An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.


I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?

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Should students wear school uniforms?

That we live in a time of tremendous inequality is now almost a truism. As an example, Oxfam claims that the annual income of the hundred richest people in the world could end world poverty four times over. In schools, inequality is also commonplace, whether it takes the form of grades, money, or possessions. Given the assumption that the most important aspect of school is the activity of learning, inequality in the form of how teachers treat their students is then a crucial ill to tackle. This is where school uniforms prove to be important. It is my opinion that school uniforms should be worn as a symbolic reminder to teachers (and students) that discrimination due to perceived inequality should never be acceptable.

It may be an ugly fact, but it is a fact that teachers are human beings, and are therefore naturally biased creatures, even when they try to be completely fair. We witness this when teachers decide that certain students are ‘bad’ or ‘badly-behaved’ individuals. I have witnessed students who, rightly or wrongly, are labelled as troublemakers, and are henceforth found guilty for any wrongdoing that they could conceivably be blamed for, whether or not they actually are in the wrong. This produces a vicious cycle where these students decide to be troublemakers anyway, since they will be treated as troublemakers whether they are innocent of any wrongdoing or not. A student who expands energy on this unfortunate social phenomenon will always have less energy to commit to the task of learning.

The school uniform, in the above-mentioned phenomenon of the “troublemaker-bias”, can be used by students to convey the sense that they are not troublemakers, and do not deserved to be labelled as such. Human beings are often superficial creatures, given to rapid judgements based on outer appearances. Students can take care to obey school rules with regards to the uniform, and thus convey on the outside what may be on the inside — the desire to obey the rules and hence be treated the same as everyone else. Consider how different the situation would be if students did not wear school uniforms. Street clothes would have the effect of reminding teachers of the differences between students, instead of the similarities, and would have the potential of further reinforcing whatever biases are within the teachers.

In contrast to street clothes, school uniforms serve as a reminder of the similarities that students share. While students may not be completely uniform, they all deserve the same amount of compassion, attention, and care from teachers. The Telegraph recently reported that teachers give their favourite students higher grades, which is a very clear example of unjust treatment. Teachers may unconsciously decide that students with richer or more successful parents will also be more successful than their peers, especially if students show off their parents’ success via expensive clothing. With the school uniform, there is less opportunity for the ostentatious display of wealth. The school uniform is also a lesson for students that as human beings, we share more similarities than differences.

While it is only one weapon in the fight against discrimination, the school uniform is too valuable to do away with. The value of the individual, as opposed to the group, is also an important lesson to learn, but I believe that this lesson is continuously taught anyway, in this era of social media and irreverent social commentary. The school uniform is sometimes seen as a tool of subjugation, but all it takes for it to be an empowering tool is a shift in mental attitude, to view it as a symbolic commitment to justice and learning, instead of some kind of metaphorical prisoner’s garb. People who argue for the abolition of the school uniform have to deal with the problems that I have outlined above, with all the opportunity for differences in wealth and sartorial ability to be displayed. As I have explained, inequalities can affect the activity of learning, and the school uniform has the power to mitigate these problems.

Looking at the bigger picture of the development of the human being, the school uniform is perhaps pale in comparison to issues like justice and equality. However, with the right mental attitude towards the school uniform, we can use it as a tool of progress instead of viewing it as a straitjacket. All I ask is this: that designers update uniforms for schools regularly, and to give boys the option to wear long pants if they so choose.

(749 words)

The Problem With Singlish and Singaporean Education

A fellow tutor-blogger has just written a piece about code-switching and the mastery of languages that anyone intending to master a language should read (that’s all of you, young ones). It jogged a few thoughts about a typical Singaporean student’s experience, and how badly disadvantaged they (we) are.

It is perhaps unfair to blame Singaporeans for speaking poor English. It is horribly rare to have a mathematics or science teacher who can speak “standard” English. Most of the time, they speak Singlish, or some kind of other patois. I remember my computer teacher in ACS(I), who was an effective teacher save for one little thing: it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying.

Things like that happened pretty frequently:
Teacher: (what sounded like) Click in the terminal.
Student: Uh, where in the terminal?
Teacher: (what sounded like) Not the terminal, the ferminal!
Student: What’s a ferminal?
Teacher: (Points at the file menu)
(Bonus points for those able to guess this teacher’s country of origin. Don’t look down on him, though. He taught Visual Basic well enough for the ACS(I) computers to be swamped with a whole host of prank programs, programmed by us students.)

A more Singlish-fied version of the above scene (with fewer misunderstandings) goes on in almost every classroom, every day. Students spend an hour listening to an English teacher, and five hours listening to Singlish in their other classes. Even as an English teacher, I didn’t realise I was pronouncing certain words in a Singaporean (and inaccurate) manner until I paid attention to my recordings as a singer. (You’d be surprised how difficult it is to get the “L” sound in “golden” to sound right. I kept on singing “gowden”.)

Perhaps teachers need to go for grammar or pronunciation classes, but I know that the problem students have with English and code-switching (whether it’s Singlish, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, or whatever language it is we mix with English) will not go away if we don’t change the situation in schools. It’s a massive task for the MOE, but I believe it has to be done.

So, until all teachers and systems become perfect (haha), remember: students are picking up Singlish like sponges in schools.

And that’s the reason for all that horrible code-switching.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money. It is because parents have such intense fears of their children getting low grades that the tuition industry is so massive now.

The problem starts with the fact that social and income inequality is bad in Singapore. No parent wants their child to be so low on the income ladder that they become one of the beachfront homeless here, or to have to be overworked at a dead-end job just to make ends meet. This problem is compounded by the fact that the education system here tends to favour those who are able to spend more money on their children.

I need to think long and hard about setting my soul right by doing something more than what I already am (<singlish> but eh, free essays and tips for everyone already la, rich or poor also can get </singlish>).

 

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.