- Education & Catastrophe
- Turning 41 The Week My Eldest Takes The PSLE
Turning 41 The Week My Eldest Takes The PSLE
Education & Catastrophe 72
Birthday photo. Missing #3 and #4. The eldest, Camper (named him after the van, not the shoe), is taking the PSLE this coming week.
Hey y’all! This is John.
This newsletter is about human flourishing. Ostensibly it’s about better parenting and fixing education, but ultimately what I really care about is helping young people flourish.
I turned 41 a couple of days ago. My eldest is taking the PSLE this coming week. Covered in this issue:
Advice to parents with kids taking the PSLE
Personal reflections on being an education entrepreneur who refuses to give parents what they want
Let’s dive in!
My eldest child takes his main PSLE (for non-Singaporeans, that’s the Primary School Leaving Examination, a national obsession in this country) papers this coming week, a couple of days after I turned 41. It is an extremely stressful time for parents with kids taking the PSLE. Here are a couple of pieces of advice.
Your Child’s PSLE Grades Do Not Define Them
PSLE has been a national obsession for so long that it’s incredible how the world went from fixed telephones to Nokias to Blackberries to iPhones, but most parents in Singapore still think their child’s PSLE results will determine their future success (or lack thereof).
Back when I took the PSLE 30 years ago, the stigma of doing badly for the PSLE and getting streamed into Normal Technical (the equivalent of vocational path in most countries) was so extreme parents would tell their children they are doomed for a lifetime of menial work if they got into Normal Technical. Even Normal Academic was not good enough for most parents. To get into a brand name secondary school, go to university, and hold down a respectable white collar job (read: banker, lawyer, doctor), only Express stream will do.
This narrative has unfortunately persisted. The most important thing for parents to understand is that PSLE is just another exam. How your child scores for their PSLE does not determine life outcomes, nor does it define your child. Your child is their own person with unique traits, personality, passions and ambitions. It is more important to be kind, likeable, adaptable, skilled (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity etc.), and to seek meaning and purpose than it is to be a straight A student.
What Your Child Does Outside Of School Is More Important Than What School Your Child Goes To
I went to Chinese High/Hwachong. I understand the value of old boys/girls network, and the adage that in life it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Parents throw resources to help their children get into the best schools not just for the academic rigour, but also so their children can be in the ‘right’ (read: kids from affluent families with well-educated parents) peer group.
I do not deny that having peers who are future CEOs and prime ministers can be beneficial to one’s life prospects, but we live in a drastically different world than thirty years ago (the one place that looks pretty much the same is the classroom). As technology upends industries and completely reshapes the future of work, I am not sure the ‘elite’ class twenty or thirty years from now will continue to come from the same few schools.
I like to believe that the most successful people in our children’s generation are the ones with the skillsets and mindset to start or lead organisations that will fundamentally improve humanity. I am almost certain that the requisite skillsets and mindset will not be learned at school. Young people will develop skills, find their purpose, and discover their ambitions by doing things outside of school, whether it’s starting a micro-business, or volunteering at a non-profit, or being part of an advocacy group. The point is that mainstream education is far too rigid for young people to develop skills and mindsets in a meaningful way.
Let Your Child Know Their PSLE Grades Do Not Define Them And You Love Them Regardless
Children want to please. They seek approval and recognition, especially from parents and teachers. Even children whose parents haven’t explicitly told them what grades to strive for can feel the weight of expectations on their shoulders. They feel the pressure to do well, and in some cases believe that their parents’ love for them is contingent on how well they do in the PSLE.
It is unhealthy for children to feel this way. Their self-worth and their relationships with parents should not be dependent on grades. The final stretch of PSLE prep is as good a time as any for parents to let their children know that regardless of how they perform, everything will be ok. They will be loved and cherished anyway.
On turning 41…
It’s been a long, hard road for me the last 7 years with Saturday Kids and Doyobi. As coding for kids became more mainstream, it also became much more competitive, with many new entrants taking things in the direction of coding for Direct School Admissions, coding for resume padding, coding as a form of literacy (‘if your child doesn’t know how to code, your child is illiterate’). I didn’t want to be a part of this, so I went the other direction and started focusing more on outdoor camps. I am guided by what I think is good for kids. Being in nature, learning by playing, developing life skills - these to me go a much longer way than learning to code for the sake of getting into your secondary school of choice.
With Doyobi, life skills is a very tough sell. In March this year, I wrote a post on LinkedIn about giving up on Singapore. That went viral very quickly, with many netizens commenting about my naivete, how I’m blaming the system for my own failures etc etc. I know what parents want (academic achievements) and what they will pay for (academic help aka tuition), but I just don’t have it in me to sell something I fundamentally do not believe in. Going the tuition route is giving up on what I think learning should be about - the nurturing of skills and mindsets for young people to make their way in the world, and the search for personal meaning and purpose.
At some point you do wonder why keep at it. My flatmate in college is the CEO of one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Another classmate is the CFO of a tech unicorn. Do I want to keep trying to make a small, unprofitable startup work, or should I try to make a difference somewhere else? In business, it’s a fine balance between giving up too early and knowing when to call it quits. For now, these are the reasons to stick with it
Students love learning on Doyobi. They find it more engaging, challenging, fun and meaningful than most learning that happens in the classroom. Hearing them talk about Doyobi is really fulfilling.
Teachers love that their students love Doyobi. It makes their life a lot easier when students are engaged and interested in learning. Teachers have one of the toughest jobs around. If we can help, we should.
I have co-founders who really believe in what we are trying to do. Shawn, who heads up tech, has been working with me for the last 7 years, first with Saturday Kids. Penny (head of product) is one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met and is completely committed to building a platform that can transform how young people learn.
I have friends who are investors in Doyobi. I am the largest individual investor. Giving up will mean letting down many people, myself included.
My wife has been incredibly supportive. As an entrepreneur, one can’t ask for much more than that.
My personal reflections and my advice to PSLE parents are related. Looking past academic achievements to focus on skillsets and mindset is everything we stand for at Doyobi and Saturday Kids. More than that, we owe it to our kids to give them a happy childhood they look back fondly on, a childhood that sets them on a path to finding their purpose and flourishing as young adults.