What should be the focus of our education?


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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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12 comments on “What should be the focus of our education?

  1. Hi Mr Yee,

    I agree on spreading the teaching “talents” into different schools, but the system has to change first to allow teaching “talents” to have the time to reflect and also systematically spread their good practices amongst the other teachers.

    I think the first thing we can do as a system is to develop capacities, have more specialised administration services and really allow the teachers to focus on improving classroom practices and take part in more system-based testing out of assessment on students to have a more action-research orientation to our education system.

    I think there are also other reports you should mention, like the PERI (primary school) report that had paved the way for “no assessment” in primary 1 and 2 but resulted in more CA that is pen and paper assessment instead of alternative assessment. I always feel that MOE wants some “nice things” but just fatally stop short of preparing teachers in terms of their assessment knowledge to prepare them to structure in alternative assessment.

  2. The current system has a set of incentives that foster deep and narrow learning for the upcoming generation. On one hand, it helps to identify people who are good with conventional knowledge and helps to prepare them to be future bureaucrats. The flip side of this system is that the general bulk of this generation will generally relegate to invest a considerable amount of energy and time to rediscover themselves.

    The question for how long and at what cost it is to the public? A set of basic literacy knowledge is important for one to learn. I believe this set of knowledge includes the basic maths, English and another language that allows the individual to retain one’s ethnics identity. Beyond a certain threshold of literacy, the determinants of the individually defined success are strong character, ability to know one’s strength, ability to identify the opportunities to realize that strength and the ability to complement others to contribute to the greater good.

    At the moment, the current ranking and other indicators do not directly reflect these determinants. Perhaps these determinants are not easily measured and therefore will be sidestep by the principals and policymakers. Finland education system allows one to discover oneself by being in a group of students from all walks of life. Perhaps one of the policies can include 40% of school budget to be allocated to literacy associated curriculum and the performance of that budget can be measured by the students’ feedback. Although this measure will create curriculum to be geared towards students’ receptivity and might not be a good indicator of holistic development, this measure is a strong signal to cement the policymakers’ promise on education reform for a more uncertain future. Specialization in education such as sports, arts or math school should only be an exceptions after the age of 15.

    Another good measure for measuring a student’s character is a yearly 360 degree feedback given by their classmates and the teachers’ performance can be measured by the average 360 feedback of the class plus the current academic indicator. This helps the student to discover himself/herself and enable the reforming of character cultivated by social norms. In addition, there should also be another indicator which is the number of times a student positively challenge the ideas and facts raised by the teacher. All these indicators should be include in the current KPI of the leaders and educators of the education system in order to really drive holistic development of a child in the future. Without a new set of education incentives, the current education system will remain as it is!

  3. I agree with many of your points raised. for your info, several schools are trying out new 21st Century initiatives (e.g. critical thinking, alternative assessments, collaborative learning, … etc) and i am currently involved with a few of these projects as an external consultant. it is hoped that good practices from these projects spread to other schools.

    the main problems faced seem to be, as you mentioned, that the assessment system of pupils and of schools (and principals and teachers) has not changed. pupils and parents know that all these new bells and whistles don’t count towards their grade and so they are deemed as unimportant. We need to raise public awareness that just doing well academically is not good enough, as you are doing with your blog. I also feel that the government can put some air time into our newspapers, TV, radio and new media regarding these issues and have more dialog and public engagement sessions.

    Personally, i believe that people should learn / do things not because of assessment, but for themselves and for the good of society. But human beings being human beings, 99.9% of people are externally motivated. Therefore, I also feel that at a systemic level, if you are a leader that says “xyz” (e.g. values, self-directed learning, … or whatever) is important, then the system should _reflect_ a change that recognises and takes into account the new priorities.

  4. Those interested in education, may wish to read the forewords in chapter 8 “Whole person education for the 21st century” in the book “Is the future in our hands” at http://www.sunrisepress.com.au

    Better still is to read the entire chapter in this book. The author, Dr Tebecis, PHd, a brain scientist was a researcher in neurophysiology and neuropharmacology.

  5. Hi Mr Yee,

    In-depth exploration of the education scene here. I agree with your perspective.

    I remain skeptical of these new directions from the Ed Ministry. It seems like the same old, same old, dressed in new ways. Bottomline is, if students are still being measured primarily by standardised testing, and if exam results continue to be the main indication of success of a “Singaporean’s education”, then I see little effect these new reforms will have on the old problem.

    These initiatives are in fact simply adding on to the already heavy burden of stress over achievement in academic results. And as if our children & teenagers ain’t bored enough at school.

    There are other models that had recently proved to be quite effective in getting teenagers WANT to stay in school. Schools that motivate them to want to learn. Green School in Bali and the Studio School model in UK (http://bit.ly/oCiXvU) seems promising.

    I sincerely do hope MOE looks toward these models for change, and not plough on with the past-successful-but-now-broken model which even the so-called ‘successful’ ones who had made it through wish they didn’t have to. People like myself.

  6. If parents refocused all that money, time and effort in tuition and volunteering in their children’s schools, to just being with their children at home, spending time with them, interacting with them, learning together with them, would it be a more worthwhile investment?

    I am doing that with my child overseas. We do puzzles, animal guessing and numbers games. It’s working really well!

    Character and values can be taught by the school, but I wonder who is really more effective here, parents or teachers, or maybe a combination? I think MOE should stop “reacting”, but really sit down and look into the mirror. Note the observations, macro and micro before going into policy, programme and plan. Btw, the longer the stare into the mirror, the better and please don’t shy away from the ugly parts.

    • Great to know you are investing in your child. There are things schools cannot teach, which parents must. And it’s not just about grades. You only have your child for a while, and then they are grown up. Beyond a certain age, you cannot influence them anymore. If they end up with wrong values in life, what grades they had achieved may matter little.

  7. Thanks all for your comments and additional readings / links. Will find time to read these as I go along.

    I hope this post sets people thinking deeper about where we are going with our current system, and if we can do more if we do not want the latest announcements to be just cosmetic…. nice slogan but no change in execution.

  8. What were said are generally true to a large extent, but I am of the opinion that the availability of a large number of scholarships does not necessarily add fuel to the perception that scholarship is the way to a successful life. We just have to change the way we view the objective(s) behind winning scholarships and what role(s) scholarships play in academic pusuits. For those who cannot afford tertiary education, winning scholarships serve as the only means to further one’s academic achievements. And if society accords a scholarship holder the “prestige” of a successful individual, there is nothing wrong about it. It is very much like making available more university places to polytechnic graduates or A level holders.

  9. I have a child in P2…it is rumour, no evidence to support, but are practiced in some schools.

    When the kids reach P5, the schools will segment the students into different “academic” ability. Let say Above Average, Average, Below Average. The school is suppose to allocate the “best” available teachers to the above average and the below average group. So that the school can have high PLSE scores, and at the same time, reduce the lowest PLSE scores. By doing so, I guess the high scorers can move the school ranking up, the lowest scorer will not be too low to affect the overall ranking.

    Based on fact the schools are trying to make use of the avaialble resources, to obtain the best outcome for themselves, tactically it is best method. But, that is my point, our school’s principals and MOE are so practical, and so realistic, when it comes to chasing the “correct” statistics. How I wish the education system can be less practical less realistic, and that had to start from the top.

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