Last Friday, TODAY published a nuanced and intriguing commentary, “Five Days In A Learning Nation” (May 25, 2012) penned by Mr. Andreas Schleicher, focusing on his musings about the education system in Singapore. The piece was particularly insightful because it was meaningfully punctuated by his personal experiences during his visit, and also because Mr. Schleicher cogently considered both sides of the picture. While praising our system for its merits, he also asserted that there were obvious areas for improvement.
With a confluence of harsh criticisms – from parents, students and even educators – hurled against the status quo, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some observations postulated in the article (with respective inputs), and to value-add the present discussions for reform or the introduction of recommendations.
Strong Teacher Education Training And Enrichment Programmes
Mr. Schleicher reaffirmed the high quality of educators in Singapore, and attributed this trend to a few noticeable factors: teachers are “entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year”; there is an “Academy of Singapore Teachers”; the strength of the National Institute of Education (NIE); trainee teachers have “practicum attachments” complemented by the engagement of information and communications technology; as well as an effective system of appraisement. Teachers are hence continuously equipped with the right skills to do well.
Based on my personal interactions, nonetheless, there are contentions that our teachers might be overstretched, especially if they are tasked to handle multiple classes, or students with very different competencies. Singapore’s teacher-to-pupil ratio might be generally low, but comparatively there are genuine concerns and areas for improvement (here).
Impressive Vocational Education
Mr. Schleicher was full of praise for the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and for all the right reasons. He explains:
“Once seen as a last resort, Singapore’s ITE College West is now a place of choice for students, with 90 per cent of graduates finding jobs in their chosen field, up from 60 per cent decades ago. The ITE also sees a sizeable number of students who make it from the ITE to the polytechnic to the university and to anywhere in life.
The ITEs also provide good examples for building synergies between public provision and the business sector. Each technical field in the ITEs is advised by industries in that sector to keep it current with changing demands and new technologies.”
There are proposals that I would posit though: first, I have always been a strong advocate for cross-institution interactions and engagement (here and here), so that students would have the opportunity to comprehend different types of pedagogies and courses; second, problems of unfair stigmatisation persist (here and here). The latter comes about because of “direct result of government policy … standardised assessment in education, push for economic growth, government control of supply and demand in higher learning” (here, from a comment), but addressing misconceptions could progressively alleviate current sentiments.
The Principles Of Meritocracy
An interesting trend was poignantly pointed out by Mr. Schleicher. Even though there is the entrenched belief that “education is the route to advancement and hard work and effort eventually pays off” (a promise of social mobility), “Singapore finds that the emphasis on meritocracy alone provides no guarantee for equity, and that it takes effective systems of support to moderate the impact of social background on student and school outcomes” (education as a means of social advancement might not be yielding the desired results).
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has an assortment of financial aid and bursary schemes available, but these band-aid solutions do little to level the playing field (if it is even plausible in the first place). Critics have pointed out that good finances would allow individuals from more privileged families to be propelled by tuition and enrichment programmes. The spectre of income inequality has also persisted in recent years (here).
This could point to a bigger social problem that has to be resolved by other policies, but within the spheres of education policy-making, perhaps heightening the levels of preschool education for all could ease the present situation (here and here). The administration has taken tangible steps to incentivise and empower educators, as well as to boost nurseries and kindergartens with accreditation, but steps can be taken to heighten levels of involvement from the parents to complement activities or lessons within the institutions. Resources and manpower can be dedicated to low-income households to equip them with the necessary knowledge to guide their children through respective learning strategies.
The Attention To Curriculum Development And Academic Standards
“Students, teachers and principals all work very hard towards important gateways. Rigour, coherence and focus are the watchwords. Serious attention to curriculum development has produced strong programmes in maths, science, technical education and languages and ensured that teachers are well-trained to teach them. Having been very successful as a knowledge transmission education system, Singapore is now working on curriculum, pedagogy and assessments that will lead to a greater focus on high-level, complex skills.”
As previously contended, the acquisition of skills or knowledge (as well as the development of creativity) and the incorporation of examinations are not mutually exclusive (here).
Moving forward, our education system could be premised upon three principles: first, skills must develop in tandem with the gains in knowledge (ultimately, we seek to pragmatically train workers, but it does not have to be done in isolation); second, there must be the recognition that intelligence is not determined by grades per se, and that pathways – while limited – are present; and third, schoolchildren should be increasingly cognisant of their dreams and aspirations, and comprehend that a steady foundational education is imperative for the fulfilment of their future goals.