Success factors in life vs exams

When you get back your exam scripts, do you focus on the questions you got right or the questions you got wrong? When I was a teacher, I often reminded my students that those scripts were more valuable for the way they show you how you had gone wrong rather than places where you got things correct. And in fact, those lessons were probably the whole point of sitting for the exam – more important than the grades themselves. Grades do not show whether you are good or bad but merely reflects your progress in the attempts to master the materials you were provided.

The issue with life after graduation is that it is so different from exams. To begin, your score in exams is capped at 100 whereas in life, your upside is really infinite. Now that means that unlike in exams where you could hone in on your mistakes and try to deal mainly with the weak points, life cannot be managed by exceptions or by focusing on weak points. You’d end up trying to perfect areas or dimensions that do not matter at all. Because unlike examinations, you are no longer trying to complete all the questions. You are now looking for questions worth answering amongst infinite questions. It looks more like an examination where there’s endless questions you can choose to answer and you’re trying to get to correct answers for the questions you do attempt.

So then the strategy now can be to just pick the easy questions, those that you have a high confidence of being right. Or to start devoting yourself to being really good at a particular cluster or set of questions around the same topics or ideas. And you want to get away from questions that you don’t stand a chance at unless you happen to be really interested and think you have a shot in developing the ability to answer them. Notice these approaches are radically different from what we learn in school. But once you are able to see life this way, you start recognising you need a different approach from what you were brought up with.

Positive cycles in systems

There are certainly some positive self-fulfilling prophecies in life, and they represent positive cycles in life that we can do more to encourage and harness. Students who have teachers believing in them tend to end up doing better than if they were left on their own; encouragement matters, and more importantly, the social dimension of love and nurturing has an impact on the learning outcomes of students. That is an input for teachers beyond pedagogy, but are we training teachers to believe in their students?

The industrial system works best when we can identify success factors and then invest in them to keep those positive feedback loops in the system. The tricky part is how the industrial system seeks to interact with that ‘scientific management’ koolaid about measurability and creating metrics and indicators. As a result, some of those success factors that are strictly unmeasurable get left out. After all, how do you make sure that a teacher can ‘believe’ in the students evenly in the class? But that question, which is precisely what standardisation and industrialism are based upon, misses the point.

Some of these unmeasurable success factors can generate power feedback loops. Consider the culture of graciousness in a workplace, gentleness, kindness, patience. Just because we cannot correlate the attributes with outcomes doesn’t mean they do not exist. And we all are worse off because we have allowed measurability and ‘big data’ to take such a dominant position in our systems.

Self-learning and ending industrial learning

There was an age when we needed mass education to get everyone up to speed on some basic things. Civics, some basic sense of rules, laws as well as literacy to be able to perform functions as a citizen, be it to serve in the community, read public notices or just the wisdom to spot a scam. Mass education helps when the parents at home don’t have that education background or ability to inculcate all that into their children. It enable very quick uplift of a generation of people. And of course, we designed credentials, qualifications and all that to go with the mass education to certify the skills and abilities, and to use educational qualities as a means to filter people.

More importantly, those were times when knowledge and information was scarce. And schools became essentially the distribution centers of such products. Teachers were facilitators of this transfer and distribution of both explicit knowledge as well as tacit knowledge about civic behaviour, values and character. This is why the problems and tests in exams are more about what and why; less about the how though there’s attempts at getting students to ‘solve problems’. But the application of knowledge was something taken to be done later in life through work and other contexts, not really at school – unless it is a vocational institute. In any case, most of the problems defined are pretty closed ended – with right answers or model answers.

Today, learning can be done through very different channels. Self-learning through the internet is pretty straight-forward. The core skills that is required in school becomes more about developing wisdom and discernment in the information received; the taxonomy around what constitutes more close-end problems vs open-ended problems where solutions can be more multi-faceted. And because this is the case, we need to reconsider how we value the old school certs and qualifications and find new ways to test and identify the talents in our midst, as well as the fit for various different work.

Gone are the days where we can easily get people to fit into the work and job roles designed within a company. We may have to start finding the right talents to deal with the crucial problems we want to solve and then leave the rest to be outsourced or dealt with by technology. At the same time, the ability to self-learn becomes so much more important. Not only should we start giving employees time to self-learn, we need to invest into structures, environment and coaching that enables that.

Labels and bullshit

I think that schools and parents should spend a lot more time teaching kids to read labels and discern marketing from science and verified statements. One of the problematic trends that emerged from our market economy or highly marketised, monetised society is the rise of wildfire marketing. You’d think that lies or wrong claims would be quickly discovered but often, verification takes time and money and has the nature of a public good so no one invest in them.

Yet the interest of the marketing departments and companies to make claims that can get them customers is so much more. So there is no prize for guessing who would put more resources into the activity and who emerges as winner, at least in the short term.

Question is why has our market economy created such short-termism? The people at marketing departments are measured perhaps by the short term sales figures. The management is assessed based on short term profit and loss or worse, share prices. No one within the transactions have any long term stake other than the consumers.

Besides strengthening consumer bureaus, you will have to strengthen the consumers through education. And that has to start whilst young; and these are extremely long term investments that will pay off for the broad society.

Virtue & values

Virtues are qualities of excellence that may be moral or intellectual; and once, the pursuit of virtues was the making of a purposeful and good life. Yet increasingly, as we welcome new cohorts of adults into our midst, the pursuit of a good life had become more material – especially in the culture amongst the newly developed countries and markets. Despite all the talk about ‘woke’ cultures and all, there is this foundation of material that underlies the material ability (or even authority) to criticise. To the extent that virtue itself is even criticised as ‘bigotry’.

Yet if you really reflect upon what virtues really are, they can hardly be considered bigotry. Someone who values certain character doesn’t necessarily have to judge the lack of it. One who is constantly in pursuit of that excellence and tries to uphold a high standard knows more than anyone else how difficult it is. Bigotry is more the sense that high standards should come easy for everyone and hence look down upon those who do not exhibit those standards.

To those who quietly recognise that the good life is meant to be lived and not ‘earned’ through material possession or collecting achievements. Thank you for soldiering on and showing the way.

Having answers

In school, the guy who raise his hands to answer a question gets praised. The one who puts up his hand to ask a question feels like he might have disrupted the flow of a lesson or wasted everyone’s time on something that no one seemed to be interested in besides him. Besides, there never was a quiz by the teacher where credit was given to a student for asking questions.

Yet the older I got, the more I realised that having answers is overrated. The ability to ask the right questions and discover new ideas or thoughts from there is so much more important. The journey of discovery starts with questions and not knowing what to discover. The incentives that our education system designed was more about ease of creating robust, scientific measurement without necessarily aligning with the needs of students going through the system.

There has always been a question of whether schooling and the education system is ultimately about training and uplifting people or just measuring and sorting them. I’ve previously pondered over this quite a bit – whether we intend for the system to produce a pooling or separating equilibrium. It is still a question on my mind and I think it’s a conundrum for systems all around the world.

Should our education system pool or separate people?

So over the past 2–3 weeks, I’ve been pondering over our education system. It all started with that chat I had with my friends, and then the article I wrote, and then more thinking. I even thought at one point I want to start a podcast about education and go around interviewing people about how they want to change it. The truth is the majority of us have brushes with it and experiences with it — pleasant or not. And those were worthwhile voicing out, to augment and improve the system. You don’t need to be an educator or professional to do it. I was not just thinking about the system in Singapore but this whole industry of education, testing, whether it is about building up or just sieving out; whether it is implicitly defining merit rather than bringing up people to merit.

Now the recurring question I had in mind was whether education, which is supposed to be the great leveller, should be ‘sorting’ people with its system of testing and exams or ‘lifting’ people up to a certain level. To put it at another layer, it is also about whether education should be tuned to provide signals about a particular person or be tuned to develop a person. What underlies this difference is implicitly the ‘fixed mindset’ vis-à-vis the ‘growth mindset’ that the one tuning the system has about people, and the potential of the society at large.

Signalling Function: Separating or Pooling

Now the title of the article references this feature of systems that are set up to create signals. It assumes there are different ‘types’ in the environment and the system design can result in everyone signalling the same (ie. pooling) or signalling differently (ie. separating). In general, examinations are designed to create separating equilibria. We are taught to think that a test that results in everyone scoring A is pointless because exams are to help us differentiate the best from the rest. Or is it? Shouldn’t an exam or test be used to measure students/learners against a benchmark you want to train them up to?

So shouldn’t we be keeping the testing constant and adjusting the teaching and content to ensure we can ‘lift up’ everyone rather than ‘sort them out’. Because when we design exams to generate a ‘normal distribution’ outcome, then we are implicitly saying someone in the room deserves to be the last when it is just a natural outcome of a relative system. We can no longer trace ‘culpability’ back to the students’commitment and efforts because someone has got to be last in class — someone has got to be in the lower tail of that normal distribution. What a depressing way to think about education outcomes.

Therefore, this signalling function of education runs against the grain of all the effort, sense of purpose that we are imbued with as we try to develop our students into people worthy of our society, yet that is the way we design our assessment, which nowadays seem more like the end of school rather than just an instrument that the schools used to provide a means for students to check themselves against some kind of standards.

Competing with yourself

Now the way our assessments are designed also means that you are creating competition amongst students. Because results are somewhat relative, you can do better when your classmates do worse. At national level or in moderated standardised testing which is really used to perform ‘sorting’ at cohort population level, the result gives you your relative position within the society rather than your absolute standards.Well, people will say, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Life is a competition and it’s about getting ahead of others.

As I mentioned previously, this is a recipe for a society-wide mental health disaster; especially if job options are strongly correlated with academic performance subsequently. Worst, the parents and society shares the idea that only jobs requiring those qualifications are worthwhile going for. In reality, the most important competition in your life is with yourself and it is important for you to be able to track your progress, to know you’re growing. Take for example when you measure the height of a child to see he is growing; you might look at the height percentile chart at any one point to say, oh he is 40th percentile, below average for his age, but we know he used to be 136 cm but now he is 140 cm, he is definitely growing. You don’t get worried that he used to be 55th percentile when he was a year younger but now at the 40thpercentile in height.

You might say because relative height don’t matter as much as academic achievement in life. But the same principle remains that having an objective way of tracking your progress of growth helps give you the encouragement to keep going. Our school testing and exam systems do not help us achieve that. They do not allow students to compete with themselves; at every test, they are just taking the same cohort, sorting them into grades/scores again and again with different combinations of topics and subjects. How this really helps the growth and development of a single child is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t matter so much when your parents, society at large and teachers focus on your attitude, your character and values more than exam results. But I have a feeling that we naturally gravitate more towards what is measurable and allow that to become the dominant yardstick.

By ‘pooling’ students into just a few ‘prestigious subjects’ (eg. the sciences) and ‘separating’ them into grades within these disciplines, we risk funnelling them further and deeper into intense competitions when we should be training them to find niches for themselves to escape competition. In business or society, when you encounter a red ocean (full of sharks, ie. competition), you run, and you try to define your own market, a blue ocean you can swim in. Yet in schools we don’t prepare students for a life that involves seeking blue oceans, we try to force everyone to swim in the bloody waters and create artificial bloodbaths.

An alternative: Sorting by strengths, Lifting up everyone

I thought long and hard about what the education system should really be separating and pooling instead of the traditional model. And I have an alternative to suggest. It will be aligned with the ideas I proposed previously. To prepare students truly for society, the system should be sorting students into various areas of strength/practice/disciplines that they are to be nurtured for rather than choosing a fixed set of disciplines and then sorting students according to their abilities in those disciplines. And be serious about nurturing them in the areas they are sorted into. Expose students to more things whilst they are young instead of specifying subjects and saying they ought to have headstart in those areas and drill them with content. Sort people horizontally across a spectrum of different areas rather than vertically along a spectrum of ‘abilities’ — help students develop their strengths and hone their craft.

A well-functioning society requires a good spread of people with head, heart and hands. You may say that we are exposed to the competition of the global market but price need not be the only signals we heed, quality matters, identity as fellow citizens matters. And these are values that we can cultivate when we sort people not by their ‘abilities’ in narrow areas of human endeavour, but by sorting them in a way where they see the value they can contribute to the society.

Why this is so important is because so much of Singaporean’s students’ lives are squandered meandering around the system designed to not so much to genuinely develop every student but to sieve out the top academics/intellectuals. Imagine you are cluelessabout your strengths but you know you’re not a study-type. And each year you try hard but you’re consistently sorted into the tail end of the distribution, for every single subject where there’s a test/exam. You score A for arts and you are told you draw well but none of those are reflected or considered when you have to select which school to go into. You’re continually told you’re underperforming, ‘doing badly’ — of course you try to deal with the feelings of inadequacy and being judged harshly by ‘rebeling’ against the system. And then the system tells you that you’re doing badly precisely because you’re behaving badly.

If we had an alternative system, I believe Jerome Yap’s story would have turned out differently. Of course, if I were him now, I wouldn’t want it to be any different because the adversity I went through mademe who I am. But under the different system, he would be ‘discovered’ at an earlier age, and his talents will be nurtured by his parents and teachers (who do not have to seem like they are working against the system); he might have already started his own successful design business by the age of 28 — with a degree or not. In fact, the degree won’t be what we are celebrating, it would be the fact that we have such talent from this small city state.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back.

Rejuvenating neighbourhoods

So there was an announcement about brand name school being moved to neighbourhoods that were newly developing. Or what Singaporeans affectionately call heartlands. And then there was a bit of furore. Maybe it was also about the all boys school starting to be co-ed and accepting girls.

Singapore has a long history of all boys school turning into co-ed schools. Think Gan Eng Seng School, Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School (now known as Tanjong Katong Secondary School). So in some sense, these ‘elite’ institutions have been slow at embracing diversity. The uproar and concerns voiced reflected the obsession Singaporeans have with brand names and in many sense, social status.

Having built a successful society that is based on levelling the playing field and trying to be ‘meritocratic’ means that there will be lots of forces usually around to seek to differentiate and stand out. Schools are one of the most significant way to perpetuate this. And I honestly would not be surprised if because of this shift, the area in Tengah becomes hot property for the parents wanting to send their children to prime schools.

In future, branded schools may be ways to rejuvenate neighbourhoods.

Passing exams

It’s interesting how people are amazed by ChatGPT passing exams. Exams are narrowly designed processes with somewhat clear rubric for determining scores, exactly the same type of process that had been used to train and improve machine learning and artificial intelligence. Never mind that it’s passing Wharton MBA or law exams, these are special situations which are designed specifically to be somewhat ‘gamed’. And these are the situations where machines are in their elements.

The fact that they only pass the exams and not excel, reflects that the variability of the exams and the desire to really pick out top human candidates. This is also a test for the exams-setting as it reflects that they are not at all about just getting the answers right. Rather, exams should be designed and set to be open-minded to ‘surprise me’ type of situations.

We could all become machine-like, ask ‘What is going to be on the test?‘ and then approach it by trying to get answers right to everything. Or we can learn to solve real world problems by acting like humans, accepting our weaknesses and vulnerability, and cracking on bit by bit. Problems are rarely solved by invulnerability – they are typically solved by first acknowledging what we don’t know and moving at the edges of what we do know.