Next week around 12,000 Singaporeans enter our university system. These students are privileged in many senses of the word. But their entry to university may have been helped by factors that will ultimately limit their ability to succeed.
For many students, the path to university was made easier by hyper-attentive parents and an army of professional and voluntary support staff offering tutorial and other assistance outside of formal schooling.
In recent years, this has moved beyond the idea of a “helicopter” parent, hovering about the child and ensuring that no minute of the day is unscheduled. Today, the metaphor is of a “snowplough” parent, clearing away any potential obstacle in his or her path.
(If such an image is hard to conjure in a tropical climate, an “outrider” parent — protecting and speeding the path of one’s child — fits just as well.)
The impulse to help our children achieve their potential is a natural and a laudable one.
Yet the extremes to which parents are prepared to go were on display in the collapse of Kelvin Ong’s Aristocare tuition centre. Well-intentioned mothers and fathers paid up to $15,000 to coach their children into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) — a stream intended for children endowed with intellectual “gifts” by nature rather than hothousing parents.
This is, of course, just the tip of Singapore’s billion dollar tuition iceberg.
Whether that money is well spent, and whether it suggests deficiencies in the primary and secondary school system are important issues.
As these students enter university, however, three other types of problems arise.
The first is that students who have been groomed for success in narrow fields may overvalue that success and take it for granted. As a result, they may be overconfident about attributes that are less important than they think.
The ability to do well in tests is a poor predictor for achievement and happiness. Doing well academically certainly helps, but at an advanced level that embraces analytical and critical skills that go far beyond answering questions. These need to be coupled with other life skills such as the ability to communicate effectively, to cope with change, to overcome setbacks, and to work with and mobilize a team.
Overemphasis on test results is tied to a second problem, which is an unhealthy fear of failure. Students who have routinely scored A grades naturally worry about seeing other letters in the alphabet.
That is a concern because innovation and creativity require being prepared to fail.
The business world understands this: anyone who has never failed to meet their sales targets probably isn’t setting those targets high enough.
It was unusual and tremendously refreshing to see this insight celebrated at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in its recent “Fail Week”.
The third type of problem, which is more general but reinforced by the first two, is the conservatism of Singapore’s meritocracy.
That meritocracy is admirable in many ways and responsible for much of the Republic’s success.
Yet in addition to rewarding ability, it also punishes mistakes.
Singaporean students are nothing if not responsive to incentives. They quickly learn that they must work hard and hone their skills.
They also gravitate towards areas where success can be an objective certainty rather than a gamble. I’m always struck, for example, by the number of students aspiring to study law who choose mathematics over history, or science over politics.
The result is that many of Singapore’s highest achieving students are exceptionally competent, ranked among the best in the world — but also a little narrow and very risk-averse.
* * *
As part of their orientation activities last week, I had the pleasure of welcoming 260 incoming students to the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. These incredibly talented young men and women have worked hard — and often their parents have worked hard — to get into law school.
Yet I had to warn them that the next four years would be very different from their education to date.
Until now, much of their education was built around being posed questions to which there was a single answer, taught by teachers who knew what that answer was. Extra tuition and parental support ensured that they could provide that answer in exam conditions.
These skills are of limited value in law school — or in life — where there is normally more than one possible answer. And although a law professor probably has an opinion on the matter, he or she is usually looking more for strong arguments in support of an answer rather than the answer itself.
Serendipitously, these students enter university just as the London Olympic Games conclude.
So I took the opportunity to point out that the individual achievements of the Olympics are actually built on failure.
No one wins a gold medal without having lost an earlier race, without having struggled against opponents who were stronger. And the Olympics would be pointless if the only people who took part were those who knew for a certainty that they would take home gold.
The reason we care about the Olympics — and a quality we need to develop in our own lives — is the struggle to do your best without knowing if it will be enough. To know the risk of failure, and keep trying anyway.
Paddler Feng Tianwei, for example, is rightly celebrated for her individual bronze medal. But in a crucial match — the semi-finals — she lost. Four years earlier, she came back from Beijing without an individual medal at all.
Her triumph is all the greater for having failed. Indeed, she epitomizes the lesson of Samuel Beckett’s line from Worstward Ho: Try, fail. Try again; fail again. Fail better.
Similar lessons might be taken from the Paralympics, which start on August 29. These athletes have faced and overcome obstacles most of us never have to confront.
* * *
The problem with snowplough or outrider parenting is that it creates the illusion of success by over-preparing our children for a very limited set of tasks.
As many of the nation’s children prepare to take their PSLE exams, I realise that this might be a difficult thing to ask. But instead of filling any spare time with extra tuition, consider watching some of the highlights of the Olympics and talking about the importance of perseverance, and how it’s ok to try something new and hard — even if you fail.
Or better yet, take your children outside and play a game.
And if they fall down or if they lose, tell them to get up and try again.
The writer is the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.
Published in the Straits Times on 11 August 2012.