Monday 27 October 2014

Schooled for a sweeping revolution

Marsiling Primary's project is about creating a lifelong habit and a sense of belonging
By Han Fook Kwang Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 26 Oct 2014

I am back at my favourite primary school and the news is even better.

Yes, the premises are cleaner but that's not the reason I am excited.

It's what's happening inside the pupils' heads and hearts that makes the experiment at Marsiling Primary School one that the rest of Singapore should know about and learn from.

I wrote last year about how this school in Woodlands was about to start a project to get its pupils to clean the school.

But it was not just about keeping it litter-free. If it was just that, it wouldn't be worth the space here. After all, lots of schools get their students to clean their classrooms.

What's special about Marsiling is the attempt to make this a lifelong habit.

This isn't just about what they do in school but how they turn out later in life.

It requires the pupils to want to keep their space clean because they believe it's their responsibility to do so as members of the school community.

The real lesson isn't about cleaning but belonging.

The Marsiling school project involves all Primary 3 and 5 pupils, with the older children acting as buddies and mentors to the younger ones.

Because teachers are less involved, it allows pupils to take ownership of the problem - an important ingredient in community building.

Primary 3 pupils learn from their seniors the how and why of cleaning and talk about the experience at the end of each clean-up.

As a result, they develop a deeper understanding of the issue and a more lasting relationship with their buddies - another key aspect of community.

Primary 5 pupils learn as they teach and guide their charges.

They say teaching is one of the best forms of learning and that's what's taking place here.

Another important part of the project is about knowing and respecting the school's paid cleaners.

All too often in Singapore, these workers are treated as the lowest form of human life, invisible, poorly paid and looked down upon.

At Marsiling Primary, the pupils get to know the cleaners personally and talk to them about their work.

One exercise involves Primary 5 children interviewing the cleaners on their work and then writing an e-mail to their Primary 3 schoolmates telling them what they learnt.

The lesson? Cleaners are as much a part of the school community as pupils and teachers.

That's another important part of building any community - every member is equal and treated as such.

No one is any lesser because of the work he does or the possessions he has.

So, what has been the result of this year-long exercise?

First - the easiest part of the project - the school is cleaner, and it shows.

A litter count done before and after the implementation of the project showed a marked 40 per cent improvement.

What about attitudes and values, the intangible part of the exercise but far more important in shaping the pupils' future behaviour?

They were asked to answer yes or no to the following questions, among others, and their responses compared, before and after the project:

"I am upset when I see fellow students litter."

"I feel uncomfortable asking my fellow students to bin their litter."

"I appreciate the cleaners better."

"I feel that cleaners are part of the school community."

Their responses improved during the project period compared to before, but more so for those in Primary 5 than for those in Primary 3.

In fact, one group of the older children went beyond the call of duty and decided on their own initiative to clean up several Housing Board flats in the area.

This is an ongoing exercise for Marsiling Primary and the National Environment Agency, and it is too early to say if the habits and attitudes will be deeply ingrained and remain with the children after they leave school.

That question, on whether pupils get upset seeing their classmates litter, is an important one.

For a community to develop a sense of identity and belonging, it is not enough that the majority practise socially acceptable behaviour.

They need to make sure others do so as well and get upset, even angry, when they see otherwise.

People need to be proactive and not just silent practitioners.

My daughter, who studies at a Japanese university, related to me how she was ticked off by a neighbour for taking her trash bag down in the evening when she was supposed to do it in the morning before the garbage truck arrived.

It's this sort of active citizenry that has enabled Japan to become such a civic-minded country.

When you get worked up because someone isn't doing his part, you're not just a practitioner but a solid defender of the values you hold dearly.

I have been monitoring the Marsiling school project for more than a year now and am even more convinced it should be introduced in every school.

If students can't even clean their own schools and see it as an important part of what belonging to a community means, you have to wonder what education they are receiving.

Marsiling Primary is fortunate to have a principal and teachers who are passionate about this project and know its contribution to the overall education of their pupils.

It also has one thing going for it - as a neighbourhood school with working-class families, it hasn't received a single complaint from any parent worked up over having his or her child clean up the school.

My interest in the project is ultimately about what sort of society Singapore is becoming.

The values and attitudes that the school is trying to shape that go with the simple act of keeping it clean are the same ones that matter most in making Singaporeans have a stronger sense of community.

I believe that at this stage in the country's transition, this aspect of its development is one of the most critical. Without a stronger sense of belonging, it will be much harder for the people to overcome the many challenges that come with rapid change.

But you have to start young and you have to practise it daily.

Like at Marsiling Primary.

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