On Metrics and Games (Part 1/3)

Daniel Ching
7 min readApr 16, 2024


On Unconventionality: Redefining Growth for Singaporean Students — My thoughts on the Singaporean education system, truly ambitious teenagers, and the need to explore in an AI age, to the hardworking Singaporean teenager (who seeks to do the best in whatever he can).

On Metrics and Games


It’s the National School Games season in Singapore. I was a part of it 6 years ago. My last race was merely 3 years back, yet it felt like many lifetimes had passed.

Image courtesy of Red Sports. National School Games Track and Field Finals, 2023.

As I’ve ended that phase of my life and started a new one, I thought I’d write an exposition on my views of the current state of education in Singapore and things that can be best done to utilise the time spent in school for an experience that best serves to prepare kids for the future¹.

This was in part prompted by several conversations that I’ve had, particularly a striking one with a junior that made me wonder why I didn’t create this earlier. He questioned the use of school, now that everything was online — recorded lectures, tutorial answers, etc.

Given that growth has traditionally looked like applying hard work to excel in school environments, I asked my own questions: is this kind of growth what we need now? Why should we prioritise unconventional growth in a conventionally structured environment?

This series of articles attempts to unpack my thoughts on maximising unconventional growth in Singapore².

Some things that I’ve written in the past that related are attached below:

My thoughts on unconventionality can be broken into three sections — (On Metrics and Games, On Ambition, Comfort and Nurturing Unconventional Outliers and On Exploration and Genuine Interest Cultivation, in an AI age) — with each section serving to answer a few questions.

On Metrics and Games:

  1. What drives students?
  2. Are CCAs necessarily the best form of self-development?

The Singapore Method (not just math, in education too!) is wildly efficient. So much so that it attracts reporters from all over the world to unpack what makes us rank #1 in PISA rankings consistently. Professors specialising in pedagogy hurry to this small island nation to figure out what makes us so special.

What comes at the cost of such efficiency?

Metrics are introduced from the very start of the education system. In Singapore, housing prices are driven in part by the proximity to a school. Parents who have the means to do so are determined to set their kids up for a successful path, ruthlessly 1) purchase / rent homes in that area and 2) ballot for their kids to get into any dream primary school. So right from the age of 7, this game of optimisation favours those who have higher purchasing power.

This carries on once a kid steps foot into primary school. Children are largely shielded from this reality, but when grades and exams are introduced, that’s when everything starts to unfold.

Want to optimise better for Chinese? Attend BusyBees, Wang Lao Shi, or Berries. Want to ace that maths test? Enrol in Kumon, the Learning Lab and XFactor. The tuition industry is worth $1.4 billion as of 2019.

I’m not saying that every parent will spend exorbitant amounts on tuition for their child; some children are definitely smarter and could probably spend a lesser amount of time understanding the same concept. My point is: from young, this culture has already been ingrained — compete, or lose out in the next test. As such, both students and parents default to judging performance by the simplest metric: grades.

Illustration by DALL-E (obviously).

Perhaps there’s something wrong with being hyper-optimised: it’s a classic case of Goodhart’s Law. When grades become the sole target for students, it ceases to be a good measure of a student’s potential.

Am I saying that we should do away with exams entirely? No, not quite. But perhaps it’s time to radically shift the focus away from grades, placing more emphasis on what students who wish to explore, too. The Singapore government is doing its part in this matter, with efforts by the Ministry of Education to focus more on “inquiry-based learning and critical life skills”.

Yet if concrete change were to happen, it must be all-encompassing. Organic ground-up efforts must start from parents and children too.

When kids grow older, more metrics are thrown into the game. It seems like the emphasis has shifted away from grades: CCA (co-curricular activities) are introduced in the middle of primary school, leadership positions start opening up, as well as opportunities to give back and serve the community.

This no doubt aids in the well-rounded development of a student, but taken nefariously, could this be another form of gamification?

One of the many reasons that the National School Games are so popular with secondary school / JC students is that it provides an outlet for students to pursue sports and games that they are “passionate” about, form bonds over rigorous training (I personally did through crazy cross-country circuits) and take a break from the rigours of the academic system.

But what if students view this as another ball to juggle? The title of a book by famed Singaporean distance coach Steven Quek, Excel in Sports and Studies: You Can Do It!, frames it perfectly: what other areas of your life would you need to devote yourself to apart from these? If acing both exams and winning national medals are the ultimate goals of every student-athlete, surely they would have achieved everything once they’ve hit those metrics?

This attitude doesn’t just apply to athletics or sports. In any extracurricular pursuit, there has to be some capstone project tagged to some award. Performing arts? Tiered awards by the Singapore Youth Festival. Uniform groups? President’s <insert uniform group name here> Award, or something to that effect. Volunteer work? Recognition through localised school awards, media coverage and the like.

Image generated by DALL-E, again.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these activities should be shunned. There is value in pursuing something for well-rounded developmental growth. And some pursue it for genuine interest. After all, awards are only conferred to students deemed better in that particular area; it’s a recognition of their genuine efforts.

But what if hardworking Singaporean students, knowing full well that they should try their best in everything they do (an anecdote from my friend [jump to “What is your definition of achievement”]), dive headfirst into maximising these metrics without considering what’s outside of school?

If the goal of education in school is to prepare a student for the future, why are students caught up in maximising these metrics that rarely matter beyond school? And if we students optimise so hard for success within known metrics, is there a time for us to pause and reflect?

Am I doing this because I really want to grow from it or just to gain recognition? Is this in line with skills that I want to build to ready myself for the future? What is the intention behind doing what I’m doing?

I admit that it’s terribly easy to ride along. Everyone goes with the flow; communities in extra-curricular activities are formed through common adversities (and adversaries), such communities often become prime ground for the seeds of lifelong friendships, and societal incentives are firmly rooted in place. In addition, countless alumni have gone down this path–and emerged “successful” (however you want to define it is up to you)–so why shouldn’t I?

Taken positively, metrics within the school environment are external incentives to maximise the development of the individual. Taken cynically, the same metrics distract the individual from growth beyond the boundaries of school.

That’s a wrap to the first of three pieces on maximising unconventional growth! In my second piece, I’ll dive deeper into further observations on unconventional outliers and ambition in Singapore.

Thanks Michael and Joao for allowing me to see the edsystem in a new light back in my schooling days.

Thanks Kuang Wen, Michael, Zhen, Aaron and Jean for reading through the essay and giving your thoughts.

[1]: It’s also important to caveat that this isn’t applicable to every student. Generally (I’m seriously not being elitist) this applies to students in high performing schools who believe that optimisation of all possible metrics within the school environment (grades, extracurriculars, leadership roles, relationships even) is the ideal end state. This will be covered more in the second piece, On Ambition, Comfort and Nurturing Unconventional Outliers.

[2]: This isn’t so much of rethinking the impact that AI has in education or learning per se, I think Jason Hausenloy has a more targeted article for this. Note: My background is mainly in technology (and observing startup culture), so this piece might be slightly biassed towards these two areas. Regardless, I’ve tried to incorporate other perspectives beyond tech.