Putting the joy in learning will make it a lifelong journey

Without undue pressure and expectations, children will delight in gaining knowledge

My two older children brought home their report books on the last day of school and started comparing their results, ignoring attempts by my husband and I to head them off.

I heard snippets of their conversation as I was putting away the groceries.

"I got Band One, you got Band Two," said one.

"I did better for Chinese," said the other.

Thankfully, they were done in less than five minutes and soon found other things to occupy themselves with.


ST ILLUSTRATION: FRANCISCO

With two children in primary school - my son in Primary 4 and daughter in Primary 1 - the phrase "different people learn at different pace", has hit uncomfortably close to home.

Mathematical concepts that are almost second nature to one child, has the other struggling for days to understand. Word recognition comes easier to one than the other.

They also learn in different ways.

One is an auditory learner, so I can give a quick spelling quiz while I'm driving. The other remembers better writing out the words.

As the school year comes to a close, one important lesson I picked up as a parent is that success is defined differently for different kids.

For the child who takes longer to learn, victory (in terms of doing well for tests) is so much sweeter because I know each mark is hard fought. We cheer the child on no matter the results achieved because effort has been put in and that is what counts in our books.

That said, we also celebrate the success of the other child who has it easy understanding concepts because the child's attitude has changed - from a could-not-care- less one at the beginning of the year to one of conscientiousness.

We value effort and attitude over results. So we went out for a meal to celebrate after exams and tests were over because, regardless of the results, good effort had been put in.

It may sound a tad idealistic but, at the end of the day, I hope my children enjoy learning, regardless of how fast they learn, the way they learn or the results they achieve.

So I was encouraged to hear that Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng spoke about the importance of helping students experience the joy of learning at his ministry's Work Plan Seminar this year. He spoke about nurturing an intrinsic motivation to learn in every child, to see learning as a lifelong journey of discovery rather than seeing exams as an end goal.

It does sound like a lofty goal, especially so in Singapore's pressure-cooker education system.

But as a parent, I'm happy to know that he has initiated such a conversation among teachers and principals.

In fact, many teachers have already taken the extra step to make sure pupils have fun while learning. My daughter's Chinese teacher, Miss K, creates revision worksheets, flash cards, games and quizzes on an online platform to reinforce Chinese characters taught in class before each test.

So my daughter looks forward to her "Chinese online games", instead of dreading revision. Chinese may not be my daughter's strongest subject but it is her favourite one, thanks to Miss K.

Another way to help children experience joy in learning is for them to discover their passion.

My son's interest in football has helped him become an avid reader, browsing newspapers and websites for the latest sports news and scouring the library for the biographies of his favourite players.

The thirst to find out more about the game, its strategies and players has resulted in him being enthusiastic and self-directed in learning. I often wonder how this can be applied to other areas of learning in school.

So yes, I hope my children find their strength or passion in life, and have fun honing that strength, instead of just comparing exam scores because marks often do not give the full picture.

I speak from experience and am embarrassed to admit that my A1 for Higher Chinese in Secondary 4 (because my teacher spotted the correct essay topic) was good only for exempting me from the subject in junior college.

These days, I can't write coherently in Chinese to save my life. I read Chinese articles at a laborious pace and some idioms completely confound me, a point my husband never fails to tease me about - "And you took Higher Chinese!" he would exclaim somewhat triumphantly.

His A2 for Chinese at A levels, a culmination of reading wuxia novels, listening to Mandarin pop songs and more, has given him a better grasp of the language, compared to my rote learning.

We regale our kids with such tales to encourage them to see that learning goes beyond grades but I'm well aware that this may no longer be realistic once they hit upper primary and have to face the PSLE.

Fellow parents and educator friends tell me I'm being optimistic and impractical when I talk about the joy of learning. For one thing, the very presence of exams hinders the joy of learning. And in our meritocratic society, we cannot do away with exams, can we?

While teachers may be able to introduce fun activities at a lower level, it may not be possible to sustain that at a higher level where there is a content-heavy curriculum to complete.

Furthermore, teachers have work reviews and targets to hit. Eventually, the pressure to produce results may outweigh attempts to create joy in learning.

So even though the minister has started the conversation, I'm not sure how the message will filter down to the classrooms.

Is it feasible to broaden teachers' key performance indicators to focus not just on academic results?

How can the overemphasis on exam results be reduced?

Will it be possible to get parents to buy into the idea? What else can be done to help our children see the benefits of learning rather than see it as a burden?

I can't change the system of having exams in school but by emphasising effort rather than results, I hope my children see that learning goes beyond exams.

At home, they learn the piano but exams are not a priority. So at some point in the future, they may take a piano exam. Until then, we are enjoying their music-making.

I hope these little things add up and eventually make a difference to how they view learning.

For now, there is some way to go.

I know because when we drove past their school one night, my son suddenly piped up from the back seat. "I love school… when it is closed," he said, to endless chuckles all round.

•Jane Ng, a former education journalist, is now a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Putting the joy in learning will make it a lifelong journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe