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Saturday 11 November 2017

Are Parents, Tutors & Teachers Responsible For Pupils' Failure At Math?

We all love our kids. Who doesn’t? And we want them to excel in their studies. So we load the pressure of high expectations and the routines of tuition classes to solve this problem. Sometimes the problem gets solved. Sometimes it does not; sometimes it stays for a prolonged period of time and we are left asking why.

Today, we shall look at the failures of kids at PSLE or upper primary Math, which in my opinion is no different why some students fail at secondary Math. Through the years, I have guided students, who had scored poorly at Maths, attained A grades, and I discovered that unless these students underwent transformation at the self-concept and self-expectations levels, it would be hard to help them score grades A and above. (Note: Even with low self-esteem, scoring a C is still possible for students but an A is clearly out of reach, unless the test paper is full of lower level thinking questions.)

The first thing you should realise as a parent or even teacher is you must never be a cause for the kids’ failure at Math. You may be surpised by this remark – “Me responsible for my kid’s failure?” Well, the sad truth I discovered all these years is that we adults, and sometimes even teachers and tutors, are responsible for the low academic self-esteem of the child.

I remember being given the challenge of teaching the weakest Primary 6 Math students some time ago. As I got the kids to believe they can succeed, it became clear that I was the only adult who sincerely believed they could excel in Math at the PSLE. A boy who told his parents that his specialist teacher (i.e. me) believed that he could score an A for Math witnessed disbelief and disagreement of the part of his parents. The kid had been failing Math since Primary 4 – perhaps the specialist teacher should be realistic in predicting his future scores! Well, this kid scored a B at the PSLE after just 7 months of being involved with this program. So parents can be a problem. I have taught tuition kids whose parents, although diligently paying the tuition fees monthly, would openly declare, “My son is stupid”. Why this irony exists is baffling but believe me, it exists.

It is not just parents who are the problem, The Math HOD of the school I was teaching at told me one day, “Mr Shaheed, let’s be realistic. These kids can’t improve much. Let’s aim to improve their scores by about 10, even if they fail.” It was clear he did not believe these kids could succeed. Even teachers teaching such low achieving kids, through their body language and so-called differentiated teaching approach, send clear signals to the kids – “You kids are failures”. To them, they have spent years teaching very weak kids and they believed they were being truthful – "From my experience, these kids are sure to fail!" I can hear their imaginary talk aloud. 

So if a student who is failing at PSLE Math has teachers who doubt they will succeed, treating them as unintelligent kids destined to fail, do you think such children, if they were normal, can rise above this negativity? Are teachers and tutors aware of their children’s state of mind? Do they teach or tutor without realising that such kids need a re-programming of who they are and what they can achieve. I doubt most teachers and tutors are knowledgeable on this matter. In fact, in all my years, I rarely hear discussion on this matter except in cosmetic and misleading terms.

Research has shown that teacher or adult expectations will influence how students perform academically. Positive academic expectations breed students who succeed academically. To have positive expectations of your students means that you sincerely believe in them – believing that your students can succeed in school. If you believe that your students cannot soar to the skies, then you have placed a glass ceiling to what they can achieve. This is true even if you do not say this out loud. Our expectations, positive or negative, are transmitted from us to the students through the way we interact and feel about them. Have you heard about the research conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson? They wrote their findings in Pygmalion In The Classroom (1968). They visited a particular school and randomly identified 5 teachers and 20% of the students as their research subjects. 

The following was what they had informed the teachers:
  1. They were the 5 best teachers in the school. (Note that this was not true. These teachers were randomly picked.)
  2. They were going to teach students who were potential late bloomers and gifted students. (Note that this was not true. The students were randomly picked.)
  3. They could not tell their students that they were either a late bloomer or gifted. (Note that the teachers were told this as if it were a fact.)

After 180 days, it was found that the average scores of the students taught by the 5 teachers were significantly higher than the average scores of the other 80% of the students. There was only 1 variable in this experiment – the 5 teachers’ expectations. Because they were told they were the 5 best teachers in school and going to teach the top students in the school, they naturally expected their students to excel in their work. Therefore, from this important experiment, we discover that when you interact with the students with positive expectations, they will naturally start to believe in themselves and perform academically better.

So what are you going to do as a parent, teacher or tutor – will you have positive or negative expectations of your students? It is really up to you.