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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Shadow Education: Helpful or Harmful?

A couple years ago, one of my seventh grade students complained that I was giving the class too much homework. "We don't have time to do all this work," he argued vehemently.
"Why not?" I asked, wondering what these kids were doing after school.
"We have too much other stuff to do after school," he replied.

Curious, I polled my class. What do you do after school each day?
The results were about as stereotypical as results could get.
Most of my East Asian kids went on to hagwon (Korean school) or juku (Japanese school) or tuition classes of some sort for two hours every evening. There, they studied Math, English, and their native language.
Most of my South Asian kids spent a lot of time at "tutions," but they also engaged in some extracurricular activities.
And most of my European/Australian kids spent a lot of time on after-school sports. One of my students swam for two hours every evening. Another was at basketball practice for hours, and she travelled all over the region for tournaments.

In the Indian community in Singapore, moms often talk about Divesh Shah, the math guru who guarantees high scores in high school Math. Every Indian kid I meet here goes to Divesh Shah, and these moms swear by him. He's tough though -- the kids stay at his tuition center for hours, and he piles extra homework on them as well. But he does guarantee results.

I've been thinking a lot about the Asian practice of "shadow education." Sometimes, shadow education happens at home: moms "sitting with their kids" on a daily basis to supplement school education with extra math worksheets. Sometimes it includes private tutors. Often it involves large, established "enrichment centers" or "after-school schools" including Kumon, Abacus, Korean school (hagwons), Japanese schools (jukus), Divesh Shah centers, Mindlab, and a host of other tuition centers. Much of the academic success that Asian kids experience is a result of long hours in a shadow-school of some sort.

The proliferation and success of shadow-schools makes me wonder about a lot of things:

What is the role of a school? Should schools be sufficient in and of themselves? Is shadow education a sign that regular schools are failing? Does it mean that schools don't give students sufficient opportunities for practice during school hours?

Or is it an alternative model of education: schools tell kids what they should be able to do, provide creative opportunities to begin to explore these topics, and assess how well they can do these things. To supplement schools, shadow schools teach kids how to do these tasks well and give them opportunities for drill and practice. Society sort of acknowledges the limitations of group settings/school settings, and accepts the need for the shadow school to make sure that students get more individualized attention and practice.

Would kids be better off if we acknowledged and formalized the role of shadow schools by cutting the school day down so that kids go home for lunch? Then kids can go to shadow school earlier, finish up earlier, and have a little more time for fun stuff?

Do shadow schools cause too much pressure and competition amongst students? How much school is sufficient for students?

Many of my Western colleagues are very against the practice of shadow-schooling because they believe that it destroys creativity. Do shadow schools squelch and destroy creativity by making students focus entirely on analytical skills, test-taking strategies, and drill and practice exercises? Would these kids be better off taking a walk in the park and day-dreaming? Or painting a picture or reading a book? What is the opportunity cost of these shadow-schools?

The Singapore School system's new learner-centered motto is "Teach Less, Learn More." As one Singaporean parent said to me, what they really mean is that the schools will teach less so that the students can go to even more tuition classes to learn more. Is that really what's going on in Singaporean schools and international schools?

I'm curious about what moms think of shadow schools: a blessing? a necessary evil? a terrible source of pressure and competition?

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