Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: Beyond the Tiger Mom

Most parenting books are a joke, especially ones like Beyond the Tiger Mom. They ignore statistics, don't examine best practices from research, and are written pretty badly, never taking a paragraph to say something when 10 pages from a chapter would do.

I picked up Beyond the Tiger Mom because it was written by a woman (Maya Thiagarajan) who'd moved with her family from the USA to Singapore. She was an English major, of Indian descent, and also a school teacher, which gave her an insider's perspective on both educational systems. Singapore's an interesting case, since I have personal knowledge of the system from having been educated within it. From a global perspective, Singapore's educational system competes successfully with the best schools anywhere. One of the board members of an elite private school was telling me that the school he sat on the board on had the largest number of perfect scores on an economics test in the US, and was globally only second to "some school in Singapore." I immediately guessed it was Raffles Junior College my alma mater), and he confirmed it.

The issue with the Singaporean system for teaching math (or almost any other subject, for that matter), is that it's extremely exam and test focused. This is great for producing awesome scores, and you really can't argue with the results. What it's not so good at is producing motivated students who can reason their way to a novel solution. Thiagarajan acknowledges this in the book, but also points out that in aggregate, the Singaporean approach produces more students who are more capable than US:
East Asian countries with standardized exam systems tend to benefit students at the bottom of the economic ladder. In his provocative book Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying Stereotypes, Professor Hyunjoon Park of the University of Pennsylvania uses PISA and TIMSS results to show that the bottom students in Japan and Korea 31 perform very well on these tests compared to low performers in other nations. While the top students in America are on par with the top students in Korea and Japan, the bottom students in America are far behind the bottom students in Korea and Japan. Similarly, I am repeatedly amazed that every child on the island of Singapore, whether rich or poor, is required to take the extremely rigorous and conceptual PSLE math exam. (Kindle Loc. 1503-10)
 To some extent, math at the primary school level is fairly straightforward: you can pretty much memorize the multiplication table, learn the algorithms, and then do well on the exams. At the higher levels where there's a need to understand the concepts is where the exam-focused approach falls apart, though in recent years Singapore has improved dramatically with the introduction of word based math problems, where the student is expected to translate a real-world problem into math and then solve the problem that way.

The real issue with Singaporean-style education comes from reading. Thiagarajan observes that Singaporean-style English education pretty much ignores reading for pleasure:
“The problem with Chinese kids is that they don’t think about reading books at all. Books are to be studied for exams, but the concept of reading for pleasure hasn’t really taken off in Asia.” (Loc. 1053-54)
To some extent this is endemic in American culture as well, since the statistics are that the average American reads about 1 book a year after leaving college. But the tradition of Dad reading to kids before bed-time is embedded deeply into American culture, while there's no such tradition in Asian culture. (And it was very rare to see a Singaporean adult reading while waiting for the bus at bus stops --- while if you board an American domestic flight you'll see Kindles pretty much everywhere)

 Thiagarajan also points out that pretty much no Singaporean students ever get unstructured outdoor play time, leading to the highest myopia rates in the world:
When I first arrived in Singapore, I was simultaneously impressed and perplexed by the number of sparkling swimming pools and well-manicured public parks and playgrounds in the city. These spaces are beautiful, making this little island feel like a resort, a paradise for children. Nonetheless, these spaces are often empty, particularly during the week; if there are children splashing or running about, they tend to be children who attend international schools— “expat kids.” Where are all the local Singaporean children? There’s an easy answer to this question: they are at tuition. Or they are at home studying. Or they are in special classes, learning to develop additional talents and skills. (Loc. 1664-70)
Of course, the tropics are notoriously un-fun for outdoor activities. I definitely didn't ever see the point in hiking or camping until I arrived in the US.

All this portrays a relentlessly competitive society, with an eye on practical achievements.
Chinese teacher I interviewed told me, “every Chinese mom’s worst nightmare is that her child will decide to be an artist.” (Loc. 2651-52)
In other words, a lot like the San Francisco Bay Area, where competitive parenting is the primary sport most parents engage in. The book's an entertaining read, and it has lots of pages where Thiagarajan gives you tips on parenting (not that she has any research or special expertise to provide). It's recommended but for entertainment value, rather than for her recommendations on how your child can be better cultivated. And boy am I glad I left Singapore, and I'm not unhappy that my 2 sons have a chance to enjoy a little bit more childhood than I did.

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