Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Character Education: Nobody cares?

More than a week ago, I had posted an introduction to the series on Character Education that I had intended to blog about. The response to that introductory post was frankly, very disappointing... ( A comparison: my post on elitism drew more than 700 pageviews in a week, and the post responding to the HCI student hit 4k in 2 weeks. The CCE intro post has only 82 pageviews so far... you get the idea. Even the food review got a better response.) 

This made me wonder: Do people actually care about character education at all?

Two incidences this week have convinced me that despite being labelled as an 'emotionless' society - deep down, Singaporeans do care. First incident: the case of workplace bullying by the boss/manager of Encore eServices has drawn a lot of attention on mainstream and social media platforms. The message sent by the general public regarding this incident is clear - bullying, abuse of authority and physical assault is wrong, moral courage by the intern to stand up for injustice is right, and the wrongdoer should be punished according to the law. The second incident (video below) involved a random group of Singaporeans helping to push a car (parked in an inconsiderate manner along a single lane road) up the curb so that the traffic behind could move. Again, a large majority of Singaporeans praised the selflessness of those who helped and condemned the inconsiderate car owner.

Faith in helpful Singaporeans (partially) restored!

As it turns out, an 'emotionless' Singaporean society does have an inherent sense of 'right' and 'wrong' - even if we don't often show it. This leads me to the next question - could these 'correct' and 'good' moral values inculcated in Singaporeans be attributed to the compulsory Civics and Moral Education (aka CME) lessons that most of us went through as kids?

What do you think?

When I posed this question (informally) to a group of educators of varying ages and experience in schools, they roared in laughter. The unanimous answer from (a random bunch of) educators is clear - No, CME had nothing to do with this

LOL = Response received when I asked colleagues if CCE/CME was effective in schools.

What does CCE/CME/NE look like in schools now?

This part is going to sound quite familiar to Singaporeans born from the 1970s onwards - for those educated here anyway.

NE in Secondary Schools is mostly integrated into academic subjects such as social studies and history (of Singapore). All schools from Pri 1 to JC2 commemorate Racial Harmony Day and Total Defence Day and celebrate National Day with a school concert /school-based activities, all as part of NE.

CME is usually part of a 1 hour lesson (duration may vary for different schools) integrated weekly into a students' timetable. In primary schools, it is largely taught in mother tongue or part of mother tongue lessons. Some secondary schools incorporate this as part of class contact time or CCE period and/or part of mother tongue lessons. There is an unspoken 'syllabus' (remember the CCE toolkit?) and for 'sensitive' topics such as Sexuality Education, teachers are to teach/follow the given guidelines closely. There seems to be a formal textbook for CME in some primary schools. (Teachers these days sometimes use technology and videos to make the lesson more interactive/less boring.)

For obvious reasons, lessons are mostly classroom-based and are taught based on hypothetical situations. Example of CME lesson moral dilemma: 小明 noticed that his classmate was cheating in a test. Should he tell his father/mother/teacher etc and risk losing his friend? (Does this sound familiar?)

To recognize students of exemplary conduct and character, MOE introduced the Edusave Character Awards (ECHA) in 2012. And yes, some primary schools still do give out 'best conduct' awards and all schools are required to give students a 'conduct grading' in their report books.

Is this effective?

There is no tangible or accurate way to measure its effectiveness/success in schools. How does one measure good character?

Surveys don't work - students can always give 'morally correct' answers.

Teacher observations and conduct grading may not be accurate - we will always encounter 乖乖 well behaved  students who are actually terrorizing their parents at home (or so some parents like to tell me)

Scholarships, Character and conduct awards? - let's just say it's all well and good until a scholarship recipient gets caught in bad conduct. (Or when a teacher/prinicipal is quietly asked to leave the service for immoral conduct. Talk about embarrassing... )
How do we measure a person's moral character?

I can only gauge based on personal experience: after 'teaching' CCE/CME and observing how moral ed lessons are conducted across 3 different schools, I have deduced that most students view moral education lessons as a 'break' from academic lessons. Some treat it as an intellectual exercise. Some feel they are 'useless' and a waste of time. It is unlikely that these lessons taught from books will have any lasting impact - teaching values in a classroom is simply too 'top down' and 'theoretical'. Many teachers teach it because they 'have no choice' (remember, it is compulsory) and many more would rather use the time teaching academic content. So, are classroom CCE/CME lessons effective? As a current student/educator, I believe you are the best judge. (You should also check out what Wikipedia says of the effectiveness of values education in Singapore. It's rather amusing.)

How do other countries do it?

The Australian government funds their own Values Education publications and school forums of all levels of education. There are also Catholic and Christian schools worldwide. Most Islamic countries have Madrasahs which are schools anchored in Islamic values. In Thailand, most schools are anchored in Buddhist values. Aligning general values education with religious moral values seems pretty straightforward for countries with a religious majority.

Apparently, it is very difficult (maybe impossible?) to have truly effective moral ed lessons in a secular nation. Besides Singapore, Sweden is another example of a secular country where students criticize the country's formal values education curricula.

Then how?

In this day and age, character education in a secular context cannot be taught in classroom nor using textbooks / hypothetical situations any longer. We are just kidding ourselves. Gone are the days when parents and teachers were the primary sources of moral rights and wrongs. Our children and youth can now find solutions and advice to grey areas and complex moral issues using search engines and Yahoo answers. My role as an educator is to guide my students to make sense of the complexities of moral issues and help them find their own path, instead of prescribing a path. Finally, talk is cheap - unless parents and educators can walk the talk, we will never receive genuine respect from our youths.
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What are your thoughts on this? How is your personal experience with CME lessons as a student? Feel free to share!

- A


  1. I'm a teacher and drawing on what I have read about the Finnish and German education system, CCE should be changed to Ethics or Philosophy of Ethics, or just simply Philosophy to cover more grounds.

    1. Hi Xinrong,

      I don't think a simple renaming will work. I have also read about the Finnish education system and was privileged to hear from Finnish educators a couple of years back. IMO they are light years ahead of us in most aspects of education. They are truly 21st century - Singapore, together with most of the western world is still centred on rote learning which is already outdated.

      Revamping the Singaporean Education system requires a complete change in mindset among society. Does rote learning still have a place today, for tomorrow? What competencies do our children need to prepare them for jobs of the future which may not exist today?

      So many questions, no easy solutions (if any at all).

      Simply rambling,