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The Big Quiz

Students get up close and personal with Straits Times writers

Published on May 16, 2012 12:00 AM
Sandra Davie and Serene Goh giving a talk at Nanyang Junior College on the topic of education in Singapore to whip up interest in the Straits Times-MOE National Current Affairs Quiz. -- ST PHOTO: LIM WEIXIANG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Students got personal at the second of six campus talks leading up to the inaugural Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

Discussing their future in education with Straits Times veterans, they went beyond the topic of whether university degrees would lead to a better life, and addressed topics such as values learning, meritocracy, even dealing with parental pressures.

The exclusive 90-minute session at Nanyang Junior College (NYJC) on Wednesday began with a presentation by ST senior writer Sandra Davie.

She spoke about the importance of a degree, whether more or less university places are needed for Singapore, and what local universities have done to differentiate themselves from the rest.

When she asked the audience who wanted to go to university, almost the whole hall of 850 first-year students raised their hands.

The Straits Times' Schools programme editor Serene Goh then spoke about the globalisation of the local university, and how universities now offer not just a degree, but a lifestyle, a brand, and networks needed for life after graduation.

The question-and-answer session that followed veered into topics close to the hearts of the audience. And while students posed questions regarding changes that should be made to the junior college system, and whether a cash reward for practising good values was the way forward, among others, Ms Davie and Ms Goh had some hard questions for them too.

Ms Davie asked the audience: 'What sort of a person do you want to be when you complete your junior college education? What skills and knowledge do you need to prepare for university?'

In response to a question from Jamen Tan, 17, on whether values should be taught in schools or at home, Ms Goh asked him: 'How resilient would you be if you took a very important exam and failed it miserably?'

His candid response: 'I have. The first time I took my O level Chinese exam, I didn't do well, but I picked myself up and recovered from my trauma,' to laughter from his schoolmates.

Ms Goh noted: 'This is the difference between you and typical students in the United States - if they failed a subject, it wouldn't be traumatic for them ... You can shape your own response to setbacks, not just your teachers.'

Later during the session, Low Wei Yang, 16, quipped: 'We are unfortunate as this education system drives us down a certain fixed pathway.' When Ms Davie queried him on why he could not break out of it, he replied: 'There's not many opportunities for me to do so. If I wanted to set up a business of my own, my parents would be totally against it.'

Ms Davie noted afterward: 'Many students have to live up to their parents' expectations, instead of being allowed to discover where their interests and passion lie. They are also concerned with a narrow definition of success.'

Wednesday's talk was part of The Straits Times' efforts to engage pre-university institutions in discussion on their burning questions. At the same time, the broadsheet is running a series of primers on current affairs topics every Friday.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is providing teaching resources on these topics that General Paper (GP) teachers can use in classroom discussions.

The talks, articles and lessons address current events issues - including sports, education, politics and science - and will culminate in the Straits Times-MOE National Current Affairs Quiz - or The Big Quiz - in July and August. Competing teams will face off in a general knowledge showdown. Teams from 23 pre-university institutions - including junior colleges, the Millennia Institute, and the School of the Arts - are expected to participate.

For now, though, a General Paper exam next week is first and foremost on NYJC students' minds. The talks are good ammunition for the exam, said Wei Yang and schoolmate Ker Wei Xiang, 16. Said the latter: 'The speakers covered a lot of things not normally covered in GP lessons.'

Additional reporting by Linette Lai

Background story

Facts and figures
75 per cent of the junior college (JC) cohort and 15 per cent of the polytechnic cohort will go to a local university.
In total, 27 per cent of the overall cohort will go to university locally. This is known as the Cohort Participation Rate (CPR).
5,000 to 8,000 students head to universities overseas and private schools. The real CPR is therefore 50 per cent.
By 2015, there will be 14,000 places in local universities, up from 12,000 in 2011.

Madam Ainon Mohamed Osman, moderator and General Paper tutor in NYJC: What are the challenges we face in trying to collaborate with foreign institutions?

Serene: I think that in setting up something like the Yale-NUS college you have to decide how the Americans will have their stamp on the education, and at which point the Singaporean culture must still be respected. This is something that everyone is trying to negotiate. Yale-NUS is still trying to write its DNA - it's not established yet.

Sandra: Singaporeans tend to take a more utilitarian view of education. We tend to think of university education in terms of the careers that will be opened up to you. Liberal arts education in the US is about liberating the individual in terms of thinking, so it's really education for education's sake. The values are very different from some of those that Singaporeans believe in, and as a result there's bound to be some clash along the way.

Bryan Oh (sent via SMS): Is there a need to change the JC system to meet the new demands of universities?

Serene: I think there will be more emphasis on skills like presentation, public speaking, and one's ability to articulate. The JC system will be a constantly evolving thing and I think the new breed of students will have to keep up with that.

Ker Wei Xiang, 16: What are some lessons local education systems can learn from foreign ones?

Sandra: Journalist Fareed Zakaria asked our then Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam why Singaporeans do so well on tests but are unable to produce Nobel Prize winners. His answer was that while we have students who do well in exams, we don't have students who will think out of the box. That's something we should think about - is Singapore an exam meritocracy, or a talent meritocracy like the US?

Jamen Tan, 17: Are values better taught in schools, or is it better to leave them to the parents to inculcate at home?

Serene:My answer is that values can be learnt from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to sleep at night. Every situation in life presents you with different options on what sort of values you want to exercise as a human being. It's about responding to things, and you can shape that - not just your teachers. You have to make those decisions.

Jessie Ma, 17: What is your opinion of the MOE Edusave Character Award, where a monetary award is given for good character?

Serene: I think that's a fantastic idea - it's as difficult to be a person of good character as it is to get an A in a maths exam. A lot of work goes into it. If MOE manages to identify someone with a strong character, the best way to show support is to give them money. We are not necessarily buying good character, but rewarding someone who is already demonstrating great character.

Sandra: I disagree that you should give money for the character awards. Many studies have shown that when you offer a reward for someone to do something, they don't do it as well, because they do not internalise it. I do not believe that you should attach money to character development - it sends all the wrong signals.

Low Wei Yang, 16: Is meritocracy able to help alleviate the increasing income disparity in Singapore, or is it causing the problem itself?

Sandra: One issue that has come up recently is that there used to be a lot more social mobility in the education system than there is now. Increasingly we as journalists are finding it difficult to find kids from the poorer homes - whose parents may not be as highly-educated - emerging as top students in the O-level and A-level exams. So yes, I think it's a question we have to ask, but I don't necessarily have the answers