Thursday 30 August 2012

No homework is not a bad thing: PM Lee

PM 'glad' many share his view on play for children
By Kezia Toh, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he is glad many parents and educators shared his view that pre-schoolers should be allowed to play, and learn through play.

In a Facebook post yesterday, he wrote: "We should not force feed our kids, and turn pre-school into a prep course for Primary One.

"I am glad that many parents and educators have agreed with me."

He noted that his phrase "no homework is not a bad thing" was re-tweeted the most from his Twitter account - "maybe by pupils", he quipped.

In his post, he cited a New York Times column pointing to research which suggests that playing certain kinds of childhood games may be the best way to increase a child's ability to do well in school.

"This article gives an idea why this is so, and describes how children will gain much more (educationally) through playing games and fun activities, than through drills and rote learning," he wrote.

His post attracted more than 100 comments in three hours.

This comes two days after he said in his National Day Rally speech that hothousing pre-schoolers can lead to unhappy childhoods.

Citing research by child development experts, he warned against sending kindergarten-age children to tuition, as it can lead to "over-teaching".

Some who responded to Mr Lee's Facebook post yesterday applauded his public effort to dampen academic pressure on pre-schoolers - acknowledging that their children should enjoy the learning process.

Other commenters have suggested that the idea be grounded in reality.

One pointed out that without changes in the mainstream education to lessen the emphasis on grades rather than learning for the sake of gaining knowledge, "parents have no choice but to continue to have the kiasu attitude and stress the kids out".

Others have suggested setting aside play days once a term for children to get out of the classroom or bring their favourite toys in to play, or weekly no-homework days. Some cautioned against making play too structured, such that it becomes another option for parents looking to enrol their pre-schoolers in enrichment classes.

Local experts interviewed described PM's comments as "good and timely".

Dr Nirmala Karuppiah, an early childhood lecturer from the National Institute of Education, said research shows that children aged six and under construct knowledge by interacting with objects and people in their environment.

A play-based curriculum would be "preferred" over an academic one for young children, she said, as "the early years should be a time for young children to imagine, discover and create".

Learning through games, as suggested in the New York Times blog post, helps children at a stage when they are trying to associate words with their meanings, said psychologist Daniel Koh of private practice Insights Mind Centre.

He added: "It is especially good for children who are easily distracted or weaker in language development, for example, because moving physically can reinforce the learning."

'Without extra lessons, our kids may lose out'
Parents who hothouse their young children blame it on peer pressure
By Kezia Toh, Chia Yan Min and Lua Jia Min, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

WE WANT our pre-schoolers to enjoy their childhood too, but if we do not send them for extra lessons, they will lose out as almost everyone is doing it.

This was the cry of 37 out of 40 parents who spoke to The Straits Times outside enrichment centres yesterday - a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech that hothousing pre-schoolers can result in unhappy childhoods.

Citing research by child development experts, he said sending kindergarten-age children to tuition can lead to "over-teaching".

"Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It's good for young children to play, and to learn through play."

Parents yesterday, however, argued that setting a good foundation for a child helps to build their confidence in primary school.

"Having a childhood is important, but unfortunately, so are grades," said part-time teacher Serena Foo, 45, who sends her five-year-old son for Mandarin classes four times a week. "If you're in Singapore, you cannot take a laissez-faire attitude."

Others say they have "no choice" because other parents are doing the same.

Some teachers "go over things very fast", said housewife Adeline Wu, 40, who enrolled her two children in classes when they were one year old to learn how to count and identify basic shapes.

"I don't want my son to be singled out in school for not being able to catch up - that is more stressful for him than attending these extra classes," she said.

With many of the parents polled citing peer pressure, several enrichment centres that cater to children as young as 18 months said that they are not expecting demand to drop any time soon. Some of the popular programmes among parents are Mandarin and reading classes.

Parents do not sign up for classes blindly, but pick programmes that help their children in specific areas - such as hanyu pinyin, said curriculum specialist Nurliza Shah of Enfant Educare, a childcare centre that provides phonics and abacus classes, among others.

Mr Wong Ju Ping, the owner of Lynn Tuition Centre, said one way to prevent "over-teaching" is to be clear about what level of knowledge is required of pre-schoolers before they enter Primary 1.

A recommended textbook by the Ministry of Education (MOE) for pre-schoolers, for example, would help parents understand exactly how prepared their children should be, he said.

MOE said that in its view, the focus of pre-school education should be a "well-rounded" education that "builds a child's confidence and desire to learn". The ministry currently sets out a broad framework for kindergarten curricula. But it does not spell out specifics.

It is, however, reviewing the framework to state the core competencies a child should possess, such as in language and numeracy, at the end of pre-school education.

Having such guidelines would help, said some parents.

"I realised P1 is not that scary after all, after my eldest kid went through it," said housewife Pamelia Tng, 31, who has three children aged seven, six and three.

Still, she feels the need to enrol her three-year-old in phonics and Mandarin classes. "There is only so much you can cover in a few hours in pre-school - especially for Chinese as they don't teach that every day," Ms Tng said.

But there are some like Ms Ruth Soh, 41, who does not believe in sending her five-year-old daughter for extra lessons. Said the marketing communications director: "If we just put them to books, they won't learn how to handle life, how to socialise or be creative. My philosophy is that we don't need to pressure them. When they are adults, they will be on an equal level eventually."

'Vital to boost quality of pre-schools and lower costs'
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

THE Government will invest heavily to improve the quality of preschool education and bring costs down for middle-income families, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a Facebook post yesterday.

He described this as "one of the most important educational and social priorities for the future".

He posted his comments on his Facebook page one day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to improve preschool education, and a new statutory board to oversee the sector.

"We have to make opportunities more equal, and provide every child with the best chance to find his strengths as he grows up," Mr Tharman wrote. "It's also the best chance to sustain social mobility, which will otherwise slow down over time," he added.

He also wrote that parents who are better off financially cannot be stopped from wanting to give their children the best, but it is happening more and more and well before they enter Primary 1.

"We have to do all we can to help the kids from less advantaged homes in their early years - to develop and to gain confidence in themselves."

Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, spoke of help for middle-income families because those on lower incomes already receive large pre-school subsidies.

These moves are part of an overall effort to keep the Singaporean core strong, with social policies centred on them.

"We must keep up the effort to strengthen our Singaporean core - by providing the best opportunities for Singaporeans to develop their potential when young and have good jobs, and by ensuring that our social policies place Singaporeans at the centre."

What are kindergartens really for?
By Richard Hartung, Published TODAY, 29 Aug 2012

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, author Robert Fulghum wrote in a book with that title some time ago.

What he recalled was simple. "Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit." These and about a dozen similar lessons were the really important ones that helped him throughout his life.

Neither writing nor reading was on Fulghum's list. Instead, the biggest benefits came from the social skills and values he learned while playing with his classmates.

It is exactly this type of learning that is most important. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at his National Day Rally on Sunday, kindergarten is where young children can pick up "positive behaviour, social skills and learning attitudes".

"It is not meant for you to prepare with a Primary 1 or Primary 2 textbook and to drill the kid at three or four years old, so that by the time he goes to Primary 1, he knows what the teacher is supposed to teach him .... Please let your children have their childhood," Mr Lee had said.


Yet, there is strong pressure to focus even more on learning the numeracy and literacy and other academic skills in preparation for primary school. One parent, for example, recently suggested in a letter to the press that kindergartners should be able to count to 10 and to spell words like hippopotamus.

There is perhaps far less emphasis by many families on how picking up social skills and core life values through play and fun in kindergarten may prepare children better for lifetime success than simply cramming in more maths and reading.

That is not to say that educators do not have good intentions. In its Framework for a Kindergarten Curriculum, the Ministry of Education says "the role of kindergarten education is to prepare children for the journey of life-long learning", and a major aim is to "support and foster the holistic development of the child".

It then goes on to talk about learning things like reading, writing, counting, number words and position words. Look at what parents ask about and what many kindergartens expect children to learn, then, and it is often about numeracy, literacy and other more academic skills.

As more and more kindergartens - not just in Singapore but around the world - have shifted to meet expectations for a more academic curriculum, researchers have begun to look more at what actually works best in kindergartens.

What they are often finding is that more emphasis on building social skills and values through activities like play, with less focus on academics, can be more beneficial for children in the longer term.


According to Alliance for Childhood's Edward Miller and Joan Almon, research in Germany found that, by age 10, the children who attended play-based kindergartens were more advanced in reading and mathematics, better adjusted socially and emotionally, and excelled in creativity and intelligence compared with children from kindergartens more focused on cognitive skills.

The result, they said, is that many German kindergartens have returned to being more play-based rather than centres for cognitive achievement.

Finland follows similar practices. The focus for kindergarten students in Finland is to "learn how to learn", as the Helsinki Education Department's Director of International Relations Eeva Penttila described it to the Ontario Globe & Mail, a Canadian newspaper.

Instead of formal instruction in reading and math, there are lessons about subjects like nature, animals and the "circle of life", as well as materials-based learning.

Despite what might be viewed as a late start on academics - Finland's students do not start formal education until the age of seven - its secondary school students, like their Singaporean counterparts - scored in the top six globally in 2009 PISA results in math, reading and science.

One of the keys to Finnish success, according to Stanford University researchers, is that pre-school and kindergarten teachers have bachelor's degrees.

Other parts of Europe have also shifted the focus in kindergartens from academics to play, according to Time magazine writer Bonnie Rochman. In Russia and Scandinavia, "reading is not introduced until age six or seven", she wrote.


Part of the benefit of emphasising play and social skills rather than academics, according to Illinois State University professor Laura Berk, is that during make-believe play, children must follow social rules that they and their playmates make. These skills benefit both academic and social learning throughout their life.

All this is not to say that children should not learn any math or reading or science at all in kindergarten.

Indeed, research shows that some academic learning can be beneficial. University of California, Irvine, professor Greg Duncan told California Watch that research shows that math skills among kindergartners are a key predictor for future academic success. Prof Duncan also noted, though, that learning math concepts like shapes and numbers, and smaller and bigger numbers through "fun and playful ways" may be most beneficial in kindergarten.

Giving children the opportunity to develop cognitive skills naturally while in kindergarten, albeit without setting standards and requirements for achievement, may have some benefits.

Yet letting children have fun and play in kindergarten, with opportunities to learn social skills and how to learn, may be even more important throughout their life than putting much emphasis at all on math, reading, or science.

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

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