Monday 24 September 2012

When tuition was optional

Something's not right when kids today must have tuition for what is taught in school
By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Straits Times, 23 Sep 2012

A topic that has been debated heatedly recently is whether tuition is good or even necessary for school children. I will relate my own experience with tuition before discussing its pros and cons.

My two brothers and I began our school life at Nanyang Kindergarten before moving on to Nanyang Primary. We all had Chinese tuition from very early in life, even before we entered primary school.

Our parents believed languages were best learnt young, when the brain is most plastic. We had plenty of time to play in childhood, but we were given a strong grounding in languages.

I vaguely recall my brother Hsien Loong - who is now Prime Minister - had an old man we called "teacher Shung" even after he started primary school. His task was to give Hsien Loong's Mandarin an extra polish.

All three of us had Malay tuition three times a week, an hour each session, in primary school. This was because our school did not teach Malay and our parents wanted us to be conversant and literate in Malay. Hsien Loong's Malay remains excellent.

I took Malay and English as my second languages in my Chinese Secondary 4 school leaving examination. I received distinctions in both.

But by Sec 4, I was getting nervous as to how I would cope in the Chinese language examination. So my parents found me a Chinese teacher. She did not go over the syllabus with me. Instead, we read Dream Of The Red Chamber in its classical form. I didn't enjoy the story.

She also encouraged me to write articles and submit them for publication in the Chinese newspapers. She would correct my draft before I submitted them. Quite a few were published, and I was paid $10 for each article.

All this work paid off for I obtained distinctions in Chinese as a first language in the Chinese school leaving examination as well as for Chinese as a second language in the Cambridge School Certificate Examination.

I went to an English-medium school, Raffles Institution (RI), for pre-university as I wanted to be a doctor. If I had stayed on at Nanyang, I would have been taught science subjects in Mandarin, though the textbooks were in English. That made no sense, so I switched to RI.

But to this day I am grateful I spent the first decade of my school life in a Chinese-medium school. I am sure my brothers feel the same way.

Throughout our school years, when someone from the BBC was available, my parents would arrange an informal tutorial for us. The tutor I remember best is a Mrs Dinnes, a motherly Scottish woman who spoke English with a slight and pleasant Scottish burr. We would talk about or read aloud from novels like The Hobbit.

When she left Singapore, my father arranged for the daughter of the then British High Commissioner to tutor me. He did not want his children speaking Singlish.

With the High Commissioner's daughter, I either had a free-flowing conversation or we would read something by Shakespeare. I never enjoyed Shakespeare, and still don't. But, I suppose, the effort of reading him helped.

From my own experience, I think tuition is sometimes helpful but is not really necessary. Self-reliance is the best approach and it is self-reliance that will get us through adult life.

My brothers and I had tuition in areas that were not covered in school - especially languages. It was not to repeat or revise what had been taught at school.

I don't remember any of my teachers saying: "Why don't your parents get you a tutor?" Things have changed since then, for it is common now for teachers to urge their pupils to get tuition.

I'm sure tuition can be helpful for academically weaker children. But the purpose of tuition should be to help them understand what they could not understand in class, not to go over the 10-year series of examination papers or to repeat all that was taught in school. Why go to school again after school?

Despite my tuition in languages, I had plenty of time to play as a child. Indeed, I played rounders almost every evening. I would climb trees and crawl through drains. In secondary school, I took up running seriously. I represented my school in swimming, earned a black belt in karate and was active in the army cadet corps.

School was always both interesting and challenging. How much you get out of school depends on how much effort you put into it. I had a great time in school.

In the 1960s, tuition was optional and most of us coped without tuition. Now it seems, almost all school children get some form of tuition or other.

Are parents today more kiasu than parents of my generation? Is the curriculum today too heavy for average students to cope with?

It seems to me something is clearly not right when most children have to get tuition, and the tutor covers what is in the school syllabus.

I hope the Ministry of Education can put its finger on the problem and fix it soon. Childhood should not be drowned in a sea of tuition.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.


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