Transforming Singapore Education

Time to transform Singapore education

Singapore can consider a radical educational experiment: Set up a prototype full school that is more child-centric, and provides a genuine alternative to the existing system.

Published on Oct 19, 2013
— ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
By Laurence Lien, For The Straits Times
RECENTLY, I went to Finland on an education study trip. Much has been said about the Finnish education system, but it is only by being physically present, with all one’s senses and faculties engaged, that the potential lessons strike home.

I visited a full school, with classes from pre-primary to Grade 9, and was struck by many images.

First, the school was an oasis of calm. Teachers spoke in measured tones, while pupils were serenely animated. The joy of learning was evident, unpunctured by frequent graded assessments, which were prohibited for those younger than 12 years old.

A child-centred philosophy permeated the school. In the pre-school class I observed, each child had an individualised six-page development plan, jointly signed by parents and teacher. The first piece of information collected was the child’s comments, with questions like “Do you like to come to pre-school?”, “What things can you decide yourself in pre-school?” and “What would you like to learn?”.

A key emphasis is the parent-teacher partnership. Indeed, the Finnish national curriculum explicitly aims to support families in their parenting tasks, not vice versa.

Inclusivity is widely practised. Resources are directed at those in most need of them, with a high level of support for those with special needs. Children with special needs, accounting for some 10 per cent of the school enrolment, were mostly integrated into every class. Roving teachers work with the more physically and intellectually challenged ones separately, where necessary.

Obviously, Singapore cannot copy the Finnish education system wholesale. We do not currently have its egalitarian culture and its long-standing respect of the teaching profession.

But we can surely learn some things. They include the principle of the unharried child, child-centricity and inclusiveness. Ultimately, what is the purpose of education? What are parents’ aspiration for their children and development?

I can speak as a parent to three boys, aged 11, nine and six. I want my children to be developed holistically as whole persons. I wish for them to witness and practise values every moment, so that values become part of their being. I hope they will become lifelong lovers of learning, motivated to acquire new knowledge to serve and transform society. I desire their school to be a genuine community that reflects a society that I want to live in – warm, collaborative, inclusive and oriented towards the common good. 

The need for reform

TODAY, Singapore has an education system that focuses on academic excellence. Singapore students rank among the best in the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings, a worldwide study of the academic performance of 15-year-old students.

Yet good examination results do not necessarily translate into desired life outcomes. It is often said that Singapore’s system, along with those of other Confucian-influenced countries, produces outstanding test-takers. But in the process these students have had their passion, creativity and confidence extinguished.

Education, potentially a great leveller, now risks exacerbating the very inequality it was meant to overcome, as well-educated parents pass on their advantages to their children through tuition and enrichment to the detriment of less-educated ones.

Paper qualifications serve as a major sorting mechanism, crudely signalling quality to employers who fail to use more sophisticated and accurate job assessment tools. The practice permeates the entire system, with the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination being the determining factor for entry into preferred secondary schools.

The result is a gross misallocation of resources nationally. Instead of being a tool to help to track the progress of a child relative to what he or she can appropriately achieve, testing becomes a cramming ultramarathon. In Singapore, more than $800 million annually is estimated to be spent on tuition alone, by those who can pay for it.

The sad thing is that in schools every day, many children except the academically brightest are being made to feel constantly inferior, with their weaknesses reinforced.

Those who opt into the value system that academic achievement is paramount, take on a survivalist mentality, aiming to learn the tricks to score for exams, which is antithetical to learning and development.

Some opt out but sometimes at tremendous cost, either by entering a foreign schooling system (if they can afford it), or by dropping and abandoning all thought of educational accomplishment.

The way ahead

HOW can we change this reality?

I think we need radical experimentation, with a prototype full school that is built from scratch and that can provide a genuine alternative.

This school should be a true 3P model – people, private and public – with parents and community volunteers and experienced educators working together to establish and manage it. The state should help with funding and hold the school accountable for broad education outcomes.

The philosophy of the school should be child-centric, process-driven and geared towards holistic learning. Assessments should be focused on tracking progress against a child’s individual potential, not on how he or she compares with others. Since the school will include both primary and secondary levels, no PSLE will be necessary.

Singapore has already experimented with lab schools at the pre-school level. Having a lab school at the primary to secondary school level will allow parents to see for themselves the difference a truly child-centric system can make.

The tension that exists today between the seemingly incompatible goals of equity and excellence can be turned on its head. If excellence in creativity, collaboration and compassion are regarded as more desirable qualities in Singaporeans of the future, then diversity and inclusiveness should be embraced instead of eschewed. Mixing children of different abilities is a strength, not a weakness.

This classroom of the future should bear little resemblance to the teacher-dictated, industrial-age classrooms of today. We need more student-initiated and peer learning, with teachers as facilitators.

A bold experiment

RECENTLY, I witnessed a bold experiment at a local secondary school. The aim was to assist Normal (Technical) class students in coping with mathematics. Students were designated as tutors to teach one another. This peer-learning experiment resulted in a remarkable and sustained improvement in test scores among those purely peer-taught. Suddenly, 40 demotivated students became empowered mini-teachers and enthused learners.

Technology needs to be harnessed. Dr Sugata Mitra, an award-winning education technology visionary, has shown this with his “Hole in the Wall” experiment. This involved groups of children, regardless of background, learning on their own with little more than access to computers and the Internet.

Many Singaporeans will probably agree that there are many strengths in our education system, even though we can do significantly better. But I do not think that all we need are mere policy tweaks. Rather, we must welcome bold and disruptive reforms to truly transform the way we educate our children.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament, chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and chairman of the Lien Foundation.

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