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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 29 February 2016

Wisdom from the Dalai Lama: Can we teach compassion

"In my experience, what we need is a calm mind, and warm-heartedness provides a basis for that. That’s how we make ourselves happy as individuals in families, local communities and nations. I believe that if we can train those who are young today in these qualities, the world will be a more peaceful place later in this century." - Dalai Lama


"Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Modern civilization places great importance on filling the human brain with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human heart with compassion.Compassion is not religious, it is human. It is not a luxury, it is essential for our emotional and mental stability and for human peace and survival."

- Dalai Lama

I just finished reading the Dalai Lama's book "Beyond Religion," where he argues that ethics and compassion transcend all religious/secular beliefs, and that they are in fact the basis  not only to a more humane world but also to individual human happiness. I agree completely with the Dalai Lama. If we can teach our kids to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, and calm, we will be doing the best job possible as parents and teachers. And research increasingly suggests that character can be taught. Here's an older post I wrote: Can Empathy Be Taught, which offers some specific tools for parents and educators to use. 

And here are some fantastic picture books for kids (ages 4 to 8) that teach empathy and compassion. They're my favorites -- artistic masterpieces in every sense of the word! These books will foster deep and thoughtful discussions about kindness, compassion, empathy, and managing our emotions. I can't recommend the books below highly enough. And if you're looking for multicultural literature, this list offers a very diverse selection.

The Last Kappa of Old Japan, by Sunny Seiki 

Silent Lotus, by Jeanne Lee
Grandfather Gandhi, by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
Fly Free, by Roseanne Thong
How Full is Your Bucket, by Tom Rath
Kali and the Rat Snake, by Zai Whitaker
Zen Ties, by John J. Muth
Each Kindness, by Jaqueline Wilson

Why Singaporeans love Beyond the Tiger Mom!

Here's a lovely review by June Wan of Singapore Motherhood! To see the complete interview and review, check out the full article in Singapore Motherhood.

Review: Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age by Maya Thiagarajan

Singaporean parents, in particular, will love this book. Not just because each chapter concludes with pages of tips and how-tos on topics close to our hearts — how to build a math-rich home, how to help your child memorise information, how to supplement your child’s education are some examples —  but also because author Maya is a parent who is particularly like us.
Like us, she straddles an east-west divide when it comes to parenting. Like us, her heritage is Asian. Like us, she had a Western-based education delivered in English. And most of all, like us, when it comes to parenting, she is sometimes confused about which style to follow – the stricter, more structured, authoritarian, academics-driven Asian style, or the freer, more independent, Western-style with its emphases on positive discipline, creativity, and freedom.
Just as there is no perfect style of parenting, there is no perfect answer. The solution, Maya suggests, lies within the straddle. And here, once again, it is typically Singaporean. Her interviews with parents in Singapore reinforce our ‘uniquelySG’ quirks. “I know I’m a kiasu mum because I feel more anxious than my son does when he takes an exam,” one admits.
The Asian obsession with tuition is accepted with wry acceptance: “One mother estimated that thirty out of the thirty-five students in her son’s class… attended tuition in all their major academic subjects. Her son himself spends all day Saturday at tuition classes.”
As one foot remains firmly planted on Asian soil, Maya encourages us to embrace the western tenets of 21st-Century parenting — to help our children develop a growth mindset, to frame failure as a learning experience — to move along with changes in technology that have made parenting now so different from what we know and how we were brought up.
Perhaps, while waiting for the child’s tuition class to end, mum (or dad) could read this book. You’ll chuckle over parental excesses, probably identify with most of them, devour the parenting and teaching tips at the end of each chapter, find community with parents featured, and come away reassured that your style of east-west parenting — whether you’re a Tiger parent or not — is the right way to raise your little Asian Tiger. — June Wan

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Awash in Data: The perils of a data-driven education culture

Where's the data? What kind of data has value? And what are educators in schools doing with all this data?

Here's a great piece from Education Week on the uselessness of tomes of education data.

As a high school teacher, I've been struggling with all the emphasis on data and scores. We keep track of tons of scores -- standardized test scores, predictive scores, mock exam scores -- in a huge excel spreadsheet at school.  My kids complete math drills online, and then get scoresheets that track their performances in a number of different ways. Teachers who use Harkness tables for student run discussions are encouraged to gather data on which students speak and how much they speak. And in the Lab school started by Sal Khan in the US, (which I wrote about here), every conversation becomes an exercise in data gathering.

We educators are awash in a sea of data.

But you know what? I think that all this data collection has little value. And in fact, I think that our emphasis on data can actually be a dangerous thing. And here's why.

Firstly, as the author of the article in Ed Week points out, most of this data doesn't lead to student improvement in any way. In the old-fashioned world of education, teachers would give kids tests or assessments that required the kids to study and work. Then teachers would grade these tests/assessments and offer lots of targeted feedback. Kids would do "corrections," or in the case of an essay, "a revision," to show that they had learnt from their mistakes. While teachers wouldn't be collecting reams of data, they would be engaged in making sure that students learnt from their mistakes. These teacher-developed classroom assessments were all that parents, students, and teachers really needed to ensure that kids were learning.

In today's world, kids take a million tests that have nothing to do with what's going on in the classroom, and schools are constantly trying to mine all kinds of data -- but there's no feedback loop from teacher to student, and there's no emphasis on corrections, revisions, and actual learning. So what's the point?

Secondly, there's something inherently dehumanizing about all this data. The information that I feel matters most to me as a teacher is not stuff that can be captured using numbers and spreadsheets.

It's not numerical data I'm looking for.
What I'm looking for is the look of triumph in a student's eye when she finally makes connections and understands something important.
I'm looking at the child who refuses to meet my eye because he's clearly upset about something.
And I learn a lot from those casual conversations in the hallway, or the off-hand comment a child makes about a book she just read.
I'm looking for the wonderful piece of writing that a child shares with me, where I can see what she's thinking about and how she's working through the writing process.
I'm looking for the feeling of energy in the classroom as kids engage in a heated discussion.

Increasingly, I feel as though technology, testing, and the emphasis on data collection are somehow dehumanizing education.

We're turning a fundamentally human profession based on human relationships into a data gathering exercise where kids become reduced to a series of numbers in an excel spreadsheet. And that scares me.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Book Update!

My book, Beyond the Tiger Mom, will launch in the US on Feb 26th! Right now, it's in bookstores across Singapore, and it will soon also hit bookstores across East Asia. So far, I've gotten some really interesting responses from readers and potential reviewers. The book seems to resonate particularly well with Indian-Americans. Here are a couple of comments I've received:

"I'm thoroughly impressed with the book. I agree - As an Indian American, I can relate to many of the two cultures' inherent tensions. Literature is often biased towards the western standard, and your unbiased reflections are so refreshing! I really appreciated it, and I'm sure many NSF parents and students in the U.S would as well."
- From Srinidhi, the editor of North-South Foundation's magazine. 
The North South Foundation is a fantastic organization in the US that not only provides academic support and coaching for Indian-American kids but also provides scholarships and funding for students in India. It's the organization that coaches Indian kids for the famed US spelling bees and math counts competitions. They are planning to review the book soon.

"The book is very captivating – specially for Indian-American parents who have to make sense of two contradictory approaches."
- From Parthiv Parekh, editor of Khabar magazine.
Khabar is a magazine for the Indian-American community in Atlanta, Georgia. 

I've also had some wonderful responses in Singapore: one mother told me that "the book spoke very strongly to her experiences as an Asian parent with kids in an international school"; another mom emailed me saying that "she couldn't put the book down." These kinds of comments make me feel as though all the thought, effort, research, and time that went into the book are certainly worth it. 

I think it's so important that Asian mothers -- both in Asia and in the West -- have a book that reflects their experiences and gives them a voice. And I hope that the book offers both Western and Eastern moms ways to learn from each other and blend the best of American and Asian approaches to parenting and education.