Are Grades Getting in the Way of Greatness?

The education system in Singapore places great emphasis on grades. But are we focusing on it too much that we are hindering the greatness in our child?

This article was first published on The Asian Parent.



"Im not smart,” my son said in the middle of homework, and I didn’t know what to tell him. A million thoughts ran through my mind.

He’s only bad at one subject. Am I too stern with him? How do I tell him he’s brilliant? He’s clever and funny and artistic. Why would he think he’s not smart? He’s only seven years old…

Are we too focused on grades?

The immediate – and obvious – culprit was grades. After some discussion, my son revealed that he was worried about poor grades and a failing mark in one test – so worried and weighed down by his poor performance that he concluded that he just wasn’t smart.

Add that’s not all: add too much homework to the stress of grades, and the results are a cause for concern. In a 2015 study in the American Journal of Family Therapy, it was found that primary school kids receive three times as much homework as what is recommended by education experts. The situation may very well be worse in Singapore, where children were found to have spent the third-longest time on homework, based on a global study of 65 countries by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Incredibly, Singaporean 15-year-olds reported spending 9.4 hours per week on homework, behind only Shanghai (13.8 hours) and Russia (9.7 hours), versus the global average of 5 hours.

This leaves children with little time for free, unstructured play and few chances to explore who they are. And it is play, according to a study called “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children”, that “children need to develop a variety of skill sets to optimize their development and manage toxic stress.”

If play – children’s natural method of learning about the world – is the key to learning, why then are we still so focused on grades?

What is Singapore doing about overemphasis on grades?

Here in Singapore, we take pride in our education system – consistently rated as one of the best in the world. But even our Ministry of Education (MOE) believes we’ve taken this emphasis on grades and testing too far. That is why “mid-year examinations for Primary 3 and 5 pupils, as well as for Secondary 1 and 3 students, will be scrapped over the next three years,” reports the Straits Times.

By doing this, the MOE hopes “to move away from a narrow focus on grades and help children discover the joy of learning,” making the first two years of primary school also test-free starting this year.

According to psychologist Marty Nemko Ph. D., there is a case to be made for eliminating grades. With less emphasis on grades, children will motivate themselves to do well (intrinsic motivation) instead of being afraid of external forces (extrinsic motivation) like failing marks or angry parents and disappointed teachers.

“Intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic,” he explains. “We’d rather our child behave well because he or she believes it’s the right thing to do than simply to get a reward or avoid a punishment… Eliminating grades moves motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.”

How do we nurture our children’s greatness?

The Tiger mum in me roars, “But grades are important! Imagine what children could do if they worked harder! It takes work if you want to be great!” And yet here was my child: unmotivated and unhappy. We all want our children to achieve greatness, but something has to change.

Singaporean mums agree. According to Jasmine Jiang, mum of one, “Even if they are dropping some exams in school, parents will still find ways to measure and see if their child is doing well... I think it's the ‘culture’ we have here that over emphasis on academic success, and fear of missing out (kiasu). Even if they do away with grades, parents will still try other means to measure their kids’ achievements.”

We all want our children to achieve great things. But in our pursuit of greatness, we need to seek a more compassionate, more natural way to bring out the best in our kids.

Here are two things I learned:

There is natural greatness in every child

The world is rapidly becoming more aware that intelligence goes beyond what can be measured in IQ or standardized tests. Much of what we know about this continuing branch of research is based on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which says that the realization of human potential depends on one’s preferences for learning.

In short, some children learn better through stories, others through music, and others still through interpersonal relationships. And it is our job as parents to recognise these learning preferences and utilise them for our children’s development. So, if your child loves art, he may have spatial-visual intelligence – and you can use pictures to teach him math concepts!

Knowing this, we need to be more compassionate and flexible in the instruction of our children. Candice Lim, 35, mum of two, says, “I would always tell [my son] that I will never get mad at him for having a low grade as long as I see him trying. I always put emphasis that effort is just as important as the grade. I don’t want to discourage him from wanting to learn just because he is not bringing home top marks.”

Greatness in a child needs to be nurtured

Greatness doesn’t happen overnight. It needs to be nurtured naturally – not forced or threatened. Everything we do contributes to our children’s development; from the time we spend with our children to the nutrition we give them.

Mum Jasmine Jiang turns to activities outside of school. “I nurture my son's greatness by not being stingy on praise,” she says “Kids need a lot of affirmation, especially in moments when they feel unsure about themselves. We try to go out on family trips after every quarter, just so he has time to relax and not worry about school.”

No shortcuts to greatness

There are no shortcuts to greatness. Arla, the world’s largest organic dairy producer, shares this same belief. When it comes to nurturing our child’s talents and greatness, nutrition is one of the best places to start and milk; one of nature’s most complete foods is an ideal match.

Just like the journey of parenting, there are no shortcuts in organic dairy farming. Organic farming practices involve more stringent and often elaborate steps that requires dedication, resilience and hard work. While it is often easier and faster in the short term to use chemical pesticides as pest-control in farms or synthetic hormones on cows to increase milk yield, Arla Organic chooses a more sustainable and natural approach; one that is free from chemicals, growth hormones and GMOs so that each glass of milk that reaches you is naturally tasty and full of organic goodness.

Every Arla farmer and his organic farmers must meet standards set out by the organic certification body and EU council; how the animals and wildlife are cared, how the soil remain organic and healthy – and is inspected routinely and rigorously. Turning the land into an organic farm is not an overnight process; it requires patience and commitment as it takes ~2 years to allow the land and grass to be organic. The Arla Organic manifesto is that achieving quality as how nature intended takes time – it is a long road and there are no shortcuts.

As for my son and I, we are taking things one day at a time. I have promised to listen to him and pay greater attention to his needs. I nourish his mind and body with the right nutrition and I trust that he will grow naturally each day through play and the joy of learning.

Are we still too focused on grades? I believe what is important is keeping in mind that the journey is just as important as the destination or the results. Together with our family, our community and our partners in the development of our children, all we need to do is keep our focus on our children and continue to feed their greatness every day.

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