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Thinking out of the box is a life skill

Thinking outside of the box is a life skill, and is something that every parent wishes to cultivate in their child. This is because thinking outside the box just means our being able to solve problems and overcome challenges that we haven’t seen before in ways that we haven’t been explicitly taught. Outside of the box thinking is the end product of having developed a general excellence in thinking. Since it is impossible to succeed in the 21st century without being able to think well, acquiring thinking skills is an absolutely non-negotiable part of childhood education.  On the other hand, it is a fact of life that parents need their children to do well within an educational system that still emphasizes rote learning, drilling, and not asking questions.

How do we balance these two concerns?

As the philosopher Maurice Blondel put it, no problems are more insoluble than those which do not exist. This is not to say that balancing thinking skills against rote learning isn’t a problem. It is. But it’s an artificial problem, a problem we make for ourselves. With a small effort of will, we can unmake this problem. Even better, the balancing of thinking skills with traditional learning techniques is a problem whose dissolution is near.

To see why, we should first be clear on what we are talking about.

As parents, we send our children to school so that they become knowledgeable. Now, there are two distinct types of knowledge: know that and know how. By know that I mean knowledge of facts. For instance, we know that 2+2=4, that Singapore is an island, and that vitamin C is good for our health. By contrast, know how means possessing practical skills that emerge as excellence in performance. Thus, we know how to swim, how to ride a bike, and how to speak a language. When people say that Singapore schools emphasizes rote learning and drilling, what they are really saying is that the local school system places great importance on know that type learning.

In real life, we need both types of knowledge. Know how without know that is blind. A driver who doesn’t know that a red light means stop is a menace to everybody on the road.  And know that without know how is stupid. I once met a perfectly normal and intelligent 10-year-old student who, having gone through the local school system was quite proficient at calculating the circumference of circles and squares in her math textbook. But when asked to compute the circumference of the table we were sitting at, she became utterly lost and confused. She couldn’t do it. Clearly she did not know how to calculate perimeter in general. And notice that we couldn’t fix this child’s lack of understanding simply by giving her more facts. For as soon as the fact of the table’s perimeter is mastered, there would be no guarantee that the student would know how to measure the perimeter of a desk, a window, or a soccer pitch.

Why all this is relevant is because how we should teach a subject depends crucially on whether the subject is mostly about know that or know how. Confusing the basic kind of knowing at issue can have disastrous consequences. Imagine what it would be like to teach a life skill such as swimming as if it were a know that subject. First, the teacher would have the students read a book on swimming. Then, there would be an MCQ exam on the book. Finally, students who pass the exam would be encouraged to jump into the deep end of the pool … I suppose the students who score a distinction would be those who manage to avoid drowning.

Know how can only be acquired by experience. Classes that teach life skills, and especially classes that teach thinking skills, must look different, feel different, and be conducted differently from ordinary know that content subjects. Out of the box thinking is not something that happens by forcing students to sit through what is essentially another tuition class. It just doesn’t work that way. And life skill classes must be assessed by using different methods than ordinary MCQ tests, whether we’re comfortable with that fact or not.

Experiential learning is the key. Students must be guided through a series of structured experiences that will help them come to know, from the inside, what it feels like to be engaged in successful practice. Take swimming. First, students are taught how to kick. Then they are taught how to perform the arm strokes. Put it all together, and we have transformed the student into somebody who knows what it feels like to be a successful swimmer.

The structure of experiential learning classes is very simple. At the beginning of class, the instructor briefly describes the concept or skill to be learnt. The students then engage in an activity—maybe a game—that embodies that concept or skill. After the activity, the instructor consolidates the lesson by discussing how the desired skill was experienced in the activity.  Finally, the students extend what they have learnt to other areas of their life. Where else, the teacher asks, can we find and apply this new skill?

So much, then, for what life skills are and how they should be taught. The real question is: How do we help our children learn life skills while they are immersed in a school system that places perhaps undue emphasis on rote learning?

The situation is all very odd. For years now I have been listening to parents express their frustration with the schools. Parents say that the schools use antiquated methods, that their children are stressed out by having to learn a massive amount of facts. At the same time, I have been listening to the teachers, who tell me that they are being held back by the parents. The parents, teachers say, are so worried about how their children will perform on standardized tests that they complain if there is the least deviation from traditional teaching methods. And woe betides the teacher who chooses to play a game and employ experiential learning techniques instead of downloading more facts to the students!

What is needed here is less anxiety and more clear thinking. Study after study has shown that teaching thinking skills as a separate class in the schools leads to improved test scores across the board. Study after study has shown that using experiential learning techniques in the classroom results in better subject comprehension. The story really needs to get out that teaching thinking skills and other experiential learning subjects is not a waste of time.

Concretely, as parents, we should give the school teachers the space and time that they need to use experiential learning techniques. So, when we hear that our children are playing games in school, we should not react with shock and horror; rather, we should breathe a sigh of relief. And as teachers, we must find the courage to experiment in the classroom, and trust that the repeated successful experiences of thousands of our colleagues will be duplicated in our own case.

Do these two things and the artificial problem of balance goes away.

© Copyright 2008. LogicMills Learning Centre Pte Ltd.


Experiential learning

We are taught from young, by our parents, our teachers, and when we grow up, how we live in our society

We are conditioned to act, think, based on our past experiences/thoughts and it takes an open mindset to change the way we think or do things.

It is good we reflect upon ourselves as adult now, and what we can do to embrace experiential learning.

Experiential learning also means allowing kids to learn through experimentation, not afraid to fail and keep growing 🙂

Parents have to first change their mindset

Some kids can think out of the box more naturally while some tend to be more direct in their thinking. I have got one of each kind in my family.

The older boy who is more direct in his thoughts tend to be more exam smart while the younger boy who thinks out of the box tends to question more. He looks at things beyond the “syllabus” and the things he’s interested has nothing to do with exams.

Through dialogues with teachers, I have grown to accept that they are just different. It seems that the one who thinks out of the box has more survival skills in general and is more resilient. While the one who focuses more on the exams tends to be not so interested in things outside the books, which may not be necessarily a good thing. Yes, he does well in exams but he’s not as creative when comes to life skills.

Hence, parents must first change their mindsets that doing well in exams is the way to go. Time is needed in instilling the virtue of thinking out of the box in kids. We try to explore on different perspectives and different solutions which may not seem logical. But on a deeper level, we are teaching our kids to think out of the box by embracing their ludicrous solutions and perspectives. I’ve ended up talking”nonsense” with my kids only to discover their different ways of looking at things. Don’t brush them off. Don’t reason on the surface. Challenge them to look at things differently. It’s a good start.

That means parents have to learn to slow down, be less stressed, and open to ideas even ridiculous ones…




Just a thought

Hmmm…I think a good private tuition may help greatly in our kids’ brain development and the ability to think outside the box, to explore, to understand the applications of the things that they are learning in school. It can also develop te way our kids interact with people aside from their classmates. I can recommend to you . They offer great math and sciences tuition in there.



Give fish or teach to fish?

Oh… I understood what you meant the first time .  The best learning process is still for the kids to get hands-on experience and actually do things, so that they can find out for themselves the pain of failure and learn how to overcome them by themselves.  Unfortunately, because of the rather unforgiving nature of our society (1 try to do well in PSLE, GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, etc) where failure or inability to do well in any of these major exams goes a long way in impacting the future "worthiness" of our children, we parents are loathe to risk letting our children learn it the hard-way.  There is a very low tolerance for failures.  So we try to teach our children to succeed in the most efficient way possible, including helping them do their homework.  Of course, as you noted, our children will subsequently defer to us as the "ones that know it all", and become totally reliant on us instead of building confidence in their own ability to create stuff of their own design.

This, in fact, is my greatest fear I have for my children.  I have to constantly remind myself to look beyond the grades, that I would rather have my children do their own homework and get the grades they deserve, so that they know that in reality, they are the only ones who can help themselves.

Helicopter Parents

My post might seems to touch on helicopter parents but I guess my attempt on replying how to cultivate a child that thinks out of the box, fall flat. Hehehe.

Take for eg ds whom I have helped with his show & tell. What I have managed to achieve is full marks for ds but how does it impact ds personally? By helping, I undermine his ability to think & produce his own work. Ds effort is simply regurgitating & rectify my incorrect information on amphibian but it does not reflect any critical thinking on his part. By helping him, it set his mind that "mummy does a better job" & will soon fall into a pattern of wait for help instead of thinking how to complete the project. Of course I prefer dd’s school approach as it allows dd to explore & let her think of the best way to present & learn from observation from other classmates.


Is "know-how" more important than 'know-what"?

Just to illustrate the relationship between "know-what" and "know-how’ . 

For example, a chef may have the best recipe (know-what). However, to learn the "know-how’, he needs to cook the dish personally to see if it works. In another instance,  we may not  have the ‘know-what’ and "know-how’ of performng a task but we learn through ‘on the job’ training. Hence, both the ‘know-what’ and "know-how’ operate simultaneously in this case.

Thinking skill  is also important in performing a task. We may have the best information or knowledge but we need good thinking to make the best use of it.

Is a highly intelligent person automatically a good thinker? Not necessary. Sometimes they are trapped by their own intelligence and do not explore or think further.

As Edward de Bono once said, " The highly intelligent person may carry out the ‘seeing’ and ‘judging’ very well indeed,but if the ‘exploring’ is absent, that is bad thinking." ( from Teach your child to think by Dr Edward de Bono).

Helicopter parents

Quote: "Ds school has show & tell which marks will be computed as the final exam result. Dd school has show & tell which is conducted in classroom with no marks. Because of the marks, I help ds but for dd, she prepares it herself. Which is the better learning mode? Who is able to spontaneously summarise & tells me story?"

I guess this broaches on the question of whether we are being too much of "helicopter" parents to be detrimental to the emotional growth of our children.  I am in total agreement that the grading of activities will actually kill off any chance of creating real interest for the activity.  When I found out that my son will have show and tell in school, I was happy because I thought it was a good adaption from the US system.  When I received the marking scheme the teachers will be using for grading the show-and-tells, I almost fell off my chair.  Are we being responsible parents if we leave our kids do their own work and learn the painful lessons of failing in their attempt?  Is it really more responsible for parents to help their children prepare for their show and tell by doing all the preparation on behalf of the child just to get a better grade?

I salute your dd’s school.  That is the correct approach.  And I’m sure your daughter will learn more along the way.

Thinking out of the box is a life skill


You wrote in the Bukit Timah thread  "I’ve seen that at work myself in St. Andrew’s, how it seems like most of my classmates knew how to play the piano, swim competitively, had parents that helped them with the schoolwork and projects, when I had none of those privileges and had to do everything myself. But that became a source of motivation for myself, and the greatest joy to me when I top my level was that I can achieve it all by myself without the frills. "

I think your statement above reflect out of the box thinking skill. Being able to help oneself despite all odds.

I was lamenting with my dh on how my kids need to be taught on managing money when they were about to be in primary school. Where for both of us, by 5 or 6 we have been asked by our mothers to run to the provision store & buy stuff that mum has forgotten to buy. Remaining balance will be ours to spend. So we learn, how to get the exact change back & learn how to plan to maximise the balance money on which tidbits to buy.

Ds school has show & tell which marks will be computed as the final exam result. Dd school has show & tell which is conducted in classroom with no marks. Because of the marks, I help ds but for dd, she prepares it herself. Which is the better learning mode? Who is able to spontaneously summarise & tells me story?



Is this what parents want most?

In an earlier Poll found here, 43% of parents believe that thinking/learning skills are the most important skills they want for their children.  The next highest is English proficiency at 28%.  Notably, less than 1% think that encyclopedic knowledge is critical.  So it would appear that most parents are already in agreement in what you say, ie. that "know-how" is much more important than "know-what".

Any basic tips for us mortal parents on how we can get our non-gifted children to start loving to learn to "know-how"? 

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