SINGAPORE, April 2, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — The Singaporean education system is in the process of a major overhaul, in an effort to prepare students better for the 21st century workforce.
Known for its reliance on rote-learning and written examinations, the system is oft criticised for building a country of followers, and not thinkers, but quiet changes have seen a firm de-emphasis on academic excellence as a measure of success.
The MOE abolished the secondary school banding system in 2014, ceased to rank schools based on academic results, and earlier this year made the unprecedented move of releasing past PSLE examination papers, in a bid to reduce examination anxiety and over-preparation.
With a highly content-intensive syllabus, schoolteachers, already unable to cope with the bare minimum, scarcely entertain their students’ inquisitive questions, thereby curbing the youths’ natural curiosity and instead rewarding an inclination to simply accept what they are told as absolute, incontrovertible fact.
What does it mean for school children?
EduEdge Learning Hub founders and English practitioners Mr Edwin Edangelus Cheng and Ms Rowena-May Yue believe that that curriculum is now designed to be unpredictable. “The only certain thing about it is uncertainty,” says Mr Cheng.
“And with uncertainty as the leading principle, students can no longer spot questions.”
Avenues for over-preparation – or ‘drilling’, as it is known more colloquially here – are deliberately being weeded out.
The new GCE ‘O’ Level English syllabus, in particular, forces students to master various genres of writing, with an emphasis on the argumentative essay. Over-preparation for specific genres is now made counter-productive. This new iteration of the syllabus positions students to be more eloquent in expressing themselves through the written word, and imbues them with greater expository and argumentative skills.
Challenges up the road
However, with such a drastic change in pedagogical direction, schools are experiencing growing pains whilst rolling out the new policies. According to language assessment specialist and researcher Ms Chan Hsiao-yun, school teachers face difficulty adapting to the demands of the new curriculum. A lack of content mastery is one key issue, she says, citing the urgent need for manpower in the teaching force as the principle reason for this gap.
Updated methods and resources are also needed to help prepare students for these new, highly versatile examinations. The current dearth of educational aids makes the task of teaching the new syllabus an all the more uphill task.
And as idealistic as fostering the spirit of inquiry and natural curiosity of children is, schools are ultimately constrained by time. Teaching facts and teaching understanding is an entirely different ball-game, says Ms Chan, with the latter necessitating years of fostering independent thought and a thirst for knowledge outside the mandated syllabus.
As well-intentioned as the new syllabus is, MOE is currently in a phase of awkward transition and has yet to fully work out the kinks, so to speak.
Looking to the future
Nonetheless, Ms Chan is optimistic.
“We are currently going through a trial-and-error period. For now, people are resistant to change. But eventually, the policies will begin to show results and they’ll likely become more approving of the outcome.”
Parent and blogger Ms EL Tan, who writes at Homeschool@SG and creates educational resources for like-minded parents, is more conflicted. “While most parents would applaud the move towards soft skills, I dread it as my son performs better through rote-memorisation. On the other hand, my daughter is better at soft skills,” she says, voicing her concern for MOE’s one-size-fits-all method.
“Ideally, MOE should create a syllabus that recognises children at their levels. That being said, I do understand it is not easy, and maybe even unrealistic and costly to cater to each and every child.”
In a manner not unlike the proverb about teaching a man how to fish, the new curriculum demands a deeper understanding about school subjects, be they scientific concepts or grammatical rules, and not the simple attainment of the facts. In the advancing digital age of readily available information, the possession of factual knowledge is no longer a prized commodity, and efforts are finally being made to accommodate this shift.
And these changes will have effects reaching further than just the school gates. Studying hard no longer guarantees academic success, and parents need to be aware of this. Parents will have to curb knee-jerk reactions based on their own personal experiences, and insisting on the traditional method of rote-learning can do more harm than good. Private tutors or tuition centres offering supplementary lessons will also need to update their methods and provide increasingly flexible frameworks to keep up with the new syllabi, or else risk irrelevancy.
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