Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ending our tuition obsession

Recently, Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a slew of measures to reform the educational system. In particular, I pleased with his assurance that schools' would only set questions on the presumption that students hadn’t attended tuition. This would go some way in assuring parents that tuition isn’t necessary to give their children the edge. But this announcement by the Minister alone cannot do to reduce our nation’s obsession with tuition.

We must first accept that the desire of tuition largely arises from a justified desire for greater personalised attention. Hence rather than consider this fixation on tuition as largely a product of our “kiasu” culture, we would be more effective in reducing the tuition craze if the education system evolves to offer greater attention to the individual needs of students. With this in mind, I have 3 suggestions to make:

1) Allocate regular hours for consultation within timetable

In many universities, professors often have designated office hours where students can come and meet them regarding course matters. It would be good to formalise such a system in our national schools as well. Presently, while teachers do informally step forward to help students when requested, entrenching a system would assure parents that school can adequately cater to their child's educational needs.

2) Teach less, Practice more 

In the current model, a lion share of classroom time is often allocated to teaching of concepts.To consolidate the understanding, homework is given but there is comparatively less emphasis on it. It is often as students do their homework, they realise their conceptual gaps. Most require assistance during this stage and in the absence of parental support, many see the need for external help.

To address this issue, teachers could possibly consider assigning students to master the basics of the content on their own. This would free up classroom time which can then be more productively used to address the misunderstandings that students have in school itself rather than at a tuition agency.  

3) Empower parents to help their children

Often, we hear parents’ complain that they aren’t able to help even their primary school going child because of the changes to the modes of teaching. As the Minister himself noted, using the algebra method he was familiar might not be most suitable method for Math problems today. Parents might not be able to offer adequate help to their child throughout his or her education journey but certainly most can be empowered to support them till Primary School.    

It is positive to note that  some schools have already recognised this problem and have acted too,  The article , “A call to relearn how we teach our children”, published by Today highlighted that Changkat Primary School, for instance, conducts workshops to empower parents to help with their children’s homework. Moving ahead, other schools should look into implementing similar solutions. When parents are better qualified to coach their children they would be less likely to enrol their children in tuition on the first signs of academic struggle.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

One ear in, another ear out –Why current appeals to fear are so ineffective in climate change advocacy

The alarm bells sounded once more. The news that arctic ice levels were dwindling to precarious levels made headlines around the world. Environmentalists have been regularly reminding us of the disastrous consequences that unabated climate change has. They say, the equation is simple- no decisive action to mitigate the problem equals to plummeting grain supplies, submerging pacific islands, vacillating weather patterns and much more. Most of us, accept these facts. Yet few of us are swayed by such fear-based appeals.

Fear is commonly invoked to urge our compliance to “the correct” set of actions. Our justice system works on fear where the innocent are spared and the guilty are made to pay the price of their mistakes. Many religions paint gory images of hell for those deviate from God’s moral instructions. Even down to the family level, fear rears its head- we see mothers threatening their unruly children deserting their undone homework with possible cuts to their leisure time. But clearly fear isn’t equally potent in all circumstances.

What determines the success of fear-based appeals ?  

For fear to be effective in advocacy efforts, two important criteria need to be fulfilled: firstly there needs to be a link between personal action and consequences; secondly this link must be completely accepted by the targeted parties.  But both these criteria cannot be met in the case of climate change advocacy due to the non-exclusive and long term nature of the problem.

The first criterion is rather intuitive. Basically, when an individual complies with the correct set of action, he needs to be spared from negative consequences; when he doesn’t he must bear the full brunt of the punishment as forewarned. This gives the individual incentive to adopt the “right way”.

Its tacit understanding of this principle which leads those in authority to design systems, ensuring any loss is specific to those who deviate from the prescribed set of action. For instance, managers fire specific workers who don’t display the required level of commitment and not the team. Likewise, we see that teachers reprimand particular students causing trouble and not the entire class. 

Because, if in the appeal to fear, the loss is not to the individual but the group, there tends to be a diffusion of responsibility. People have less moral compunction to err, in a large community, as they don’t see how their individual actions affect the bigger picture adversely. There would also be a great degree of moral outrage from those doing their due to adopt the “right set of actions” for they would be suffering due to things well beyond their control. 

One reason why Operation Coldstore executed by the Singapore state in 1963, to round up left-wing politicians was so successful in quelling dissent, was because it clearly demonstrated to the public that active participation in anti-government activities would led to grave personal loss. Ultimately, there needs to be specificity in any fear-based appeal for it to be effective.

But climate change is a global, non-exclusive problem meaning it is near impossible to fulfill the first criterion. An activist who spends all his or her time and effort to save the earth would not be any more likely than a climate change denier to be spared from harsh climatic conditions. Everyone regardless of what they did would experience similar conditions. There exists no mechanism to internalize the actions of individuals and return back what is due. 

The second criterion for fear to be potent in advocacy is that there must be an unquestionable belief in the link between non-compliance to the prescribed set of action and adverse consequences. 

The significance of this second criterion comes to light when comparing fear-based moral systems laid out in religions and the legal systems, which societies conceived. Both these systems lay out in detail the repercussions of deviating from the correct set of actions. But we find that fear has a greater deterrent effect in the latter. Why?

In the legal system, the authority actively enforces the rules laid out. Punishment is often publicly meted out to those who act contrary to the law. Thus, most feel compelled to adopt the prescribed way, even if it painful, since  they know the consequences of not doing so would be even more severe.

In stark contrast, much of punishments laid out in religions for non-compliance cannot be ascertained. A murder would be sent to prison as per the legal system, that’s for sure but whether he would sent to hell as described in many faiths, cannot be known conclusively. Because the threats don’t seem to be materialized in an immediate and visible manner, the chilling effect of these moral commands is largely lost.  Only those who have faith feel compelled to adhere to the moral code.

Specifically in climate change because it is a complex, long-term problem, where actions taken today have implications, a long time down the road and there is much doubt among individuals regarding the consequences their decisions have. Most can’t see how driving the sleeker, less environmentally friendly car to work or using an extra innocuous plastic bag in the supermarket could precipitate the disastrous climatic conditions often talked out. The link just doesn’t seem to sink in. This problem is further worsened due to the fluctuations of the climate.

As James Hansen, a prominent NASA scientist, notes in his new publication, “ [the] greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is probably the natural variability of local climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?”.

It is interesting to note that in United States, the citizens’ beliefs about climate change often follow the general weather patterns. In 2010, following a heavier than usual snowfall, only nearly half, 52%, accepted that climate change existed according to a survey conducted by the Brookings Institution. But following the recent scorching temperatures and frequent wildfires, the percentage of those accepting climate change has now dramatically increased to 70%, according to polls conducted by the University of Texas. That’s a seismic change !

But very likely, the public perceptions would continue to swing up and down according to the weather patterns. In response to this problem, many prominent figures like Paul Krugman and James Hansen, have invoked the model of a loaded climate die to explain the link between long term environmental trends and day-day weather patterns. Without self-contradicting itself, the model neatly explains that with climate change, higher temperatures become more frequent and also recognizes that some unusually cold weather would be experienced as well, though less frequently. 

What this means is that our actions don’t exactly cause environmental changes but rather they increase the probability of freak climatic incidents. It would be an intellectual challenge for many to wrap their head around this second degree causal link. Even those who understand it, would be less emotionally charged to do their part since the link between their sacrifices to protect the environment and positive results looks indefinite. 

This compounded with the fact that their actions don’t necessarily determine the fate of their own living conditions renders current fear-based appeals near impotent in climate change advocacy.

In fact, the more fear activists inject into their communication efforts, the more they seem as ludicrous fear mongers bent on radically changing ,what many consider, the normal human lifestyle they have been rightfully entitled to.

Fear-based appeals not potent but still best hope

Appeals to fear are not always at the corner stone of every campaign. It was hope, which fueled the successful campaigns for equal racial rights in United States led by Martin Luther King and the independence struggle spearheaded by Gandhi. Would a similar approach be effective in climate change advocacy?

Unlikely. Hope based appeals leverage on the possibility of building positive outcomes. Climate change mitigation is really about preventing worse conditions and not quite to ameliorate our environment. Yes, activists could emphasize the sense of global solidarity in working together to fight climate change and personal contentment of doing something positive but these arguments are not going to get masses fired up to ditch their gas guzzling vehicles or recycle more often.  Hence, shifting the message to focus on the hope and gain, instead of fear and loss, isn’t a good idea.  

Making fear-based appeals work 

Rather the focus need to be on making fear-based appeals more effective. There are various concrete measures that activists could take to improve the effectiveness of fear based appeals.

For one, when highlighting the dangers of continued inaction, they should avoid painting a broad picture of the cataclysmic events which might unfold around the world as what Al Gore does in “The Inconvenient Truth”. Instead, they should be focusing on repercussions of climate change specific to the geographic location of interest to the audience. So suppose you are an activist in Australia, talk about the increasing frequency of droughts and its consequences on the livelihoods of the citizens there and not how the small island states like the Maldives would sink supposing climate change goes unmitigated.  As threats become more specific, the urgency to act will increase. 

Also, activists should take a more concerted effort to point to the immediate visible effects of environmentally unsustainable practices - place greater emphasis on the balding forests resulting from unfettered freedom of corporations to slash and burn, the thick smog city due to unregulated vehicular emissions. Seeing is believing. Highlighting the detrimental, immediate and visible consequences would be more effective in getting people take action than pointing to the detached, far-away effects on the global ozone layer and world temperature. 

An environmentalist who effectively applied these principles was Rachael Carson, the author of the book, “Silent Spring”, which was published in 1962.  She made the impact of DDT, a pesticide, on the environment relatable to the people; by framing the issue as a local one and highlighting the tangible effects in which humans were adversely affected, she was immensely successfully in raising awareness of the issue. The book was well received and it prompted then President Kennedy to appoint his scientific adviser to examine the effects of pesticides. 10 years after the book was first published, DDT was ulitmately banned in United States.

Noting the influence of “Silent Spring” , Al Gore remarked that
it. "brought environmental issues to the attention not just of industry and government; it brought them to the public, and put our democracy itself on the side of saving the Earth". To modern day climate change activists,  Rachael Carson’s efforts testify that with the correct advocacy strategy, great progress can indeed be achieved.  

Most importantly, climate change activists must realize that the purpose of fear in their advocacy efforts is to nudge people to take action not paralyze them. Overzealous activists might overplay the fear factor. When people perceive climate change as an insurmountable problem, they would start to give up and prepare for the inevitable rather than focus on mitigating the problem. Hence, activists need to exercise prudence in their efforts when leveraging on fear to inspire people to adopt environmentally friendly ways.


Humans are naturally loss averse. Losing what we already have is incredibly painful and it is the bid to avoid such pain which inspires much action. Appeals to fear are often successful because they lay before people a clear proposition; comply with the “correct” set of actions or be prepared for an agonizing loss. 

But in the case of climate change advocacy, fear’s potency is greatly curtailed. Climate change’s, non-exclusive and long term nature would always mean that people would struggle to appreciate the relationship between their environmentally detrimental individual practices and the damaging effects it has on the environment.

 While fear is a weakened tool in the activist’s arsenal, it still remains the most potent and viable one. Activists must constantly explore ways to make fear-based appeals more specific, urgent and compelling. But they also need to be mindful that amplifying fear at some point, will be counter-productive to mitigate the problem in hand.  Overwhelming fear would lead to pessimistic citizens throwing their hands up rather than galvanized ones joining hands with others to do their part.