Featured post

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 ...

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Rigor versus Creativity: Are they mutually exclusive?

The Singapore local system prides itself for its "rigorous" program. And if you've ever looked at the exam papers for primary school kids on this island, you'll be amazed at the level of rigor. The word problems involve a tremendous amount of conceptual complexity, multiple steps, and hard calculations. The exams that these kids take are hard.

Firstly, let's clarify what we mean by rigor. It's all the rage in education circles around the world, and the East certainly prides itself in the rigor that it offers kids. Rigor, I think, refers to three things:

  • The level of challenge of the problems/tasks/assessments that kids are expected to do.
  • The level of precision and quality expected of kids, especially when it comes to basic skills like mathematical problem solving, critical reading, and analytical writing. 
  • In order to ensure that kids can meet academic challenges and display strong academic skills, a rigorous education often requires teachers to explicitly teach concepts, assign homework, and provide detailed feedback. Rigor involves lots of practice with the goal of mastery. Rigorous education is often associated more with traditional exam-focused instruction than with constructivist project-based progressive education.
One look at Singapore's exam system for sixth graders is proof of its rigor.

But what about creativity? The major criticism leveled at the Singaporean exam system -- and perhaps any exam system -- is its lack of creativity. Exams are the antithesis of creativity because they require students to provide the answers that the examiner is looking for. There's no room for questioning or original thought or experimenting on an exam, not even on a well-designed exam. 

What does a creative system look like: it's open-ended and exploratory. Kids ask questions of their own, they design and create, they work on collaborative group projects and presentations that involve multiple disciplines and a range of skills. In an English class, kids might write poems and act out a range of interpretations of a dramatic scene; in a Science class, they ask questions and design their own experiments; in a math class, they discuss various strategies with group members to solve a math problem. The US, known for constructivism and progressive education, embraces these kinds of creative projects. 

And these projects are great -- they inspire kids, they get kids excited, they teach kids to work together and ask questions, they give kids the freedom to innovate or experiment...so what's the problem? The problem is that without a rigorous skill based education, these constructivist projects might end up being superficial and shallow. They focus more on giving a kid broad exposure and less on ensuring mastery.

If kids don't have strong skills and lots of rich content knowledge, they might end up just skimming the surface and not really learning anything deep. Without a rigorous skill-focused education, kids' reports and projects might involve sloppy writing and bad grammar; when they read, they might focus more on their feelings and less on actual literary analysis. Additionally, they will almost certainly have weak math foundations full of gaps; it's really hard to gain a strong math foundation without a systematic, sequential, and rigorous program. And as any student can tell you, group projects often mean that a few kids do all the work and learn a lot, while the other kids do very little and learn nothing. So yes, they offer creativity and inspiration, and kids certainly learn a lot from well-designed projects and explorations, but constructivism is not perfect either.

So, here's my question: why can't an education provide kids with both academic rigor and creative freedom?  Why can't we teach basic skills and core content-- critical reading, analytical writing, mathematical problem solving, core science content -- in a rigorous, more traditional way, but ALSO give kids sufficient time and space to pursue projects, engage in open-ended discussions of literature, write their own poetry, and design their own experiments? Why can't we do both? Why do educators and education systems pit rigor and creativity against each other, instead of agreeing that both have value, and that in fact, they can complement each other?

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Best Multicultural Reading List for Kids in Grades 2 to 6 - MUST READ BOOKS

Here's a list of my own kids' favorite books from all around the world. I believe SO strongly that kids need to see themselves and others reflected in literature, and this list offers kids like mine -- global South Asian kids growing up in Singapore -- a wide range of books that reflect both the familiar and the foreign in wonderful ways. 


Charlotte’s Web (US)
-       The Folk of the Faraway Tree (England)
-       Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (China)
-       Starry River of the Skies (China)
-       The Mudskipper (Singapore)
-Sherlock Sam series (Singapore)
-       A Single Shard (Korea)
-       Noodle Pie (Vietnam/Australia)
-       Listen, Slowly (Vietnam)
-       Just A Train Ride Away (India)
     Tiger Boy (India)
Thai-riffic (Thailand, Australia)
-       Danger By Moonlight (India, Italy)
-       Flora and Ulysses (US)
-       Number the Stars (Denmark)
-       The Giver (US)
-       Esperanza Rising (Mexico, US)
-       I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Chile)
-       The Garbage King (Ethiopia)
-       Clay Marble (Cambodia)
-       The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E.Frankeweiler (US)
-       Oliver Twist (UK)
-       Red Scarf Girl (China)
-       Chinese Cinderella (China)
-       I Am David (Europe)
-       Oranges in No Man’s Land (Lebanon)
-The Ash Mistry Series (India/UK)

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Tuttle News Flash: Reviews of "Beyond the Tiger Mom"

9780804846028.jpgBeyond the Tiger Mom
East-West Parenting for the Global Age
by Maya Thiagarajan
ISBN: 9780804846028; $18.95 paperback; February 2016

“The best book I’ve read in years! […] When was the last time you read a book about education and parenting that really had you thinking and making changes to the way you do things in your home?  Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age has had this affect on me! […] Now that I’ve read Beyond The Tiger Mom and had a little while to let the information sit in my  mind, I want to read it again.  There’s so much information I’m certain I’ll get a deeper understanding and more to think about with a second reading.  And this time I’m going to underline key phrases and take more notes.  This is one book that I’ll be keeping and referring to as the children grow.  Maya has also included many resources that I can seek out and read for more background information. […] Whether your children are in a public, private, homeschool, or other form of education, there are things that can be learned from this book.” Castle View Academy blog


“…one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time.…a must read for anyone who wants to know more about education and the best way to educate a child.” —Crafty Moms Share blog

“Whether you want to train your child to expand their attention span, aid in your child reaching optimal educational success or are just looking to enrich your child in a different way of learning, this book is definitely for you.” —The Baby Spot blog

“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.” —SingaporeMotherhood.com

“With her knowledge and experience of what works and what doesn’t work best for children’s education, she has written this extensive, easy-to-read guide.” —Tokyo 5 blog
“’Beyond the Tiger Mom’” severed [sic] as a good reminder then to help me keep a broader perspective on child-rearing and teaching philosophy. That things I took for granted as universal parenting laws—like reading to your kid—isn’t really as universal as I thought. This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to read regularly to my child—I am, I’m a writer after all—but it reminded me that math—Kumon here we come!—and hard work are equally important keys to success…What I enjoyed most about Thiagarajan’s book was that it gave good perspective on the whole East Vs. West debate and what is really at stake…” —8Asians.com blog
“Thiagarajan’s extensive research is captured in her book to create a parenting guide that looks at the strengths and weaknesses of both Asian and Western parenting styles while dispelling the myths that often come to stereotype both…Thiagarajan offers accessible and practical advice at the end of each chapter with specific tips for Asian and Western parents to bring out the best in their children. She explores topics such as how to help children achieve their maximum academic potential, train children to expand their attention spans, find the ideal balance between work and play, view failure as a learning experience, establish tech-healthy habits, and prime children for success early on.” —BiculturalMama.com blog
“Being well-acquainted with Western and Asian approaches to parenting and education – and their stark differences – she synthesizes both in her book, bringing together the best of the East and West.” SimplyMommie.com blog
“Whether it’s talking about memorization, critical thinking skills or how to balance, here is a well-written, soundly argued book that should be of enormous interest to educators and parents alike.” —Expat Living magazine

"Beyond the Tiger Mom is a brilliant book—hard-hitting and brutally honest but also balanced, insightful, and funny. It avoids cliches and draws on years of research and personal multicultural teaching experience. It's also wonderfully practical, offering specific tips for how to combine the best of East and West." —Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success

"In this exquisite book, Maya Thiagarajan distills her observations about parenting as a global citizen who has lived, studied and taught in India, the United States and Singapore. An accomplished teacher and skilled writer, a reflective parent, and above all a cosmopolitan, Maya has produced a unique book that every parent trying to make sense of how best to help our children grow into global citizens should read." —Fernando M. Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of Practice in International Education, Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative, Harvard University

"Maya Thiagarajan brings a unique East-and-West perspective, and a refreshing balanced discussion, to hot-button issues in child rearing. Her interviews and ethnographic analyses deliver a wealth of insights into Asian vs. Western parenting decisions on topics ranging from math drills to self-esteem." —Katharine Beals, author of Raising a Left Brain Child in a Right Brain World

Monday, 11 April 2016

It's about the relationship: Kids I Love

On some days, I wonder why I became a teacher in the first place.

There's no money.
Papers keep coming in, and the marking never ends.
Where's your thesis? Work on your transitions. Why are there still comma splices in your writing?
At three o'clock, I'm utterly and totally exhausted.

What is it about this profession that keeps me coming back to the classroom, year after year?

When I first started teaching, I taught because I wanted to create a more just and equitable world.
Over the years, I taught because I loved literature, poetry and language, and I wanted to share my passion for words with others.

Most recently, however, I've realized that I teach because of the kids. One of the biggest lessons that I've learned about effective teaching is that you have to teach because you care about kids. The kids have to matter more than the texts, more than any outside goals or ideologies, more than just about anything.

 Ultimately, teaching is about forging a strong relationship with kids, meeting them where they are in the learning process, and then, to borrow Kahlil Gibran's words,  "leading them to the thresholds of their own minds."

I think good teaching is also largely about being yourself. When I think back to the teachers and professors who moved me, I remember teachers who told stories, who gave advice, who made me smile. Professor Bertolini, for example, related Shakespearean plays to his own life; when we read texts about life and death, he told us how he felt when his parents died and he was forced to confront his own mortality. The best teachers and professors were not afraid to be totally and completely human.

Teaching is a uniquely human profession, and to be a good teacher, most of all, you have to be a living, breathing, honest human with passion and feeling and energy and idealism. You have to share your experiences and questions, your ideas and even your failings. You have to be compassionate and kind. You have to be real.

And this, perhaps, is what I love most about teaching: the relationship between teacher and student. And I'm extraordinarily fortunate. Over the last few years, I have taught some of the coolest kids in the world.

 Kids who work very hard, who demand so much of themselves.
Kids who smile and laugh and say thank-you at the end of class.
Kids who see me during lunch because they want to do better on their papers.
 Kids who take a stand and argue their position with spirit and conviction.

 Kids who respond emotionally to literature -- the student who genuinely admires Atticus Finch and says he wants to be like him, the student who cried when Tom Robinson was unjustly convicted, the student who was never fully  convinced that Romeo really loved Juliet, the student who read The Kite Runner and exclaimed that he had finally found a book he loved.

 Kids who get totally engrossed in the heat and energy of a good discussion.
 Kids who stand up and share a poem with their peers, despite the knocking knees and trembling hands.
Kids who listen quietly.

So why do I teach now? I think it's because of the kids I love.

Friday, 8 April 2016

How Teens Learn: 3 Things all Parents Should Know

Spring break, unfortunately, is rapidly coming to an end. I've read a few wonderful books over break -- some great fiction, and one really interesting non-fiction book about the adolescent brain. In her book "The Teenage Brain," neuroscientist Frances Jensen offers parents and educators insights into the neuroscience of the developing adolescent brain as well as the implications of this science.

(Parents: Be warned though -- Jensen includes a number of anxiety-producing stories in the book as well, as she looks at reckless teenage behavior and the vulnerability of the teenage brain.)

Here are 3 Take-Aways from Jensen's Chapter on Learning:

1. Mastering Key Skills and Information Takes A LONG Time: Mere Exposure is Insufficient, Mastery Requires Repetition and Practice.

Jensen quotes Nobel prize winner John Eccles, "Long periods of excess use or disuse are required in order to produce detectable synaptic change." Jensen comments on this by saying, "What Eccles failed to realize is that the repetitions he observed...those 'long periods of excess use' ... were the the brain at work, learning and acquiring knowledge. After repeated stimulation, a brain cell will respond much more strongly to a stimulus than it initially did. Hence the brain circuit learns. And the more ingrained the knowledge, the easier it is to recall and use."

I've written about how learning requires sustained effort in a particular area over time, both in previous posts and in my book "Beyond The Tiger Mom."  I appreciated Jensen's detailed discussion of the science behind this phenomenon, and I think that contemporary educators need to think carefully about the science here. Too often, educators assume that merely exposing kids to interesting stuff is sufficient -- but if we really want them to master key skills and content, we need to ensure that they get sufficient practice and feedback.

2. The Teenage Years are a "Golden Age" for the Brain

 Jensen writes, "Memories are easier to make and last longer when acquired in the teen years compared with adult years."

This makes total sense intuitively: We remember the music from our teen years so well, we remember things we learned in adolescence so clearly. So what does this mean for our kids and their learning?

Jensen writes: "The teenage years are the time to identify strengths and invest in emerging talents. It's also the time when you can get the best results from remediation, special help, for learning and emotional issues."

What kids learn -- both intellectually and emotionally -- in their teenage years will have a tremendous impact on their later years, so this is a time period when we want to make sure that our kids are getting both a rigorous academic education but also, and very importantly, a thoughtful emotional education. The teenage years are a great time to get kids to think about relationships, emotional control, ethics, goodness, and truth. The values, ideas, and behaviors that they absorb at this terrific stage will impact them throughout their lives.

3. Teens need a lot of help with organization, time management, and focus -- We've got to set limits for them.

This is something that every parent and educator who works with teens knows: many of our teens need a lot of help managing their time, dealing with all the distractions that permeate the teenage world, and focusing.

Many teens, if left to their own devices (pun intended), will waste their time on social media, gaming, and a host of other unproductive activities, only to find that it's almost midnight and they haven't done any of their homework. Then they show up at school the next day, exhausted and frustrated.

So what can parents do? Jensen offers these practical suggestions:
- Remind your teen to stop and think about they need to do  and when to do it.
- Give your teen a calendar and suggest that they write down their daily schedules.  By doing so on a regular basis, they train their own brains.
- Set limits on the amount of time your teen can socialize virtually. Jensen recommends taking a hard line here: "If your teenager fails to comply, take away the phone or the iPod, or limit computer use to homework...Also insist on knowing the user names and passwords for all accounts."

Jensen writes, "The fewer the temptations for your teen, the more their brains will learn how to deal without the constant distractions."

In conclusion, Jensen's book is well worth a read. The science she describes is fascinating, and the implications are profound (though sometimes frightening).

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Tuition Fever: Madness in Singapore?

During a recent conversation with a friend, we began chatting about the tutoring frenzy in Singapore, which I've written about before here.

While it's common knowledge that local Singaporean kids engage in hours of tuition, often in all their major subjects, it may come as a surprise to some that kids in international schools attend almost as much tuition as their local peers.

Divesh Shah, of the famed Math Vision Center, tutors thousands of international school kids in math and Science. Many of his pupils are young -- they start as early as grade 2. And now, apparently, there are also a host of tutors for English, History, and Economics. High school kids, apparently, are even skipping school to attend tutoring sessions... Why would any high school student require extra tuition in every subject?

I can't help but wonder at this phenomenon. I can understand tutoring in a subject or two -- when a child is really struggling. But tutoring in every subject? How is that helpful?

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

1. If parents and teachers work together in the early years to ensure that kids have strong academic foundations/skills, then kids should not need tutors when they get to middle and high school. Much of this tutoring frenzy, particularly for international school kids who move around alot, may be the result of major academic gaps in the early years.
Parents: help your kids build strong foundations in math, reading, and writing early on, and high school will be a whole lot easier.

2. Relying on tutors can be dangerous in the long run. Kids have to learn to study and work independently at some point. They've got to be able to use resources available to them on the web and in books to help them, and they've got to be proactive about seeking extra help from teachers at school. There are no private tutors in university, and there are no tutors in the workplace. So, getting kids to rely so completely on tutors may backfire down the road.

3. Calm down everyone! If kids are attending these tutoring sessions just because everyone else is doing it, and if anxiety is fueling this tutoring craze, then parents and students need to take a deep breath and calm down! By all means, kids should get customized, individualized help in subjects where they're really struggling or the school isn't delivering at all, but beyond that, they should have the confidence and courage to study and work on their own. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Warning: The Ivy League May Be Bad For You

I just read this interesting article in the Atlantic. In the article, titled "The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life," former Yale professor William Deresiewicz asserts that the ivy league fever that grips affluent and ambitious teenagers and their parents is a recipe for misery on many levels: kids jump through hoops, turning into "sheep" with no real depth and substance; kids have inflated but fragile egos that can't survive in the real world; kids end up depressed.

Given the intense competition that I witness around me in Singapore, I do think that Deresiewicz' argument has some value. Will going to Harvard or Yale really make you a happier person in the long run? In many ways, the answer is probably no. These brand name schools will give you definite advantages when it comes to status, networks, and getting your foot in the door. But happiness...? I'm not so sure.

As parents, there is a real danger in telling a kid that he or she "must" get into a "top school." Defining success in very narrow terms is dangerous for so many reasons: it gives kids all the wrong messages. It tells them that success is conditional, love and approval are conditional, and if the kid doesn't get in to one of these "top schools," she will feel as though she has failed terribly and let her parents down.  So right from the start, this obsession with certain "brand name schools" can lead kids to depression.

As for Deresiewicz' assertion that kids become "sheep" in this process -- there is probably some truth there too. Every kid needs to hug a tree, save a poor village, and rebuild houses in a disaster area -- not because he cares about the environment or poverty or natural disasters, but because he feels as though it looks good on a resume. That's just plain wrong.

And when you've graduated from Harvard, you feel as though you've got to do something spectacular -- you've got to make a lot of money and live a certain lifestyle. And that pressure and burden doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. And it doesn't free the imagination. It is, if anything, limiting. (Not that I feel sorry for Harvard grads. I don't. They're a privileged and entitled bunch. But, a Harvard degree is not a key to happiness, by any means.)

My thoughts on the ivy league frenzy -- it's a game, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. As a parent and teacher, I'd rather my own kids and my students learn because they love learning and serve because they believe in the cause they're serving. I'd rather they apply to colleges that will be a good fit for them, regardless of brand names. I want them to have a broad sense of possibility and a deep love of learning. And most of all, I want them to be physically and mentally healthy and happy.

Experiential Learning: Is experience the best teacher?

We just got back from a beautiful weekend in Krabi, Thailand.

As we dove off a boat with our snorkel gear on, we found ourselves face-to-face with rainbow colored fish, their bright blue, sparkly yellow, striped black scales shining as they swam around us. Below us, spongy coral waved their tentacles; above us, hot sun and blue sky.

As we emerged from our snorkeling adventure and clambered back on the boat, my daughter whispered to me, "Ma, that was amazing. I never knew the ocean was that enchanting."

Now we've read lots of books about marine life together, and I've taken my kids to the aquarium in Singapore, but this was the real thing. They were experiencing the beauty, mystery, and wonder of the ocean firsthand.

In many ways, experience is the best teacher. For certain things -- perhaps the most important things -- experiences are what shape us,  change us, and make us who we are.

If we want our kids to understand the natural world and develop a desire to preserve and protect the environment, then we've got to let them experience nature first hand.

If we want our kids to love art and culture, then we've got to let them experience the arts and cultural traditions firsthand through travel, celebrations, cultural outings, performances, and artistic experiences.

If we want our kids to understand issues of social justice, then we've got to get them out in the field doing service, seeing how other people live, and witnessing first-hand the inequities around us.

For all of the above, experience is the best teacher. Experiences will make our kids interesting and humane; experiences will fuel our kids' desire to learn, explore, advocate, and act.

While experiential learning is fantastic, I know that experiential learning, too, has its limitations.

For basic academic skills and content, explicit instruction and book learning are crucial. Skill and drill are necessary. No child masters fractions and decimals by camping and traveling. No child fully understands the structure of an atom or cell just through interesting experiences. For kids to master academic skills and content, they need direct instruction, practice, and review.

BUT a real, true education must combine academic work with experiential learning to give kids not only the skills and knowledge they'll need, but also the desire to do wonderful and purposeful things with their lives.