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, BrainPickings.org (2014)

Creepy lullabies and close reading

Last night, I tried to illustrate what close reading should feel like to my student, and I used the example of our childhood lullabies. Do you remember the lullabies from your childhood? I give you my personal favourite:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will drop,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

I vividly remember my mum carrying me as a young (and light!) child, singing this lullaby, rocking me gently with an almost-manic grin, and suddenly dipping her body and arms on the “cradle will drop” line. Giggles all round, good times for all. Thinking back now, my dad certainly enjoyed doing that too, but he also enjoyed throwing my sister and I up into the air, probably more than the “cradle will drop” thing. (Evidence currently shows that we weren’t dropped too many times on our heads.)

What does any of this have to do with close reading? This is just an innocent lullaby we sing to children to get them to sleep, right?….. riiiiight…?

Well, maybe not.

Some of us may have problems with the word “bough”, since we no longer use the word very often these days. It means “the main branch of a tree”. So far, so good. The bough breaks, the baby falls, ha ha ha. But where does the baby fall from? The treetop. The top of the tree. Look at any tree around you! That’s a fall too far for any baby to survive!

Grim, isn’t it?

And it doesn’t stop there. If we look at itsy-bitsy spider (another one of my favourites), we see arachnophobia (meaning: the fear of spiders) in grand action:

Itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

What’s a spout? Think of the little teapot, short and stout. Ah, that’s its spout (through which the tea is poured). Careful, there’s a spider there! Though, in this case it’s probably a spout exposed to the rain, which may mean that the spout is that of a water pump. Careful, there’s a spider in your water!!!!

I have to admit that this isn’t close reading, an activity that is much more involved than just thinking about what a spout or treetop is. But if you registered the shock of realising that some of our most treasured lullabies are actually quite grim and scary, that’s the kind of emotion you want to register when you read something closely. Some of the most powerful poems have that same power to shock and move us, and if you get a poem for the unseen poetry section of your exam, you can be sure that there is some kind of power hidden there. You just have to find it.


For more on close reading, I highly recommend Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry). If you don’t have time for a book (time management!!), you may find the University of Victoria’s guide useful.

(A response to..) Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!

This post is a response to the article in the link — Dont keep calm! And dont carry on! – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Mr Seah cares about students, and if you care about students, you have to care about politics as well, because what happens in the political realm impacts students too. If, for example, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) comes into power, then it will probably enact policies that they have described here (which, in my opinion, would be good for students but bad for the tuition industry).

So, it was with great admiration that I read the article “Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!“. It is such a well-written article, and anyone who even dreams of doing well for their General Paper (GP) should be able to understand and critique this article. It contains a cogent analysis of the ideology embedded within the “keep calm and carry on” meme, and is a call to action — except that the author (Michael Marder) does not spell out for us what that action should be.

I agree with the bulk of the article, and it seems worth the effort to write about the implications of my agreement for my own actions — in terms of my teaching and existence — in the Singaporean context.

The premise of the article — that we exist with a “highly destructive status quo” — is one that I accept. As another author has observed:

“The condominium of state and private actors in the financial-monetary sector is a proper object of civic curiosity. The power to describe must also be disentangled from the formal powers of office and the prerogatives of wealth.”

The inequality that I observe in this world is simply unacceptable, in a moral sense. It is inexplicable that the world’s billionaires continue to hold on to their wealth so tightly when one in three people in the world live in poverty. Marder observes that “the danger is real that the public is about to lose its collective cool”, and it really is no surprise when we have statistics like that to look at.

As a GP tutor, I expect my students to have enough general knowledge to score well in their essays, and this makes up part of the general knowledge that they should have. Once a student is aware of such statistics, there is no way s/he will be able to ignore it without some effort. In the same way that a person will find it difficult to be happy in a room of sobbing people, most people will find it unacceptable to hoard wealth when the problem of poverty is so widespread.

This is not to say that I don’t encourage my students to be successful — I always point to the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show how a billionaire can make a massive difference in the world, more than what a humble tutor (me) can achieve. Success isn’t bad — it is unrestrained greed that destroys the world.

In addition to greed, there is also the problem of apathy, brought about by what Marder calls the “ideological constructions of normalcy”. A student of mine has pointed out that this includes the dystopic phenomenon of people being entertained to death with their smartphones, both of us having observed people on trains and buses nowadays being glued to their smartphones in what seems to be an orgy of mindless consumption.

As a teacher of young minds, I always try to encourage mindful consumption, rather than mindless consumption. This is incidentally good for a student’s grades as well — if a student spends hours reading thought-provoking material rather than spending hours playing games or watching inane videos, it will surely have a positive impact on his academic performance.

My teaching is my way of not keeping calm, of not carrying on as if the world was alright. I don’t claim to have a tremendous impact on the world, but I am doing what I can to try to change things. As I explain to my students, we can help by supporting tax reform (an idea that many political and business leaders support), and by volunteering to help whoever we can in our country.

Yes, I want my students to be successful and to do well. But I also want them to remember that keeping calm and carrying on isn’t the best thing to do all the time.

A trip down memory lane, and how religion affects my teaching

I took my O-levels in 1999, after spending four years in ACS(I). It was a time when the administration and teachers seemed to take their Christianity very seriously. Even as a teenage boy, I could tell that the prayers did not come from a place of mere duty. The teachers did not seem to drag their feet when they prayed. They prayed with an earnest sincerity that made it seem like leading a public prayer was a privilege. (But I have to apologize a little bit, because even though I remember the way they prayed, for the life of me, I can’t remember their names.)

I remember that the non-Christian students among us never seemed bothered by the Christian-ness of the school. The strongest complaint we had was that some of these Christian rituals — chapel services, morning devotions, and so on — could be terribly boring at times (I say “we” even though I identify as Christian because we all had the same complaint). Nobody was, to my knowledge, coerced to do anything that offended their religious convictions. Everybody had to wear their ties to chapel, of course, but you did not have to pray if you did not want to. You had to show respect, but if you were a Buddhist or a “free thinker”, you never had to participate.

I remember that sensitivity to the multiplicity of religions in my school with great fondness. It was probably my first introduction to the idea of tolerance — it was a flawed embodiment of that idea, but a very good try, nonetheless. I had the good fortune of having a form teacher who would pray with our class very occasionally. He kept to the practice of not forcing prayer on any of the non-Christians in my class. I have a memory of him explaining to my class that prayer could be used as a way of calming ourselves before an examination, which was a brilliant way of including everyone. Not everybody prays, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows what anxiety is.

To my eyes, my school managed to convey the good bits of spirituality without the coercive, hateful parts. The impulse towards being Good (capital G!), the virtues of honesty and excellence (how different the world would be if everybody stopped telling lies), the calming power of prayer or simple meditation (prayer and meditation are not the same things, but very similar at times) — these are massively valuable lessons that could very well have been the reason for academic excellence, for many of us.

This principle — imparting the good without coercing — guides my own teaching. If I meet Buddhist students, I ask them if they have read any of the Dalai Lama’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I ask them if they have any idea what meditation is. If I meet Christian students, I use parables to illustrate the power of stories. I ask them if they understand what “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” is. I ask, but I avoid any hint of force like the plague.

I often ask students about their religious sensitivities, very early on, so that I know which lines not to cross. Some prefer not to talk about religion at all, so I talk about how neuroscience has shown that the brain’s ability to function under stress is diminished. Eventually we get to talking about conquering anxiety and exam panic, but I never need to resort to religion to teach them peace.

Teachers are called not only to get their students good grades. Our students learn from us, by the very virtue of the way we exist. If a teacher is perpetually overworked, domineering, and anxious, students learn something from that. If a teacher has self-discipline, is always well-rested, and never panicky, students learn something else from that. I try my best, but as old boys (and girls) from my old school like to say, with wry grins — the best is yet to be.

(WARNING: sappy ending) An attentive tuition teacher spots things that parents don’t

Sometimes, a tuition teacher (me) is faced with students who are, by and large, intelligent. However, they inexplicably end up doing worse on tests than his teachers and parents expect. When that happens, we have to look at the student’s life in totality, and not just concentrate on his academic performance.

The things that hold students back can sometimes be so mundane that other untrained or inattentive adults miss them. As adults, for example, we are very accustomed to using (and abusing!) caffeine. Children are often more sensitive to caffeine than adults are, so if you have a student who drinks three bottles of Mountain Dew a day, then you have a student who may be struggling with waning energy levels when it matters.

Sometimes I get a student who is usually hardworking, but who reports being unable to concentrate on his reading. If that happens, I ask him about the lighting conditions in his room. The student will probably give me a blank stare, but the attentive tuition teacher (me!) makes sure that the student understands the effect of good and bad lighting on the ability to concentrate.

Most painfully, and most commonly, I get students who hold themselves back because they crave parental love, but are not getting it. It is so painful to see a confident, intelligent budding-adult student become a morose, withdrawn, uncooperative child because his parent(s) withhold their approval and love just because of his test/exam results. I once let a student sit out an entire class (at the back of the classroom) because this boy, who is usually boisterous and outgoing, was trying to hold back tears after a scolding from his father. This student just could not process the information I was giving the class. It would have been pointless for me to demand that he give his attention to me when all he wanted was his father’s love. (Actually it was more like half a class. His boisterous facade came back soon after.)

I may be a sappy old thing, insisting that parents show their children love, but that one determinant is probably what most determines the difficulty or ease of my job, as a teacher. Let me say that again, so that everyone understands. If my students parents love him/her, and show it, my job is easier. If not, my job becomes harder. When children feel safe, they thrive. When children feel threatened, they shut down, because their brains are overwhelmed by fear. It’s a scientific fact.

So, label me a soft-heated softie if you will, but parents, tolong lah. Be a bit more loving, ok? Oh and buy your little ones some new reading lamps, they’re pretty awesome! 😀

 

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

Why I don’t teach “to the test” (especially at the O-Level)

“Teaching to the test” is the practice of teaching for the sole purpose of getting students to do well in standardised tests. For an English teacher, this would mean breaking down the O-level English paper into its parts, and drilling students like crazy in those component parts. For example, one could break down the questions in the comprehension paper into factual questions, inferential questions, vocabulary questions, and so on. I think doing this can prove to be counter-productive, in the sense that I would actually be harming my students instead of helping them.

When I was a younger teacher (OK, still young, but no so young anymore la :/) I heard a fellow teacher talking about how strange it was that students who had scored A1 for their O-level English would go on to JC and fail their General Paper. Yep, that really happens. That got me to thinking about the way secondary school teachers taught English, and I decided that I would drill less, and do more awesome/interesting things that would swindle (teehee) my students into using/writing/reading proper English.

The problem with the “drill until siao” approach is that it kills the appreciation for the finer points of the English language, and gives them only the skills required to survive the test in question. Once students move on to another level of testing, they can find themselves lost at sea, unable to perform at a high level. I explain it to my new students this way. When I first started teaching, I had to come up with an answer scheme for a comprehension paper. I hadn’t done a single comprehension paper for about ten years, but I could still think of the correct answers for every single question. I wasn’t thinking “hmm, is this a factual question or inferential question?” I was just able to comprehend everything in the paper, and thus was able to demonstrate my comprehension of the paper. I was able to understand everything because I had spent years studying the language. My job, as a teacher, is to show you exactly how you can get so comfortable with the English language that any standardised test becomes a breeze — and not just the one they use at the O-level.

In practice, this means thinking about individual words, and how we use them. It still boggles my mind that so few students have a good understanding of these words: bias, racism, sexism. These are actual questions I have been asked, when I conduct a class on the definition of those words: “Mr Seah, is calling someone an Indian racism? Is Christian/Buddhist a race? Is it sexist if a Chinese and Indian get married to each other?” Seriously ah, wah lau eh. What have teachers been doing in school that students ask me these kinds of questions?

I don’t think we should find fault with students who ask these questions. I feel a sense of pride that my students dare to ask me these questions. They dare to ask, which is more than I can say for many other local students. But the problem is that (some) teachers in (some) schools are teaching to the test so often that they are missing out on simple, basic, easy-to-teach things about the language. Moreover, teaching to the test does not prepare students for anything that requires a good understanding of the language (General Paper, university essays, even office emails).

So, if you walk in on my class and see a bunch of us arguing about the difference between wisdom and intelligence, or the place of video games in a student’s life, don’t be fooled into thinking that I’m just wasting time with my students. I’m teaching.

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

Tip #5: You are the sum of your choices

(cross-posted in “approaches to teaching” section because parents need to know this too!)

You are the sum of your choices. If you choose to eat supersized fast-food meals every single day of your life, you will be unhealthy. You may not be fat if you exercise a lot, but all that sodium and sugar and “empty calories” can’t be good for your body.

It is the same with academia. If you (or your parents) engage me to teach you once a week, that’s a good thing. You will have access to good English (both spoken and written) for at least the duration of that time slot. But if you go on to produce and consume horrible English for the rest of the day, and for the rest of the week, then no matter how good your teachers are, you will not do well.

To put it in the language I see nowadays on online games popular with the local crowd:
eh dun spik liddat w8 ur england fail

This is one of the biggest reasons why I focus on helping students love the English language, instead of just focusing on exam techniques. Not all online leisure activities are equal, and I believe that what we choose to do in our leisure time directly affects our brains (and if you’re a student, it affects your results).

You know that meme that goes “Y U NO <do something>”? To understand why it is funny, we have to understand that we usually say “why don’t/didn’t you <do something>”, and that the rage of the character in the picture is so intense that he forgets how to speak like a normal civilised human being. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be on 9gag, after all.

I’m definitely not saying that being on 9gag will help you get an A in your English exams (but becoming a Stephen King fan just might). What I’m saying is that if you immerse yourself in good English only once a week, you’re not going to see improvement.

You are the sum of your choices. What will you choose today?

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.