Play or Cram?

It's so hard to persuade parents to drop pre-school tuition

For someone who professes not to be kiasu, I confess I checked out Berries for my six-year-old son Jason earlier this year after a parent recommended it.

In the world of children about to enter primary school, Berries is a Chinese-language enrichment school that promises to help children get a headstart on learning their mother tongue.

I found a year-long waiting list for the centre's Primary 1 preparatory programme. Too late for Jason, so he won't be going there.

Unlike me, many parents who started planning a lot earlier have signed up their six-year-olds for various academic classes on top of kindergarten, all to prepare for Primary 1.

While many have welcomed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call during last Sunday's National Day Rally for parents not to overwork their pre-schoolers by sending them for tuition, not everyone is convinced that playing more is better than cramming.

Reacting to what Mr Lee said, parents have given several reasons why they are not about to stop the extra lessons right away. These are their top reasons:

  • Many children are prepared before Primary 1. If they don't provide the extra classes too, their children will lose out.
  • Primary schools band children according to their ability in a subject. Who wants their child to be in a lousy band?
  • It is not clear what a child is expected to know when he starts Primary 1. So it's better to over-prepare.
  • Even if there are no exams in Primary 1 and 2, they come in Primary 3, and parents are shocked to discover what their children are expected to know. So it's better to start early.

So what does a parent do? Listen to the Prime Minister or do like everyone else? I asked the experts what advice they had for those of us struggling with this.

The experts agree that children who get extra tuition will have a slight headstart over others - they may be good at worksheets, and able to sit still and write for longer periods.

But there is a downside: They also tend to get bored because they are too familiar with the schoolwork, and may begin to disrupt lessons.

Besides, this advantage lasts only in the initial months. Once the children without tuition catch up - and they do, the experts say - there is little difference.

National Institute of Education (NIE) lecturer Noel Chia said parents who overteach their children do not understand the developmental phases children go through.

"Learning during the early childhood period is very much informal, intuitive and spontaneous for all young children - learning is 'caught' and not taught," he explained.

And having tuition does not necessarily make a child ready for school, he added.

"School readiness includes such characteristics as children showing curiosity and enthusiasm, having social maturity appropriate to their age, being able to verbally communicate needs, wants and thoughts."

NIE early childhood education lecturer Nirmala Karuppiah warned: "There is currently no evidence to show that mastering of skills depends on extensive training in the first few years of life. In fact, rushing early learning may stress and harm the child's brain growth and development."

Schools explain that this is not about labelling the weak children, but they want to find out who needs help and provide that help.

But many parents appear stuck with the perception that there is something negative about identifying children’s weaknesses.

Ms Tan Beng Luan, principal of Creative O, a pre-school, thinks the current system sends mixed signals.

'On the one hand, principals say there is no need to prepare for Primary 1, but on the other hand, you ‘stream’ pupils the moment they come in based on their academic ability. How are parents supposed to read it?” she asked.

Schools have been trying many ways of dealing with this.

Some mask the ability bands with new names, giving a whole new meaning to 'A is for apple, B is for banana and C is for cherry'

Others have tried subject banding - so children move to different classes for different subjects and there is no 'best class' or 'worst class'.

Yet others do differentiated teaching, where children of different abilities are placed in different groups within the same class and taught accordingly.

The schools say these efforts have shown positive results, and identifying those who need help early is a good thing.

Parents need convincing though.

Hopefully this will no longer be cited as a reason for hot-housing by the end of the year, when the new committee set up to look into pre-school education releases clearer guidelines on what pre-schoolers need to know by the time they enter Primary 1.

A challenge then will be to ensure pre-schools follow the guidelines, resist the urge to overteach, yet ensure their lessons are not too prescriptive.

A previous Ministry of Education (MOE) guideline asking pre-schools not to teach hanyu pinyin but to focus on Chinese characters has not been strictly adhered to, with many pre-schools teaching hanyu pinyin towards the end of K2 because parents ask forit.

Another challenge will be convincing parents that there will be no advantage in pushing their children to cram a lot more than what is necessary.

It will be most persuasive if schools and Primary 1 teachers stick with the programme, and take off from what parents are told about how to prepare their children.

Too many times, parents say, teachers breeze through topics some pupils are familiar with because they have had tuition, and other pupils are expected to find tutors too.

Experts say it will be hard to expect parents to change ingrained mindsets overnight.

Pat's Schoolhouse founder Patricia Koh said it will be tough for parents, who all want the best for their child, to resist the numerous tuition centres that cash in on parents' weaknesses.

Ms Geraldine See, the principal of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (Katong) Primary, who was previously with the MOE's Pre-school Education Branch, said she emphasises to parents that there is no need to enrol their children in expensive enrichment classes because the Primary 1 curriculum focuses on developing children's basic literacy, numeracy and social skills.

"It is not academically demanding and the majority of pupils are coping well," she said.

Added Dr Elizabeth Pang, programme director for literacy development at MOE's Curriculum Planning and Development Division: "If we get pre-school children to do what is done in (primary) school - for example, worksheets - we are introducing a mode of learning that is not developmentally appropriate and does not come naturally to a child. Why kill the joy of learning at such a young age?"Schools explain that this is not about labelling the weak children, but they want to find out who needs help and provide that help.

But many parents appear stuck with the perception that there is something negative about identifying children's weaknesses.

Ms Tan Beng Luan, principal of Creative O, a pre-school, thinks the current system sends mixed signals.

"On the one hand, principals say there is no need to prepare for Primary 1, but on the other hand, you 'stream' pupils the moment they come in based on their academic ability. How are parents supposed to read it?" she asked.

Schools have been trying many ways of dealing with this.

Some mask the ability bands with new names, giving a whole new meaning to "A is for apple, B is for banana and C is for cherry".

Others have tried subject banding - so children move to different classes for different subjects and there is no "best class" or "worst class".

Yet others do differentiated teaching, where children of different abilities are placed in different groups within the same class and taught accordingly.

The schools say these efforts have shown positive results, and identifying those who need help early is a good thing.

Parents need convincing though.Much of the problem lies in parents and teachers' fixation with the PSLE, said Dr Petunia Lee, who has a PhD in business studies, specialising in human motivation, and wrote a book, Motivate Your Child To Want To Study.

"They think earlier exposure to PSLE-type questions is good. That is actually counterproductive. You cannot test before the child has learnt."

Dr Pang said Singapore could take a leaf out of Finland's book.

"Developed countries such as Finland provide a pre-school system which does not introduce formal reading instruction until age seven. Yet when the Finnish children enter the equivalent of primary school, they do well academically," she said.

But when it comes to being fixated on the PSLE, parents toss the ball back at the schools. Many display large banners showing off their top PSLE scorers, they point out.

If parents have to learn to let their children play, they said, schools also have a part in teaching them how to.

Ms Anna Chew, 34, a teacher on unpaid leave, said she put her son in a primary school with a fun-looking playground, but was dismayed to find it locked up most of the time because of security issues.

Her son has played there just once this year, during a PE lesson.

"It is such a joke. Whenever I pick him up, I see the spanking new playground that is locked up," she said.

janeng@sph.com.sg

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'A child is not just a study machine'

Six-year-old Chong Xin Ying, who starts Primary 1 next year, has not had a day of tuition.

She attends a full-day childcare centre, and is learning dance and wushu there.

Her father, design manager Chong Kin Fui, 37, is counting on Xin Ying's primary school

teachers to teach her what she will need to know when the time comes.

"She won't have time to play if she has tuition now," he said. "I don't know if she will be able to cope in Primary 1, but I'm not worrying about it."

Instead, he and his wife - Ms Goh Wei Wei, a 36-year-old account executive - have been teaching Xin Ying how to take care of her belongings, play in a team and respect others.

"I think these values are more important.

A child is not just a study machine," said Mr Chong.

The couple also have an 18-month-old daughter.