The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. ~K. Patricia Cross, Education Scholar
I like this quote because it reminds us of what education should be about.
In fast pace Singapore, we have made education into a stressful race. For entry into what people perceived as the best primary schools, parents would do voluntary work or shift their homes to be near a choice school, hoping to give a head-start in life to their precious ones. We have streaming for gifted students at the end of primary three; streaming by subject banding at the end of primary four; and the all-important Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) at primary six. The PSLE results will determine a child going into schools with specialised programmes or integrated programmes or into the special, express, normal academic or normal technical stream of mainstream schools. It will also determine if they enter a less preferred neighbourhood school or a prestigious branded school more endowed with resources.
At the end of secondary two, students are tested again to be streamed into different subject combinations. This is usually followed by the N or O levels examinations before streaming into the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, pre-university centres or junior colleges.
The main form of our current education system started with the 1979 Goh report, named after the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was then Minister for Education. It was to address specific problems then, which amongst other things included a low rate of progression for students from primary to secondary school and low literacy achievements. Streaming was introduced. Singapore went for a mass production model to raise the overall level of students’ performance.
Independent Schools were introduced in 1988 and Autonomous Schools in 1994. Integrated Programme, with students skipping the O levels was introduced in 2004. Progressively, schools began to be graded and ranked. As early as 1992, the Ministry of Education (MOE) started using Mean Subject Grade (MSG), the average of all subjects offered by a pupil as an indicator of academic performance. Also in 1992, The Straits Times created the ST100 Schools list, which ranks schools based on their yearly overall results using information from MOE. Two years later, MOE introduced the PRISM tool for measuring a school’s actual performance against its expected performance. The result for each school was published; a practice that continued till it was replaced in 2004 by a scheme that banded schools of similar range of students’ academic performances together.
Today, schools are appraised based on the School Excellence Model (SEM). Awards are given to schools that score highly in various categories. Thankfully, the measures are not all about academic results though banding by academic results still exists. The effect of ranking and branding is that over the years, the public’s opinions of quality between top schools and neighbourhood schools have widen considerably. Principals feel pressured into delivering the academic results over other forms of holistic development.
While the Goh report and subsequent changes did raise overall education and literacy levels, they also created a lot of anxieties for parents and students. With the branding divide, parents worry over getting their children into the ‘best’ schools, failing which they deem the future of their children will be compromised.
There is today an over reliance on academic performance as a benchmark of meritocracy. A good paper qualification is seen as a guarantee to a successful career. It would be even better if one can land a scholarship. A scholarship is seen as the pathway to a safe government job or a secure position in a government linked company. There has been an explosion in the number of scholarships since the 1980s. Today, most government agencies and government linked companies offer scholarships, adding fuel to the perception that scholarship is the way to a successful life.
Many parents see academic achievement as the only way to success. The safe thing to do in Singapore is to get a good education and land a secure good-paying job, leading to a dearth of entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship, a key driver of wealth creation in countries such as the United States is hence sorely lacking here. It is in part due to a sterile education curriculum that values scoring in examinations over creativity, innovation and embracing ambiguity.
In his September workplan seminar speech, Education Minister Mr Heng called for a Character and Value-based education. Character and values are certainly important guiding principles for life. I fully agree we need to impart these to students. However, it is not that these are totally new to MOE. There have been civics and moral lessons in schools for years. More recently, MOE’s 21st Century Skills framework developed in 2009 also included character and values development.
It remains to be seen though, how seriously schools and parents will take to the Character and Value-based education, given that Mr Heng had not announced any fundamental change in our school system, assessment methods for students and MOE appraisal for schools. Schools will continue to be judged by the public based on the academic results they generate. Schools in Singapore today display huge banners announcing the academic achievements of their recent cohorts of students. Academic results are still what matters. Parents will continue to pack their children with tuition to gain every bit of advantage. Those who cannot afford tuition will be disadvantaged, leading to lowering of social mobility. Schools will continue to pile homework on students and drill them for the major examinations. I was surprised recently to hear of a school having three mock examinations in addition to the prelims to prepare students for the O levels.
We have seen it happen before. We had ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ (TLLM) initiated after the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally in 2004. It is a noble exercise. In actual execution, it turned out to become more like ‘Teach Less, Tuition More’ because there was no change in the way students were assessed. Parents anxious about the reduced teaching time for their children will pack in more tuition. Schools continue to put in high homework load and drill students for the high stake examinations. Schools and parents continued to rely on time-tested practices to grind out the results.
For TLLM to have a chance, we will need to critically relook at syllabuses and methods of assessments. We will need to have broader range of experiences for students such as experiential and collaborative learning to learn important skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, which cannot be graded through written examinations. Schools find it difficult to do these given the pressures of delivering results for high stake examinations, which remained unchanged even with TLLM.
At the heart of the issue is what education should be about. Is it to sieve out academic performers through a series of high stake examinations so that we can concentrate the best learning resources on them? Is this so because we believe we need to identify the top 5% of each cohort who will become future leaders of Singapore?
Education is a journey. In Singapore’s journey, we had the landmark Goh Report that made sweeping changes to the system to address the pressing problems at that time.
Much has changed since the Goh Report. Today, we face a totally different world. We have entered into the 21st century where knowledge can get obsolete quite quickly and nimbleness to change is essential for survival. We are no longer just churning out jobs for the multinationals. We are competing against the world for investment, for business and for jobs. We need our people to be innovative and adaptable.
Is Mr Heng’s call for reform bold enough? What more can be done?
I believe if we are to truly transform ourselves for the 21st century, we need to seriously answer some key questions, even if it means reviewing some jealously guarded practices:
- Are we over reliant on high stake examinations which measure mainly knowledge? Do we need so many streaming examinations and do we need to start streaming so early in a child’s school life?
- Can we spread out students and teaching talents across schools rather than concentrate them on elite schools? Finland, a country with about the same population size as Singapore, went the opposite direction from us with their education reforms in the 1970s and 80s, equalizing resources in schools and spreading talents across the system. Finnish students did exceptionally well too in recent international assessment benchmark such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Notably, it has the narrowest gap between the high and low scorers, which indicates educational equity. Today, its education system is highly respected and is being studied with interest internationally.
- Will schools seriously infuse character and values development into their curriculum? How do we develop our students in imagination, creativity and critical thinking, which are critical 21st century skills yet are difficult to assess through examinations? Can we even broaden learning to include political education so that students can grow up with a wider spectrum of thoughts and can better embrace diversity.
Beyond education, are we brave enough to embrace a fundamental change in the way we run our government institutions and government-linked companies? Do we need these organisations to continue to dish out so many scholarships? Can we encourage greater risk-taking in these organisations?
Our current system seems to be obsessed with identifying the academically inclined. I believe education should be about making winners out of ordinary people. It should be about stretching students at all levels to be confident in themselves and to create in them a love for learning. Today, many students select subjects based on how they can best score in examinations. Schools offer subject combinations based on how confident they are of generating the grades. Subjects such as literature and history are often not offered because academically good students may not score well in them.
In his book, The Element, eminent education thinker Sir Ken Robinson documented real-life accounts of how initially ordinary people or even those rejected as underperformers became successful after discovering their elements. Passion drove them to success after they had discovered their talent and found their love.
I hope to see a deeper and more critical study of our education system vis-à-vis the 21st century context, perhaps an education report for the next phase similar to what the Goh report did to transform education since 1979. Change takes a generation to see the effect. Have we examined our system hard enough to make the changes that are necessary to take us into a new century?