on grades, SKY Castle & the pursuit of learning

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I decided to write this post after watching SKY Castle (SKY 캐슬), a critically acclaimed black comedy and satirical drama – hence the title of this article. It’s 20 episodes of excellently fleshed-out characters, unpredictably shocking plot lines, all peppered with satire and social commentary about Korean society’s obsession with ‘success’ and its extremely competitive university admissions process.

To provide some background, SKY is the acronym for the top 3 universities in South Korea, namely Seoul National/Korea/Yonsei University, and gaining admission into these schools is almost a universal ‘dream’ as a South Korean student or parent. While real-life university admissions don’t feature murderous million-dollar private coordinators, the stress and pressure portrayed by the 4 main families in the drama is not that far from the reality that students & their families go through to reach the end goal of entering a good university or a highly competitive course.

But should education merely be used as the means to an end, or should we place more emphasis on the process of learning instead of the outcome?

Chasing grades

Growing up in Singapore’s meritocracy-based education system meant that we had to constantly strive for excellence from a fairly young age if we wanted to have better future prospects, not dissimilar from children in many other affluent Asian countries.

If you attended a Singaporean primary school, you would remember the Ten-Year Series, an annual compilation of past PSLE papers that your subject teachers would make you plough through near-religiously, in the hopes that students would get a few extra marks and score a few points higher in the PSLE. This cycle continued all the way through secondary school and junior college, in the O-levels and A-levels.

This obsession with grades is not unwarranted, especially in Singapore’ meritocratic education system. Take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) for instance; a high score would guarantee you a spot in the top secondary schools or the Integrated Programme, which would help pave your way to ‘success’ more easily due to the factors below.

From personal experience, being surrounded by motivated and academically-inclined peers, having excellent resources/academic programmes/teachers, access to more non-academic enrichment opportunities (due to better school funding) and a good network of support in school and the home are just some of the many reasons why I believe it is easier for students in more privileged schools to thrive in the system and reach the Asian definition of success* more easily. [I fully recognise that this is a form of privilege and I’ll forever be grateful to my alma mater for everything it gave us.]

*The Asian definition of success, defined satirically for this article (in case anyone thinks I’m being serious…) = making your Asian family proud with through good grades, being in a good university & a securing a good job

The problem with such a system is that a lot of children get left behind at various stages in their education, just because they didn’t perform as well in a one-off exam. It’s scary to think how differently a student’s future might have panned out if they had done just a bit better or a bit worse on a major exam (PSLE, O/A-levels).

To the Ministry of Education’s credit, they too recognised the damaging effects that chasing after grades tirelessly and mindless has on children, and want to promote holistic development instead. They have hence made plans to abolish the scoring system in the PSLE as it generated too much stress and overemphasised the importance of grades; a banding system is going to be implemented from 2021.

I feel that it’s a step in the right direction in terms of teaching the next generation that your life is not determined by a number or alphabet, and that there are so many other areas of life to find success and/or fulfilment in.

Are we REALLY learning?

Maybe it’s just my cynicism, but I feel like the system was incorrectly indoctrinating us into 1) thinking that grades were the best indicators of learning/academic competence, and that 2) we were learning for the sake of getting higher grades, rather than just enjoying the process and being able to learn at our own different paces. Even when our teachers told us that the process of learning was important, they would invariably link it back to achieving higher grades; there was no escaping.

Just like how the high school students in SKY Castle were trained in techniques to answer exam questions or memorise answers from practice papers rather than actually applying knowledge, my junior college prepped us in a similar manner for the A-levels. While I acknowledge all of our (the students’) hard work, academic abilities and our ability to apply our knowledge, I still feel that the grades-driven method of learning is pretty soulless and possibly damaging towards all students, regardless of calibre.

I remember how we would be penalised in our school’s Biology exams if we couldn’t regurgitate answers from our school notes word-for-word, and it favoured people who simply had good memory. Ultimately, the school’s method of memorising worked, with 7 in 10 scoring A’s in A-level Biology, but in an education system where rote memory is touted as an ‘exam technique’, are we even really learning?

I am by no means bashing the grades-based system, because it is undeniably a highly objective way to evaluate an individuals’ academic performance relative to the cohort and is used to assess students all over the world; it’s just that some people are not as academically-inclined or not as exam-smart, and it’s extremely demoralising for them to be told by the system that they can’t succeed.

If you have 11 minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching this video/listening to this brilliant talk by Sir Ken Robinson, a world-renowned education and creativity expert, explaining why there’s a strong need to revolutionise the rigid education system that plagues modern society.

Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, trying to medicate a child with ADHD just so they can sit down quietly in class, or trying to determine a person’s lifelong potential with a series of standardised tests simply isn’t the way to go.

I still remember a teacher in junior college telling a classmate that he would never ‘succeed’ with his less-than-stellar grades, which was extremely myopic and narrow-minded. Academic success is undoubtedly (and unfortunately) governed by grades, but success in life is so much more than just how competent a test-taker one is.

Agora schools: A revolutionary way of LEARNING?

I recently came across an article about a school in the Netherlands (Agora School, Roermond) that employs a radical method of educating children through interest-driven learning, as opposed to the traditional curriculum-based system. It takes in students from the ages 12 to 18, and gives them free rein over their education.

There is no teaching per se done in that school, and no boring classes or timetables; the teachers (called Coaches) merely guide the students and assist them in their self-guided learning, which can cover topics from “German mountain guides, Mongolian horses, blacksmithing, Harry Potter patronuses” to “tables and skateboards”.

They completely embrace technology (phones too!) and encourage students to learn with it, better equipping their students with technological savviness that has become indispensable in modern society. This is in stark contrast with most schools (at least in Singapore), where its usage is extremely restricted and technology is seen as a distraction rather than a tool for learning.

Students are able to learn practical skills, rather than spend time studying out of dull textbooks and cramming exam questions (the way most Singaporean students spend their teenage years). They’re far better equipped for the challenges of adulthood and have a set of skills necessary for working in the real world, something I wish our local education would have put heavier emphasis on.

You might wonder how these students will ever meet the country’s education standards, but since their government only has lax requirements “for students to be brought to a certain level within a certain time period”, the school has a lot of flexibility in how to incorporate these learning objectives in students’ day to day activities.

Amazingly, Agora’s very own students created a software, Egodact, during their schooling experience, to enable students and teachers to track students’ progress and learning, hence providing objective assessments and progress reports. You can read an article written by one of the company’s founders here.

I was fortunate to have come from a secondary school and junior college that also fostered a similar culture of self-directed learning and encouraged us to expand our horizons beyond the curriculum. While we still had no choice but to go through the traditional system of exams, we were also given support and resources to explore our other areas of interest, be they academic or non-academic; and it was just a small taster of what my years spent in school could have been like if we had been given even greater freedom and more time to pursue our areas of interest.

A school that employs the Agora method is obviously resource-intensive, requiring enough facilities to support students’ diverse developmental & educational needs, and relies heavily on motivated students & passionate teachers. It may not be suitable for every student (and would certainly cause worry to a lot of Asian parents), but it’s a shining example of how far youths can excel if they’re just given the freedom to follow their passion.

Final thoughts

A paradigm shift in how we view ‘success’ in the education system – particularly the quintessentially Asian notion of ‘academic excellence = success’ – is the only way that we’ll ever be able to get out from under such unhealthy & damaging mindsets and move towards a more inclusive and holistic education system for our youths.

In a perfect world, we would somehow be able to strike the perfect balance between the pursuit of learning and the utilisation of grades as a marker for academic competence.

Ultimately, the idea of chasing after success in any and every aspect of life (not just academics) is so deeply ingrained in our Asian society, and it’s never going to be replaced by an entirely holistic and/or learning-driven education system like in the Netherlands, because we’re just not ready to embrace it yet. But I’m still holding out hope.

I’ve taken to putting disclaimers in my writings, so here’s another one: All views expressed here are my own opinion and based on my own experiences in the local education system. This is just a short piece and barely scratches the surface of deeper issues; I might write more in future articles!

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