I’m so excited to share an author interview with you today! Earlier this year I shared the most terrific book for parents, Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age by Maya Thiagarajan. If there’s only one book you read this year, this should be it! Maya grew up in India, went to the USA for university and her first teaching positions, and is now raising her young family in Singapore.
I’d love to have Maya over for a cup of tea and a chat, but it’s a little difficult being seven time-zones away. However, Maya has kindly accepted my request for an interview. Here are her expert words of wisdom about global education. For the second half of this interview, please click through to Maya’s interview about Parenting For Global Success.
Which educational style (Indian, American, or Singaporean) do you relate to the strongest, and why?
I think that the US has a very varied and complex educational environment. While its best private and public schools are fantastic, its low-income public schools face lots of serious challenges. It’s virtually impossible to generalize about American education because it includes such extremes. However, from my own experiences as a teacher in the US, I loved the autonomy that I had and I really appreciated the flexibility to experiment and innovate in the classroom. I think that American education at its best has a lot of strengths — a creative and open culture, lots of emphasis on reading and play, and lots of opportunities for children to speak their minds and express themselves.
However, Singapore, where I now teach, also has some real strengths: I admire the discipline and focus that kids here have, and I think that the Singapore government has done a great job of making sure that all kids on the island — whether rich or poor — have access to a safe and stimulating learning environment. I am also a big fan of the Singapore Math curriculum.
So to answer your question more specifically — I think that both systems have a lot to offer, but both also have their own unique set of challenges. I can relate to aspects of both, but I also find myself feeling critical of both in different ways.
What advice do you have for transitioning children to a new culture or educational system?
I think that it is important to be open to the new culture. If you’re moving to a new country, help your child understand the country by teaching him/her about it as much as possible — read books set in that country, try out the foods, find it on a map, listen to music from there, discuss its history and culture etc. Also, if the country has another language, make sure that your child takes lessons in that language. Once you get to the country, try to make your child feel as comfortable as possible. Think of it as an adventure and a learning experience! I think that a positive attitude goes a very long way.
Getting used to a new educational system can be quite different. I’ve found that different countries have vastly different approaches, so initially it can be very disorienting both for the child and the parent. I would say that it’s important to communicate honestly with your child’s teacher. Tell the teacher about your child’s background, and say that you would like to work with the teacher to help your child adapt. Most teachers, once they know that a child has come in from a different country, will make a little extra effort to help a child adapt. One thing to keep in mind for globally mobile parents — make sure that your kids have strong reading, writing, and math skills in the early years. If you’re moving your children around a lot — in other words, if you have “third culture kids” — then it’s up to you to fill in the gaps in their academic knowledge and ensure that they have strong skills.
I enjoyed reading that you are a strong believer in children getting outdoors and having fun. What is your opinion about some school systems taking away recess and some closing their play grounds except to their own students during school time?
I think that all kids need lots of time in nature on a daily basis. There is SO much research out there about the physical and mental health benefits of time in nature, and I often think that one of the best cures of ADHD, depression, and anxiety in children is to get them outside. And in a technological age, our kids need nature even more urgently. Nature is such a great antidote to time spent in a virtual world in front of screens. In nature, kids use all their senses and they engage in the real world, and that is so important. Without a doubt, I think it’s short-sighted of schools to cut out recess — that’s just wrong on so many levels. Kids concentrate better and work better when they’ve had a little bit of time to run around and some fresh air.
In terms of opening playgrounds up to all kids, I certainly think that schools should be as community oriented and open as possible. These days, many schools in different parts of the world are worried about security threats, so that may be one reason why they close their playgrounds to kids who are not their students. But I would urge schools to keep their doors open to all kids, at least for a few hours each day.
Do you have any suggestions on ways to ‘sneak’ math and literacy into hobbies and down time so that children don’t realise that they’re learning?
Lots of ways! In fact, at the end of each chapter in my book, Beyond The Tiger Mom, I offer parents lots of ways to integrate math and reading into the fabric of the home. I think that it’s important to create a math-rich and reading-rich culture at home — through conversations, games, and activities.
Here are some examples: Since we’ve always lived in apartment buildings (in New York and in Singapore), my kids learned a lot of math in the elevator. I would point to the numbers — can you press 11? Or I’d say, “We’re on the fifth floor now — how many floors till we get to the 11th floor?” In fact, one mother whom I interviewed in Singapore pointed out that riding in an elevator is like riding on a number line! If your kids enjoy cooking, then integrate math into cooking time. And if they enjoy stringing beads or making bracelets, get them to think about shapes and patterns. There’s math all around us — we just need to become aware of the math that exists everywhere and then point it out to our kids.
Similarly, with reading, I think that there are many things a parent can do that won’t seem like a formal lesson — talking about words, for example. Use some difficult words when you chat with your child, and then if they ask you about the words, you can explain. And if they don’t ask you about the word, use it repeatedly in different contexts, and you’ll find that your kids naturally figure it out.
And importantly, have conversations with kids about books. Ask them what they’re reading and what they think about the book. And keep reading aloud, even after kids have learned to read on their own, because read-alouds are a fantastic way to fuel a deep love of reading.
Maya Thiagarajan is the author of Beyond The Tiger Mom and is currently living, teaching, and conducting workshops with parents in Singapore. You can find out more about Maya and her endeavours at www.mayathiagarajan.info