I am not weighing in on the debate Pro-Drilling or Against-Drilling. Because, I do both depending on the situation. I rather suspect that most Mommies here do too. We all do a bit of both I think. I am also not telling other mommies/daddies what best they should do because I am not in their situation.
I went and dug out The Daughter’s report book. Here is my story.
The Daughter scored 79 for English, 88 for Math in P1. She placed in the bottom 25% of her YEAR. However, in P1 she scored 99% for Chinese because Grandma plied her with assessment books. Little Boy’s grades followed the same pattern.
English, Math and Science were my subjects to coach. Chinese was Grandma’s. We took very different approaches. I looked past the grades in P1 & P2 for both my kids. In P1 & P2 my objectives were (1) they get used to school, (2) they adapt well socially, (3) they learn basic self-management skills, (4) the kinda keep up, (5) they like learning (6) they understand the value of diligence and discipline, and (7) they take full ownership of their studies.
These were all specific qualitative aims I had in mind. Not quantifiable but I wanted to focus on laying this foundation so that I would have a strong foundation of work ethic and self-management skills to build on in Upper Primary.
P1 & P2: Foundational Study Skills
I expected my kids to pack their bags, take notes, keep track of homework etc… That’s tough you know for the little ones. So many times, they forgot their books. My son lost his exam schedule and I didn’t help him get another. For 3 weeks, he went to school with his transparent exam pencil box because we didn’t know when exactly his exams where and which day was what exam.
How to get good grades like that?
Nonetheless, whilst they were thus struggling, I was always warm and supportive … and I gave a lot of loving advice. Next time, you need to remember this and that and the other. I had high expectations (about specific behaviors, not grades) but I tried not to help. I didn’t gloat or say "Hah! You deserved it!" That’s very mean and discouraging. Every boo boo was an opportunity to talk about how my child could manage himself better.
I gave very little drills at this stage. If they remembered to do their homework, I was happy. My kids "failed" at this stage but neither really failed as in score below 50. I did not allow that to happen. Their lowest grades were still 70+. I reckoned that that was what I could live with… believing that catch up was imminently possible from a 70s range.
P3 & P4: Transiting From Skills Focus to Grades Focus
By P3, they pretty much got the hang of the skills required to keep one’s head afloat in school. They took notes, their bags were neat and they owned their study process completely because whilst I was encouraging and free with my advice, I tried not to help too much. So, about P3, I began to set grade goals (90+ for every subject).
At first, neither kid believed they were capable (since neither had ever scored in that range before except for Chinese), but I told them that I knew they could do it.
I began to PROPOSE drills, and because both are close to me, they do bend to my wishes even when gently proposed. Mostly I gave them past year exams from other schools. I planned the schedule and checked in every weekend to see if everything was done, and done well. At this stage, I was still refining study skills. I wanted to see careful work, good handwriting… I was less fussy about grades than I was about general work quality. I threw absolute hissy fits when work was shoddy and careless, but looked past genuine errors and absolute scores.
By end-P4, they were hitting the 90s in English, Math and Science. Strangely though, their Chinese grades dropped to the 80s. I kept telling Grandma that the way she taught the children Chinese made them feel like they didn’t own the process. When they did well in Chinese, Grandma felt proud that she was a good teacher and hardworking too and conscientious. But my kids felt dispossessed of their glory. Their Chinese marks belonged to Grandma. Also, as you move into P4, the syllabus changes. Whether Chinese, English, Science or Math, the kids nowadays are no longer tested what is in the textbook.
By P3 & P4, kids are tested OUTSIDE of what is stated in the textbook. Grandma was still drilling textbook material. To score in the 90s for Science, Little Boy had to do independent internet Science research! We constructed Powerpoint slides, put him in a Professor’s geeky glasses and made him present his findings. To score in the 90s for English, we were reading tons of storybooks and practising how to create metaphors, analogies and alliterative effects (e.g., Pretty Puddle of Pungent Poo). We read poetry. Basically, there was no way to drill our way to success because there was no way to predict what would be tested. Anything could be tested, and so I took a blunderbuss approach – LEARN EVERYTHING INTERESTING and HAVE FUN. Look at what teacher taught, ask questions of yourself and look for the answers on your own. Never mind if not in syllabus. You learn more and you won’t die, and you’ll have fun.
"The grades will come" I promised them. Back then, it was me putting on a brave front and being a brave mother so that my children would have the strength to carry on and keep trying. I couldn’t tell them I didn’t believe in them. In this way, I concur with Amy Chua… the best thing you can do for your child is to believe in him.
Meanwhile, Grandma went on drilling from the textbook. And whatever I said to her, she wouldn’t budge from her time-tested method. She had been a Chinese Teacher in the past and had tutored even Mrs Carmee Lim’s daughters (ex-Principal of RGS). She thought she knew best but her methods were outdated and designed for a syllabus and an approach that was past.
P5 & P6: ABSOLUTE Grade Focus
In P5 and P6, I became Tiger Mother. The Daughter came home one day in P6 and waved a Science paper scored 98% in my face. I said "It was an easy exam. The PSLE won’t be this easy." The Daughter has never forgotten that scathing comment.
I reckoned that by P5 & P6, my kids had amassed enough resilience and process skills to take some knocks and I did knock them about, though never as hard as what Amy Chua seems to have done.
Starting P5, there was a consistent practice schedule which intensified as we moved into the 2nd quarter of P6. I devised the schedule collaboratively with my kids and I was sensitive to their mental and physical states. I had no qualms about deleting work if I thought it was too much. I wanted to manage my kids energy levels. Must always have time to recharge even if grades suffered meantime. The rule in the house is to NEVER TOUCH BOOKS 3 days before and exam paper. And I made sure I allocated whole days or whole weeks of NO BOOKS so that they could play to their hearts’ content.
There was a constant process of watching and adjusting. There was a lot of trust and dialogue. I worked them hard but I made sure that I was there to encourage and listen to their problems. But they still owned their study process. I proposed a work schedule and they decided if they could manage. More often than not, they would ADD in stuff and tell me "Mommy, I can try." They knew that the PSLE was an important exam.
I also built in a natural reward into the work schedule. If they somehow did their work fast and well, they had that extra time to play. I never gave more work when they finished theirs earlier than I had expected. And whenever I could, and they had finished earlier than expected, I would take time off work to play with them. Go somewhere they wanna go… do something they like… together.
The Daughter placed consistently in the top 3 places from P5 to Sec 2. In Sec 3, she was handpicked for an accelerated program where the others were smarter and just as driven as she. To keep up, she really pushed herself. End Sec 3, she was in hospital with pneumonia, a result of 2 months of flu and insufficient rest. She was so motivated that it had become a problem. I went to school and got an exemption for one month of homework… plus I locked up her laptop. She vegetated at home that month.
Little Boy is now in P5. He looks at the work schedule that we worked out and if I decide to delete an item, he will say "Leave it in Mom. I will try."
Unfortunately, The Daughter’s Chinese marks at ‘O’ levels went down to the 50s. She hated Chinese and rebelled completely against Grandma’s micro-managing ways. Little Boy’s Chinese dropped to 79 for the first time in end-P4. So, I’ve taken over Chinese from Grandma too… and I’m doing it my way now. Read a lot, have a lotta fun, and to hell with textbook. I will be introducing exam practices later in the year however. Learn and have fun first. Drill later.
Both drill and no-drill are important to me.
I don’t need my kids to be the best in class… but I want them to be the best they can be. If what they can be is 80+, then fine… and seriously, The Daughter’s class now is full of people who are so smart she and I feel stupid. That’s fine. We’re not as smart. And we don’t need to be.
She got where she was not because she was smart, but because she was motivated. Motivation can get a child farther than a parent’s best wishes and most beautiful dreams. The Daughter is no longer at the top of her class anymore, but that is fine because I know she has reached her potential and maybe even a little beyond. The same with Little Boy. I know he can manage 90+ in every subject if he wants to. Even Chinese.
The trick is to make them want to. And the first step is to turn the ownership of the study process over to them… and make them own it. This should be done early enough (I think). I have just sacked Grandma and turned the ownership of Chinese over to Little Boy. He used to roll his eyes when Grandma complained he was slow. Today, in the car, he said "Mom, I have a problem. I am slow in my compo. Others have done 1.5 pages, I’ve only done 1."
He now owns his problem and I play the familar supportive role "Oh never mind… you keep on reading those books and one day, the grades will come. I promise" and I look at him with a confident smile. This way, he will keep on trying… and he will end up where he ends up in Chinese. And I will still be happy even if it isn’t 90+.
Not the Only Approach
I consciously took an approach where I focused first on Foundational Study Skills to the detriment of grades. It worked for me. I am sure there are other parents who focused on both at the same time quite successfully. I am sharing my story because it isn’t a usual approach, but it worked for me.