Ideally, every one of the economics classes that I teach would start off something like this:

“Ok class, today we’re going to learn about GDP. You’ve already learnt what GDP is from the lectures. What I need you to do is to go around the campus, talk to 3 people and ask them about what they spend on in a given month. Using that information, figure out which parts of the economy their spending contributes to.

Also, ask them what would affect their consumption of these goods. Last but not least, ask them how would they consider society to be better off than before.

You have 45 minutes to do this. Now go!”

Then I’d kick back, relax and have a coffee while waiting for my students to get back. Once they’re done, we’ll have a discussion on the various sectors of the economy and alternative measures to GDP.

That’s my ideal world.

In reality, the 2 hours a week I have with each class needs to be spent going through theory based exam styled questions. In fact, some students relish this method of instruction- after all, it’s what they’ve been taught to do since primary school- Study hard. Take the exam. Rinse and repeat a couple of times and at the end of the rainbow be rewarded with a job that pays decent money.

That’s the game that we were all taught to play. And it pays because the main criteria for admission to the local universities (especially courses of choice like Law and Medicine) are based on that one examination. It gets even worse for polytechnic diploma holders because there is a quota for them. In fact, competition is so fierce that one would need an almost perfect GPA for admission into the local universities.

So it comes as a nice surprise that the people who make the rules are sitting up to take notice.

PM Lee spoke about looking into how the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) needs to be relooked so that it is less stressful. He also talked about how parents need to be persuaded that “every school is a good school”. (link here)

Then we had Minister for State and Transport, Josephine Teo who spoke out against a local bank for “feeding the fear” that the PSLE is one of the defining  moments of a person’s life. (link here)

However, I don’t see changes happening just based on what they say.

First, both PM Lee and MOS Jospehine Teo, in terms of social status and wealth, are  so far removed from the everyday person that this moral suasion is effectively useless. Ask any of the MPs sitting in parliament (opposition included) if they’ve ever talked their kids out of rock star and hawker dreams and it’s pretty obvious what I’m getting to.

Second and more importantly, people are not stupid. Simple economics tell us that if you get the incentives right, people will respond accordingly.

People want to get ahead in life and one of the biggest levelers is not just a university degree but one in the right discipline (just check out the disparity between full-time employment rate and median starting salary for each degree from NUS).

Problem is, just getting into a university is based primarily on one’s result for that all important exam- the A levels or GPA for polytechnic students. And of course, one phase before that, the O levels played that same role. And one before that…

My point is, the whole system was set up so that students learn more about taking exams than learning. Ever so often, I get questions not about economic concepts but exam-related ones like, “How will this be asked in the exam?” or “Can you advise us on time-management strategies?” or “How do we answer the question in exams?”.

And it’s maddening because even at the top, when exams are over, the post-mortem is always about “why are there more failures than last year?” or “why are there so many As?”. Everything needs to be translated into some easy to interpret statistic on an excel sheet.

So when the system at all levels have such perverse incentives and the participants are all tuned to play the game this way, can we still make piecemeal changes like calling it a different name or moral suasion? I think the answer is obvious, we have to change how the game is played.

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