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Posts Tagged ‘dsa

I had a few questions after reading an opinion piece on the changes to the Direct School Admissions (DSA) in Singapore.

For the uninitiated, the DSA is a semi-alternative route for primary school children to get into secondary schools of their choice. There is also DSA for secondary school children to get into junior colleges.

I call DSA a semi-alternative over the PSLE and GCE O-Level Examinations because the latter are still key criteria for the child to stay in the school after they have their foot in the door.

The problem was that some parents gamed the DSA by hothousing their kids by way of preparatory courses and activities. The original purpose for schools to admit children based on their mostly non-academic talents got diluted.

So the op piece, DSA revisions laudable, but challenge lies in transparency, had a lot going for it based on its title.

The article started with the main changes from 2018 onwards:

  • Discontinuing general ability tests (GATs)
  • Increasing the DSA proportion of each Secondary intake to 20%*

Both moves revisit the purpose of DSA: To allow kids with non-academic talents to shine and get a place in hotly-contested schools. I would add that taking away the GATs removes one element of hothousing (test preparation) and the companies that charge money for administering tests.

*This cap applies only to the majority of schools that do not rely exclusively on DSA for new students. The rule change does not apply to schools offering the six-year Integrated Programme (IP) leading to the International Baccalaureate, e.g., the School of the Arts (SOTA), NUS High School for Maths and Science.

The op piece first addressed the fact that students taking advantage of DSA tended to come from more affluent backgrounds. For example:

… there is often a high degree of correlation between student wealth and non-academic talent. Why? Consider students who excel in music. Affluent parents would be in a better position to provide their kids with music lessons at a young age to hone their musical talents.

While any reader (myself included) might nod in agreement, a more critical one should ask: Can we take the statement “high degree of correlation between student wealth and non-academic talent” at face value? Where is the data? How high is the correlation? Did the newspaper leave it out? Perception and opinion are not fact and even facts can be challenged.

Then there was the suggestion that schools be more transparent and objective. I am all for transparency, but I am critical of objectivity as some perceive it.

While non-cognitive skills like tenacity, resilience, trustworthiness and perseverance are important traits desired by schools, schools should be mindful that these are typically difficult to measure and will be measured subjectively, depending on the person evaluating the child.

So any evaluation of these traits should ideally be complemented by more objective measures (answering questions such as “Has the student ever represented his/her school at the national/school level?”, “Has the student ever held a leadership position at the community/school/class level?” and so forth).

What schools take kids in purely based on such character traits? At best these are secondary or tertiary considerations after the primary criteria have been evaluated.

Schools already have (or should already have) rigorous requirements for DSA: Interviews, focus groups, evidence-based performance, verification of certificates, portfolios, etc. What some might call alternative assessments become central or mainstream in the case of DSA to complement academic results that arrive later.

While objectivity is seems to be the gold standard, it is not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes a child has an X-factor that is not in the rubric because it is difficult to define or measure. Sometimes it is the potential of that child that is important and so judges have to make professional projections.

These decisions are based on the experience of the panel of selectors. They may quantify some traits, but the rest is largely qualitative or gut feel. Such decision-making processes are subjective because they rely on professional judgement and take into account the real individual that stands before them, not the illusionary above “average” child.

Furthermore, do such “objective” measures and questions develop the school or the child? To be fair, the school needs to decide whether or not to invest in the new student. But unlike a Google or Apple hiring a new employee, schools have social and civic roles to play. These are to enculturate children by schooling and to help them self-actualise by educating them.

Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet or dots on a graph. They might be to a bean-counter who is looking for the most efficient ways to channel them into different schools. We already have a very efficient streaming (and now DSA) system that can be very cruel too.

I say we be more effective and empathetic. We have reached that state in our collective social evolution and so we must embrace such higher ideals and make them real. To do this, we should also embrace subjectivity, not just objectivity, in the DSA process. To not do this is to act contrarily to what DSA stands for: Putting the child and his/her talents first.


I take my role of edtech watchdog seriously. I am not just a pedagogue; I am a peda-dog!

Sometimes I wonder if I am being too harsh with my critiques of the state of teaching and teachers in Singapore. After all, according to a 2013 study we had the most well-paid (see point 3) and one of the most well-respected teaching forces in the world. But these do not mean that all our teachers are educators.

My parents were teachers. I was a teacher. I am married to a teacher. Most of our friends and acquaintances are teachers. Should I bark at and even bite my own kind?

Every now and then I am reminded why I need to do this. Sometimes the reminders come from the seminars and workshops I conduct. Sometimes they are dialogues I have with teachers. Sometimes they are stories from sources I trust.

This is a story about my son who is sitting for his PSLE this year.

My son is bright and should not have problems with this high-stakes examination. However, we were not content to subject him to the mindless rat race, so we looked for a good fit via DSA. We concerned ourselves with getting him into a school that would bring back and nurture the joy of learning.

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.

We made a family decision to try the new literary arts programme at SOTA [information from SOTA] [news article]. It was taking in about 25 students for the academic year 2017.

We had to ask my son’s form teacher for help to get some school records for the DSA application in May. We were thankful for his teacher’s help. However, I was surprised to hear what happened in my son’s class shortly after we made the request.

The teacher declared that in all her years of teaching none of her students got into their Secondary schools via DSA. It seemed like a source of pride that she was able to prepare her students for PSLE so that they could rely on scores alone.

Now there is nothing wrong with that especially if you have the perspective of most parents here. But we are not “most parents” and I would have been fine if things were left at that remark.

Tomorrow's educational progress cannot be determined by yesterday's successful performance.

I was troubled by two additional comments from the teacher:

  • If you do not get the marks for PSLE, you can try for DSA.
  • What talents do you have that they want?

Those comments were sorely misplaced.

First, the DSA is not inferior to the PSLE. My son had to prepare an e-portfolio, sit for tests, participate in interviews (focus groups and individual), and take part in performance assessments over the span of a month. He also has to do well enough in the PSLE to keep his place in his next school.

Second, kids are more talented than we give them credit for. Their talents are often quieted and schooled out of them. If we watch, listen, and talk to kids, their passions and talents become clear. Such talents can grow and evolve to help them find their niche in life.

Creativity cannot be taught as a skill, but it can be killed -- Yong Zhao.

My son thinks that he was the only one in his class to apply for DSA. This made the comments even more cutting. Was there any need to throw shade at the DSA and kids with talents not accounted for by the PSLE?

This is like parents (still) saying that playing video games has absolutely no value. Those parents need to expand their scope of who they watch on YouTube, e.g., TheDiamondMinecart, Sky Does Minecraft, Stampy, Paul Soares Jr., PewDiePie, Markiplier, CaptainSparklez.

Values are more CAUGHT than they are TAUGHT.

When it emerged that my son had taken the DSA route, some of his classmates gave him unsolicited feedback like, “SOTA is a shit school!” They could not understand why he even considered that option.

Kids are honest and open portals to the values of adults. I have said before that values are more caught than they are taught [1] [2] [3]. The words and actions of parents and teachers shape the thoughts and behaviours of kids. It is frightening to see what prevails.

I started this reflection by wondering if I was in denial about how teachers mindsets have changed. I have shared one anecdote of a classroom teacher possibly in denial about alternative paths to learning and success.

Are you really thinking or are you merely rearranging your biases?

We are still thankful for the efforts of our son’s teachers because they invariably leave a mark. They might focus on delivering lessons in class, but sometimes they accidentally offer lessons in life.

DSA SOTA confirmation of offer.

This Teachers’ Day we will thank my son’s teachers — the ones that are still around because quite a few have left the school. We will also share some good news: We just found out that our son has been accepted into the literary arts programme in SOTA.

If my son’s teachers see themselves as learners first, they might also reflect on the lessons in this story.

This STonline article featured kids who were getting tuition years in advance of what they might be ready for. To be more precise, their parents were arranging enrichment tuition for their children to stay ahead whether their kids were ready or not.

I will not rant about the state of enrichment classes here as I have written about this sometimes ugly form of tuition before. I focus on one element of the article: The sample of three questions asked of students seeking Direct School Admission.

Three sample DSA questions.

Are these the best questions we can muster for DSA students? DSA is meant to not just focus on academic aptitude but also on values, attitudes, and character traits as well. Instead of waiting for interviews, portfolios, and observations, why not ask questions that matter?

I offer three questions of my own.

Question 1: You are a school prefect. You spot one student bullying another student outside of school. You realise that the bully is your best friend and the victim is a classmate. What do you do? Why?

Question 2: You were given $50 in cash as a birthday present from your grandparents. You decide to donate some, save some, and spend some. How much will you allocate for each purpose? Why?

Question 3: More and more of your classmates seem to be getting enrichment tuition. Consider Scenario A or Scenario B.

Scenario A: Your parents want you to have tuition every day after school. What will you say to your parents? Why?

Scenario B: You do not want to have tuition. How do you justify this decision to your parents?

The STonline article offered model answers to its questions. There are no fixed answers for mine. Instead, the focus is on values-based reasoning, critical and creative thinking, the clarity of communication, and a host of other skills.

Can you offer reasonable solutions to my questions? Can your children?

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.

One of the announcements at this year’s National Day Rally was a wider spectrum of entry criteria for the Direct School Admission programme.

Some might say the DSA makes a mockery of standardized exams because it allows Primary school students to get into the Secondary school of their choice. While Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results are still used as criteria once they are released, the student with entry via DSA already has a foothold that non-DSA students do not.

A few might wonder if the PSLE is even necessary if such an alternative form of evaluation exists. Others might argue that the DSA criteria are not enough.

That brings us back to increasing the selection criteria for DSA. What traits might students be evaluated on? Leadership? Character?

When those traits were bandied about in popular media, people asked if things like character and leadership could be measured among 12-year-olds.

You can measure just about anything, even fuzzy, hard to quantify things like happiness [happiness index]. But let us not kid ourselves into thinking that these measures are absolute, objective, or universal.

A trait like creativity is due to many things, and an instrument no matter how elaborate, cannot measure all aspects of creativity. Most fuzzy concepts, like beauty, are subjective no matter how much you quantify them. Ask anyone to define creativity or beauty and you will get different answers; there is no single understanding.

Whenever you measure anything, there are margins of error that originate from the measurer and the measuring instrument. Sometimes the object or subject measured introduces error. Consider what happens if person A measures a fidgety person B’s height with a tape measure.

Let us say that you could measure leadership or character precisely. Just because you can does not mean you should. How different is a person when he is 6, 12, 18, 24 or 36? What if a value judgement at 12 puts a child on a trajectory that s/he is not suitable for?

We learnt that the hard way when we started streaming kids when they were 10 (Normal, Extended or Monolingual). Thankfully that process has been removed from our schooling system. Actually, I take that back. We still test for “giftedness” at 10. Some schools start pre-selecting at 9.

That said, we would be foolish to think that we do not already gauge people on fuzzy traits like character. It happens in the hiring and firing of employees. Some might argue that we are just bringing that process up the line of development.

There are many ways to measure fuzzy traits. At a recent #edsg conversation, I tweeted:

Whether or not these measures to provide alternative evaluation are implemented, we will read in forum letters, blog entries, and Facebook posts rhetorical statements like “parents must change their mindsets.”

Of course they must. But they are not going to do so automatically.

Folks who highlight mindset sometimes fail to realize that you have to start somewhere with behaviour modification. In systemic change, you start with one or more leverage points. In our case, it is the way people are evaluated.

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