"Wed, Dec 03, 2008 The Straits Times
Exam obsession churns out rote-learners
MS JESSICA Walker's descriptions of the compulsive exam-study efforts of Singaporean youth in her letter, 'Appalled by 'obsessive' study habits' (Nov 26), question the very validity of our examination-based education system.
This issue was addressed in a 2006 Newsweek interview with then Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, where he pointed out that although both Singapore and America are meritocracies, America is a 'talent meritocracy' while Singapore is an 'exam meritocracy'. America rewards those with talent while Singapore rewards those who do well in examinations.
The implications of this difference are huge. While Singapore is No. 1 in the global mathematics and science rankings for school children, very few Singaporeans grow up to be top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors or academics. On the other hand, US children fare worse in tests but do better later on in life.
Singapore's obsession with examinations churns out rote-learners who score excellently in examinations but who lack the initiative, creativity, passion and courage needed to succeed in the real world.
However, reforms towards a 'talent meritocracy' need to be made in society at large. As long as employers judge a person's worth by his paper qualifications, students here will continue to emphasise more on examination excellence than other aspects of personal development."
This is a comment by a reader to another reader's contribution to the press. I agreed with the assertion that the Asian system tends to reward those with good memories and talents. Though I disagreed that all that succeeded necessarily are only good at memorizing and not application.
Lessons for me are:
1. academic excellence is just one facade of a human make-up. Also some subjects are suited to pure memory work e.g. history while some subjects required more flexible application of the knowledge e.g. mathematics and engineering application. There is another category that demand both! e.g. doctor needs to memorize lots of special terms as well as being able to operate on a patient! The challenge is some students believe that if they need to memorize formulae in order to be able to compute certain sums, then there is really not need to test their memory of the formulae but to give them an open book so that they can use the formulae to complete the computation!;
2. besides academic excellence, the moral value and behaviors of a student is of paramount importance. This is the foundation! A solid one is one based on ethical ground. A shaky one is based on 'just to get good results at all cost regardless of methods!';
3. if I have to choose between one with good moral values over one who are extremely intelligent, I will pick the one with the right values any day! Knowledge and skills can be acquired and taught and transferred while bad values once ingrained are much harder to remove and change! Of course, we will try to influence those with basic bad values, but we are also prepare to cut the string if they are not responding despite great efforts expanded in good faith!
May Asians find more and more people who walk the talk of good values!