Film Review: Unteachable (2019)

Education is a hotly contested topic in Singapore. In recent years it has been thrust more and more into the spotlight, with nearly every Singaporean keen to weigh in on its merits, its demerits and its adherence to the concept of meritocracy. This vociferation has intensified in part due to increased awareness of how our system measures up to that of other exam-driven powerhouses (South Korea, China), or of countries which take an entirely different approach altogether (the Nordic countries, most notably Finland).

Another—and perhaps more significant—reason why many people seem to deeply invested in the Singapore education system debate is because they have, arguably, journeyed through it themselves. Yet, if everyone is airing opinions shaped by their own experiences, why is the country thus splintered in its assessment of the education system? This is where Yong Shu Ling and Lisa Teh’s documentary Unteachable (2019) can hope to shed some light.

Unteachable follows two Singaporean individuals, Meixi, a relief teacher piloting a new pedagogy in a secondary school, and Damian, a 14-year-old Normal Technical (NT) stream student who undergoes this programme. Remarkably, although the documentary is propped up by these two personalities, it begins with two much more iconic hallmarks of the schooling experience: the singing of the National Anthem and the recitation of the Pledge. This then is not solely a story of Meixi or Damian or their negotiations with the system; this, rather, is a story of the system.

Whilst the documentary is occasionally furnished with explainers of certain acronyms or concepts that constitute the education system, there are whole contexts behind these things that would invariably go over the heads of a foreign audience. To the credit of the filmmakers, it seems a good move to have omitted these trigger points, for that would have made Unteachable seem unfocussed and murky in its intentions. But these points are nevertheless worth raising in the scope of this review.

For one, when the documentary brings us to what is presumably a typical school day in Damian’s life, he immediately strikes one who is familiar with the Singapore educational landscape as no average NT student. He is up before the crack of dawn in a relatively spacious (albeit dated) two-storeyed public housing flat with, at the very least, bread to scarf down before the start of another demanding day. This is not to say that Damian is privileged in a country that boasts 207,000 millionaires, surely not, but Damian is sufficiently provided for in ways that many NT students cannot even begin to name. Just ask any teacher on the ground.

Even so, it has become somewhat of an open secret that the academic well-being of most children in Singapore is tied to the kind of resources and opportunities afforded them by their circumstances, a point which even the documentary itself briefly confesses: “NT classes are typically made up of a disproportionately large number of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Many are also from the minority races in Singapore.” Damian hence cannot be taken as emblematic of the quintessential NT experience; he is, at best, a very hopeful case study.

Recall after all that first scene of Damian in class, labouring against a Math question. Notice how he has a school tie on while his classmates lack one? Though Damian’s tie seems spectral, such additions to the school uniform usually signify the wearer being beholden to some sort of leadership role, which should come as no surprise given the precociousness that Damian exhibits. In other words, Damian is punctual, hardworking, tenacious, and doused with indefatigable optimism—qualities that would be sorely absent in most of his peers.

This must be why there seems to be such a stark difference between Meixi and her full-time teacher colleagues. Sprightly and encouraging but with one finger on the pulse always, Meixi’s pursuit of meaningful learning is what in-service educators might label “not worth it”. They will not stride into class with anything less than hard-nosed dispositions that yield the kind of behavioural cues they want before they will allow a lesson to proceed. Over time, it becomes easy to accept nothing less than those cues as the only reason for any lesson to take place. But if the class is pindrop silent, can we assume that the students are learning? Conversely, even though students seem distracted and falter while Meixi questions their understanding of fractions, can it really be said that she lacks the classroom management finesse of her experienced colleagues? Or can the difference simply be chalked up to the fact that teachers with different visions can walk into the same class and administer entirely different types of lesson experiences?

In what should be considered a most masterful editing decision, the goings-on of one particular department meeting is spliced across various points of the documentary. The meeting itself must have taken no more than two hours. Yet, simply by tracing the trajectory of the discussion—as well as the way a one-sided conclusion on the place Meixi’s pedagogy has in the overall school curriculum is eventually issued—the meeting can be said to encapsulate the overall struggle at the heart of Unteachable. Essentially, as she is forced to defend her pedagogy against a brigade of guarded and unpersuaded veterans, one gets a sinking feeling in their stomach that Meixi is neither the first nor last to endure such an unfair Goliathan battle in the context of the education system.

Lest we be so quick to villainise those who have voiced their opposition, allow me to spotlight another perspective. One teacher I observed, whom I shall not name to preserve some dignity, appears on multiple occasions: at the teacher training, at one of the actual sessions involving the first batch of students, within the classroom, and finally, at the meeting. While on the first two occasions he’s obliging and even nods along to Meixi’s assertion that “Mistakes are important”, when push comes to shove, the amount of attention he spares Damian to clarify his Math answer is cursory because: “We just don’t have the time.”

Unfortunately it’s true. This is, like Meixi points out, an incredibly efficient system, and efficiency is fundamentally about spending the least amount of time on as many tasks as possible. Viewed in that lens, quantity is prioritised over quality. Teach what is needed and reap the results. No need for frivolous ideals like character education where an examinable subject like Math is concerned. In the eyes of the system and its administrators, time is not a necessity but a luxury. An impressive number of hours are spent carrying out Meixi’s programme after school through the course of Unteachable, something that would not be achievable if a) the school did not have spare manpower in the likes of Meixi to plan and execute this entire programme, as well as b) the backing of an authority like the Principal. Even then, the Head of Department is only willing to budge halfway: “I’m always talking about the realistic side. I think (adopting the programme is) not possible in this case because we are bounded (sic) by the shortage of time.”

Meixi’s own pedagogical strength is in questioning, a skill all Singapore-trained teachers are expected to possess to some degree. But in a society obsessed only with having the right answers and covering the mandated syllabus under time constraints, questioning in order to challenge students’ learning is often unsustainable and exhausting. This is why there is no time. This is why students are pigeonholed by their results they produce. This is why the impossible remains just that—impossible.

Unteachable premiered at the 30th Singapore International Film Festival last year and went on to bag the Audience Choice Award, as well as hold six more sold-out screenings. Few things resonate so deeply with Singaporeans but it is little wonder that our education system is one of them. A searing and intimate look into the lives of two people who are but two stories, one cannot help but come away from the viewing feeling complicit in the perpetuity of our exam-driven and grades-obsessed culture.

Circling back then to our original question of why a small city-state cannot agree on the state of our education system, the answer to that depends on your answer to this: Who really, in our society, is the unteachable lot? Is it the students who, through milestone standardised testing, get sorted into fixed educational tracks and hence must bear on their backs the categorical stigma that comes with being unable to perform academically? Is it the old guard of educators who, drawing from years of experience and training, can no longer accommodate possibilities beyond what the system permits? Or is it the system that, tightly wrung from node to node, leaves little room for mistakes and missteps when shepherding batches of children through homogenised cycles of formal education and into the workforce? These are difficult questions in difficult times, and as we try to take baby steps towards a more accommodating and progressive system, let us never stop trying to answer these questions.

Unteachable is available for rent at USD9.99, from 14 May to 17 May only on The Projector’s online platform. It will be accessible for viewers in Singapore only. The Projector will also be hosting a special Facebook Live Q&A session with director Yong Shu Ling, and Damian Ng, one of the students featured in Unteachable, on Saturday 16 May, 3pm to chat about the experiences of teaching/learning online, and bringing the joy of learning to Singaporean students.

Written by Eisabess Chee

Eisabess is the editor of SINdie.
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