“The memory of how much we didn’t know…ought to sober us”

It is impossible to browse the newspapers these days without noticing more updates on that missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. And as cold as this may sound, I find myself paying less attention to this continued hunt for the missing flight because the articles either do not offer any more insight or are based on mere speculations.

Today’s Opinion piece on this issue by Pico Iyer (renowned writer/ philosopher) caught my eye. It was refreshing to consider what we must remember from this incident – in a KBE where we have 3-D printing, Google Earth, wireless connectivity, we are unable to even track a whole plane-load of passengers and air crew. Pico Iyer’s sobering reminder that no, even the experts don’t know everything highlights that “the universe is not a fixed sum, in which the amount you know subtracts from the amount you don’t.” 

A version of this Opinion piece appeared in print on March 21, 2014, in the New York edition with the headline: “The Folly of Thinking We Know”. Reprinted in today’s Saturday edition of Straits Times (22 March 2014) under the Opinion section.

The folly of thinking we know it all

BY Pico Iyer

WE’VE most of us, surely, heard all the figures: Humanity now produces as much data in two days as it did in all of history till the year 2003 — and the amount of data is doubling every two years. In the time you take to read this piece, the human race will generate as much data as currently exists in the Library of Congress. For that matter — yes, your inbox and Facebook page would reflect this — 10 percent of all the pictures ever taken as of the end of 2011 were taken in 2011. Yet as we think about how an entire Boeing 777 has gone missing for almost two weeks now, we’re also painfully reminded of how much we can’t — and may never — know, even in the Knowledge Economy.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman has noted, after decades of research, that it’s our nature to overestimate how much we understand the world and to underestimate the role of chance. And it’s our folly to assume we know very much at all. There’s “a highly objectionable word,” he writes, “which should be removed from our vocabulary in discussions of major events,” and that word is “knew.”

I think of this as I watch one expert after another offer informed guesses about the fate of the missing plane, even as all we know about it so far is how provisional — and contradictory — our speculations have been. I also recall how the words that most convey authority and credibility whenever I listen to any pundit speak are “I don’t know.” Whatever the field of our expertise, most of us realize that the more data we acquire, the less, very often, we know. The universe is not a fixed sum, in which the amount you know subtracts from the amount you don’t.

As Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, said in 1888, when his magazine set out to chart everything in the known universe, “The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance.” And it can often seem as if nature — or something beyond our reckoning at least — intrudes every time we’re tempted to get above ourselves. Whenever we begin to assume we can command or comprehend quite a bit, some Icarian calamity pushes our face, tragically, in the limits of our knowledge.

It’s been humbling, as well as horrifying, to see the entire globe, in an age of unprecedented data accumulation, up in the air, more or less, but poignantly aware that, whatever we do learn, a grief beyond understanding is likely to be a part of it.

We imagine how those with loved ones on the plane must be trying to fill the absence, of knowledge as well as of their sons or wives, and how they may fear, even if at times they long for, certainty. We imagine the people on the aircraft, whose not-knowing might have been felt on the pulse, accelerating, as the vessel suddenly changed course. We translate the story into our own lives, and think about how the things we don’t know haunt and possess us as the things we do seldom can.

Even if we do learn more about the fate of the airliner, it’s unlikely that all of our questions will ever be answered. And the memory of how much we didn’t know — and how long we didn’t know it — ought to sober us as we prepare for the next sudden visitation of the inexplicable.

We’re all grateful that we know as much as we do these days, and enjoy lives that are safer, longer, healthier and better connected than those of any generation before ours. Yet each day that passes, Malaysia 370 keeps hovering like a terrible blank in our minds, more visible the longer it’s out of our view.


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Scathing Criticism of Malaysia in NYTimes

APphoto_China Malaysia Plane

I doubt this will appear in local press. In a NYTimes article, it was reported that:

[W]orldwide bafflement at the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has challenged the country’s paternalistic political culture and exposed its coddled leaders to the withering judgments of critics from around the world.

It appears The Mystery of Vanishing Flight 370 is coming to a sobering end:

Civilian and military leaders on Wednesday revealed that they had known for the past four days, but did not publicly disclose, that military radar had picked up signals of what may have been the missing aircraft.

The article doesn’t end there; the bashing continues as the writer jumps at opportunity to serve up a rather unflattering representation of Malaysia, describing our geographical neighbour as:

an ethnically polarized society where talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party and a system of ethnic preferences that discourages or blocks the country’s minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service.

Ethnic Malays, who make up about half of the population, hold nearly all top government positions and receive a host of government preferences because of their status as “sons of the soil.”

On a personal note, I know of many close friends/ relatives who are Malaysian Chinese and proud to be Malaysian. Reading this article, I do wonder what their sentiments would be.

For the full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/world/asia/missing-jet-exposes-a-dysfunctional-malaysian-elite.html?_r=0

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(Minor) Edit: Task for the March hols

*Now that you have chosen your group task, I’m assuming that you’ve started work on the Powerpoint presentation. Will each group nominate one member to email me the Powerpoint slides by this Saturday, 10pm. This is for QC (quality control) purposes 🙂 No worries if you’ve done a decent job.

The good news is – no more Wednesday deadline! (Background info: I’d previously prescribed a deadline for some other classes)

So the deadline for your Task is 1st lesson of Term 2. The rationale for this change is simple: I thought about the prospect of opening individual emails, downloading attachments, printing them…and decided there must be a better way of doing this 🙂

Please note that the instructions have also been revised. Below are the instructions for your March Hols Task:

Part 1. Individual (compulsory)
Based on the given sample essay:

(a) Identify the Functions of Education that the writer mentions in the essay
(b)Vocabulary – find out meaning of the highlighted terms (not just dictionary definitions but in the context of the essay)

Please present these as typed documents and bring it to class during our first lesson in term 2.

Part 2. In groups (preferably your IRA groups)
Choose ONE option from the following:

(a) Research on the Arab Spring (mentioned in p17 of Education content package, as well as in the essay provided).Discuss the background and implications. 
(b) Research on the background, synopsis and issues that were highlighted in for Waiting for “Superman” (2010). (It’s a well-known documentary film.Note: You are not expected to screen the film in class.)
(c) Research on reforms in our local Primary School education – specifically, on Program for Active Learning (PAL). Discuss the rationale behind these initiatives.
In your groups, you will present your findings in the form of a Powerpoint presentation (5-8 min). Be prepared to answer questions from the class and from ahem, myself as well of course.

So in summary, everyone completes Part 1 individually; you work in groups (preferably IRA groups) for Part 2.

(And with no irony intended, enjoy the March break!) Those with any questions/ doubts, drop me an email: lee_jeng_yee_pepper@moe.edu.sg.

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There is madness in Singapore’s method

Published in TES magazine on 31 August, 2012 | By: Joy Hetherington

Singapore, the uber-ambitious city state on the bottom of the Malaysian peninsula, has found itself the focus of Michael Gove’s attention this summer as he sings the praises of its education system. But having taught there for several years in a state college, I can’t say that I share his admiration in the slightest – there is much to its education culture that Britain should certainly avoid replicating.

To my mind, any education system where it is necessary to put your teachers on suicide watch, as I was, in the run-up to A-level results day, is a system sick to its very core. Indeed, the problem is endemic among the pupils, too. Such is the pressure on the country’s youth to succeed academically, suicide is one of the top causes of death among young Singaporeans. In a survey conducted by the country’s English-medium national newspaper The Straits Times, 36 per cent of children rated failing examinations and tests as their “greatest fear”, compared with 17 per cent who cited the death of their parents or guardians. So it was no exaggeration when my Chinese Singaporean boss stated on my first day at work: “Education is everything in Singapore.”

So high are the education stakes that it is not unusual for Singaporean parents to physically punish their children for under-achieving academically. Visit any convenience store in Singapore and you will find canes for sale. Although they are used to address a range of discipline issues, sales peak in the build-up to important exam periods, which in Singapore is quite a lot of the time. In schools, caning is legal and widely accepted – it is delivered “traditional British style” to boys only.

For those who support early streaming, the Singapore system is a dream come true, with its exam and test-led culture. Technical qualifications can be attained by the less academically able, Normal levels by the averagely academic and O levels by the most academic. This system seems to be the model for Gove’s plans for a new English O level. In Singapore, 60 per cent of children are in the “express” academic classes, a quarter are in the “normal academic” classes and 15 per cent are “technical”. Stigmatisation is an understatement of this divisive model.

You would think that in this culture, where academic success is so desperately sought, having gained entry to one of the country’s 20-odd selective junior colleges (read sixth form) would be something to celebrate. But, at the college where I taught, this wasn’t the case. Why? Because it wasn’t one of the well-known top five and the students saw themselves as having failed.

The route to riches

In Singapore, as in a number of Asian countries, education is seen by parents and educators as the route to success and riches. In this rapidly developing society, the population is driven by economic gain and success. For the majority, this is judged mostly in monetary terms. It is summed up in the popular acronym the 5 Cs – cash, credit card, condo, car and country club membership. Attain these five and you’ve cracked it.

The intense desire to win is summed up by a Singapore word “kiasu”. Translated from Chinese Hokkien dialect, it means “fear of losing”. In this race for riches, Singaporean parents invest huge sums in private tuition to give their children a head start. This, not the state-funded system, is one of the main reasons for the country’s high performances in international league tables. The official school starting age is 6, but for many children, tuition kicks in well before then. Tuition after school hours is the norm and takes precedence over play.

Tony Blair may have said “education, education, education”, but in Singapore you should add “tuition, tuition, tuition”. Intensive tuition prepares Singaporean children well for future years of gruelling study. It is not unusual to see pupils clogging up the tables of cafes with their laptops and textbooks out of official school hours and at the weekends. When I walked into work at 7am each morning, the pupils were already studying before the assembly bell went off. Many didn’t leave school until 9pm after attending extra-curricular lessons. While I can see the appeal this might have to Western parents struggling to get their children to do their homework, it takes its toll during the day on sleepy teenagers struggling to concentrate in class.

Although I hate to bow to stereotypes, there is no doubt that Singaporean students are better than their Western counterparts at learning facts and regurgitating them. This may explain Singapore’s excellent reputation for teaching maths and science but it’s a bit of a bummer when you’re trying to teach anything that requires critical and creative thinking. This, no doubt, is the product of long-term exposure to rote learning in Singapore schools and colleges.

The more enlightened, and there are many at the Ministry of Education, have been battling for years to encourage teachers to diversify. That’s why the ministry has sunk millions of Sing dollars into training its teachers to use more creative and student-centred techniques – basically more Western-style teaching techniques.

Singapore is a young country, a progressive country, always with its eye on the future. But if the education secretary in the UK attempts to replicate its schools system it would be a monumental backwards step for Britain.


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Education: “Work hard, Memorize and Test well”?

We All Have a Lot to Learn

Singapore’s students do brilliantly in math and science tests. American kids test much worse but do better in the real world. Why?

By Fareed Zakaria

Newsweek, Jan 9 2006 issue


Last week India was hit by a terror attack that unsettled the country. A gunman entered the main conference hall of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, tossed four grenades into the audience and, when the explosives failed, fired his AK-47 at the crowd. One man, a retired professor of mathematics from one of the Indian Institutes of Technology, was killed. What has worried some about this attack is not its scope or planning or effect—all unimpressive—but the target. The terrorists went after what is increasingly seen as India’s core strategic asset for the 21st century: its scientific and technological brain trust. If that becomes insecure, what will become of India’s future?

This small event says a lot about global competition. Traveling around Asia for most of the past month, I have been struck by the relentless focus on education. It makes sense. Many of these countries have no natural resources, other than their people; making them smarter is the only path for development. China, as always, appears to be moving fastest. When officials there talk about their plans for future growth, they point out that they have increased spending on colleges and universities almost tenfold in the past 10 years. Yale’s president, Richard Levin, notes that PekingUniversity’s two state-of-the-art semiconductor fabrication lines—each employing a different technology—outshine anything in the United States. East Asian countries top virtually every global ranking of students in science and mathematics.

But one thing puzzles me about these oft-made comparisons. I talked to Tharman Shanmugaratnam to understand it better. He’s the minister of Education of Singapore, the country that is No. 1 in the global science and math rankings for schoolchildren. I asked the minister how to explain the fact that even though Singapore’s students do so brilliantly on these tests, when you look at these same students 10 or 20 years later, few of them are worldbeaters anymore. Singapore has few truly top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives or academics. American kids, by contrast, test much worse in the fourth and eighth grades but seem to do better later in life and in the real world. Why?

“We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam said. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

Shanmugaratnam also pointed out that American universities are unrivaled globally—and are getting better. “You have created a public-private partnership in tertiary education that is amazingly successful. The government provides massive funding, and private and public colleges compete, raising everyone’s standards.” Shanmugaratnam highlighted in particular the role that American foundations play. “Someone in society has to be focused on the long term, on maintaining excellence, on raising quality. You have this array of foundations—in fact, a whole tradition of civic-minded volunteerism—that fulfills this role. For example, you could not imagine American advances in biomedical sciences without the Howard Hughes Foundation.”

Singapore is now emphasizing factors other than raw testing skills when selecting its top students. But cultures are hard to change. A Singaporean friend recently brought his children back from America and put them in his country’s much-heralded schools. He described the difference. “In the American school, when my son would speak up, he was applauded and encouraged. In Singapore, he’s seen as pushy and weird. The culture of making learning something to love and engage in with gusto is totally absent. Here it is a chore. Work hard, memorize and test well.” He took his child out of the Singapore state school and put him into a private, Western-style one.

Despite all the praise Shanmugaratnam showered on the States, he said that the U.S. educational system “as a whole has failed.” “Unless you are comfortably middle class or richer,” he explained, “you get an education that is truly second-rate by any standards. Apart from issues of fairness, what this means is that you never really access the talent of poor, bright kids. They don’t go to good schools and, because of teaching methods that focus on bringing everyone along, the bright ones are never pushed. In Singapore we get the poor kid who is very bright and very hungry, and that’s crucial to our success.

“From where I sit, it’s not a flat world,” Shanmugaratnam concluded. “It’s one of peaks and valleys. The good news for America is that the peaks are getting higher. But the valleys are getting deeper, and many of them are also in the United States.”

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Term 1 Assignment (read: mandatory assignment)

Please download and print the assignment because you will need to file this in your assignment file. Now, you have to craft the introduction, and just ANY one paragraph of your choice.

Remember: You need a Topic Sentence that contains your Point. You need Explanation. You need Evidence (s). You need to Elaborate and Evaluate the Evidence. And finally, the Linking Sentence that links your Evidence back to your Topic Sentence and back to your Stand.

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