Singapore’s Tuition Fixation Is More Harmful Than We Think

In a recent keynote speech on 12 September 2012, Singapore’s Minister for Education Mr Heng Swee Keat touched on many current issues regarding education in Singapore – one of them being our nation’s tuition fixation, its cause, and how we can address the problem.

Among what he said, here are 4 points I feel deserve further discussion, and I’d like to share my opinion on why tuition fixation is more detrimental for children than we think.

1. The “Sources of Stress” for Our Pupils

“…For others, it is extra assessment books, tuition and enrichment classes. Just walk into any of our bookshops and you will see that one of the largest sections is that for assessment books. It is the same in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. For many, it is expectation and ambition to do one’s best – especially at high stakes examinations.”

I think Mr Heng got it right when he said that the tuition fixation is not uniquely Singaporean but applicable to East Asia. I think this mindset of “academic excellence being the only way to a good life” is deeply rooted in our culture and politics. In Imperial China, there was the famous Imperial Examination system (科举[kē jǔ]) that helped the emperor to select the best administrative officials for the state’s bureaucracy. This system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China, and I believe it still influences Chinese culture in today’s modern society. The idea that academic excellence leads to guaranteed high-ranking positions in the government is still deeply rooted in today’s Chinese parents. It is evident from their mindset: that doing well in Gaokao (The National Higher Education Entrance Examination) is the only way to have a successful life in modern China, thus justifying the thousands of dollars spent on tuition per year for many Chinese middle-class families.

It is easy to change a policy, but not so easy to change the mindset of the people, especially something that is so deeply rooted in our cultural heritage. Still, with the increasingly flattened world, the free access to knowledge, and the advance of technology, learning and education are being transformed at an amazing pace.

2. Parents “Want The Best For Their Children”

“So, while some parents know that …, they still send their children for tuition and enrichment classes for fear that they may fall behind.” … “parents will want the best for their children. We cannot stop this. Nor should we. Even for students who are doing well, some will choose to have tuition even if it is not necessary, just to “make doubly sure” as we love to say.”

That’s a pretty safe statement to make. After all (as mentioned above), the “kiasu” culture or Tiger Mom syndrome play their part in tuition fixation. However, there are other aspects of this statement that deserve more attention.

I believe there is a justified desire from parents for greater personalized attention to their children in order to cater to each pupil’s individual needs. The traditional classroom format of “teachers lecture and assign homework” is, in my opinion, outdated in today’s information age. New learning approaches, such as the famous flipped classroom or teach-less-learn-more concept are gaining momentum worldwide. In today’s context, it’s often when students do their homework and attempt challenges that they realize their concept gaps, and require most assistance during this stage.

3. The Benefits of Tuition?

“This is not to say that tuition and extra support are not useful for some students. … Students who are weak can benefit from help. However, teachers cannot do everything, and community tuition schemes, …have been useful. Tertiary students have also volunteered their time to help weaker students.”

I have to respectfully disagree with this point. I think when we evaluate a system (say tuition system), we really have to look at the bigger picture – the main function it serves. Every system has its pros and cons, so should evaluate a system based on 90% of its functions instead of the 10%.

Before discussing the functions of tuition, what I really want to highlight is my personal belief of the role of a (good) teacher: not simply passing on knowledge, but to inspire – to ignite the fire and to impart a love for learning in his/her students. So the real question to ask here is: are the functions of today’s tuition classes primarily to inspire our students?  I doubt so. I think that because of private tuition, most students hate studying even more.

4. The Most Worrying Problem With Excessive Tuition

“But excessive tuition is harmful. If students over-learn, they become bored in class. It also comes at the expense of CCA, which is an indispensable part of holistic development, and time for other pursuits like reading which broadens the mind, and spending time with friends and family.”

The problems associated with excessive tuition are numerous beyond the few points mentioned by Mr Heng. I just want to mention the one that worries me the most:

As an undergraduate student I spent four years giving private tuition to primary and secondary school students, on almost every weekend. I noticed a trend among most of my students: the more tuition they’d had, the more likely they were to suffer a deficiency in problem-solving skills. They just didn’t like, or felt insecure to solve problems independently. Whenever presented with challenging questions or complex concepts, the first instinct is to wait until the weekend when the tutor (me) came to explain and help solve the problems. There is a very subtle and gradual transformation of mind to grow dependent on the tutor.

Yes, tuition can improve grades in the short term, but the ability to solve real-life challenges is the key to our children’s future success, and the success of our nation as a whole. Look at the top 1% cohort of students in Singapore and you’ll find that most of them rarely need tuition. So is tuition really the key to success? The facts speak for themselves.


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