Test Scores And Dumplings

Yes, kids from dumpling-eating countries seem to do extraordinarily well on math and science tests, but at what cost?

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AsianScientist (Jun. 18, 2015) – I have a theory that test scores and panfried dumplings are intrinsically linked.

Hear me out.

Last month, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the biggest ever global school rankings based on how well 15-year-olds around the world did in a standardized maths and science test. Unsurprisingly, Asian countries came out top—Singapore, in first place, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Much has been made about why Asian countries do well in these rankings. From our inherited Confucian values emphasizing respect for authority and teachers, to our long-held sacred values of hard work and meritocracy, not forgetting the increasing prevalence of “Tiger parenting”, described with harrowing humor in Amy Chua’s controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Another factor that unites these countries? We’re dumpling-eaters.

Case in point: At my weekly trip to the Dunedin Farmers Market last Saturday, I struck up a conversation with the Chinese owner of a tofu and dumpling stand. I asked her how long she’d been living here, and she asked me if I had kids. When I told her I had two sons, aged six and two, she immediately said (in Mandarin, so I’m translating our conversation below):

“Dunedin is so fun for kids. They can really enjoy life here, right? So different from China and Singapore.”

“Yes, my son really enjoys school. There’s very little pressure and almost no homework!” I replied.

“But maybe, there is too little homework? Things are a bit too relaxed here?” she asked tentatively.

“Sometimes I think that too, especially when I hear about how much homework my friends’ kids have to complete every week back home.”

“I thought I was the only one who felt that way!” she exclaimed in relief, while handing me my dumpling order.

I assured her she was not.

You can take the Singaporean out of Singapore…

As the mum of a science-obsessed kid, I sometimes find myself wondering if I’ve done the best thing moving my kids from Singapore to New Zealand. We’ve gone from one of the best education systems in the world, to another, that while world-class, seems to be slipping a bit in the maths and science departments.

I must admit that when I was packing up our house for the big move to the Southern Hemisphere, I couldn’t help myself and went out to Popular Bookstore to buy a bunch of Primary 1 Maths and Chinese assessment books for Jordan.

“I’ll be able to supplement his education at home if the Kiwi (New Zealand) system turns out to be too lax,” I thought to myself.

I felt rather pleased about my foresight, yet at the same time, was slightly ashamed that I hadn’t been able to rein in my kiasu [editor’s note: Singlish for ‘afraid to lose.’] instincts.

Now that we’re six months into the Kiwi school system, I’ve found that trying to compare one education system to another is an apple and orange affair. There are just so many variables and contextual factors in play that judging the success of an entire country based on a standardized test seems awfully reductive and arbitrary.

After all, the OECD does acknowledge that the global school rankings should be seen as a means to an end, and not the end itself. The idea is for the rankings to help countries see what long-term economic gains can be had from improved quality in schooling.

Education, at what cost?

Indeed, what the last six months has taught me is that at a micro, intra-school level, education boils down to choice and opportunity cost. What knowledge teachers choose to impart, what values the school decides to foster, what subjects and activities they offer and why, mean that other possible alternatives have to be let go.

In Jordan’s school for example, they focus on different themes each term. This term’s theme is on “society”—the kids are learning about government, commerce and the elements that go into the social contract. Jordan ran and was elected as a Member of Parliament by his classmates. As an elected official, he had to miss Maths class twice last week to attend special meetings with the other MPs and the principal.

When he told me that, all I could say was, “That is amazing, what an honor.” Did I mind that he had missed out on two hours of Math instruction? Of course not. What he gained from interacting with other kids in the student government was something that cannot be measured in a test score. He learnt about how laws are made and why they are important in the creation of a fair and just society.

Do I worry about what will happen in 15 years when he competes with graduates from top-ranked education systems on the world stage? I’d be straight-out lying if I said an emphatic “no” (I’m Singaporean after all!). But at this point, he’s having such a great time at school, discovering so much about the world and himself, that I think where we are right now suits us perfectly.

As for those assessment books, they lie unopened in a corner of the study six months later. There are just not enough hours in the day, too many mushrooms to hunt and stars to gaze at.

This article is from a monthly column called Mushroom Mum. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: LWYang/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Dora Yip lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, and is mom to six-year-old Jordan and two-year-old Jonah.

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