The Evolution of Streaming, and What We Can Learn from School Of The Animals: A note from John

On 6th April, I attended a dialogue session about the evolution of streaming with Second Minister of Education Ms Indranee Rajah and Director of Schools Ms Liew Wei Li and thought I’d share my perspective as a parent and an educator.

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The purpose of the dialogue session organised by the Ministry of Education (MOE) is to help parents understand how streaming has evolved over the last four decades and why MOE has decided to finally do away with streaming with the introduction of Full Subject-Based Banding (FSBB) in 2024.

There are many articles online that explain how FSBB works, so I will not go into details here. The gist of it is that instead of streaming post-PSLE students into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical), there will now be a single stream wherein each subject will be categorised into three levels – General 1 (G1), General 2 (G2), and General 3 (G3) – G3 being the highest level. Depending on how a student does in PSLE for each subject, in Secondary 1 the student will be able to take subjects at different levels. For instance, a student who did very well in PSLE English may be offered G3 English while taking all other subjects at G2 level. This approach continues when students move on to Secondary 2 and beyond, so students are able to take the same subject at a higher level if they do well in it.

One reason MOE is removing streaming is to avoid labelling students and the stigma that comes with that. It’s a deeply held belief amongst Singaporeans that Normal stream students are not as smart as Express stream students, and many parents do everything within their means to get their child into Express. Naturally, many Normal stream students are socialised to learn low self-esteem, and believe at age thirteen that their stock in life is to be blue collar workers, while Express stream students go on to become ministers and CEOs.

Removing streaming hopefully gets rid of the stigma of being labelled a ‘normal’ student, thereby creating multiple pathways for students to achieve success.

The team at Saturday Kids is passionate about reducing inequality in society, and to the extent that removing labelling increases confidence in teenagers and helps them realise their potential, we are fully in favour of getting rid of streaming.

Just as importantly, I hope that by allowing students to take individual subjects at a level that is right for them, students discover the joy of learning – an important step to getting students to become curious, self-directed learners.

Someone told me about the School Of The Animals (the other SOTA), where all animals have to learn to fly, run and swim. The eagle excelled at flying, but wasn’t such a good runner or swimmer. The duck was an excellent swimmer, but being forced to run destroyed her webbed feet, so much so that she wasn’t able to swim anymore.

My hope is that FSBB will let the eagles amongst our kids fly higher, or the ducks swim faster. Along the way, maybe an eagle child will realise that besides flying, she’s really good at hunting too. Or a duck child may discover how good she is at diving.

Clearly the policy makers at MOE who decided to remove streaming have good intentions.

Unfortunately, often when we solve one problem, we end up unintentionally creating another one that’s even worse.

Second order thinking necessitates that we think through problems to the second, third, and nth order. That’s not to say the powers that be at MOE haven’t thought things through.

Rather, MOE is up against a fundamental law of biological history – that life is competition, and competition is the trade of life.

Often times us parents are our own worst enemies. If there’s a G3 swim level to be attained, we will not let our child settle for G2, much less G1, never mind that we have a precocious eaglet waiting to soar. If Jane Duckling next door can swim like a G3, then so must our baby eagle.

As parents we need to recognise that this blind desire to keep pushing our child to take every subject at the highest possible level does the child more harm than good. What good can come out of drilling a fish to climb a tree?

Everything we do at Saturday Kids boils down to the belief that if kids can become curious, self-directed learners, they will be set for life, and so the best thing we can do for a child is to help him or her enjoy learning and develop a growth mindset. As parents, we must be weary of the Greek sirens that tuition businesses are, luring us (parent-and-child) with their enchanting music to shipwreck on the rocky coast of the island called Race To The Bottom. The MOE team behind FSSB are the sailors bounding us to the mast, but as parents we need to find the Odysseus in us if we are to survive hearing the sirens sing.

The last time I attended a dialogue session with Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung, I came away feeling rather more optimistic about the future of education. This dialogue session with Minister Indranee Rajah is no different. Every dialogue session leaves me feeling more confident that the women and men at the top know which direction mainstream education should be headed.

It is up to us as parents to not succumb to our own weaknesses and suck the joy of learning out of our child.

Singapore as a nation has done remarkably well, largely off the back of being as a legal and financial hub for the ASEAN region, but if we are to continue to prosper for the next 50 years, our children will need to become builders and makers. We need our own Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, James Dyson, Larry Page. What all these entrepreneurs have in common is an innate curiosity and the self-confidence to challenge the status quo. We need our kids to do the same.

Because Singapore matters.

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