Friday, November 28, 2008

Learning lessons in a new country

Ten students from Singapore, along with their teacher, spent a week in Kochi. They found the people warm, the students intelligent, and the sight of nature spell-binding

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Johnny Yan, 14, of the Hwa Chong Institution of Singapore took a Chinese language class at the Rajagiri Public School at Kalamaserry, he was taken aback by the enthusiasm shown by the students.

"They learnt fast and were appreciative," says the Grade 8 student. He realised that in Singapore the students don't show the same enjoyment. "During lessons some of them just fall asleep," he says. "They don't really appreciate the opportunity to study. Most belong to affluent families and have got things easily."

Ten students from the institution accompanied by Chinese teacher Dennis Ong had come to spend a week in Kochi and interact with the Rajagiri students.

For Joel Tan the striking discovery is that Rajagiri is a co-educational school. "There is a belief in Singapore that in order to avoid distractions it is better to study in an all-boys or all-girls school. I am not sure I agree with this," he says, to loud laughter from his classmates.

The students were struck by another difference. "There was so much of guidance by the teachers in the classes," says Chang Hui. "In Singapore students are expected to be independent. It would be far better for us if the teachers help us more."

Meanwhile, for teacher Dennis Ong, what was a revelation was the keen desire on the part of the students In Kochi to serve the nation. "There is a rise of a powerful national identity that is happening unknowingly among the youngsters," he says. He feels that when these pupils grow up, they will serve the country.

"India has the potential to outshine countries like China," he says. "The Chinese youth, like those of Singapore, want to enjoy life rather than dedicate themselves to the cause of the nation."

However, he is also keenly aware that when a young Indian goes abroad, and sees the luxury and comforts, he might not want to come back. "Nevertheless, to have the inclination to serve in the first place is highly commendable," says Dennis, who had studied the impact of the diaspora on the Chinese and the Indian economies for his master's thesis.

Of course, all the students were amazed at the chaotic traffic. "I found it difficult to adjust to the incessant horn blowing, the dust and the potholes," says Johnny. "In Singapore nobody blows the horns and there are smooth roads everywhere." Adds Joel, "I realised I live in a privileged society."
But despite their own country's high standard of living, and its myriad parks, they were awestruck by the natural beauty of Kerala.

"Singapore is a concrete jungle," says Chang. "True, there are several parks, but the presentation is very artificial. In Kerala I was able to appreciate the beauty of nature, the backwaters and also the many historical buildings, like the Jewish Synagogue."

And even though Keralites are always critical about their own behaviour, these students were much taken up by the warmth and hospitality shown to them.

"The people are open, friendly and approachable," says Joel. Dennis noticed that at a traffic junction, when people got down from a bus, they smiled at the group. "It was very heart-warming," he says.

In contrast, Dennis says, his own countrymen tend to be reserved. "Singaporeans normally do not smile or say hello to strangers," he says. "It may be because we are too busy or self-absorbed. We usually take time to warm up, but after that we can be pretty fun-loving too."

But things are very serious at the Hwa Chong Institution, one of the premier schools in the island nation. The monthly fees are $250 and there are 5000 students on its rolls. Classes start at 7.20 a.m. and finish at 1.20 p.m. Each period lasts 40 minutes and there are 33 students in a class.

The annual examination is in October-November. "These exams are based on a total of 50 marks," says Dennis. "The remaining 50 marks constitute the continual assessments, tests, and assignments done throughout the year." Following a six-week break, after the year-end exams, the academic session begins in January.

The school also has a Gifted Education Programme (GEP). After the national examination, at the age of 12 years, students who perform exceedingly well in maths, science or the arts, are invited to join the GEP. "They will receive advanced learning," says Dennis. "This enables the country to develop a pool of scientific and artistic talent."

However, some students opt out because they prefer the slower pace of the regular classes. "But this is less than 2 per cent," says Dennis.

Meanwhile, this break in India has been good for the students. "It has given us valuable exposure," says Chang, 14. "I was able to experience first-hand a completely different culture and society."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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