Reflections in education

As I approach the twentieth year of my existence still in lockdown, I figured I should spend more time reflecting on how I got here, and where I'm headed next. Education has played a big role in my life so far since I've literally been a student for the past thirteen years, so I figured I'd start here.

I've done pretty well as a student, at least in terms of how "well" is measured in the Singaporean education system. I get decent grades and try to participate actively in school activities, so I'm usually handed many of the opportunities provided by the school as well.

However, I feel that my "success" in this education system deserves further inspection. Was I really a "good" student? Did my drive to do well in school come from a healthy source? I also attempt to look towards the future at the end, or at least discussing the glimpses of my future that are more certain despite the two-year gap of National Service.

My journey so far

My journey started out in a private kindergarten which conducted its classes using the Montessori method. The curriculum there were actually pretty unique. I was given the freedom to explore my interests (which was, at that time, backhoe loaders) and work on my own projects. One of my biggest projects then was crafting a backhoe loader using paper marche. Looking back, I think that my experience there built a strong foundation as to who I am today.

I was a pretty average primary school student. I went to a great school thanks to my mother's volunteering efforts (her volunteering allowed me to get ahead of the other students who were bidding for places). My PSLE results were good enough such that I had my pick of secondary schools. Eventually, I picked SST, because its students were required to have laptops, and I wasn't confident that I could convince my parents to buy me one without that requirement.

I was tech illiterate at the start of secondary school. I literally didn't know how to download or install software. It was only a few months in that I started experimenting with scripting with AppleScript. My proudest achievement then was building some kind of a dinky quiz script for my friends to play (I barely remember how it worked now).

I eventually ventured into building games, since I played quite a lot of video games back then, so I started out with Unity and eventually learned Java. That's when programming for me really kicked off. I eventually joined an interest group in my school, where I picked up iOS development and met many friends also interested in building apps, some of whom I’m still working with today.

When I was in my third year in secondary school, the school sent out an email offering students an opportunity to do internships at a wide-range of companies. My friend and I picked a creative agency called Codigo. That’s how I got my first internship. There, we learnt much more about the skills that surrounded our core skill of programming — project management, a design-first approach to building apps and just simply navigating the work culture there. It was a turning point, I knew that my first time working in tech wouldn’t be my last.

I did experience a fair share of teenage drama within my secondary school, mostly created by myself. I harboured a lot of envy to those that achieved the things I could not, and even caused some physical harm to a close friend of mine. Thankfully, we’re still close friends to this day, and I couldn’t be more grateful for his support during those dark times.

After graduating from my secondary school, I spent another three months at Codigo before my first term in polytechnic started. It was bad for me (and the peers around me) at first. Thanks to my “headstart” in programming, I didn’t really have a lot of new material to learn in my first few classes, which also led to me developing a haughty attitude towards my peers. The first few months were unhealthy, I mostly just showed off a lot and bragged about my achievements, wasting my time over-engineering my class assignments instead of helping my peers or building stuff.

It didn’t help that the people in polytechnic are much more diverse than those in my secondary school. I found it hard to adapt to this change at first, and basically just spent a lot of time within my existing group of friends from secondary school, whom I didn’t need to adapt to.

Thankfully, time worked its magic and I gradually opened up more to my friends from polytechnic and grew to respect them. I joined interest groups similar to the one from secondary school, and made new friends there as well.

Polytechnic was a humbling experience. I was pretty idealistic back in secondary school. Being part of the “maker’s club” made me develop tunnel-vision, believing that programming was everything and that if I kept at it, I would somehow build the next big thing and cash in. Going to a polytechnic gave me a much wider experience, and it helped me see that there was so much more than just programming. Befriending a diverse group of people outside of my usual clique helped me develop socially as well, to become less awkward and more open.

I grew a lot throughout these past few years of my life, in both my technical skills and my understanding of the world. Sometimes I wish that I'd slowed down a little, to smell the roses while I could. I hope that the next step in my journey, National Service, will afford me the opportunity to do just that.

Drive and passion

Some of my juniors from school often ask me where I derive my drive and passion from. I usually end up giving the politically correct answer of "be curious and find areas of interest". And for the most part, I do believe myself when I say that. However, digging deeper into my subconscious, I start to question if that's really the case.

Much of my work in school so far has been done out of obligation. I made promises about something, so I set out to fulfill them. Maintaining interest in one subject is hard, and my interests change rapidly. As a result, despite being full of passion and drive when promising to get something done, I often end up losing interest and feeling frustrated while finishing up what I'd promised, but doing it anyway out of guilt towards that person and obligation.

Inspecting my past behaviour even further, I realised that perhaps that's not even it. Maybe it isn't obligation, but fear. Fear of the consequences, and fear of losing the respect or friendship of others.

This would explain the other unhealthy behaviour I had in school, which was to take on most if not all opportunities presented to me, often spreading myself too thin to make significant contribution to any of the opportunities I took up. Perhaps this behaviour too was driven by fear, this time a fear of missing out on opportunities that become successful in the future.

I think I realised this a few years ago, that most of the hard work I've put in at school had been driven not by a healthy passion for what I was doing, but instead the fear of falling behind. I made a few lackluster attempts to correct course, however the nature of the problem was that... it wasn't? I was still doing "well" in school, so there was never really any extrinsic incentive for change.

Now that the lockdown has pushed us all inwards, forced to become introverts whether we like it or not, it could be a good time to discover that intrisic desire to strive out of passion, not fear.

Being a "good" student

I think that above ties in to the question of whether I was really a "good" student. This obviously begs the question what "good" is defined as here, "good" on whose terms? In terms of the Singaporean education system, I was, but I've always felt insecure about that. Am I really being true to myself? Or am I just following along with their standards because it is easier or clearer?

The Internet has made available to us vast amounts of information on other people and their achievements. When looking up someone, I'd often dive into their content, be it on their social media, personal websites or blogs and essays. And what I found is that, I tend to resonate with those people with more independent achievements, those who are able to be their own people instead of subscribing to the standards of a system.

Being your own person doesn't really align with succeeding in Singaporean education. In a system focused on math and science, self-expression and artistic talent aren't really in high demand. There's really no extrinsic motivation to stand out and stand apart from others, when the true glory is found here in excelling in examinations, obtaining "in-demand" degrees (for lack of a better term) and achieving high-levels of education.

I didn't really have a conclusion or direction in this section. It's more of some early discourse and thoughts (with myself) to meditate on in the next few months, or to think more about during my time in National Service. Why is it that I prize individuality yet have only managed to achieve the opposite? How can I avoid this trap?

Towards the future

Having written all that, it's time to step out from deep introspection and instead focus on mapping out my desired future in education. I'm still uncertain in many areas of this, but I think writing could provide some clarity.

I have already accepted an offer under SUTD's STEP programme, reasons being the bond-free scholarship and the year spent overseas in USA and China. "It will broaden my perspectives!" is the reason I cited when interviewing for this scholarship, but really I just want to adapt to living away from my parents' home for an extended period of time, which I haven't ever.

I do still intend to apply to study overseas though, in either Stanford or Harvard. It's a long shot, but I think going through the application process and writing those essays would be worth the investment. This is where the uncertainty lies as well, unfortunately, as the evolving COVID situation might lead to long-term limited international travel. If that happens, I'd rather just study in Singapore.

Then again, things will change after I go through NS, so no point discussing too much now. Well, this concludes this reflection. I had intended to publish this much sooner, to make time for more reflections, but this might just be the last one before I turn twenty. I'm thankful that it's has been a good one.