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Hard lessons in soft skills

By Santokh Singh, Deputy News Editor

IT WAS heartening to hear Education Minister Ng Eng Hen in the recent Budget
debate spell out his plans to tweak the education system so that more emphasis will be
placed on 'soft skills' such as communication and the ability to work with others. Also,
more time will be given to physical education, music and art.

But are those who will have to do most of the work - in other words, the teachers - just
as committed to the changes? And will parents support their efforts?

As I listened to Dr Ng outline his

ministry's plans earlier this month, two
thoughts kept running through my mind.

Are these changes really new and will they fall by the wayside, just like some previous
efforts, because teachers and, more importantly, principals, continue to focus on the
national examinations, and the rankings and bandings that accompany the examination

As I thought about the days when I was a student in the 1960s and 1970s, and then a
teacher in the 1980s and 1990s, I could not help but feel that these 'soft skills' were part
of our education then.

Perhaps those skills were not singled out and promoted as they are now. But we picked
up people skills through sports and extra-curricular activities, as well as in the
classroom, through civics and moral education in primary school, and through
literature, history and geography classes later on.

The difference was that principals and teachers then were keen that we picked up 'soft
skills' through sports or drama festivals and musicals, as well as in our lessons, because
there wasn't the rankings sword hanging over them.

That is why I read the recent reports of several schools merging history with geography
at the lower secondary school level, and calling the concoction 'integrated humanities',
with a tinge of sadness.

Educators claim the merger may be good for the students' 'intellectual domain' - or
their understanding of the skills involved in studying the combined subject and
possibly scoring better grades than they would have received for either history or
geography. But I am not sure if it will be just as good for the student's 'affective
domain' - one in which the child develops a feel for the humanities, in particular, and
for humanity, in general.

There is nothing like history or literature for that. Let me illustrate from a bit of
personal history.

When I was a Primary 2 pupil at the now-defunct Kim Seng East Primary School, our
form teacher told us a story about Mencius. Today, I cannot remember my teacher's
name but Mencius, and the story of his mother, I cannot forget.

The story went something like this: One day, Mencius decided to leave school early
because he 'felt like it'. On seeing him, his mother, who was working at the loom,
calmly took her knife and cut the cloth she had put so much effort into weaving.

A shocked Mencius asked her why. She replied that his neglecting his studies was
equivalent to her cutting the cloth. She added that knowledge and reputation came
from studying. Failure to study would be just as if a woman who supported herself by
weaving, gave it up.

Our teacher told us that Mencius was so disturbed by her words that he studied hard
from morning to night from that day on. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The story was my first taste of history, and it hit me where it mattered. I did not grow
up to be a scholar, but I was driven to study.

And history took a special place in my heart. I enjoyed learning about the past so much
that I went on to major in history in university.

History is also a subject I enjoyed teaching because it helped develop critical minds
and trained students to back up their arguments with facts.

But just as important, it is a subject that provides ample lessons in being human, where
empathy is subtly inculcated.

It is not that the Education Ministry has not tried to formalise character education
before. There was religious knowledge, and later, civics and moral education (CME).
Their success, however, depended on how motivated their teachers were, and on the
support of the parents.

CME, especially, suffered because it was not examinable. I knew of teachers who went
through the syllabus as quickly as possible, then used the rest of the time for revision.
But at least these teachers went through the motions; there were others who used the
entire lesson time for academic purposes.

The story was the same - and I suspect it may not have changed much since my time as
a teacher - in PE.

A Straits Times study of the subject in 1996, after more than 10 batches of teachers
had graduated from the College of Physical Education and had been posted to the
schools, revealed that there were several schools that either conducted purely physical
fitness sessions or had boys playing a game of football, while the girls opted to remain
in class.

I am sure the situation has improved now with more than 25 batches of trained PE
teachers in the system but, I wonder, by how much.
In the end, it all boils down to the ground commanders - the principals and their

An army officer I worked with in national service told me he believed less in planning
- because 'all plans start to fail from the time the first bullet is fired' - than in
motivating the commanders.

He said: 'What is more important is that we convince our commanders of the

importance of the mission, and they will get the soldiers up to the mark to execute it.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.