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)

General Paper tips for private candidates without GP teachers or tutors

So you’re staring at your A-level certificate, wondering how on earth two years of JC grinding got you such shitty grades. Then you realize: oh, it was all that playing around with so-and-so and such-and-such. You decide to retake the A-levels, with all the enthusiasm and determination that you can muster (THIS TIME I WILL STUDY HARD), and then it occurs to you: oh crap, I have no teachers!!

Don’t worry, Mr Seah is here to save the day (he’s gonna try anyway). Here’s what you can do for GP if you’re retaking the A-levels, and if you don’t have a tutor.

1. Gather all your old work (and comfort yourself for awhile)

You have gone through at least two years of classes, and you know something about GP. No need to panic, ya? Look through your marked essays in particular, and carefully review your teachers’ comments. These comments should show you some of your weaknesses, especially if you had committed teachers who wrote detailed comments on how to improve.

2. Read “difficult” material

While you were in school, you had excuses (bad ones, really) for not reading: busy la, CCA la, H2 subjects so heavy la.. But you don’t have a school to go to now, and you have to be your own teacher. Pick up books on logic, argumentation, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, sociology, psychology — whatever you can get your hands on. Get on Coursera and take courses that get you engaged with the world around you.

You already know what kinds of questions to expect, so review the essay questions from the past years to get a sense of what you should be reading. I’ve personally found introductory textbooks in the fields of sociology and politics to be particularly interesting and useful for thinking (in a “GP way”*) about the world around me.

*Thinking about the world in chunks of 800 words at a time (i.e. the GP essay format) forces your brain into a particular kind of atrophy, so be careful with that.

You no longer have a teacher to mark your essays, so you will have to be your own editor and teacher. How to decide if an essay you’ve done is good? Compare your writing to the writing you find in books.

3. Analyze comprehension answer schemes

You no longer can spend only an hour and a half on a comprehension paper — there are no more teachers to spill red ink over your labour. Once you’re done attempting a comprehension paper, compare your answers to the answer scheme not to determine whether or not your answers are correct, but whether the answer scheme itself makes sense. Check the dictionary as much as you can, even for words you think you understand. You will find flaws in answer schemes, particularly those from assessment book companies.

4. Write “perfect” essays

Do your question analysis, research the issues to death, craft your outline, and create the most amazing slab of 800 words that you can manage. You need to prove to yourself that you can get that A. Give yourself around two to three weeks for a single essay, which should be filled with gathering research and data. Find out what other writers and thinkers have said about the issue at hand, and consider if you agree with them.

5. Accidentally change your life

Reading and thinking about the world to the level that I advise should change your life. If you read enough about environmental issues, you’re going to hesitate over buying a new phone/tablet/computer when your old one still works. If you read enough about education, you’re going to look back on your school life and be so frustrated with how imperfect adults can be, and how flawed our education system is. If you read enough about politics, you’re going to read the Straits Times and come close to apoplexy.

If you find yourself caught in old thinking patterns, you might not be activating your mind enough.

6. Don’t miss the SEAB registration deadline

Right? Because you can only facepalm so many times….

On ignorance and politics in Singapore

A fellow tutor-blogger recently wrote one of the loveliest and funniest sentences I have seen recently, a sentence that possesses such an impact because it is simple and true:

If you are a Singaporean GP student and you don’t know what GRC stands for, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late. — Mr Steven Ooi (

While younger students could be forgiven for their ignorance, what is less forgivable is the profound level of ignorance among some Singaporeans, an ignorance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong references in the speech Mr Ooi links us to:

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn’t understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don’t understand this. — PM Lee (

Mr Ooi has quite rightly pointed out that the speech linked above is engaging, and if one actually reads the entire thing, the speech does inform us of several important aspects of Singapore’s political system. However, one thing Mr Ooi (kindly?) neglects to observe is the way in which PM Lee’s speech plays upon the very ignorance that he has observed. PM Lee’s words, outside of Singapore’s political and historical context, sound very pleasing — but one has to remember that our PM is, after all, a politician. And you know that joke about politicians and lawyers…

I am not accusing PM Lee of being a liar, of course, but of obscuring the true state of matters by selectively ignoring several troublesome aspects of the performance of his government so far.

For example, PM Lee points out that our government has “(invested) in education at all levels” for many years. This is true: the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been funded enough such that we have seen teachers’ pay rise over the last few years. This has supposedly allowed people to “achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children”.


Those of us in the education industry know very well the systemic inequalities that have been worked into the system, whether intentionally or not. Our school days are short enough such that a billion dollar tuition industry chugs along, rewarding richer families disproportionately; it is not an accident that students from the top schools tend to come from these families.

All over Singapore are students who aspire to enter a local university — and many of them will fail to achieve that aspiration. I do have to note that our education system is strong enough to see students who have never received private tuition go on to get degrees, but it remains true that you can pay top dollar for a tuition teacher who can give a child a level of attention that other students will never get in a typical classroom.

It is not just attention from a teacher that matters, of course; the quality of teacher also matters. I have repeatedly heard horror stories of teachers who barely do any teaching in class (ask the students around you about teachers who screen videos in class without any accompanying discussion, or about teachers who choose to complain about their personal troubles without linking it to any teaching point, etc). Then we have “English Literature teachers” who cannot tell the difference between an author and a narrator (shudder…).

PM Lee references many more issues in his speech, and beyond education, another issue that really irritates me is the way the word “multi-racial” is used here:

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world’s major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that’s the end of us. — PM Lee

I fully agree that our society has fault lines, but even our young students are aware that we use the categories of “Singaporean” and “foreigner” much more frequently to point out difference, as compared to the Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others (CMIO) separation that was more evident here in the 1960s. PM Lee is definitely aware of this issue, but still he chooses to emphasize the CMIO classification, which has been criticized as a hindrance for Singapore. It is as if PM Lee is gearing his speech towards an audience whose political education has been dominated by “Social Studies“.

GP students have to be engaged with the world around them, and being able to engage with the issues mentioned in PM Lee’s speech is necessary. (If you are a Singaporean GP student and your knowledge of Singapore does not extend beyond what you have learnt from your Social Studies textbook, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned, and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late.) It is also necessary for the citizenry to be well-informed, in order that we have the “good politics” that PM Lee ostensibly desires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately,  depending on your perspective), Singapore remains the gilded cage that makes it too easy to set one’s political awareness at the level of “blissfully ignorant”. I fully agree with PM Lee when he says that “No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument” — but what does this ruling party have to fear when the vast majority of Singaporeans are neither willing nor able to participate in that argument?

My student’s perspective on those parasitical smartphones

This is something a 13-year-old student wrote about smartphones and how his friends use them. The fact that smartphone addiction can feed on a person’s character and social life completely eluded me when I was writing my previous post. In his own words:

My friends spend their whole recess not by playing soccer, not by exercising, but by playing games on their phones. When I play soccer, I feel refreshed. Although a little smelly (probably very), I feel healthier after a good game. However, as for my friends who play with their phones the entire day, their brains are dulled and their character changes. They become more obsessed with their phones and spend less time with their friends. As a result, they lose friends, are less healthy, and they become less intelligent. The reason they lose friends is because instead of spending time with their buddies, they choose to let their phones consume their time. While people are bonding and having the time of their lives, they are addicted to their phones, and not socializing (omg). From my perspective, their phones are their jailers as they prevent them from interacting with others.

I should have realized this before, but of course people who spend too much time staring at screens end up with much less time to spend with other people. How sad.

Why I am a selfish good-deed ninja, and why you should be one too

I am a good-deed ninja. Whenever I step out of the house, I keep my eyes peeled for any opportunity there is for me to swoop in and help someone. Pick up a shoe bag? Done. Provide directions? Done. Pretend to be angry at a misbehaving child so that his mother can get a moment’s peace? Done. Commit acts of random smiling and waving? Done and done.

Someone trailing me might even accuse me of being artificially and annoyingly positive.

It’s not because I’m some kind of angel that I do this (my girlfriend would say that I’m more devil than angel). I do this because it gives me a performance advantage. When I manage to help a stranger, I feel happier, sharper, more engaged with the world and my work, and in some strange way, even more capable than I probably am. I feel much more positive. And the science is out — while the numbers should give any critical reader some pause, author Shawn Achor has amassed a wealth of evidence to bolster the claim that a more positive brain gives us “23% more energy, 31% more productivity, 3x more creativity” (source).

While I’ve only just started consciously looking out for “good-deed ninja” situations, the power of a good deed for the doer, and not just the recipient, was already displayed for me in university. I often tell stories of how I used to be a nervous, anxious wreck after serving my national service (NS), when all of a sudden I was thrust into a situation where I wanted to excel, wanted to get straight A’s, wanted to be the best in the grand old National University of Singapore — in stark contrast to my army experience where I was a lowly corporal who didn’t have much to do beyond obeying orders (not much demand on the brain there). Imagine walking around school permanently on anxious high-alert, always on the edge of panic. I was that person.

Then imagine me, sitting and reading anxiously in the NUS library, with my throat constricted and my heart racing because I needed to get through my reading and I needed to get started on my essay so that I could get the A that I thought I really needed. I was sitting near one of those vending machines filled with snacks, because I spent most of the day nauseous on caffeine (got to focus!) that I couldn’t eat much beyond M&Ms and sugared peanuts.

Some poor girl then broke me out of my anxious trance, as she stood facing the machine, staring at it for an unreasonably long time. So I got up to see what the matter was and saw that she was about to have a meltdown because her snack got stuck in the machine and she had no more coins left (crisis!). I selflessly (inoticedshewasattractive) offered to buy the same snack so that hers would get unstuck, over her refusals (“eh no need no need!”).

When our snacks fell out of recalcitrant machine, her undisguised smile broke through my fog of panic. Her smile was a complex mixture of relief, gratitude, and (probably) hunger. I think the pleasant shock of the panic-fog clearing was great enough that I stood speechless, staring at her for an extremely awkward length of time, forcing her retreat from the very strange good-deed nerd.

When I tell this story, my students always ask me if I got her number (“You owe me money now, let’s swap numbers so you can settle this debt.”), but the truth is, I was just marveling at the fact that I no longer felt anxious. The attractive girl had faded from my consciousness, because I was so relieved that my heart was no longer racing, my throat was no longer restricted, and I felt sane.

A single good deed was more effective than any dose of Valium — with no side effects! This is just one example of how powerful a good deed can be, especially when we take joy from the positive effect that we can have on people through actions that cost close to nothing.

The conclusion of the larger story is a little bit more mundane, with me abandoning the quest for grades (because the anxiety was driving me crazy) for the rock band quest. If I had paid greater attention to my mental health, I probably would have ended up with a better degree than the one I have now.

This should not degenerate into empty self-help platitudes about positive thinking, but the fact is that genuinely happy people do have a neurological advantage over perpetually unhappy people — and that’s why I am a selfish good-deed ninja.

My more mature students might want to consider:

  • What makes an action selfish or altruistic?
  • Is it a contradiction if I selfishly try to be altruistic? Am I just being selfish?
  • Should I have asked for the girl’s number?

Singapore’s Community Chest reveals the gut-wrenching price of poverty in 4 minute video

GP tutors may talk about inequality till their mouths run dry, but there is nothing like grounding it in a local context that really drives home what it is like to be poor. If you let a few tears fall in response to the video, take heart; you’re not depressed, it’s just your body responding to the complex mix of extreme emotions you were probably feeling. (Google “why we cry when we are happy”, if you’re curious about this phenomenon.)

The video raises so many questions. Why can’t this family afford a S$28.90 treat? Where are the children’s parents? Why has the older man lost the financial means to buy a cake? Why are we living in a society that forces some members to forgo cake?

The problem of poverty is a complex one; speak to any social worker and you will learn that poverty in Singapore is never simple. Sometimes there are gambling debts; sometimes there is addiction; sometimes there is a toxic culture in the family; sometimes there are medical problems. The family in the video is a kind of “ideal” family when it comes to poverty. They speak English, seem well-educated enough, seem to share the values of mainstream society and seem open to receiving help. It would be relatively easy to make sure that the children get the nurturing they need (education, nutrition, proper shelter, some level of mental health care) that will enable them to escape a poverty trap. In the real world, however, things aren’t so simple.

The two Chinese males clad in business casual are symbols of economic productivity in our culture. (Hmm..) We look at them and think, “Ah, those must be working men, they surely will be able to afford cake.” The video cleverly throws this into question — the old man, presumably having spent a productive life working, is now wheelchair-bound and at the mercy of the mechanisms of poverty. The choice of the filmmakers to put him in the wheelchair suggests that the family’s financial situation is due to some kind of medical crisis in their past, and it also should make us wonder: will that be the fate of the younger working man as he ages?

The sad fact is that this video isn’t unrealistic. We know that people can fall into poverty for any number of reasons, including the fact that we are all subject to economic cycles (booms and recessions) that can often render whole swathes of society un- or under-employed. Moreover, even if someone works diligently through his/her productive years, sometimes s/he can be left with insufficient funds for retirement in life’s final stages. This needs to change. When a family can’t afford a cake, guess what else they’re probably skimping on? It is possible that they are trying to save money by not visiting the doctor even when they need to, by avoiding house repairs, or by buying cheap but unhealthy food — strategies that will not only impact the children’s health and safety, but also their long-term development, behaviour, and performance in school.

The instances of generosity in the video are uplifting and terribly heartwarming to witness, but a cake is only a poor plaster over a gaping, festering wound. Yes, we need to be much more generous, and we also need to ask if we can accept a society that is structured in a way that creates this level of poverty. We may have to jettison neoclassical economics and its ill-advised focus on productivity, and go through a complete examination of our society’s conscience — tasks that will not be achieved only at the voting booth.

Still, the video carries an important lesson for us all: a simple act of caring creates an endless ripple. Let them eat cake.

On a Teacher’s Suicide: THREE THINGS we need to talk about (Suicide Solution: psychological distress, mental illness stigma, and inequality)

Newspaper report on teacher's death

Newspaper report on teacher’s death

Last night, I found out about a teacher in Singapore who was apparently under so much stress that she slit her wrists and jumped from the 13th floor, killing herself. Suicide and psychological distress continue to be problems in Singapore, with the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) reporting 422 suicides in 2013, with young people below the age of 30 making up about a hundred cases (24%).

If you hate reading long articles and don’t want to continue reading to the end, just take away one thought from this article: All of us suffer. Some of us are anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. Let’s be kind to one another.

All of us suffer. Some of us are anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. Let’s be kind to one another.

While mental health issues have already filled numerous bookshelves, it really doesn’t get much more complicated than that. Human suffering is a constant, and we all have the seeds of compassion within us to help those who suffer. If any of us sees a child on the verge of drowning, very few of us would hesitate to help.

1. Psychological distress

Let us all admit it now: all of us suffer. Sometimes it may not seem that way, given all the shiny, happy people we see on Instagram and Facebook. But of course, we’re all very eager to highlight the positive aspects of our lives, and few of us actually reveal the depths of our psychological distress online.

When it comes to teachers in Singapore, at least we have hard numbers to go by, to see how much some of our teachers may be suffering (from the TALIS survey, see also the Mothership summary):
Teachers here work about 56 hours a week — that’s 10 hours per day from Monday to Friday, with 6 hours to split between Saturdays and Sundays.
Moreover, 46% of our teachers wonder if it would have been better to choose another job — almost one out of two teachers teaching our children wonder if they screwed up when they signed that teaching contract.

With such long working hours and the widespread feeling of regret (“this might be the wrong job for me“), it really would not be surprising to find out that some of our teachers suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, which are common ailments in Singapore anyway. Our education system doesn’t only result in students that are stressed out, even our teachers are suffering.

2. Mental illness stigma

We don’t talk a lot about mental illness in Singapore, but we should — it affects one in six people in Singapore.

Let’s get some myths out of the way. People who suffer from psychological distress or mental illness don’t automatically become less able to work or operate as human beings. In fact, if you hire someone with a history of mental illness, you may be getting someone smarter and sharper than the typical hire.

Unfortunately, mental illness is still stigmatized in Singapore. Employment is harder to come by, for example, once one is labelled as mentally ill.

There even seems to be an attempt to sweep even simple psychological suffering under the carpet;  when the results of the TALIS survey were out, headlines were carping about how 88% of teachers were “satisfied” compared to the potential distress that many of our teachers face.

3. Inequality

Many people don’t see the link between psychological distress and society, but here’s a bit of common sense: a teacher in distress who comes from a family with inter-generational riches has the option to stop working in order to recover. A teacher who comes from a poor family does not have a similar option.

The teacher who committed suicide came from Malaysia, and lived in a rented flat.

Of course, we can only speculate about the causes of her death, but the link between suicide and mental illness is a proven one. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a link between inequality and mental illness.

A recent study in South Korea noted:
“[We] found persistent pro-rich inequality in depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts over the past decade (i.e., individuals with higher incomes were less likely to have these conditions). The inequalities actually doubled over this period.”

In other words, the richer a person is, the less likely s/he is to be depressed or suicidal.

How should we respond to this particular teacher’s suicide, and suffering in general?

On a very simple level, we only can be kind to each other, and adopt a more compassionate attitude towards ourselves and the world. We need to recognize that suffering is a universal to all humanity, something that we all share in common. In fact, I’d be wary of anyone who claims s/he doesn’t suffer — we all need a dose of self-doubt and dissatisfaction to regulate our own actions.

On a political level, we need to realize that a decision made by anyone in the “ruling” class (whatever that is) can impact the mental health of the masses. As David Smail puts it: “A decision made in a corporate boardroom may end up as the most intimate private pain of, say, the call centre worker who loses her job as the result. The biggest mistake she can make is to attribute her despair to her personal inadequacy.”

Sweeping psychological distress under the carpet should no longer be an option.