The French feel a sense of shame if they cannot write
grammatically correct French. The Germans and
Japanese are equally meticulous when they write in
their respective native languages. Why then are ethnic
Chinese Singaporeans largely nonchalant when it
comes to perfecting their written Chinese? I think the
main reason is that there is no necessity for them to write
in Chinese once they leave school. One might go as far
as to say that there is no longer any need for them to read Chinese characters since everything is printed in
English here and an English translation of the Chinese
text is always available. Thus, it is human nature to select
the path of least resistance.
However, there are Singaporeans who take the trouble to
learn to read and write Chinese well in their adult years
when learning a language is no longer as efficient as it
used to be in their younger days. They do so because
they wish to possess a sense of identity, are enamoured
of the Chinese classics and wish to enjoy them in their
original versions, or their careers take them to China.
In the same token, some devout Muslims spend much
time and effort in learning Arabic so that they can read
the Quran in its original sacred language. Likewise,
I persevered through demanding Hebrew and Greek
lessons and sat for tests and exams at Queen's University
for a year each in order to read the original scripts of the
Old and New Testaments.
From the above examples, one can deduce that students
are motivated to learn only when there is a need to. When
there are competing demands on their time and energy,
most students will optimise their resources by investing
them only in things that really matter. So if we want
our students to learn anything at all, it is necessary to
drive home the point that they are learning it 'for their
own good'. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's1 advice
to "teach less.so that they can learn more"1 seems to
suggest that it is no longer of paramount importance
for us as lecturers to teach students for their own good,
but we should counsel them to learn for their own
good instead. Although the emphasis has shifted from
teaching to learning and the onus to learn now rests on
the students, we, as lecturers, still need to guide students
in that direction.
For all living creatures, the quest for survival is the
ultimate motivation. For example, to survive a cold
and protracted winter, squirrels will spare no effort in
storing up as many nuts as they possibly can. Likewise,
migratory birds are motivated by the same reason to
fly thousands of miles to warmer climes every autumn.
Similarly, students will be motivated to master any
subject only if it is a matter of life and death.
No matter what subject I teach, I always drum into
my students the drastic consequences of not grasping
the essentials of the subject matter. I remind them
that if they do not know how to answer one of my test
or exam questions, all they lose is some marks and a
corresponding grade point. But if they cannot solve a
problem for their future employers, it could cost them
their jobs, their livelihoods, if not, their very lives.
Similarly, if a law student writes something stupid when
answering an exam question, he gets penalised in terms
of his exam results. But if he says something stupid in court as a litigation lawyer, he could lose an important
case, not to mention his professional reputation.
The situation is equally poignant in the NUS Formula
SAE race car project that I am currently supervising. I
tell my students frankly that if they do not understand
the fundamentals of mechanical engineering and make
an error in the calculations, the race car that they design
and build from scratch could fail, and the driver could
meet with a tragic accident. Since my students are going
to drive their own race cars at an annual international
competition in USA, it behooves them to check their
calculations meticulously before building the car. This is
indeed a matter of life and death with no room for error.
As the saying goes, "As you make your bed, so you must
lie in it", civil engineers know very well that failure to
grasp the fundamentals of structural engineering can
result in the eventual collapse of a bridge or building.
It is this quest for survival that motivates learning,
whether in an educational institution or in society. My
students will ferret out from books and the Internet,
information that I have not imparted in class so that they
can use it to complete their projects on time or to proceed
with their research and earn a degree. They even do it to
save themselves precious time and money. For example,
a few enterprising students of mine have published
a concise summary of my textbook, Manufacturing
Processes, to save themselves time from flipping through
the book during the open book exams. On the surface,
this might appear to be a classic case of exam survival.
However, I have heard reports that the students later sold
the publication to their classmates to defray their school
fees. This is also survival, but in the economic sense.
While it is the duty of every student to learn, it is our
responsibility as lecturers to convince our students that
what they learn is truly a matter of life and death. Once
we can achieve this, I believe half the battle is won in our
pedagogical efforts. Students will be motivated to learn
for their own good, thereby eliminating the problem of
spoon feeding and 'forced feeding'.
1 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally 2004
Speech "Our Future of Opportunity and Promise", Sunday, 22
August, at the University Cultural Centre, NUS. (Last accessed: 20 October 2005).