11 July 2005

Functional Illiteracy (now in triplicate!)

The ST doesn't get it edition

(aside: Yes, there was a hiatus lasting 3 weeks. A very bad throat infection, then a near-death experience of my pc. Oh well.)

"What's ASEAN? Most teens don't know", decries our national propaganda machine.

Only three out of 24 Singapore [sic] teenagers The Straits Times approached on Orchard Rd on Saturday knew what the acronym Asean stands for and could name the countries in the grouping.

The rest, including two students from a top junior college, were stumped.

There are a few things going on in the rest of the article, each feeding into one another and forming a greater mythology of the Uninformed Singaporean Teenager:

1. "Everyone" knows what Asean is.
2. Asean is an integral tool of Singapore's regional diplomacy and means of keeping itself safe from its potentially troublesome neighbours.
3. It is hence inconceivable, shocking, and disgraceful that our teenagers know nothing about Asean.

It is popularly 'known' that Singaporean students are notorious for producing straight-A results academically while remaining ignorant of current affairs and history, because they don't seem to read widely enough beyond their textbooks - if at all. I am not interested in the truth value of that claim, but I do contend that this ST survey serves no purpose except to further the mythology. In fact, it has no scientific or informational value due to its horrendous survey design and methodology. Instead of highlighting the functional illiteracy of the average Singaporean teenager, it brings the investigative function of the ST into disrepute.

What are some things a proper survey requires in order to generalise results to a larger population?

1. A large enough sample.
In statistics, you need to know the size of the population you want to study (In this case: how many Singaporean teenagers are there?) You also need to know how accurate you want your survey to be, or how representative of the population your sample could be, i.e the Confidence interval (In this case: if we want the survey to be 95% accurate, i.e. 95% probability that the sample we just chosen is representative of the total population of Singaporean youths, how large should the sample be, given the total population?)

2. Either a representative or a truly random sample

Sampling is a delicate science. In general, you want to choose a sample that isn't biased at all. Are the youths you find on Orchard Rd on Saturday afternoon representative of the general teenage population?

This survey fails on both counts, and then some more.

Note ST doesn't bother to say how accurate its survey is. If it did, those of us armed with calculators and a copy of the census would point out its 'survey' or 'straw poll' has a sample size far insufficient to generate a generalisation. Note also ST doesn't actually say its survey is meant to generalise about Singaporean youths, aside from its headline "Most teens don't know". That's a little dishonest and waffling.

In every survey, you need to record the number of people who refused to do the questionnaire. Only 3 out of 24 teenagers could give the correct answer to the ST survey, but how many uncounted teenagers refused to participate? A very low response rate marks any survey as useless.

The Singapore education system doesn't get it edition

History is taught to Singapore's students from the age of 10 to 18, as Social Studies in primary school and History or Combined Humanities in secondary school. There is no way, short of not reading the book, for the possibility that a majority of Singaporean students on weekend break from studies could not know what Asean is. There is a possibility, though, that most Singaporean students tend to ignore what is taught in Social Studies and History once lessons end.

I've seen the different History, Social Studies, and Combined Humanities (chiefly geography and history) syllabuses over the years. Come to think of it, if I were a student, I would tend to ignore the stuff taught in those textbooks, when it comes to national and regional history, for the simple reason that most of it is sheer national propaganda, and worse still, stupid, wrong, and uncritical propaganda.

Why, of all things, in a discussion of Venice and the Italian Renaissance, bring in SINGAPORE and remark in passing - without any collaboration or examination of facts, that the reason Venice declined was due to the complacency of its leaders, and Singapore avoids this because of its meritocratic system and emphasis on constant innovation? This is not history, this is National Education; not education, but pious hectoring and political moralisation.

Why are Singaporeans, especially the young, not interested in history or current affairs? Because the most common venues of this knowledge here make assses of them. If I were a Singaporean teenager faced with a History syllabus hell-bent on brainwashing me into pious patriotism/parrotism, I'd rather throw away the knowledge and learn history on my own, when I'm an adult. School isn't the only avenue for learning, the last I heard.

The common sense edition

As far as I know, the knowledge of humans - beyond eating, shitting, and fucking - are a result of enculturation. Our knowledge comes from learning, not instinct. The young are simply that: young and less well-read than older people, and that is something we all know without the ST reminding us. Give them time to learn.

If the ST wanted to make a meaningful survey or even non-representative study, it could've done better by comparing
1. how much more ignorant our youths are, compared to teenagers from elsewhere, or
2. how much more ignorant our youths are, compared to teenagers 10, 20, 30, and 40 years ago (but it doesn't have the resources to do so...)

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