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The Importance of Pre-school Arts Education: An Interview with Mdm Goh Lay Kuan

Translate / Wang Liansheng

Interviewer:  Suhuai , Editor (E for short)

Interviewee:  Goh Lay Kuan, Co-Founder and Artistic Consultant of The Theatre Practice (G for short)

“I don’t think you are cultured simply because you study a lot or that you have a lot of knowledge. ”

E:Why do you think a pre-school education in the arts is important to a child? What significance does it play in their development?

G:An arts education is important to a child simply because the arts is a part of our culture. When a child first experiences the world, it is scary for him because he is in a state where he has completely no idea who he is or why he is here. Culture contextualises things for children; it tells them how to live, think, do, feel. It also helps them to develop their own personal sense of pride, an avenue for them to develop a sense of identity. More importantly, by understanding culture, it allows for communities to come together. By knowing how to see, hear, live, then can we truly know how to communicate, so that we share with others the experiences that have come about in the course of our lives. These children are members of a country and a race, and the way they look at things is also an important character trait. I don’t think you are cultured simply because you study a lot or that ou have a lot of knowledge. These are two different things. For a child, he would naturally acquire such information during the process of growing up. However, if children do not learn about their culture or the arts, they would be detached from their country, their race. They will become individuals who are lost, like leaves on water, moving wherever the waves bring them. As such, the greater purpose behind the arts is in nurturing individuals. The basic building block in the development of one’s identity comes from the understanding of his culture.

In the case of The Theatre Practice, why have we chosen to use the performing arts as a method of education? Firstly, the performing arts incorporate the unique trait of culture. Secondly, nowadays, people prefer to specialise in specific areas of knowledge, hence most information about things have become disjointed and dissected. I believe that what’s important is not to understand things arrowly from one aspect and be an expert on it, but to have an understanding of the overall picture. For example, a doctor should have an overall understanding of the human body before delving in-depth into a specific portion of the human body. Whether you are a good doctor or not, it really depends on whether you have a thorough understanding of the overall body. If not, you are just treating symptoms at specific places and not targeting the root of the problem. Similarly, a child should, from a young age, start to learn about life itself – What is it exactly? What about the inter-personal relationships between people? What are one’s responsibilities and duties? What does it mean to be a human? After these questions have been answered, then the child can start acquiring knowledge about the world. This is why The Theatre Practice decided to go into the education sphere through the performing arts – because it provides that breadth.

Of course, there was another issue that disturbed us even more. At that time, we were having strong reactions towards the accusations of Singapore being a “cultural desert”. We have lived here for decades, yet we were unable to tell others what our culture was. Of course, I also understand the fact that we are a nation of migrants. And these migrants had moved abroad because of the hardship they faced at home, so naturally they would not have brought with them any deep or sophisticated cultural influences. Therefore, we also naturally ended up with little history. Pao Kun frequently referred to us as “cultural orphans”. However, through the years, we have started to invest in this place, and throughout our lives, we have also started to borrow and assimilate the cultures of others such that we began to enhance our identity and our ability to communicate. And precisely because of these skills, we began to have and articulate our own culture. As such, I feel that using the arts for early childhood education to develop culture is more important than any other form of education. To me, teaching children how to read/write is not important at all.

Culture helps articulate what a country, or race, encompasses – its directions, developments and values.

If we simply talk about these concepts with our children, it would be too abstract for them. Therefore, we do it through theatre games. We allow them to learn about these complex issues subconsciously. Only the performing arts have the power to fulfil such aspirations, because it is not difficult to adapt performing arts into games. And also, the act of playing games is an innate ability that is present within all of us. I don’t think we can “teach” these young children, in fact, we can only “lead” them. If you “teach” them, you start destroying their sense of creativity and imagination. When you “lead” them, then it means that you acknowledge and accept their already innate ability to think and imagine. Your guidance only serves to bring out these abilities within them. A child’s way of thinking usually does not cohere well with our sense of logic. And this is precisely their gift. When you ”teach”, you kill their ability to learn on their own, and also start to eradicate their initial characteristics and traits. In the long term, this would have an impact on how they learn and behave when they grow up. They will become unimaginative, and subsequently lose their creativity, lexibility and sensitivity, thereby ending up as dull and uninteresting individuals. Therefore, I believe we cannot “teach” our children; we can only find out means and ways to develop their innate potential. This is why we should also respect a child’s opinion and expression, because we cannot use our already-inflexible brain to “teach” one who is more powerful and flexible.

E:What do you think are the conflicts present between theatre education and the current education system?

W:If the teacher is excellent, our methods complement him. A weaker teacher will never learn and understand what we are doing. I feel that I had the most successful training with teachers who were involved in education for students with special needs. This is because, in our training, we focus on using other methods in developing our children, because the method of telling them directly and hoping that they would understand is now not as efficient and has been highly curtailed. And this is precisely what these teachers needed. Hence, they enjoyed our lessons, and these lessons aided them greatly in their daily work.

Sometimes, parents would question us, “What are you doing in your classes? You are just playing and playing.” In actual fact, every time we play, we know what we are playing, why we are playing, and our teachers are aware of what to look out for. Nowadays, the stress that a child faces does not merely come from the school. It also stems from the education system and the sense of “kiasu-ism” that parents have. In our classes, we can often identify these “kiasu” parents very early on. During games we play in class, we can tell that, those students who often want to lead, or are afraid to lose, are the children of these “kiasu” parents. Sometimes, we would play games that involve the elements of winning and losing. Often, we just want to test and find out what the children’s perception of failure is and how they feel towards it. From my observations, I would then tell the parents, “Your child is afraid of losing. And that is because you are also afraid of losing.” When a child feels that he can escape from punishment or feels relaxed because he has won, then it is no longer just about winning. There is a problem with the child’s sense of security. If a child is afraid of losing, often we have to look at the parents to fix the problem.

“we cannot use our already-inflexible brain to teach one who is more powerful and flexible. ”

E: Are children more afraid of losing nowadays? What are the differences you see with children these days, as compared to those from previous generations?

W:There are some unique qualities about the Singaporean child. Due to the fast-paced developments of our nation, our children are also changing every decade. Firstly, the quality of the body changes every decade. Now, their posture is getting worse. The mind as well – it used to be more conservative, shy, but willing to participate. After some time, the mind slowly changes as well, and becomes more open and interactive. This is the intermediate stage. Previously, I had stopped teaching for 12 years, and when I got back to it, I was shocked. As one who is very particular about body posture, I immediately noticed that the posture of children nowadays is terrible, and their sense of rhythm as well. Maybe nowadays our children don’t sing as often. When I was a young child, I would always have the opportunity to sing with other children of different races and ages. Nowadays, children only know how to sing “Happy Birthday”. Naturally, their sense of rhythm would not be as good. This is very depressing. The sense of rhythm is very important. Our daily communication also requires a good sense of rhythm in our speech. Overall, children these days seem to have lost that sense of motivation, initiative and passion.

While Singapore is very rich in its ethnicity and culture, our children are leading lives that are very impoverished. While Singaporeans nowadays have the financial ability to go overseas, they merely just repeat what they do here in a foreign land. Our technology is also very advanced, and information gets to us quickly, but it does not mean that these children know more. They, on the other hand, need more life experiences. If they are merely repeating what they are doing all the time, then society starts to get more impoverished because it is stagnant. Therefore, one has to ensure that one’s life is exciting. This in turn will lead to the individual becoming more knowledgeable, understanding, accommodating, expressive and communitarian. Nowadays, many individuals do not understand what it means to live in a community. Although activities like drawing and playing of instruments are usually solitary activities, these activities are integrated within a group setting in our arts education programme, so that children learn from one another. This helps them in their development, as they clearly comprehend what their “eyes, mouths, and ears” are needed for.

There is a saying that you can tell the future of a child when he is just three years old. My understanding is that, if you set the child on the right path of education at the age of three, then he will be set for the future. Do not think that the child would forget what he has learnt once he grows up. On the contrary, it is often what you have learnt at an early age that sticks with you the longest.

All of us have weaknesses, and as adults we often choose things to ignore or reject. Children, on the other hand, do not have the ability to do so. As such, I firmly believe that children should not be banished to a life just filled with examinations. If the arts also follow such a direction, then it would be a disaster. You can train children with the goal of performing on stage, but you must do it well.

To prepare the child to perform onstage, you must build his confidence. With confidence comes courage. Secondly, you must teach the child how to cooperate with others. Thirdly, the child must be taught how to deal with the audience, who are just like their examiners. It’s easy to train a child’s confidence, because they often do not know what fear is. I would often forbid anyone in my production to ask the child if he is scared. That is because, prior to asking, the child would not even have given a thought about it. Once you ask the child, you start to influence his/her thinking. For a child, you need to remember, you have to constantly be positive. Any negative thing you say would be encouraging them towards such negativity. As such, preschool education is not easy, but yet it is a very important one. Often, I would sit in and support trainee teachers in their classes before I gradually let go. This is because pre-school education is challenging, and also one that requires utmost responsibility from the teachers.

E: In all these years, has the entire education scene improved?

W:The hardware has improved, and that is what Singapore is good at, but the software still needs much improvement. However, what urgently needs to be changed is not the school, not the teachers but the parents. If the parents do not endorse the competitive nature of things, then the school would not be able to find the motivation to do so. Instead, not only do the parents condone, they are even more passionate, exerting more stress on their children, especially because these children are helpless in the face of things. [Editor: Do they even know what to protest about?] Maybe they don’t because their range of imagination and understanding has been severely limited. The rigour of wanting “standard answers” has led to the development of a “standard mind” within a child. Sometimes, I wish for the child to be a little more rebellious, but of course, you have to teach him how to be reasonable as well. [Editor: The perspectives that parents hold are often a product of societal influence, and in this case, the society’s definition of success is severely narrow.] Yes. Many parents feel that good grades are a manifestation of their success in parenting. It enhances their image as a parent, such that nowadays, the tuition centres where children go for classes are seen as indicators of how trendy and current they are.

E:Some teachers feel that teaching has become a service-oriented career, and that the relationship between teachers and parents has evolved to be that of a service provider and a consumer. What do you think of that?

W:When a teacher caters to the consumer (which is the parent in this case), then education becomes a commercial product, and hence loses its initial integrity. Whenever I train teachers, I would tell them: “I don’t care whom you have to face. If you have the title of a teacher, then you have a responsibility. Don’t ask others for help when you are confronted with a problem, instead, think, and try your best to solve the problem. Ask me only when you have no solutions.” This also pertains to how you should lead your life as an individual. By thinking first, even if you do not get an answer, at least you have an idea of what would not have worked in those circumstances. If the teachers do not even work their brains by questioning themselves, and are afraid of taking on responsibility such that they hope that the principal can advise them on every matter, then it’s a very sad situation. I hope that more teachers would realise this about themselves. I have seen some children where they constantly fail in Singapore, but yet in America, they become physics professors at the age of 25. Our education system has restricted the development and the thinking capacity of our children, such that they no longer see the value of knowledge. When I was studying, my only desire was to pass. At that time, we would just tell ourselves: “There’s no need for any grand ambitions; all we need is a mere 60 marks to pass the examinations.” So often, we would forget what we have learnt once we pass our examinations. What, then, is the point of studying?

Education should be tailored for every individual, so that his talents are not overlooked, and no one gets left behind. Often, due to the structural restrictions put in place by the education system, teachers do not have many options, but it does not mean that they cannot attend to the individual needs of every child. Teachers frequently scold weaker students, and cause them to feel discriminated. In my experience, I have mediated many instances of conflict involving parents and the school. To be honest, the child may have obtained good grades, but it does not mean that his development has been healthy. Neither does it mean that he is able to retain what he has learnt, nor is it a manifestation of his intelligence.

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arrow  Continue reading on Issue 2 / May 2014:Opening The Door To The Arts