Evolution
A baby step
At long last, Singapore education is gingerly edging away from rote learning and exam-emphasis towards (hopefully) instilling critical thinking. By Seah Chiang Nee
Sep 7, 2013

(Synopsis: This may have a long-term impact on tens of thousands of students from around the region.)

WHENEVER Singapore talks about reforming education, quite a few parents from around the region would be sitting up  – as they are now.

These are citizens of seven or eight nearby countries who have sent – or intend to send – their children to public schools and colleges in the republic.

This particularly affects Malay­sians with whom we share history and proximity of geography.

Every day about 15,000 children, mostly from Johor, cross the Causeway to attend primary and secondary schools in Singapore.

They do not include a larger number who reside here. (For comparison, the number of Singaporean babies born in 2012 totalled only 33,000.)

In all, a total of 84,000 youths from the region are studying in this city, still short of a target of 150,000.

The government also provides many scholarships and grants to Asia’s crème de la crème in a relentless effort to attract talent.

In recent months, Malaysian parents and others from large countries like China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines down to smaller Laos and Brunei have been struggling to keep track of Singapore’s changing education scenario.

This evolution in education was taken a step further by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech in which he announced further measures to reduce excessive competition and stress.

The new direction began early this year when the Education Ministry decided to stop releasing the list of top Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scorers.

It signalled an intention to lessen reliance on grades to decide what secondary school a 12-year-old could or could not attend.

The PSLE is basically a national examination taken by children who finish primary school and seek admission into a secondary school. They compete hard to enter an elite institution which could mean a better life.

This generates tremendous stress for students. Tens of thousands are being pushed to attend expensive tuition lessons. An increasing number of student suicides has been reported.

The current objective is to learn more with reduced stress, giving the children more time to gain knowledge and experience, rather than memorising data for examination.

In fact the Education Ministry is reportedly conducting a long-term review to consider scrapping the exam altogether.

Lee has now taken the changes further by announcing two new measures, the admission criterion for primary schools and grading of the PSLE.

Both would affect local and foreign students in public schools.

Every primary school, including the top ones, will be required to set aside at least 40 places (about one classroom) or between 10% and 15% of their enrollment, for children with no family connection to the school, Lee said.

Beneficiaries of this move will include permanent residents, most of whom do not have parents or siblings studying in any premium schools before. With the new rule, they have a better chance to get into one.

Secondly, the PSLE aggregate score to decide on the quality of secondary school will be replaced by a “wider band” to reduce stress.

The PSLE system pushes teachers, parents, as well as students, through the grinder every year. People are just stressed out without the system really producing competitive workers.

The government appears to be responding finally to public complaints that Singapore’s education system is becoming too competitive.

For some time now, the schools have been reducing the amount of homework pupils have to do.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat also said that with information readily available, rote learning has to make way for digital literacy.

Since independence 48 years ago, Singapore has adopted a system that emphasises exam and rote learning, which may produce many straight-A students who know facts and formulas but lack in ideas and critical thinking.

It is one of the most competitive in the world, comparable to societies like Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. A plus factor: the republic often tops global school rankings in maths and science.

Why is it changing then? A compelling reason is that the new, post-industrial age requires a more thinking workforce, not just obedient workers trained to follow instructions.

I remember reading an interview in a business magazine in the 1970s in which one of Japan’s richest tycoons was asked what he sought most in his workers. His reply was: “Obedience.”

It then hit me that Singaporeans in general – workers, students and citizens at large – were good at being obedient. This trait worked well for mass production in factories that gave us double-digit growth.

Now, these qualities are much less useful in a high-skilled service economy, which requires multiple-skilled bosses and employees with initiative and who can think critically.

In some developed countries the trend is towards teaching children more on the use of digital technology, as well as qualities like problem solving, articulation skills, leadership and designing.

Some observers feel Singapore – with its long reliance on memorising data – has been too slow to adapt. The result is now showing up.

A few days ago an international survey showed that in 2011 few workers in the world worked as long hours as Singaporeans.

They worked 2,287 hours a year – or close to nine hours a day on a five-day week. Only Hong Kong had worked harder.

About 69% of professionals continue to work after office hours.

This workaholic trait was, however, not a great help. Productivity rates here grew by merely 1% in the last decade.

“I’m glad we’re moving away from rote learning in schools. But critical thinking will take another generation to achieve,” said a school principal.

This was first published in The Star)

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