Want To Help The Average Student In Singapore? Know The 80/20 Rule

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Can the average student thrive in Singapore? This is something that local parents wonder (and worry) about.

If you have experienced Singapore’s education system, you may feel that most school rewards are enjoyed by a small percentage of students, i.e. those who make it to certain classes or schools. The so-called “rewards” may include greater access to growth opportunities and incentives such as awards and scholarships, as well as positive daily interactions with teachers, the effects of which accrue over time.

In reality, the difference between students in the “best” classes and the rest may not be highly significant, and of course, grades only measure ability in a limited sense. But this would be an illustration of the Winner-Takes-All effect, where one’s performance relative to others determines one’s future success — given an initial boost, one may find it easier to “win” the next time around. Take the national Edusave awards for class performance and leadership: if your child has consistently qualified for an award every year, you may have noticed other familiar faces at the ceremonies as well.

The good news? Change is underway to create a less competitive education system that brings out the best in all students. However, this won’t happen overnight. If your children are not among the top performers in class or school, your support will make a great difference in ensuring that they remain confident and motivated to keep learning and growing. A concept that you can apply is the 80/20 rule — read on to find out what it is, and how you can make it work for your child!

What Is The 80/20 Rule?

You’ve probably read on motivation sites that 80% of results originate from 20% of effort.

Here’s the story behind this: in the early 1900s, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was observing his pea plants, and noticed that 20% of the pea pods contained 80% of the peas. He started to see this pattern of uneven distribution in other aspects of life as well, and this later became known as the Pareto Principle.

Today, the principle is often used in learning circles as a reminder for us to identify which of our efforts lead to the greatest gains, and to prioritise those efforts. The numbers 80/20 simply represent an imbalance between an effort and the associated result, and different numbers may apply in different situations. In assessing our efforts, we should not only think in terms of time, but also cost. This will be especially helpful if resources are limited and one needs to decide between options.

80/20 In The Preschool Years

During these years, you are probably thinking about preparing your child for Primary 1. Is there a particular skill to prioritise?

In a practical sense, learning to read independently will make a child’s primary school journey much smoother. Children who can read will be able to decipher written instructions quickly, which allows them to concentrate on applying their conceptual knowledge.

You won’t have to look hard to find research that shows a positive correlation between early reading and good grades in the initial schooling years. However, you may also come across studies that show little or no link between early reading and pursuing a university education. That said, you don’t have to plan too far ahead. For the immediate future, you can’t go wrong with helping your child to love reading, because the benefits of reading for pleasure are lifelong.

>> Find out how to prepare your preschooler for school with non-fiction texts.

80/20 In Primary School

Without a doubt, the most stressful milestone in the primary school years is the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). But take heart that your child will not be facing exams in the initial years, which makes this the best time for developing executive function skills. These include essential life skills such as time management, organisation, and emotion control.

These are also the years to establish good study habits, and for most students, short bursts of concentration — ideally 30-minute sessions — are best for optimum focus. Anything longer, and you may find your child caving in to distractions while labouring to complete the task at hand.

In the upper primary years, being exam savvy would be useful, and this refers to having a good sense of what exam questions might look like, and knowing what it takes to score well in each exam component. To apply the 80/20 rule, remember that much of your child’s success will hinge on mastering a few core concepts — together, you will need to identify what these are. If your child has already grasped these concepts, he or she can then focus on the remaining topics to make marginal improvements. 

At the same time, do look for ways where learning can occur naturally and more efficiently. For instance, your child is more likely to retain a vocabulary word by using it several times in real life, as opposed to spending an hour on vocabulary worksheets.

But as the oft-cited reminder goes, grades don’t define us. If your child has acquired good learning and work habits, that’s half the battle won, and you can rest assured that your child is well-equipped for life.

>> Find out what exam-savvy parents do differently to support their kids during revision.

80/20 In Secondary School & Beyond

By now, you are raising teenagers, who are hopefully taking charge of their own learning. Your key objective at this stage is to prepare your teens for adulthood.

On a daily basis, use dinner-table conversations as a means of checking in with your teens and staying informed about their lives. Let them approach you if they should need support in academics or other areas. On your part, you can keep an eye out for enriching activities that might be life-changing for them, such as Model United Nations or volunteer work.

Depending on what your teens’ interests and inclinations are, you can also look for opportunities where they can develop skills such as:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Programming skills

Bearing in mind that work environments are becoming increasingly diverse, you may want to find ways for your teens to develop a global mindset. This could include broadening your personal network, to model for your kids what it is like to build trust and understanding with those from a different background.

But ultimately, let’s not forget that life is not all about work — do devote time to helping your teens shape their value systems, as this will ensure that they have a firm foundation for making life decisions as adults.

>> Raising teens to succeed in life: why you should build character, not grades.