By Robin Low
When I was studying in Singapore, I too had felt the stress of exams. I did what everyone else was doing — memorizing notes, regurgitating textbooks, mugging through “10 year series assessment books” — and got good grades.
However, rather than focus on creativity, capability and intelligence, I find this approach favors diligent scholars. Our system is skewed so students who do well academically are given opportunities for highly paid government positions or entry into politics. The over emphasis on grades in an exam-centric system creates tremendous stress on students. This is because exams and streaming end up tied to the value of the people. No surprise many parents pay for private tuition and enrichment classes for their children.
In his latest National Day Rally speech, PM Lee acknowledged the current system was stressing parents and students and announced upcoming changes. But, will the changes be too little too late for the tiny red dot?
“Every School a Good School” sounds like a good start. The top 5 Junior Colleges in
Singapore produce 80% of the top scholars. This however, is because they only accept top students. It is socially unhealthy when most students in elite schools come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. This reinforces notions of exclusivity. It also threatens social mobility through education. (http://www.moe.gov.sg/initiatives/every-school-good-school/)
Because Singapore’s education system is centralized, best practices are shared and new “innovative ways” are introduced constantly. Based on this systematic approach, many students do very well in exams for Math and Science. However, people like Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak have questioned Singapore’s creativity.
In 2006, the Ministry of Education launched a new policy: “Teach less, Learn More” to create a flexible system which promotes independent thinkers. According to feedback from teachers and parents, this drew mixed reviews. While teachers thought students spoke with greater confidence, some shared they still relied on rote learning to help students clear exams because assessments had remained the same. (http://www.nie.edu.sg/newsroom/media-coverage/2012/teach-less-learn-more-have-we-achieved-it )
A centralized bureaucratic education system poses many challenges. At planning stage, more initiatives seem ideal. However, implementation is a different story. “Innovative projects” are supposed to encourage students to be creative and to develop critical thinking. However, due to their training and pressure to maintain school rankings, well-meaning teachers may steer students towards scoring good grades for the project and remove most of the decision making process.
Because creativity and critical thinking are difficult to measure, the effectiveness of a new initiative can be judged on students’ feedback. While some new initiatives may give students room to do research and learn to think critically, many will not try them, as they are afraid mediocre grades will affect their future. Those who do try them may not like the ambiguity and lack of defined scope in the syllabus. This is the challenge in a grades oriented environment and the learning culture built up from young.
With too many reporting procedures and accountability structures to align schools with national direction, teachers spend more time on paperwork than teaching. They are also expected to think outside the box while performing well — within the box.
Society also has a part to play when it comes to “lack of creativity. Talent in the arts, sports, music, leadership ability, etc. is not sufficiently recognized. There may be a few outspoken and bold students but they are probably also labeled as trouble makers. In an orderly society that follows rules and regulations, creative people who do not conform get into trouble with the law. Local artists, Samantha Lo and Leslie Chew have got into trouble for expressing their views with art.
The challenge of Singapore’s education system goes beyond education. It will not happen by planning and through innovative ways of teaching and borrowing models from other countries will not work. It has to come from societal change and having more meaningful conversations with the people. Empowering citizens to co-create our future maybe the best move for a brighter future for Singapore.