From “The Economist” - Sept. 1st 2018
Top of the class
PISA test score, average of maths, reading and science, 2015
OECD average 492
Source: OECD *Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu 8, Guangdong
Can do even better
The world's best education system tries to improve itself
THE library at Woodgrove Primary School has been turned into a "Maker-Space". After regular lessons end at around 2pm, pupils sign up for sessions like 3D design, stop-motion film-making and coding for robots. Instructors leave the children to it once they have explained how things work. The overall message is that it's OK to fail, says a teacher. On a Thursday afternoon just after the summer break, one young boy stops to explain that these sessions make a nice change: if he wasn't here, he would only be studying at home.
Singapore's schools have long held a reputation for didactic teaching, rote learning and academic brilliance. Their pupils lead the rankings in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds around the world, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which measures 10-and-14-year-olds.
But decades of economic growth have changed priorities. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD reckons Singaporean education is going through "a silent revolution almost entirely unnoticed in the West". Politicians now hope to marry good exam results with the promotion of skills that will help pupils work in the city's growing service sector, and even to lead contented lives. "It's not just about teaching how to be smart, but how to be a better human being," enthuses Heng Swee Keat, the country's finance minister, who was in charge of education in 2011-15.
Unlike most revolutions, this one is a gradual, long-term project. The most noticeable changes so far have been to reduce pressure on children taking exams. In 2012 the government abolished league tables for secondary schools, which it felt skewed teachers' priorities. It also stopped publishing the names of top scorers and widened the criteria used for entry to the best secondary schools. From 2021 primary-school leavers will no longer receive a precise score, instead getting a broad grade.
More significant changes lurk beneath the surface. The education ministryhas published a fuzzy-sounding list of "21st Century Competencies" (including "self-awareness" and "responsible decision) that it wants every pupil to acquire. Wong Siew Hoong, director-general of the ministry of education, says they inform almost everything his department does. Exam questions, for instance, have been refrained to be more open-ended, to encourage critical thinking as well as knowledge of a subject. Teacher appraisals measure not just academic performance but also the social development of pupils.
Teaching methods are changing, too. All teachers get 100 hours of training a year. They learn new pedagogical techniques, which encourage group work and discussion between teacher and pupils. As Yan Song, a pupil at Deyi Secondary School who moved from China mid-way through his education, puts it, in Singapore they focus "on how you behave as a human being." In China, in contrast, "you just study from day to night."
The final change has been to align the classroom with the workplace. By 2023 almost all schools will have "applied learning" programmes in subjects like computing, robotics and electronics, but also drama and sports. The emphasis in all of them is on practising in "real-world" environments; there are no exams. At Deyi Secondary School, broadcast journalism is used as a way to improve communication skills, for instance. The ministry of education has also hired 100 career-guidance officials. Many previously worked in industry. They keep tabs on labour shortages and work with schools to inform children about their options, often trying to push them beyond "iron rice bowl" careers like banking, the civil service and medicine.
Persuading parents that there is more to life than exam results and a job in a high-status industry is hard. The ministry of education works with parent-support groups and online influencers, organizes seminars and is active on social media to get the message out. Tay Geok Lian, a career-guidance official, says some parents, particularly richer ones, are indeed beginning to look beyond the usual professions. But some habits are hard to change. Many children receive after-school tutoring. Jacqueline Chua, who runs Paideia Learning Academy, a tutoring centre in a leafy part of town, says parents are no less keen on her services. "The system drives behaviour," she explains. "Kids are stressed because their parents are stressed... And that's because they understand what's before them." The primary-school leaving exam, taken at11 or 12, is a critical pressure point. Pupils who excel end up in the best, most selective schools, and can expect a future of foreign study and top government jobs. Those who do badly go into vocational streams. The government has no plans to end selection.
The direction of travel is nonetheless clear. Officials say they see no reason why results should slip in the quest to foster more well-rounded pupils. Educationalists from around the world have long sought to replicate Singapore's success. Many are in awe of the quality of teacher training, the tightly-focused lessons and the government's long-term planning. With such strong fundamentals, the Singaporean system is in a good position to reform. As Mr Heng, the finance minister, notes, "If you want to connect the dots, you have to have the dots in the first place." ■
I WELL REMEMBER WAY WAY BACK IN THE 1960s READING ABOUT THE GUY WHO DID BECOME PRESIDENT OR PRIME MINISTER OF THE COUNTRY. HE WAS UNIVERSITY TRAINED IN THE USA. HE SAID THAT GOING BACK TO SINGAPORE AND INTO POLITICS WAS HIS AIM, AND IF HE EVER BECAME LEADER OF THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT, HE WOULD TAKE THE BEST FROM THE USA AND NOT ALLOW THE EVIL OF THE USA TO ENTER SINGAPORE. AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED.
SINGAPORE IS PROBABLY THE PHYSICALLY CLEANEST AND SAFEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD TO LIVE. YES YOU HAVE TO LIKE OBEYING SINGAPORE LAWS, BUT IN SO DOING THEY SAY YOU CAN HAVE A WONDERFUL LIFE.
I THINK I WOULD LIKE TO HOLIDAY THERE SOMEDAY.