The last few weeks have been fraught at home so I have not been keeping in touch with Singapore news as much as I would like to.
I was stirred from my inertia after watching videos showing how DPM Teo Chee Hean kept batting questions back at students at the recent Pre-U Seminar with "What do you think?"
First of all, let's examine the "Pre-U Seminar". Things might have changed. In my time only the top "student leaders" were invited to this event. As I failed miserably to get myself elected I was, of course, not "invited" to this seminar.
DPM Teo was facing the potential leaders of tomorrow and what he did was use a staid "What do you think?" with the excuse that he wanted the young people to think.
You know these are smart students when one young man, obviously having heard the "WDYT?" question several times, emphasized that he wanted the DPM's view and even called him "Sir" after giving his own view.
I am not sure if "Sir" answered that particular question, or if he batted it back.
The whole point of the Pre-U Seminar was that the participants get to ask the guest speakers questions. Hopefully intelligent questions, but nevertheless the guest speaker's role was to enlighten, give his views, explain, provide the big picture.
I was especially annoyed that the "Arts" student who spoke so eloquently did not seem to get her answer. So let me say to her, arts and classics students are the most respected students in the UK: the best students study arts and classics, the next best study science. Of course those who are good in science do not think that way.
However, in the real world, we need both scientists and artists and classicists to make the world a better place. (And the best are social anthropologists, needless to say.)
I often say to young people that knowing the answers is important. One must know one's times tables, basic science and all that. But the most intelligent people are not those who have all the answers, but those who ask the best questions.
Good research is not led by knowing the answers. There is no need for research if you already have the answers. Knowledge is advanced by scholars who know which questions to ask.
And I heard good questions from these students. It was most frustrating that the guest speaker did not rise to the occasion, to enthrall them with his wisdom and inspire them to think about duty, responsibilitiy, government, governance and sundry moral questions that were clearly important to them.
I asked my son, do you call this the Socratic method? He said sometimes his teachers would do the same. "Look carefully (at the map, at the picture, etc) and tell me what you think."
But at his age (12) the teachers are dealing with imparting information at the "knowledge", "comprehension" and "application" levels. Socrates wanted his pupils to think about moral issues, about matters where there might not be right or wrong answers. The Pre-U students wanted a discussion on the level of "analysis", "synthesis" or "evaluation" (according to Bloom's taxonomy of knowledge).
Cleverly posed questions lead a student to the conclusion that the teacher wishes him to draw. But each of these questions would provide a clue or hint to lead the student on such journeys. This is sound instructional methodology.
A generic "What do you think?" in response to sincere questioners who really wanted to know what the DPM thinks is a cop-out.
It is no different from the two-year-old who responds to every new bit of information with "Why?" when in fact they wanted the who, what, where, when and how, but two-year-olds are usually not clever enough to do this, and settle for the generic "Why?" which drives most parents crazy.
We asked for your opinion, Sir, and you are the only person who owns the opinion. We can't get inside your head.
We wanted to know the "big picture" and you, Sir, as a government minister, has the whole picture. Why did you not share it?
We wanted to know how your government views certain trends which are troubling young Singaporeans, and you, Sir, in government is why we have come today to listen to you.
To say "What do you think?" and pretend that he was trying to get students to think is tantamount to ...
... What do you think? :-)
Next year, Pre-U Seminar participants should learn one of these retorts: "With respect, Sir, I would very much like to hear your opinion."
Or, "Never mind what I think, Sir, we would like the big picture from your vantage point. Sir."
Or, "Sir, we have come all dressed up to meet you in anticipation of learning from you, how can you so liddat, not tell us what you think?"
No, delete-delete the last one, OK. Say, "We are young. We are ready to be fired up. All we need is a spark. Sir, have you anything to say that would inspire us, set us on fire? "
Or, "Sir, the Singapore education system has made us into robots and it seems that the government make us out to be unable to think for ourselves. So I'm asking you, a minister, to please enlighten us. Leh."
Don't say Auntie did not teach you. Go and tell your friends, OK?