Educating in the 21st century

Secondary 4 student, Janelle Lee wrote passionately about the education system from her first-hand experience.

In her post, she spoke about the heavy emphasis on factual memorisation, drilling to give standard answers in examinations and lack of cultivation of curiosity, imagination, creativity and character development in students. It was a brave call for change by a passionate young lady.

Amongst various things, I run a visual art-based creativity development programme. Participants are brought through various techniques to turn random squiggles into meaningful drawings. We run the programme for children as young as 4 years old, for older students and even for adults. With young children, we have no problems getting volunteers to come to the whiteboard to doodle on random squiggles made by the instructor. Sometimes, half the class would want to run forward to grab the chance to express their ideas through drawing. When it comes to older students and adults, they seem more conscious of themselves, more mindful of being right and less eager to try. After training thousands, I have made many anecdotal observations to suggest that there may be a correlation between the creative energies of children and age. I observed that the innocent creative energy so abundant in young children diminishes with age.

This is not just my observation. Renowned education and creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson observed from a longitudinal study of 1,500 children over 10 years that divergent (creative) thinking decreases with age. Over time, students are taught there is one correct answer and it is at the back of the book. They become less willing to think of other solutions. He observed that our current education system was invented during the industrial revolution but has not adapted to fit the fast changing dynamic world that bombards us with loads of instant information and is paved with uncertainty.

The big challenge facing us is how to educate students for jobs that do not yet exist. A child today will typically go through 10-16 years of formal education before entering the work force. No one can be certain what the world economy will be like 10-16 years later nor know what sort of jobs exist then. The education model where there’s only one right answer to each problem cannot prepare students to be adaptable to future challenges.

Singapore’s education system is based on having high stake examinations at various milestones of the students’ life. The majority of tests are based on standard correct answers. From the examinations, students are classified, streamed and moved into institutions best suited to their abilities. Their abilities are measured based on standardised tests. It may not be a true reflection of their real intelligence or capabilities. Some students are late bloomers, some are suited for other forms of learning and some may face environmental factors that impede their progress.

Singapore has developed to a level where we place a great deal of importance on a single measure of students’ worth, which is their examination results. This is further perpetuated by our strong scholarship culture. Nearly all government organisations today award scholarships and some schools set themselves targets to churn out scholars.

Parents are often called to meet with teachers. Sometimes, they might be told their children are not meeting up to their potential. They could get better grades but were not. School examinations are typically made more difficult and marked more strictly to pressure students to work harder at high stake examinations.

What do most parents do under such situation? They send their children for tuition, and more tuition. The schools would not tell you to send your children for tuition. But the expectations are for that if you want your children to keep up with their classmates. With the large class size in schools, teachers cannot give attention to just your children.

The danger in over-emphasing high stake examinations and scholarships is that students find their personal worth being linked to standardised measures of their abilities. It does not build up a resilient generation that can handle problems of varied sorts. Some who cannot do well academically give up and lose interest in school. Some may develop inferiority complex. Even those who can do well academically may be be able to cope with other pressures in life later, such as national service or work stress.

The problem does not lie with just the Ministry of Education and the education system alone. Society itself has a lot to play in this. We complain that our system is pressurising but parents are unwilling to give up high stakes examinations and are the ones pushing their children to perform at all cost. This mindset has been developed because our government service has placed a big premium on those who have succeeded on their measure of success. Scholars are fast tracked in their careers. Parents worry that if their children do not succeed academically, they have no chance of success in life. Do our government organisations seriously need so many scholars to fill up their positions?

In reality, there can be other ways to succeed. But parents are unwilling to risk their children going down the unproven track. Hence, most go along with the system and push their children as hard as they could to succeed in standardised tests.

Are we willing to help our children find their passion instead of pushing them to get good grades at all cost? When my daughter wanted to get holiday work, I gladly supported her. Letting her face difficult restaurant clients and slogging long hours is useful learning not available in school. I recall when my daughters were young, like other wishful parents, we put them through piano lessons. It became a daily struggle pushing them to practice. They hated it. We paid a lot and wanted them to excel in it. After nearly 2 years of stress and not going anywhere, we felt it was not worth it and stopped the lessons. Surprisingly a few years later, they asked to start piano lessons again on their own. They can now even download music scores of their favourite songs from the Internet and played on their own. I don’t care what grades they make it to as long as they are enjoying it.

Once when organising an event that needed accompaniment music, I asked a friend with grade 8 certificate to play the piano. She told me she only plays examination pieces and nothing else. Since passing all the music examinations she was required to take, she has stopped playing the piano. I find it sad that we learn just to pass examinations. Even for something non-academic like music, shouldn’t we learn because we love it rather than to pass examinations to make someone else happy?

A friend was stressed with her only daughter, whom she had sent to get a good degree from America. The daughter wanted to start her career as a social worker in China with a non-profit organisation. My friend was furious. To her, it was such a waste of the education and her life doing a career that cannot pay. To many, education is about getting a good degree, so that one can get a good job and earn a lot of money.

I am reminded of Dr Tan Lai Yong, a Singaporean doctor who spent 14 years organising medical support for remote villages in Yunnan, China. He and his wife brought up their two children in basic conditions. I consider his work to be a success even though he forfeited monetary rewards. Dr Tan brought blessings to poor villagers in Yunnan. His children received a form of life education not possible with schools in Singapore.

I have come to a personal conviction that there is more than one way to succeed. A primary school classmate of mine joked that he used to prop up the class by being amongst the bottom few at every examinations. Today, he is a highly successful entrepreneur with net worth of over hundreds of million, probably the most successful financially from our class that had produced many doctors, lawyers and engineers.

In his book, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, Sir Ken Robinson listed many people who found success after finding their ‘element’. Not all have what it takes to succeed academically. Some became hugely successful in the arts, in business, in writing, and in a variety of other ways. They may not have succeeded academically but once they found their ‘element’, their passion drove them to success.

In the children classic, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy followed the yellow brick road to Oz, a road less travelled with her companions the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion. Through the journey, the Scarecrow discovered his brains, the Tin Woodman found his heart, and the Cowardly Lion uncovered his courage. These qualities were in them all along but their self-doubts had kept these away.

Are we prepared to let our children walk the road less travelled? Are we prepared for an education system that breaks away from high stake examinations and streaming? This is a journey that the MOE, society and parents must be prepared to take together to make changes work. Revamping the education system is a challenge with many issues to tackle. While there’s room to allow greater diversity in learning paths and alternative forms of assessment, we must also be prepared to change the way we view success. We should allow our children to explore their world bravely.


7 comments on “Educating in the 21st century

  1. Hi Yee,
    I cannot but agreed what you have written on our perceptions and beliefs on education systems. There are many many areas in our system that need improvement, set aside the paradigm shift on education, of which I hope to see some little change, perhaps not in my life time.
    Two aims for education: Economics and Cultural identity. The pursuit of the former is academic and the latter is not in our vocabulary. Our pursuit on academic excellence is biased on research rather than teaching, because of its commercial benefits as directed by the former leader in charge of education and is still practice by the experts in education. So those who are taking or considering pursing arts are normally found at the bottom choice with little funding and supports from the government… so sad (sigh)
    I am searching for a movement or organization that partake in and promote education to achieve a balanced aim in life. Do you know of any?
    I am not sure if you, Mr Yee or WP could start an info sharing session not just for your voters, but for Singaporeans as well. The views and desires from the people could be presented to the government to make changes work for Singapore. Yep, it is a daunting task, but the benefits go to the people to have their views aired and the credits go the WP.
    You wrote and penned well on this article, Education, not found in many blogs. It is the MOST valuable resource in the global knowledge as it affects relationships, feelings, motivations and aspirations. It is a system which involves HUMANS.

    I have not read The Element. Perhaps I will get my son to read it. A passionate Teacher-to-be in Music.

    • Thanks for comments, Snowball. Sir Ken Robinson has some interesting writings and speeches. You can get his videos and some of his writings from the web. Just google by his name. The books are readily available in NLB. That was where I got mine.

      Those who are interested to voice issues in education can mail me ( so my colleagues and I can gather inputs for presentation to government at appropriate time.

      When you asked about organisation that promotes balance in education, you are referring to continuing education for adults or for children?

      • Dear Yee, thanks for the reply. I have read and watched Sir Robinson’s presentations from TED and his venture in California and how the US public schools were in during Michelle Rhee’s time. Watch ‘Waiting for ‘Superman” which received the best documentary feature on US public education.
        I think there is no org, movement or a platform that promotes education. In the US and UK, their views are aired by independent, collaborators and subject matter experts. Over here, it is much controlled and we cannot wish or do what we want for our children. Presently TOC is conducting their Transformation Talk, but they can’t be our voice. Articles in TRE and other blogs on education are voices of unhappiness, resentment, fear and other emotions. The issues on Education need consolidation.
        If WP could organize a platform for info sharing, inviting not just from the people from all walks of life, but people from our educators who are willing to come forward to brainstorm for probable solutions. The consolidated inputs can be presented in Parliament at an appropriate time.
        We can produce good leaders. Not just clever leaders, but better and humane leaders.

      • Hi Yee,
        Attached Singapore Cultural Stat 2011 for info:
        Arts in Education is rather flat for a period of seven years 2004 to 2010 for undergraduate course (page 40). There is a long way to go to be considered as First World Country. Lim Chin Beng once said: “You cannot consider Singapore to be fully developed as a world-class city unless its children want to become musicians, painters, actors and dancers, sportsperson and unless their parents want this for them.”

        A recital studio(245 seats) in Esplanade would cost S$2,000 for two hours without the hiring of musical instrument and stage equipments. It is expensive for a student to hold such a concert. I believe they manage arts like a business corporation, such as in our healthcare and maybe our education system with their KPIs
        Read Minister Heng’s three core areas in education: to provide a good value system; to teach social and emotional competencies; and to foster creative thinking skills. How to be competent in social and emotions??? Could WP ask the Education Ministry be invited to be part of the team or an observer to contribute to the creation of solutions. That would be a good approach to work with the ruling party for a win-win situation. They cannot say no to you as PM Lee HL wants an inclusive society.

        Ag Minister Chan of MICA is seeking views on how Singapore sporting scene can be improved. Sports in schools is also facing a similar fate as in arts and humanity courses.

        Read A Vision of a Future We Don’t Know from Like I said, these blogs put too much negativeness without much constructive solutions. I don’t think that these bloggers are against positive change. It is because they do not access to work with the Masters. I hope you can help. It is all about us to make the change. THANKS.

  2. JJ,

    Saw Janelle’s article on Temasek Review. More or less agreed with what she said. But the problem with Singapore here while there’re many complaints, people are still very fearful of changes. Indeed our education system doesn’t seem to equip people to cope with the challenges when they leave school that our ‘beloved’ government keeps saying we have no talents, so we have to import lots of talents. Everybody is unhappy with the education system, but they’re so afraid of changes, so we will still see in the future a lot of Janelle-kind of letters.

  3. While I acknowledge there are gaps in our education system, and I agree that parents & students (the other more immediate stakeholders) have a part to play as well.

    Parents are some times the ones who insist in the quantity, not quality of education. MOE has tried and failed in lightening the load because of the resistance of parents.

    For students like Janelle, I’d like to know what she did when she didnt understand the content of her class. Who’s responsibility is it to push her own understanding? In today’s world, there are more tools afforded to us. If there’s curiousity, she’ll find ways to unlock the questions in her head. Maybe some concepts are well beyond her compreshension, which I admit, but there’s nothing to stop her from exploring & discovering and then bring her questions to school.

    All of us, should take ownership & responsibility to develop ourselves. The education system is but one part of the equation.

    Happy life long learning everyone!

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