Monday 18 November 2013

School of the future? This one gets it right

By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

There is a school in Woodlands that is really serious about educating its pupils.

It doesn't have a brand name and will never make the news because of its academic achievements.

Its pupils are drawn mainly from the neighbourhood; it isn't one of those with a long waiting list.

In my book, though, what it is planning to do next year makes it a school that knows what education is all about.

You see, it wants its pupils to be responsible for cleaning the school.

This fact alone is enough to make Marsiling Primary School stand out among Singapore schools, most of which employ paid cleaners to do the job.

But why shouldn't schools here make students clean their classrooms, the corridors, toilets and the school canteen?

If students don't take responsibility for cleaning their premises, how will they ever learn that that's what being part of the community is about, with everyone working together to take care of the surroundings?

Worse, if they grow up believing that cleaning is only for lowly paid workers to do.

Singapore is probably alone among East Asian countries for not recognising this simple truth: that all the education taking place in school counts for nothing if students do not actively take responsibility for the well-being of the community they belong to, including keeping it clean.

What a stark contrast it is when compared with Taiwan and Japan, where it is the daily routine in every school.

In fact, many of them do not employ cleaners or school janitors.

This has been a long-held tradition that has endured despite the modernisation that has taken place there.

Perhaps educators there believe it is even more important when there are such rapid changes in their societies to make sure the basics don't get lost.

And what is this? It is that education is not just about doing well in exams and acquiring knowledge but also about working together with others to make the place better, and cultivating the habits to do so.

This was how a foreign student in Japan described his experience there in an online posting:

"I grew up in Japan going to public school. Every day after classes there would be 'cleaning time'. We all had our own rags and we would wipe down the floors of the classrooms and hallways collectively. Some students are in charge of the toilets or other duties. At lunch time, the school cooks would bring the food to the front of the classrooms, then the designated students would dish out the food for the other students. We took turns doing this. None of us ever saw it as tedious. Cleaning together was enjoyable and a good bonding experience."

That's also what the teacher in charge of the cleaning programme at Marsiling found out when she visited a school in Japan, which does not employ any cleaners.

Marsiling Primary will be working with the National Environment Agency to implement many of the features found there, though it will still keep its cleaners.

But - and this is enough to make me a lifelong fan of the school - it wants to make its pupils get to know and respect these cleaners better.

It plans to introduce the cleaners to pupils personally and have them get to know each other better in classroom discussions.

If, as a result, these children grow up treating cleaners with respect and dignity, and as fellow members of the same community, it would be an education worth any number of A-stars in their report books.

The way Singaporeans treat cleaners in hawker centres and public spaces is a national disgrace.

How many times have we witnessed these harried workers hurrying from one dining table to the next, summoned by impatient diners who give them nary a look of acknowledgement?

Even in offices, cleaners are an invisible lot to most employees - nameless, with no status to speak of, and at the very bottom of the pecking order.

This has worsened over the years because many companies now outsource the work, making cleaners even more alienated and apart.

It is a damning indictment of the way Singapore treats these workers.

That's why it is so important to start cultivating the right attitude and values in school.

I am glad that Singapore schools are beginning to recognise this and, starting next year, will be implementing a new programme called Character and Citizenship Education to help develop in students a stronger sense of community and citizenship.

This is what the initiative sets out to do: "It develops students through an understanding of the values that define the Singapore society, inspiring them to show concern for the world they live in, and demonstrate empathy in their relationships with others."

And how will this be done?

Here's what the Education Ministry's website says: "Teachers will use teaching strategies such as storytelling, role play, experiential learning, classroom discussions and reflection to instil values, and equip students with social and emotional competencies and skills related to citizenship."

That's quite a lot to get through.

I hope, though, that the programme won't be over-burdened by a surfeit of teaching methods and forget what a few traditional remedies might do.

Like making students clean their school.

In fact, I believe this cleaning culture ought to be developed in every school, at every level, all the way to university.

I would be more impressed if I knew that, at our universities, every student is responsible for the upkeep of his surroundings than I would be with their global rankings.

In their headlong pursuit of the best and latest in teaching methods and facilities, many of which are world class, our educational institutions risk forgetting that the simple things can make the biggest difference.

Some people worry that if students were made to clean their schools, parents would object because it is menial work.

The uneducated among them might.

But their children would get the education they didn't.


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