Damned If You Do. Damned If You Don't.

(This post by Dr Petunia Lee first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 31 August 2012.)

There is nothing wrong with the new PSLE syllabus. Some people may be surprised that Dr Petunia Lee is actually saying something GOOD about MOE but hey… I’ve never said they were totally hopeless. I’ve never said the system is totally broken.

Nope… never said that.

My first encounter with the current PSLE requirements was thrilling. I was pleased because I knew that there was NO WAY to reach excellence at the current PSLE via rote-learning. This is not a syllabus you can handle with rote-learning. This is not a syllabus that can be aced through tons and tons of practice drills. In every subject, the PSLE now tests “divergent thinking”. You can read more about divergent thinking HERE. If you understand what divergent thinking is, you will realize that answers to any test of divergent thinking cannot be rote-learned.

Tests of divergent thinking appear in PSLE Math as questions that requires only known concepts and methods to solve, but require a twist in viewing the problem. Once you can reframe the Math problem in the required unexpected way, the solution is easy and sometimes requires almost no complex calculation. Tests of divergent thinking appear in Science questions when the child is asked to construct an experiment to test a hypothesis, using all or some of the materials listed. Tests of divergent thinking appear in English comprehension as inference questions. Tests of divergent thinking appear in Chinese comprehension as opinion questions asking the child to judge a certain course of action seen in the text.

For example, Little Boy read a Chinese comprehension passage where a boy’s mother was gravely ill. The boy tried to earn money by shining shoes. A rich gentleman with positively LOADS of money had no smaller change than $10. The boy had no change to give his rich customer, who promptly asked him to keep the change. This same boy came back the day after, to give back the change he owed the customer. He stood in the cold winter’s evening, freezing his toes off in his threadbare clothes just so that he could give $5 back to the man with millions.

The comprehension question asked my son whether he would do the same as the boy in the story, and to explain why. My son wrote the following “No, I won’t. I think the boy in the story is silly. Firstly, my mother might die if I leave her alone on a cold winter’s evening just to go and return $5. I love my Mother and want to be there if she dies, so I won’t go and wait somewhere else for hours just to return $5 to a rich man who had already said I could keep the money. Secondly, my mother is ill and she would need the $5 to buy medicine far more than the very rich customer needs the $5. For these 2 reasons, I will keep the $5 for my mother to spend.”

Little Boy was marked wrong. The marking guide said that the correct answer was to do the same as the boy in the story because we should not keep money that does not belong to us. Little Boy’s answer was cogent and logical. It was premised upon a different moral value – filial piety. The marking guide’s answer was cogent and logical. It was premised upon another moral value – financial integrity. However, given the moral tone of the comprehension passage, it was clear which answer the teachers expected.

Over time, Little Boy learnt to quell his own thinking and give answers he thought his teachers expected. It became an exercise in reading the teachers’ minds. But you know what, when you’re marking for divergent thinking, you should be giving MORE marks to insightful answers that are not in the marking guide, but contain perfect internal consistency and logic. These answers from a fresh perspective should be rewarded, not marked wrong. In the real world, divergent thinking is precious because it is different and still contains perfect logic. If Steve Jobs didn’t think he could sell songs for 99c per song, would we have iTunes today?

The problem with tests of divergent thinking is that there can be multiple answers to the same question. Unfortunately, schools and teachers themselves are uncomfortable with not knowing all the answers. There MUST be a marking guide and if the child’s highly divergent but correct answer appears nowhere in the marking guide, the teacher must mark it wrong in order to be fair to other students. There must not be too much subjectivity and variation in marking or else… or else… or else…

And there is no arguing with Teachers. Administratively, once the marks are entered into the IT database, the marks cannot be changed. Hence, it really doesn’t matter who is right. You’re wrong even if you’re right. And it takes a parent’s involvement to discuss such answers with Teachers. If parents are too busy working, well… the child learns to give expected (and non-divergent) answers to questions that are meant to test quality of divergent thinking. So really, what are our children meant to learn? Divergent thinking? Or convergent thinking in disguise?

So what can parents do in such situations (which by the way, happen quite regularly across schools in Singapore)? I can’t tell you what you should do but I can share what I did.

I used these questions to teach divergent thinking to my son. I encouraged him to think outside of the box to generate different answers. I praised his more insightful answers, but I also trained him to give the predictable and expected answer at his school exams. This has worked well for school exams.

Now, I am a little worried that at the actual PSLE, they might actually mark divergent thinking questions as they SHOULD be marked. In this case, Little Boy’s expected and predictable answers would be marked down.

So, you’re damned if you DO… and damned if you DON’T.



Dr Petunia Lee is not the sort of doctor that prescribes antibiotics. She has a PhD in Business Studies, specializing in the science of Human Motivation in organizations.

For many years, Dr Petunia Lee researched and consulted in organizational psychology. She focused entirely on issues of Human Motivation.

In 2010, Dr Lee stopped consulting altogether. Her son, Little Boy, was ranked 28th out of 38th students in class. He hated school and described himself thus, “I am not one of the smart ones, Mom.” Whilst it did not matter whether Little Boy topped the class, Dr Lee thought it urgent to address his issues of self-esteem. There is no better antidote to low self-esteem than actually experiencing success. Hence, Dr Lee stopped helping managers to motivate staff and threw her all into motivating her son. In the process, Dr Lee discovered that many of the strategies she was teaching managers could be used on children too.

Dr Lee coined the term Internal Drive Ignition™ to describe the process of firing up and stimulating human motivation levels. She also compiled a set of motivation strategies that are collectively termed Internal Drive Theory®.