused more on test results than on learning from corrections
– I probably felt less motivated to do well in school

What I needed was a growth mindset. I needed these beliefs: that intelligence is something that can be changed, and that performance is inextricably linked to effort. People with growth mindsets are focused on learning goals, even if they also care about their performance. Given a test result with feedback on potential areas for learning, for example, they focus on how they can improve, rather than looking only at the test score.Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in

Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in much effort), my parents were unconsciously working to promote a growth mindset.

The science is very clear on this: people with growth mindsets consistently outperform people with fixed mindsets. When it comes to academic skills, it is likewise clear that beliefs (fixed vs growth mindsets) can affect performance (via things like motivation, confidence, and eagerness to learn).

Which do you believe to be more true now?

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

The second statement describes the growth mindset, which will see you expect more out of your students, children, co-workers, and every human being that crosses your path. We can only push the limits of our achievement if we put in the effort.

And if we’re going to stream students by their test scores, let’s be aware of streaming’s negative effects. It certainly made me stupid, at least for awhile.

As for the child who failed the GEP test? I rebelled* by pushing my curfew later and later, spending my time at a second-hand bookstore near my school. I ended up reading Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley, a book firmly in the English literary canon) when I was Primary 6, sowing the seeds for my future.

* 6pm curfew? I would arrive home at 6.10pm. What a rebel.

Further reading:
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (2007)
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman (2013)
Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives, (2014)