Why Singapore’s education system needs an overhaul

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Students from Singapore and East Asian countries have consistently come out tops in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and Trends in International Math and Science Study (Timss) rankings for decades, and yet companies from these countries barely feature in Forbes’ annual ranking of, say, the Top 25 most innovative companies in the world.

Interestingly, the United States and European countries feature prominently in the latter ranking, but not the former.

While many factors may contribute to this contrasting dilemma, one inference is that the global school education approach, at its core, continues to be rooted in the founding principles of the First Industrial Revolution.

The school-education approach has not moved in tandem with the rest of the changes that time and technology have brought about globally.

During the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament earlier this month, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng suggested nurturing a joy of learning, so children love what they are doing in school.

He spoke about finding a balance between learning and about the obsession with grades of students and parents, and the roles of each stakeholder in this regard.

Can Minister Ng’s noble aspirations for students to find joy in learning be translatable as a landmark policy in a society obsessed with PSLE grades and more? This is the key question on every parent’s mind. And it is a question worth pondering.

Premised on the industrial age, the global school system is, at its core, school-centric.

Schools, including those in Singapore, are centred on a top-down culture of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, age-based cohorts, and streaming based on standardised exams.

The classroom results in a system that borders on a caste system of sorts. Merit-based streaming is applied at the age of 10, when the truth is that the talents of many of these young children are yet to blossom.

Albert Einstein once said that everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

In this Internet age, content is less important than context; discernment is more important than knowledge. It is how we respond to real-life challenges that matters more than exam smartness. In a volatile, uncertain and fast-changing world, it is analytical and problem-solving capabilities, and the ability to infer conclusions that are vital.

The Ministry of Education has done very well to help Singapore move up in the traditional education curve, but it perhaps lags behind in efficacy of learning for the new age. We now need to leap forward to a totally new parallel curve, centred on nurturing creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Every child must have enough opportunities to develop his or her capabilities in an environment that emphasises not just attainment, but also inclusiveness of students of all abilities and social economic status. An obsession with grades and streaming, on the other hand, and the resources better-off families have in preparing their children for examinations has led to debate on whether Singapore’s much-revered concept of “meritocracy” has become too closely associated with elitism.

Finland is a country that offers some lessons for us in the way it has de-emphasised the traditional school–centricness and focus on examinations.

Since 2013, Finland has exercised phenomenon-based learning which, rather than a strict set of classroom rules, comprises a combination of beliefs and best practices, supported by research.

In this approach, students are divided into small groups to observe a real-life scenario or phenomenon — such as a current event or situation present in the student’s world — and analyse it through an interdisciplinary approach.

An essential part of the process is that it is a student-led investigation, with students playing a primary role in identifying the gaps in their knowledge that they want to fill. Technology plays an important part in student engagement and the pace of learning, while teachers function as facilitators.

The Project Lindfield Learning Village in Sydney is another innovative initiative that integrates pre-school, primary and high school with university level courses seamlessly.

Teenagers and preschoolers will collaboratively study together. The peer-to-peer learning process between students of different ages and levels leads to better learning outcomes.

It is time for a radical and comprehensive review of the school-centric education system in Singapore. How do we go about doing this?

First, a review that extensively consults important stakeholders, including the students themselves, is essential as it will help to reduce public policies’ unintended and unanticipated effects, and possible deficiencies in policy execution.

Second, the review must aim to change the attitudes of parents, teacher s and students towards examinations and grades. The best way to do so is for all our institutes of higher learning to give due weightage to aptitude testing and interviews for all their admissions. MOE must recognise that half measures will not impact parents’ behaviour.

The Government, cognisant of the dark clouds on our economic horizon, has swiftly taken bold steps to prepare Singaporeans for the challenges ahead. These include the SkillsFuture initiative and the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which drew talents from the public,private and people sectors in developing timely recommendations.

These measures help the workforce to be trained for future jobs. It is an opportune time to move beyond addressing the symptoms to addressing the root causes of our problems with education and the economy.

The Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry for Trade and Industry have drawn on various stakeholders to reshape and position our future economy. Likewise, MOE should form a branch movement which could perhaps be called EducationFuture. To this effect, perhaps, a Committee on Future Education along the lines of the CFE could similarly draw on a wide spectrum of Singaporean talent.

Such a 360-degree review should deeply examine: How the joy of learning will become less exam-centric, including an eventual abolition of the PSLE; how broadened and Internet-age assessment can be introduced across the board; how innovative international experiences can be adapted and deployed; how a curriculum that emphasises all-round development via Co-Curricular Activities and project-based learning via the collaborative application of interdisciplinary skills can be implemented; and how the profile of the teaching profession can be radically changed by an osmosis of sorts, in which mid-career PMETs become teachers and current teachers are sent on attachments to the private and public sectors for an immersive experience of the continuously changing workplace; and finally, whether streaming still makes sense in the classroom any more.

Can Minister Ng really bring about the joy of learning soon enough? Yes he can, and he must.

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