Education's make or break factor, and how air-con fits in.

By Sudo Nyme

With the recent flurry of discussions about MOE's alleged funding cuts for top independent schools (I use "alleged", because apparently MOE has repudiated the report as semi-inaccurate), I humbly bring to your attention a related and very much pertinent question - do they matter? Let me clarify: I'm not gonna jump on the bandwagon and discuss the funding cuts like so many people already had (sigh). I'm talking about the related and much-debated topic of nature vs. nurture in education. These funding cuts for top independent schools (which MOE has acknowledged), in addition to its restrictions on air-con usage, will undoubtedly alter the learning environment, which is a constituent element of "nurture". And yes, it may be myopic to focus on the air-con restrictions, but without specifics of the ramifications of the funding cuts on the learning environment, it's foolish to speculate (and I'm not gonna do so!).

And because I couldn't find a more appropriate place to insert this photo, I'm just gonna put it here hahaha:

Totally true from what I see on Facebook, okay? HAHAHA. Photo courtesy of SGAG

Firstly, lemme come right out and state my stance: I believe nurture to be equally, if not more, important than nature in influencing the success of a student. Which begs the question of "How do you define success?" For the sake of argument, let's just define "success" as academic excellence. (After all, that's what schools and MOE are concerned about.) My argument is admittedly anecdotal in nature, but I'm gonna address that later on.

So. I find the learning environment to be the single most important factor in making/breaking a student. In Secondary 1 and 2 (I was from a better-tier neighborhood secondary school), my results were... meh. Okay, but not stellar. At the end of Sec 2, I opted to study triple sciences and double humanities. I was assigned to a very mugger-ish class. Seriously, I'm not even kidding. My classmates read and did 10-year-series questions during breaks while neighboring classes were chilling and playing and fooling around. And when my classmates do play, they play chess. Almost half the students are foreigners on MOE scholarships. To give you an idea of our overall performance, my class constituted about 75% of all As in the stream (3 classes) for one of the examinations. Oh, and among the handful of students who went on to study at RJC, all but 1 came from my class. Yeah you get the idea. Anyway, in this super competitive environment, my results improved significantly (both absolutely and relatively).

Next. I scored well for my O Levels and went to study at RJC. Needless to say, the environment got a lot more competitive. It's not exactly that competition spurs me to study harder or longer. Rather, I subconsciously learn better. I can't attribute it to a particular mechanism, because the truth is I don't know. But once again, my results improved considerably (even relative to the cohort).

So as I was saying my argument is anecdoctal. Here's the fine print. I like to win. I have always hated losing... in whatever I do (be it games, competitions, studies, etc.) So I guess this is the underlying condition to validate my assertion that the learning environment (in the regard of competitiveness) is the make or break factor in shaping a student. It inspires the drive to excel, which nay manifest in different forms. Conversely, in a slack environment where nobody is motivated and everybody has their priorities wrong, a student is inclined to mediocrity. I know I would. So I'd just like to take this opportunity to say how thankful I am for my class of muggers in secondary school and the challenge of competition in RJC, because if it were not for them I think I would be a radically different person now :).

So onto the issue of air-con usage restrictions. It's intuitive that a comfortable learning environment makes for better learning and teaching. Lee Kuan Yew once famously called air-conditioning mankind's greatest invention. Need I say more? In secondary school when I had afternoon lessons, I can't tell you how many times I (together with a sizeable number of my classmates) dozed off in the sweltering afternoon heat. Even the teacher understands our predicament. How effective can learning be when keeping your eyes open is the most challenging task at hand?

To be fair, MOE is pushing for judicious usage of air-conditioning, not a complete disallowance. But let's not forget that everyone has a different ideal temperature. How is the much subjective "judicious" aspect going to be regulated, when everyone has different interpretations of what it means? Then, let's consider the fact that air-conditioned schools presently happen to be the top performing ones*. Maybe I have my cause and effect mixed up, but it's food for thought. Perhaps the idea that full air-conditioning will result in better quality results isn't that implausible. So in this regard, I think that any restriction of air-conditioning will only adversely affect learning productivity. But I'm sure MOE is fully aware of this and probably feels that the slight trade-off is worth the costs savings. Hmm. (I'd rather the national budget be adjusted such that some of the funds used for national defense be reallocated for education, but that's just my unsupported, uneducated and likely-foolish "advice".)

*Update: Okay maybe this statement isn't exactly a good point, so sorry. I guess I could have phrased it better. But I still stand by my point that I disagree with the restrictions on air-conditioning though.

Let's now take a step back and consider MOE's overall actions. While the idea of a more equitable allocation of funding isn't objectionable per se, why does it specifically highlight the usage of air-con? Why doesn't MOE just stop at the revision of funds and allow the schools to independently decide how they plan to reduce expenses to meet the new budget? It seems to me as if MOE wishes to bridge the disparaties between these so-called top schools and the standard government school. Honestly, if this really were the case, I'm not impressed. How is pulling the metaphorical top down to reduce "inequality" going to improve the overall education scene? Why not push the bottom up instead? My point is that MOE could have simply stopped at their funding cuts, without explicitly mentioning the usage of air-conditioning, if its intention was solely to promote a more equitable allocation of resources.

Anyway. I know that this issue on education and schools is hotly controversial, so I just want to say that I'm not trying to stir the flames of the good-school, bad-school "war", or anything. I'm just speaking my mind as an ex-student. :)

This article was first published over at the blog of Sudo Nyme (a Raffles Alumni) on 5 February 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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