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Sustainability vs discontinuity

Posted on: February 5, 2016

There is a systemic tussle between striving for continuity and managing constant change. The schooling and education systems in Singapore are caught between these forces.

For example, we have an exam system that is cruelly efficient at reducing kids to numbers and sorting them. It has worked in the past, PISA results seem to validate test-based efforts, and as most cannot think outside the test box, people want to sustain exams.

This makes us blind to the fact that high stakes testing and grades do not determine the worth of a person. Universities and employers are beginning to recognise that. Some put their money where their mouth is by offering alternative routes and taking in students or employees with less than stellar academic transcripts. I know of at least one medical school that does this and Google has famously been reported to declare that GPAs are not important.

The changes that chip away at the status quo are not always appreciated by the system. Singapore has an semi-alternative to exams called the Direct School Admission where kids vie for school entry before they take high stakes exams. They get in via interviews, portfolios, trophies, performances, and other measures of talent that some might label alternative assessment.

This is good because it is a release valve for a system that, while designed to sort on merit, focuses primarily on academic ability. Kids are not numbers or letters; they are people. Despite this attempt to move forward, other people (e.g., parents) would rather see the cruel system remain.

Recently, an 11-year-old reportedly wrote an open letter lamenting the competition that DSA has created. The tide of emotion seems go against DSA.

However, a critical examination might reveal that the problem is not DSA but the status quo of competition at the exclusion of others, enrichment classes, and unnecessary tuition. These are the same things created and sustained by the exam regime. The value placed on competition, sorting, and enrichment tuition (which incidentally favours those already well off) works against the change.

It is easy to sustain the status quo because people know no other way and seek no other way. What is difficult is to see things as they are. The formulaic strategies and that enrichment agencies push are comforting, but they act like blinders on a horse. They prevent a wider view.

If we remove those blinders, we see the wisdom in the tweet above.

Thought leaders and working adults recognise that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA). The oft quoted adage in circumstances like these is: Change is the only constant.

Somehow reasonably intelligent people will don blinders, seek to sustain a cruel system that measures the worth of a child in very narrow, academic terms, and pay other people to keep that cruel system going. They forget that blinders are designed to control instead of liberate.

Removing those blinders means taking in a larger and initially overwhelming view, and learning to take control instead of being controlled. It is about embracing discomfort and discontinuity.

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