Singapore education: TIMSS, Teach More, Learn More, less sleep and back and shoulder pain

There are two interesting reports about Singapore’s students in Singapore’s main newspaper, the Straits Times, on 5 January 2009. The first report focuses on the sleeping patterns of Singapore’s teenagers. The second report is about the effect of heavy school bags that Singapore students carry to school.

The first report says that four in five of Singapore’s teenagers are not getting enough sleep. The average teenager is supposed to get more than eight to nine hours of sleep. According to the report half of those studied actually had only five to six hours of sleep.

Although the report did mention that one of the reasons for the lack of sleep among teenagers is because they chat online, it is also disturbing to read that many of these teenagers who lack sleep are high-achievers in school who believe that they can do without the recommended amount of sleep.

According to Dr Lim Li Ling, director of the Singapore General Hospital’s Sleep Disorder Unit:

“Some proudly let me know that they sleep only four hours a night. It’s not something they should feel proud about. It affects their brain potential – how much they can learn and consolidate.”

A study in the United States has shown that teenagers who are top students do even better with sufficient sleep. The report also says that the heavy school load and co-curricular activities are additional reasons for the teenagers’ lack of sleep.

We can infer from this report that the examination-centered Singapore school curriculum is clearly an important reason for this sleep deprivation with its long term health consequences. One also wonders about the mental health of these students.

The second report focuses on a study by Singapore’s Republic Polytechnic on the effect of a heavy school bags on Singapore’s students. The study done by Dr Michael Koh and Mr Tarkeshwar Singh of the Republic Polytechnic. They found that Singapore’s students tend to take shorter, quicker steps to offset the typically heavy loads that they carry to school. According to the report the changes in gait will not reduce the problems these students will face with regards to their posture, or their joints and ligaments which can lead to back and shoulder pains.

Another doctor, Dr Kevin Lim, an orthopaedic consultant at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore, says that he treats up to five to ten children every week for such pains. The report says this is despite schools in Singapore now providing lockers for the students.


In case you are wondering why the locker solution has not worked, it is probably because parents and the schools themselves still insist that these students bring their text books and other accessories home so they can still use them for even more studying back home. One solution to this problem is to buy extra copies of text books; one set for home use and one set for the school. Quite a few parents have resorted to this which explains the perennial shortage of text books even before the new school calendar begins. But this applies only to those parents who can afford two sets of books!

The other reason is that for each subject there is usually a text book, activity or work book, plus the books for writing. Seldom is the student told which of these books are required for the next day of school. In fact, many teachers just insist that students bring all their books for the subjects. Multiply the number of books for each subject by the number of subjects each day (which is at least four each day). That will give you an idea of the load. Don’t forget also the stacks of printed notes and worksheets given to the students by the teachers. This is how Singapore students do well in examinations and TIMSS!

When schools in the neighboring countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and China seek the Singapore school model for themselves, I wonder how many of these schools go beyond Singapore school’s excellent examinations performance and TIMSS results when they choose the Singapore school model? What price are parents in these countries willing to pay for “educational” success with their children’s long term health? It is clear from these two reports that the Singapore education system breeds success at the expense of the students’ health. This is a natural effect of the schools’ heavy load and the pressure to excel in the high stakes examinations.

Lastly, one wonders about the state of the teachers in Singapore’s schools. With the teaching and preparation that they have to do to meet the targets set for the high stakes examinations , the large class sizes and the accompanying heavy marking load, we wonder about the state of physical and mental health these teachers are in. So much for the “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM) initiative of theĀ  Ministry of Education (MOE).

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