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Putting the EQ into Education


Our education system has a brain; now it needs more of a heart.


First published on in January 2012

Imagine this. Your boss calls you into an hour-long meeting and for that entire duration tells you everything he or she thinks is not good enough about you. At the end of that meeting, you emerge feeling terrible—discouraged, angry, sad, indignant etc.


Now imagine you hear that same negative messaging over and over again, every single day, for weeks and months on end. And you are only 9, 12 or 15 years old. How will you end up feeling about yourself? How will that affect your performance and decisions? Adversely, quite likely. Many children in Singapore schools face just this.


In 2011, Yale professor and unabashed advocate of extreme parenting Amy Chua wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. This widely read and controversial book proudly trumpeted the superiority of tough Chinese-style parenting over ‘soft’ Western parenting, sneering at what she decried as the latter’s obsession with this overrated thing called self-esteem.


None of this is unfamiliar to parents who have children in the Singapore school system. Our education system is a magnified Tiger Parent. It has taken this approach to educating children and applied it to a whole nation. It has systemized Tiger Parenting with its over-emphasis on examinations, grades, streaming, admissions criteria, and compounded it by meritocracy—that focuses on rewarding the most capable students. Even co-curricular activities are scored, and there is little room for a student to do something because they want to or enjoy it, without worrying about chalking up points or not. Effusive praise is bestowed on those who achieve, while those who don’t put up with some degree of humiliation, implicit or explicit. So there is palpable emotional pressure as well as academic pressure.


And is this necessarily a bad thing? After all, with this approach we produce a steady crop of scholars that go on to the world’s top universities, other countries admire our education system and our children are generally a disciplined lot.

Our syllabus and exam-based curriculum model can also dampen a student’s spirit. The nature of this route of learning is typically practice, drill, learning the right answers or using a particular method to arrive at a particular answer. Students who minds are more inquisitive, who have ideas of their own, who want to challenge or question, often find it hard to do so. If they are lucky, they have a teacher who has the mental bandwidth, generosity of spirit and time to engage his or her students in this freer manner, if not, the students might find themselves put down and squashed. Sometimes this is done on the basis of not questioning the teacher’s authority.


Not to disparage teachers, principals and other educators in our school system. We have many amazing educators who enlightened, caring and sensitive individuals. I personally am fortunate enough to have some of those educators in my children’s lives. And there have been notable improvements to this end in our education system, such as the introduction of specialized schools; the Ministry of Education’s Student Development Curriculum division that focuses on building educators’ soft skills; and generally more awareness and sensitivity on the part of educators and parents about the importance of having good emotional quotient.


But old habits die hard. Part of the problem is simply cultural, part of it systemic and part of it comes from the tremendous demands educators themselves face. Large classes, long hours, heavy workloads, insufficient support staff and their own performance being measured by the achievements of their students, would test the patience of a saint.


For every child that thrives under the Tiger style, other children shrivel up inside. So there really needs to be more emphasis on our educators’ EQ. On their ability to lift up and affirm our children, especially the younger ones, and help make sure they’re doing well, not just on paper, but in their hearts and minds too.


But we have also seen an increase in child and teenage depression. The most extreme and tragic manifestation of this is suicide, which sadly has also been creeping up. In May and June of 2011 alone there were three teenage suicides reported in the news. The Samaritans of Singapore stated that the number of teen suicides went from 12 in 2008 to 19 in 2009. And a 2009 study by a team of doctors from Woodbridge Hospital and the Institute of Mental Health showed that 22 percent of primary school children harboured thoughts of killing themselves. Many factors come into play of course, including friends, family and the Internet, and pressure in school is definitely one.


Early streaming (or ‘banding’ as it is called), in my opinion, is one huge culprit of stigmatization, as it immediately sticks a label on a child’s forehead, often in indelible ink. It’s often no secret which classes are the ‘best’ and which are the ‘worst,’ no matter how much a school tries to disguise it. Educators reinforce this judgment, sometimes unconsciously; in the words that slip from their lips, the mental postures and attitudes they adopt that reveal a bias. The students labeled ‘better’ feel a sense of pride, while those marked ‘slow’ feel the pain.


For a child, this can be a big emotional burden to carry. If they internalize the message that they ‘can’t make it,’ there’s a greater chance they won’t because they already believe they can’t. Self-confidence goes down and any ability they have might not get harnessed. Too often we hear of students in slower streams who are actually very talented in some way but who couldn’t prove themselves in their examinations, who end up feeling hugely inferior.


Insensitive teacher-student dynamics play a huge part. Evoking shame and fear in children is unfortunately still not an uncommon way for some educators to go about getting things done. They hang the threat of punishment over the heads of our school children everyday, which can take the form of missing recess to detention, and mete it out quite readily for offences both big and small. So a child who makes even a minor mistake, like bringing the wrong file to school, could end up feeling like they’ve let someone down, never mind if they fail in something major like an exam. This increases anxiety in children (what am I going to do wrong today) and teaches them to be motivated by fear rather than by fulfillment.

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