Singapore wants creativity not cramming

Singapore takes part in taekwondo competition Kicking on: Singapore's education system, praised for high test results, is now targeting innovation

Singapore's schools have become global role models, with consistently high results in international tests.

But now they want to move beyond this - towards something that cultivates creativity and what they term as ''holistic education''.

Minister for Education, Heng Swee Keat, said this is ''less about content knowledge'' but ''more about how to process information".

He describes this challenge to innovate as being able to "discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes''.

This strategy aims to prepare today's students for the demands of the next 20 years.

It means that schools are under more pressure - and will be given more leeway - to come up with creative ways to teach the syllabus.

Outside the classroom

So instead of the traditional images of high-pressure Asian schools - with rows of heads buried in books - they are trying different approaches to learning.

Students of Rosyth School in Bishan Park, Singapore on 26 April, 2012 Armed with iPads and smartphones, pupils get out of the classroom to learn about science

Putting this into practice, on a sunny April morning, 80 students from one of Singapore's top schools were trekking outdoors.

The nine to 10 years olds from Rosyth School were on a ''learning journey'' in a park, incorporating science topics and values such as caring for the environment.

''We are conducting a biopsy to find out why a bee, a fish, a bird and a plant mysteriously died,'' said student Darren Ong. ''Is it because of human actions?''

They photographed ''evidence'' on smartphones and digital cameras, soaking up facts on plant and animal species on their iPads.

''In one activity, I can cover three topics,'' said science teacher Lin Lixun, clad in a white laboratory coat for his role as chief investigator.

''They can really learn through hands-on experience and putting things into action,'' said civics and moral education teacher, Joslyn Huang.

'Quality teachers'

This next stage of development follows Singapore's huge improvement at school level - which has been hailed by education leaders in the US and the UK.


Singapore children 8 August, 2007
  • Education system praised for advancing from "third world to first in one generation"
  • Education about 20% of public spending
  • Bi-lingual system, with students taught in English and a mother tongue, such as Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Hindi
  • Ranked 2nd in maths, 4th in science and 5th in reading in the 2009 Pisa survey
  • Top place in the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) in 2007
  • MIT, Yale, Insead, NYU and Chicago Booth have campuses or partnerships in Singapore

Singapore was placed fifth in reading, second in maths and fourth in science, in the last round of the OECD's international tests - the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

This put them ahead of every European country apart from Finland.

Teachers such as Ms Huang and Mr Lin are seen as key to this success.

For Mr Lin, teaching science is ''sharing a passion'' rather than merely imparting knowledge, he says.

High-quality teachers in Singapore are not an accident - but are the result of ''deliberate policy actions'', said a report from the OECD.

It identifies the synergy among the schools, the ministry and the National Institute of Education (NIE), which trains teachers and conducts research.

As many other countries, Singapore had once faced a dearth of good teachers, due in part to the lack of prestige and respect for the profession, said NIE director Lee Sing Kong.

This changed after concerted efforts were made from the mid-1990s to raise the image, provide training and better working conditions for teachers, he told a global round table discussion in March.

''But it does take time to really evolve the quality teaching force,'' he said.

'Survival years'

Singapore, a tiny island with few natural resources, has promoted education as a pillar of economic growth since its independence in 1965.

Science teacher Lin Lixun in Bishan Park, Singapore on 26 April, 2012 Teachers such as Mr Lin are seen as key to raising standards in Singapore's schools

Those were the ''survival driven'' years, Mr Heng told the Singapore Conference in Washington DC in February.

The late 1970s saw an ''efficiency driven'' phase focusing on industry-related skills.

In the late 1990s, as the economy advanced to become knowledge based, the emphasis shifted to thinking skills and creativity.

Equal opportunity in education was also used as a way of binding together different immigrant groups, including ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indians.

''In sum, our circumstances force us to take education very seriously because it is critical to our survival and success,'' said Mr Heng. ''Education shapes the future of our nation.''

East-west bridge

In higher education, the island nation has attracted universities from the US and Europe looking for a base in Asia.

These include the top business schools INSEAD and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Start Quote

Education shapes the future of our nation... It is critical to our survival and success”

End Quote Heng Swee Keat Minister for Education

The National University of Singapore (NUS) - ranked among the top 50 in the world - has partnerships with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Duke University at graduate and postgraduate levels.

Despite its strong reputation, Singapore education is not without its detractors.

The Yale-NUS collaboration to set up a liberal arts college drew objections from Yale faculty over Singapore's human rights record.

Singapore's school system has also been criticised for being too grades-driven and high-stress - a legacy that may prove a challenge to the ambition for ''holistic education''.

'Obsession' with testing

It is common for children's schedules to be packed with ''enrichment classes'' and tuition outside of school.

Singapore at night Night school: International universities have used Singapore as their base in Asia

This month, a parent's letter in a local newspaper sparked debate over tough maths standards pushing more students toward such additional classes.

Sociologist and former Nominated Member of Parliament, Paulin Straughan, speaking at a recent population forum, suggested doing away with the PSLE - a national examination that all students take at the end of primary school.

"If we do that, we free the school from this obsession of testing, and the teachers and educators can focus on teaching and learning, and if we do that, more young couples would be willing to grow larger families," she said.

That was a radical thought for this competitive nation. For now, teachers are aware that fun activities still need to deliver the results.

''We still structure it such that it is aligned to learning objectives and the things they are supposed to know for exams,'' said Ms Huang.

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