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.

Feedback and aspirations

I had some time thinking about feedback; and those who read my writings more regularly would see that I’ve previously championed “giving and receiving feedback” as key skills to be taught in schools.

And it probably take a lifetime to properly master this because both giving and receiving feedback are really hard. Most people can go on defensive when you offer to give some feedback. And the praise sandwich is kind of yucky an approach for some to adopt. There are those who advocate “giving advice” instead.

One of the best way for behavioural change is actually to ask the person who needs improvement for advice on the problem you observed. Surprisingly most people knows the solution to overcoming their weaknesses. So once they discover that they actually have certain problems they’ll get to work fixing it.

Either way I think a large part of the equation is also on receiving feedback; how we are able to process feedback and deal with it matters. That’s why I personally like the approach of making it an encouragement rather than a feedback. An encouragement toward particular aspiration. That way, it is not something you lack but more about moving towards a destination.

Following recipes

Which recipe do you follow? It really depends on what you want to cook. It doesn’t matter that everyone else is following the chicken rice recipe and you’re following the one for making Laksa – if making Laksa is your objective.

The challenge of students today in our education system is that they have been taught to follow recipes; all kinds of recipes available to them because there are recipes; and not because there are dishes worth preparing. The students ought to make an assessment of which recipe is solving what kind of problems and hence the ‘right one’ to follow.

What is happening however, is that students are following recipes that bring them into prestigious or well-paying careers, not realising that it wasn’t what they signed up for in the first place. And in the late twenties, they discover that they’ve been following a recipe for a dish they never did like anyways.

This is why I wrote dream, think & act!. This free ebook is now available for download in all the different formats here.

What kind of competition?

Imagine an economy you preside over where everyone hones their skills in violin-making and produces violins. Everyone in the economy works really hard to make and sell violins. They do so many other things such as growing their own food, trying to sustain themselves, just to make violins. In the economy, there is no other markets; no one is producing food to sell, no one providing laundry services. Money is exchanged only to buy and sell violins. And only violins have a price.

That sounds absurd. Because if only violins have a price, then money is only worth violins. Then what is the value of money in this economy? Yet, without answering such questions, if we were to allow the metaphor to continue, say you are supposed to spur productivity of this economy, what would you do?

You could do things that enhance the labour productivity. This means everyone produces more violin in the economy, thereby driving the prices down and causing violins to be worth less vis-a-vis the currency in circulation.

Or you could start getting people to perform other work for others. That enhances productivity of the system overall as the ones good at violin making gets to outsource parts of their chores so that they are freed to make more violins. You allow more goods and services to be priced using money hence allowing more things to be exchanged and money becomes more valuable too. The higher productivity raises overall wealth measured in money and allows people to demand for more violins or pay more for them, enriching the violin makers.

Before I go further, you must be wondering what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about education, where grades are the only thing that matters, where students are expected to focus on grades despite having to fulfill other requirements such as CCAs, including sports, student activities, leadership activities, etc. All these while trumpeting that different students have different strengths and then consigning a future michelin-starred chef to the E-bucket and having him sent to vocational school.

Our system ties up and stifles talents, force everyone to be denominated and priced using just one attribute of their capability: intellect/academics (or test-taking). And so if you want to improve the system, do you still force everyone to produce more and better grades?

Broken systems

In any civilisation, you’re in a system; so there are rules to follow, structures to abide by, and hence a sort of order emerges from the system. Of course the order can be disorderly but you get my drift. When however, certain realities don’t line up the way they do in a system, we think that it is broken.

I’m not too sure about that. Sometimes, we think that a system is broken because it is leading to an outcome which we don’t desire nor think is desirable. Whilst the designer or perpetrator of the system may agree with you on the outcome and results, they may not think the system is broken.

The reason being that their key objectives for the system does not align with yours. What you think as an undesirable outcome may be an unintended but necessary consequence of the system; and the results which you don’t agree with may not even be part of the consideration.

And that is the challenge when one works within a system. It is terribly difficult for a system to start paying attention to a new attribute that is worth looking at when measured against the values that inherently power the system. Effectively, the conversation goes like this:

You: ‘Hey system, you need to start looking more into the environmental damage you are causing while trying to make profits!’

System: ‘Ah, environmental damage. Does looking into it generate more profits?’

You: ‘Well, the point is thinking about we are trading-off environmental sustainability in our process of profit. Maybe we can rethink about the way we make a profit?’

System: ‘Sure! Come back to me when there’s a profitable way to reduce the environmental damage. Meanwhile, we carry on with what works.’

The reason we are facing climate change is not really because the system is broken but because the system we designed is working perfectly well – it is just trying to solve a completely different problem than the one we are facing or trying to get it to solve.

The only way is to establish new rules and new ways of doing things, of structuring our lives, our companies and our economy. This is why Enea Consulting, where I work at, has combined efforts with Isabelle Kocher de Leyritz to form Blunomy.

For now, the branding might still feel very foreign to an Asian mind, the URL quite strange (is the firm French or Malaysian?), the fonts on the website feels a tad bit too avant garde for the liking of the general masses. But the message, the intentions and planned actions are clear. We understand that the systems are not broken but they are simply not designed for the challenge that confronts us today. That is why we are not here to fix the system; we need new ones to replace them.

Just to reiterate that views presented here are entirely personal and do not represent the stance of any organisations I’m employed by or have any affiliations with.

When you disagree

I once argued that education should be reimagined and redesigned. It is no wonder why Einstein was attributed to say he doesn’t allow schooling to interfere with education. The content of our education is at its best when it is not prescriptive but more about the process that students get to go through.

And along that process, we want them to learn things about themselves, about the world and how to interact with others. One of the key topic amongst this, is around disagreement. How to disagree is a useful skill and one that a human being, since being a kid would have to face.

My colleague has a 1.5 year old girl who struggles when her parents say no to her. She just finds it difficult when her will is impeded and she is helpless. To a certain extent, her way to take back that agency is to break down and cry. To a large extent, the type of tantrum is a kind of power-grab. And we intuitively know that. Except like all power-grab, this sort of emotional violence is not exactly the healthiest way of interacting.

So kids will and should learn how to disagree, and to feel a sense of agency over the situation even when things are not according to their will. Are parents capable of teaching that? How about schools? Why are we leaving that only to the domain of experts or psychologist? Shouldn’t that be a universally taught skill?

Again, we don’t like to teach or train people along metrics we cannot measure. How to disagree isn’t exactly something that can be easily quantified. So no one wants to teach that. It’s a shame because it is probably way more important than the nucleophilic substitution reactions we learnt in Chemistry.

Copy with understanding

My mind often gravitate back to my school days. I did spend almost 20.5 years in school or something kind of education institute so my schooling life still constituted more than half of my lifetime so far. I wonder if the memories get more faint as you progress along. While I think the greatest lessons I learnt were outside the classroom, it was still largely the school days that were so formative, it helped produce ideas and principles that underpin how I thought about things.

It could also be some kind of survivor bias because the values or ideas that I subsequently discarded after going through the test of time. One of the values that I acquired over time in school was to ‘copy with understanding’. Basically, when you copy something – especially homework for school – you want to do so to save effort but you should at least spend some effort understanding why an answer is the right answer. At least for the particular question. Think about how the answer connects with things you’ve been taught or learnt. Consider how the question was asked and what the answer might be if the question changed, just by a little.

I learnt this value both ways, when I was copying the homework of others and when I dished out my homework for others to copy. I am glad I was in one of the more ordinary classes in school, where I had classmates who didn’t do homework and needed copying; and most were happy to collaborate and “distribute the work”. There were better classes where students mostly kept to themselves and classmates were individualistic and competitive.

Sometimes you look back and by the sheer force of time, things you thought were bad, turned out to be great after all.

Gardening in School – Education or Distraction?

Homework: Watering the plants

I chanced upon a very interesting article by Gloria Dawson on The Daily Green. This phenomenon is not so much seen in Singapore than in the United States, where gardening in schools was introduced and encouraged, in particular by US First Lady Michelle Obama, to raise students’ interests in gardening, nurture green thumbs as well as environmentalism and encourage healthy eating.

I thought such initiatives were pretty self-explanatory in terms of benefits, are pretty much non-political and non-debatable. Dawson had however found an article by a Caitlin Flanagan that expressed much disdain for school gardens, with the argument that “schools are taking kids out of the classroom” when they need to spend more time in the classroom to learn and be educated on the basics, and then eventually climb the educational system. It was something I never really thought about given Singapore’s higher-quality educational system, but in America where educational standards are dropping and schools struggle to keep students interested, school gardens may backfire in their intentions as well.

Statistics so far appear to indicate that school gardens have somehow helped boost grades and “understanding of lessons”, probably indirect effects of being involved in a garden. It might perhaps create interest in staying in school, or create opportunities to pick up skills such as organisation, leadership and responsibility which would be useful both in lessons and outside of lessons. Unfortunately, the school gardens initiative has caught on with political posturing and people are lambasting the educational system and those who implement the initiative. At least Flanagan’s arguments were not exactly without merit, but it appears that Dawson is implicitly pointing fingers at politicians who are blaming the school gardens initiative to their advantage.

There’s really plenty to learn from school gardens, in terms of skills and knowledge. Where your food comes from, how to eat healthily; children need to know given that they now live in a very much urban society where food is convenient and global and they do not know where their food comes from, what they should eat, how much they should eat and so on. Again, I am reminded of the book ‘The End of Food’ by Paul Roberts that I am currently reading about and will review in due time. Links to other articles about the school gardens argument are in The Daily Green article.