Should our education system pool or separate people?

So over the past 2–3 weeks, I’ve been pondering over our education system. It all started with that chat I had with my friends, and then the article I wrote, and then more thinking. I even thought at one point I want to start a podcast about education and go around interviewing people about how they want to change it. The truth is the majority of us have brushes with it and experiences with it — pleasant or not. And those were worthwhile voicing out, to augment and improve the system. You don’t need to be an educator or professional to do it. I was not just thinking about the system in Singapore but this whole industry of education, testing, whether it is about building up or just sieving out; whether it is implicitly defining merit rather than bringing up people to merit.

Now the recurring question I had in mind was whether education, which is supposed to be the great leveller, should be ‘sorting’ people with its system of testing and exams or ‘lifting’ people up to a certain level. To put it at another layer, it is also about whether education should be tuned to provide signals about a particular person or be tuned to develop a person. What underlies this difference is implicitly the ‘fixed mindset’ vis-à-vis the ‘growth mindset’ that the one tuning the system has about people, and the potential of the society at large.

Signalling Function: Separating or Pooling

Now the title of the article references this feature of systems that are set up to create signals. It assumes there are different ‘types’ in the environment and the system design can result in everyone signalling the same (ie. pooling) or signalling differently (ie. separating). In general, examinations are designed to create separating equilibria. We are taught to think that a test that results in everyone scoring A is pointless because exams are to help us differentiate the best from the rest. Or is it? Shouldn’t an exam or test be used to measure students/learners against a benchmark you want to train them up to?

So shouldn’t we be keeping the testing constant and adjusting the teaching and content to ensure we can ‘lift up’ everyone rather than ‘sort them out’. Because when we design exams to generate a ‘normal distribution’ outcome, then we are implicitly saying someone in the room deserves to be the last when it is just a natural outcome of a relative system. We can no longer trace ‘culpability’ back to the students’commitment and efforts because someone has got to be last in class — someone has got to be in the lower tail of that normal distribution. What a depressing way to think about education outcomes.

Therefore, this signalling function of education runs against the grain of all the effort, sense of purpose that we are imbued with as we try to develop our students into people worthy of our society, yet that is the way we design our assessment, which nowadays seem more like the end of school rather than just an instrument that the schools used to provide a means for students to check themselves against some kind of standards.

Competing with yourself

Now the way our assessments are designed also means that you are creating competition amongst students. Because results are somewhat relative, you can do better when your classmates do worse. At national level or in moderated standardised testing which is really used to perform ‘sorting’ at cohort population level, the result gives you your relative position within the society rather than your absolute standards.Well, people will say, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Life is a competition and it’s about getting ahead of others.

As I mentioned previously, this is a recipe for a society-wide mental health disaster; especially if job options are strongly correlated with academic performance subsequently. Worst, the parents and society shares the idea that only jobs requiring those qualifications are worthwhile going for. In reality, the most important competition in your life is with yourself and it is important for you to be able to track your progress, to know you’re growing. Take for example when you measure the height of a child to see he is growing; you might look at the height percentile chart at any one point to say, oh he is 40th percentile, below average for his age, but we know he used to be 136 cm but now he is 140 cm, he is definitely growing. You don’t get worried that he used to be 55th percentile when he was a year younger but now at the 40thpercentile in height.

You might say because relative height don’t matter as much as academic achievement in life. But the same principle remains that having an objective way of tracking your progress of growth helps give you the encouragement to keep going. Our school testing and exam systems do not help us achieve that. They do not allow students to compete with themselves; at every test, they are just taking the same cohort, sorting them into grades/scores again and again with different combinations of topics and subjects. How this really helps the growth and development of a single child is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t matter so much when your parents, society at large and teachers focus on your attitude, your character and values more than exam results. But I have a feeling that we naturally gravitate more towards what is measurable and allow that to become the dominant yardstick.

By ‘pooling’ students into just a few ‘prestigious subjects’ (eg. the sciences) and ‘separating’ them into grades within these disciplines, we risk funnelling them further and deeper into intense competitions when we should be training them to find niches for themselves to escape competition. In business or society, when you encounter a red ocean (full of sharks, ie. competition), you run, and you try to define your own market, a blue ocean you can swim in. Yet in schools we don’t prepare students for a life that involves seeking blue oceans, we try to force everyone to swim in the bloody waters and create artificial bloodbaths.

An alternative: Sorting by strengths, Lifting up everyone

I thought long and hard about what the education system should really be separating and pooling instead of the traditional model. And I have an alternative to suggest. It will be aligned with the ideas I proposed previously. To prepare students truly for society, the system should be sorting students into various areas of strength/practice/disciplines that they are to be nurtured for rather than choosing a fixed set of disciplines and then sorting students according to their abilities in those disciplines. And be serious about nurturing them in the areas they are sorted into. Expose students to more things whilst they are young instead of specifying subjects and saying they ought to have headstart in those areas and drill them with content. Sort people horizontally across a spectrum of different areas rather than vertically along a spectrum of ‘abilities’ — help students develop their strengths and hone their craft.

A well-functioning society requires a good spread of people with head, heart and hands. You may say that we are exposed to the competition of the global market but price need not be the only signals we heed, quality matters, identity as fellow citizens matters. And these are values that we can cultivate when we sort people not by their ‘abilities’ in narrow areas of human endeavour, but by sorting them in a way where they see the value they can contribute to the society.

Why this is so important is because so much of Singaporean’s students’ lives are squandered meandering around the system designed to not so much to genuinely develop every student but to sieve out the top academics/intellectuals. Imagine you are cluelessabout your strengths but you know you’re not a study-type. And each year you try hard but you’re consistently sorted into the tail end of the distribution, for every single subject where there’s a test/exam. You score A for arts and you are told you draw well but none of those are reflected or considered when you have to select which school to go into. You’re continually told you’re underperforming, ‘doing badly’ — of course you try to deal with the feelings of inadequacy and being judged harshly by ‘rebeling’ against the system. And then the system tells you that you’re doing badly precisely because you’re behaving badly.

If we had an alternative system, I believe Jerome Yap’s story would have turned out differently. Of course, if I were him now, I wouldn’t want it to be any different because the adversity I went through mademe who I am. But under the different system, he would be ‘discovered’ at an earlier age, and his talents will be nurtured by his parents and teachers (who do not have to seem like they are working against the system); he might have already started his own successful design business by the age of 28 — with a degree or not. In fact, the degree won’t be what we are celebrating, it would be the fact that we have such talent from this small city state.

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Kevin Low

Kevin Low

Alive, breathing, growing and sipping coffee in Singapore. Thinking | Writing | Career-coaching — kevlow.com