Let's kill the drill approach in schools

It drains primary school kids of a love of learning. And it is an ageing education strategy that won't take Singapore to the next level of growth.

Singapore's primary school pupils are busier than a McKinsey consultant. The kids disappear before 7am to toil in school till 2pm.

Then most - an estimated 70 per cent, as per surveys - move on to continue their drilling at one of the constantly sprouting tuition centres across the island.

The reward for this gruelling regimen is - hopefully - a high test score in the PSLE. A propensity to tolerate regular "drill and kill" routines from young makes them proficient test-takers in later years, too. And the high scores in the international Pisa benchmark - dubbed the World Cup of Education - that make Singapore proud every year can be rightly attributed to the drilling culture.

As the father and tutor of a nine-year-old who attends a well-regarded Ministry of Education (MOE) primary school in the east, I have developed some insight on why kids here spend an inordinate amount of time on studying and what the long-term implications are.


I would like to state that I am not an educator. I am amanagement consultant and banker turned fund manager. I do have a strong interest in education and have pondered quite a bit on what would define an educated person in an age with machines and artificial intelligence programs taking over most routine tasks.

I'd like to address the question: What does good education really mean?


Let us first go behind the scenes of the current maths and English curriculum that our primary school children go through.

Singapore's maths curriculum is intense and full of so-called "word problems", set far above the levels of cognitive development of an average child in that age group.

The idea is to teach the children "heuristics", or mental shortcuts, that enable them to solve complex problems without fully understanding the nature of the problem. The weapon of choice is "model drawing", a method pioneered by the MOE and used in all primary schools.

Take this word problem: "Ray had 520 blue and green marbles. After giving away 1/4 of the blue marbles and 30 of the green marbles, he had an equal number of blue and green marbles. How many green marbles did he have at first?"

This is actually an algebra problem taught at higher levels in most countries. It is quite unlikely that an average eight-year-old or nine-year-old anywhere in the world would be able to solve this question if seeing it for the first time. However, even average Singapore kids can solve such problems in under three minutes.

How? The reason is not superior intelligence; it is simply because kids here are drilled on similar types of problems using model drawing. This method cuts short the actual thinking required for such types of questions and provides quick, almost effortless, solutions that can be regurgitated in exams.

There is, however, one big caveat: Children can solve such questions in exams only if they have solved them before. It is virtually impossible for even the most mathematically-inclined child to develop an original solution for a new problem in a time-constrained exam setting.

There you have it, the reason for endless tuition lessons: Practise solving as many problems as possible, so you are not surprised by a new problem in the test requiring (God forbid!) original thinking. The kid who does 20 problems a day is working hard, but doing 50 is even better - and so on.

Maths is suddenly transformed from a beautiful subject where pupils learn independent thinking and enjoy the triumph of discovery into a boring, repetitive drilling exercise.

All of this begs the question: Why bother teaching maths in such a rigid way just for the sake of cracking tests which follow set patterns?

After all, word problems by themselves have no practical use. We are not learning how to pitch a tent, patch a canoe or change a flat tyre. It is the problem-solving process and independent thinking that are more important, not the specific problem or the method.

Maths develops one's mind, and enhances lateral thinking and creativity. This, however, happens only when you struggle through a problem appropriate for your age, raise stimulating questions and come up with different ways to solve it. Endless drilling on difficult problems, based on set methods, helps crack tests but hampers the intellectual development of children and kills their interest in maths from an early age.


Confident, articulate English speakers and writers have a huge advantage over others, irrespective of their occupation. Key to this is cultivating, in a child's early years, a love for the language.

Children who appreciate the power and beauty of a language tend to read a lot and put in the effort to speak and write properly.

The Singapore English curriculum, similar to maths', has a strong emphasis on test-taking through repeated drilling.

Instead of spending time devouring all kinds of books and discussing them in class, children spend their time in school and tuition centres getting drilled on abstract grammar and vocabulary questions such as"I am really hungry. Can you hear my stomach -----? (choose one of the following: grumbling, rumbling, roaring, growling)".

A flawed (not to mention mind-numbingly boring) way of teaching, considering that English has a highly flexible and wide range of vocabulary. A vase, for example, can be described as pretty, attractive, handsome, elegant, good-looking, nice-looking... There is no one perfect word.

The most disturbing aspect is the teaching of basic English writing skills.

Children practise writing on a narrow set of topics - ones likely to appear in examinations. Essays written in pretentious, flowery language are termed "model essays" and used to set expectations.

An introductory passage could be something like "I glanced out of my window and felt the cool breeze (yes, this is Singapore!) on my neck. The pale sunlight filtered through the majestic trees while the magnolia clouds floated freely in the sky... ".

Tuition centres, in particular, encourage pupils to memorise such drivel to score high marks. Such writing encourages plagiarism from a young age. Children don't learn to appreciate that writing an essay is supposed to convey their feelings and thoughts, rather than regurgitating memorised passages and other people's ideas.

The problem, though, is that eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds naturally write nowhere at the level of the manufactured passages they are supposed to produce for exams.

In general, the English curriculum (for example, reading and comprehension passages) has been modelled on standardised tests such as Pisa. Given that pupils here practise doing such tests from the age of six, they do get better at answering such questions in tests than pupils from other countries.

Whether anyone could possibly enjoy and develop a love for the language from such a monotonous approach to teaching English is a different matter.

But the long-term deleterious impact of such teaching - which no test measures - is apparent: no love for the language, no passion for reading (other than self-help books), an inability to speak off the cuff and the use of broken English.


In the 2009 book Hidden Champions Of The 21st Century, author Hermann Simon describes innovative, knowledge-based companies from different countries. These companies - such as Iceland's Baader, leading supplier of fish-processing systems; Belgium's Electro-Nite, global No. 1 in sensors for the steel industry; and Norway's Tandberg, leader in video-conferencing systems - are world leaders that dominate small niches in different industries.

There is, however, not a single company from Singapore mentioned in the book.

Intuitively, shouldn't a rich and stable country with a world-leading education system continually churn out a large number of innovative companies that create high-paying jobs?

Singapore's growth over the past few years has slowed to 1 to 2 per cent. A strategy based on attracting multinational corporations (MNCs) to create high-paying jobs served us well over the past decades but is reaching its limits.

The time has now come for smart and driven Singaporean youngsters to create knowledge-based companies, generate high-paying jobs and drive economic growth.

Programmes such as SkillsFuture won't do much if the basic building blocks of curiosity, creativity, passion and risk-taking are missing.

Singapore's primary school education system has succeeded in imparting basic levels of literacy to all children. A disciplined drill-based education system may have been useful in the early days when Singapore needed to provide productive workers for MNCs.

Such an education system, however, is detrimental to the next level of growth that Singapore aspires to.

Children perpetually drained from hours of tuition classes and test-taking are merely going through the motions.

There is no true learning. Nothing is internalised.

For them, learning and books are synonymous with test-taking and grades. They are exhausted before they have barely begun their lifelong learning journey.

Such pupils are unlikely to ever turn into lifelong learners or entrepreneurs who can help propel the country forward.

A good primary school education should not be about force-feeding knowledge.

It should allow pupils the space and freedom to become self-directed lifelong "learning machines".

They need to have the appetite to constantly learn new things, not because they have to, but because they want to.

•The writer is an investment professional. He is also the author of Building Wealth Through Reits.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2017, with the headline Let's kill the drill approach in schools. Subscribe