Let’s “Get Smart” Together

It is all around us, the message that our ability, most often measured by or closely related to our intelligence, determines how our lives will turn out. Our abilities are more or less fixed – if I am streamed into the Normal Academic stream, I should roughly live to perform as well as the slightly-below-average-to-average in life. If I am in an Express class, my teachers and parents will expect me to do well academically because… that is what Express students should do. We implicitly recognise our students as HA MA or LA, and more often than not, those labels tend to stick for some time. A MA student should always perform about average, and if he writes a HA essay, I would pause and re-read the essay in order to be persuaded a second time of its merit.

At one of the teaching workshops I attended yesterday, the mentors and course instructors were trying their best to make us recognise how prevalent and significant these messages about education, the value of our child’s intelligence, and their future opportunities are in our society. And as I chewed upon these things shared, I realised how often we too are the perpetrators of the very philosophies we do not want our students nor their parents to subscribe to – “I am NT only.”, “I am NA only.”, “I cannot do this like the other person can because I am not smart enough.”, “They will most probably end up at an ITE.”

Just this morning I woke up to a Facebook photograph a friend posted of her four-year-old sister wearing her junior college school uniform. The caption read, “All ready for ABC JC!” And immediately the alarms went off in my mind. Although the post, both photograph and caption, meant no harm and looks very adorable, the implicit message is that they look forward to seeing the little girl go to that junior college like her older sister. What happens then if the child grows up not being able to study in ABC JC? Will her life be tagged to the potential of a bright future in a particular junior college – such that if the dream does not happen, it means failure to a certain degree?

Our instructional mentors kept drilling into our heads yesterday how we must not take the students’ behaviour personally; that sometimes, it would be useful to just observe them in silence, and before thinking “Oh they are acting up again, what method shall I use to hold them down?”, think instead: “Oh they are acting up again, what are they feeling or thinking of right now? How can I help them feel empowered so they will feel that they can complete the task at hand?” Just last evening, a student dropped me an SMS claiming he was very stressed about a speech he had to write for the presidential elections for our CCA. “I can’t contribute anything.”, “I don’t know what to say”, “I don’t know how to do sia.” were among the messages he sent. It was the perfect way to try put what I heard that day into practice. After a few messages, he actually wrote a draft of it and continued to work on it meaningfully today – receptive to my suggestions and input to help him.

I guess apart from the strategies the sessions have shared with us to motivate and develop a student’s belief in effective effort, the course yesterday really was an eye-opener to the implicit messages our words and body language convey to our students, our colleagues and people around us. When we say, “you are so smart!” it simply means… nothing more than “you are so smart”. But compare that with saying, “you’ve worked so hard and gotten so smart!” What that really is saying is… your hard work and effort has paid off, look, you can become even smarter! And I think that is the (positive) message we want to give to our students.

So in today’s lesson(s), I was consciously trying to use the positive languages of “incremental growth theory” and help attribute a student’s performance to their effort rather than thin air. For their listening comprehension self-assessment, I went, “Well done! You must have listened out very carefully to the track!” For students who did well (or not), I asked them to “give yourselves a pat on the back for your good effort” and “I’m sure you can do better the next time round with more concentration!” When guiding the students to write the speech, I went, “I’m sure you have a lot of brilliant ideas for our CCA.” and “I’m going to give you some questions to help you lengthen your speech, okay?” and “Let me help you to add more things together.”

I hope hope hope the weekend doesn’t dilute this mental lesson, and sticking with it throughout next week, will slowly bring about some positive change and effect in the classroom. I think many of our students do need to realise and believe that effort on their part is the one thing that they can be control of to make a difference. Praying for the wisdom to share this great thought-provoking lesson with my kids. “Let’s get smart together.” :)

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