Singapore is today regarded as a high-performing education system, and going by the 2015 PISA Assessment, perhaps the best in the world in the subjects examined by PISA. Its performance has both been consistent, improving over time, and in a number of assessments beyond PISA, like TIMSS and PIRLS. This performance, coupled with Singapore's transformative economic growth over the last half century, provides credence to the OECD's claim that the quality of human capital, achieved through education, is related to a country's potential for economic growth. In this essay, we examine the achievements of Singapore's education system, the principles underpinning policy, the challenges that were met and have to be met in the new century and what prospects there are for successfully meeting these challenges.
It is essential to understand Singapore's social demographics and limitations to appreciate why education and skills development merited such significant attention. Singapore is a multi-ethic society, with a Chinese majority. There are cultural, linguistic, religious differences, and an independent Singapore in 1965 inherited a segregated four medium of instruction school system. Further, Singapore is a small tropical island with no national resources, surrounded by large resource-rich neighbours. An entrepôt economy could not provide jobs and wealth to build a modern society.
Thus education policy in the early years, termed the era of 'survival', had to, and did respond to these challenges. The medium of instruction issues were solved through a formula of societal multilingualism and educational bilingualism. The medium of instruction is English and all children learn a second language, a heritage language, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. The choice of English has had advantages, enabling successful industrialisation to take place in the seventies and eighties, and enabling Singapore to be well integrated into the global economy. Given ethnic plurality, and its newly independent status, social cohesion and loyalty to nation were important educational goals. So, civics and citizenship education were always an important part of the curriculum. Another important feature of the curriculum was the emphasis on mathematics, science and technology, understandable when the priority was rapid industrialisation.
Given the poor state the education system was in the mid-sixties, it is remarkable how much progress was made in two decades. A segregated system had been unified, a common curriculum and rigorous assessment framework had been established, and given the importance of English proficiency to industrialisation, the use of English as a medium of instruction had been removed from political contestation and attention was focused on curriculum development, textbook development and teacher preparation. One of the key elements responsible for the transformation was the attention paid to teacher preparation. Steps were taken to ensure that there were enough well-qualified and motivated teachers to implement a rigorous English and TVET curriculum. A curriculum development centre was established to spearhead curriculum change and steps take to upgrade teacher preparation with the establishment of an Institute of Education in 1991. Beyond K-12, the government expanded both vocational training via the Vocational and Industrial Training Board and polytechnics; expansion of university places was much slower.
There is another feature of Singapore's education system that merits attention. It is that while many systems have moved to keeping students together, Singapore has a multi-tracked system. This is in response to the problem that all systems face: which is how to cope best with the range of abilities pupils bring to school. In Singapore, the problem was aggravated by the requirement that all pupils had to attain bilingual proficiency. It could be argued that some of the effects of tracking were mitigated by the fact that Singapore has a strong public system of schooling, a common curriculum and assessment system. But it is in educational quality terms that tracking can be justified. Data shows that attention was consistently reduced, more students stayed in school longer, and over time, the performance level of students rose. For example, in the 1995 TIMSS assessment, Singapore's 13-year-olds topped mathematics and science; while the international average was 500, Singapore students achieved 643 marks.
The government as the state's economic guardian was alert to the changes in the global economy that began in the eighties—it recognised the growing tide of globalisation, the potential consequences for Singapore's high-wage model if populous ASEAN countries like Indonesia and mainland giants like China opted for an export-led economy. Singapore had clearly to move up the value chain into higher value-added production expand the services sector, and to begin systematically to be more productive, innovative and entrepreneurial.
This clearly posed a challenge to a successful education system built upon standardisation, a system that while it produced mastery of academic content amongst students, was becoming too assessment-driven and thus not able to contribute to the new economy. Education quality had to be reconceptualised; students now needed to know both content and to apply knowledge, indeed not just find solutions but even to find problems! Pedagogy, students' active involvement in their learning, experimental learning, learning using technology—these and other 21st century competencies were the new meaning of education quality.
A small start had been initiated when in 1987, the government encouraged a small number of high-performing schools to go independent and use greater autonomy to modify/enrich the curriculum to stretch their bright students. But the more significant system-wide initiatives were to be found in the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation, Teach Less, Learn More and ICT Master Plans policies. Their principal aim was to move Singapore schooling into a more open, questioning pedagogy with student learning, not teaching as the prime focus of classroom instruction. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's view was that:
Schools must be centres for questioning and searching within and outside the classroom…children must be continually pressed to raise questions and accept challenges, to find solutions that are not immediately apparent, to explain concepts, justify their reasoning…
In making this shift, the Singapore education system faced a number of challenges. Why did a system that did well in TIMSS (and later PISA) need to change? Could a system whose definition pf education quality was student academic performance in high-stakes examinations, shift to one that valued both academic and non-academic talents? Could curriculum assessment, and most importantly, teachers, move from being content experts to facilitators of student learning? Could there, with a national school system, be greater variety, a wider range of knowledge-generating pedagogies; could learning be fun, student-owned and purposeful beyond examination performance?
This year (2017) marks the twentieth anniversary of the TSLN speech by Mr. Goh. It is as good a time as any to assess the success of policy initiatives. Overall, it is in the clear that while high-stakes examination remain, and the system is competitive, learning environments in Singapore's classrooms have changed considerably. This is principally because the Ministry implemented a cluster of policies, incrementally changing the key variables. The policy message that parents, employers and students should embrace is the need for 21st century competencies has remained consistent. Additionally, the school system was further diversified with the creation of specialist schools like the School of the Arts, Sports School, School for Science and Mathematics etc. Curriculum and textbooks were progressively changed to reflect not just established content but ways for students to critique the content, to apply the knowledge to real life problems. For example, the lower secondary social studies textbooks used an explicitly source-based learning approach. Assessment structures have also changed to test students' deep understanding of content, and their ability to apply their knowledge.
The key, however, for the shift to a more knowledge-building pedagogy lies in teachers' capacity to change their instructional practices. The NIE has played a major role in preparing teachers for their new roles by revamping the teacher education curriculum and emphasising the new teaching skills required via professional development courses. These efforts have borne fruit. An analysis of the 2016 TIMSS results for Singapore showed that Singapore students had done better when 'tackling non-routine questions and those requiring them to apply knowledge' (A. Teng, Straits Times, 30 November 2016). Specialists point to the greater encouragement of reasoning strategies by students in mathematics and in science, encouragement to think like a scientist, to develop hypothesis, to use data and evidence, and seek to provide explanations for the phenomenon studied.
That said, it should be noted that present pedagogical practices can best be described as a 'hybrid pedagogy', a balanced emphasis on conceptual mastery of content and encouragement to move beyond memorisation to knowledge generation and application. There are some ways to go yet, but a good start to the journey has been made.
Singapore's journey building a world class education system can be explained in terms of a 3 Cs framework. The first C is 'Culture'. Singapore is a nation of immigrants, people who came to Singapore to escape poverty and build better lives. The majority Chinese population has, as an ethnic group, high respect for education as a means of achieving social mobility. When Singapore did make rapid economic progress in the first three decades after independence, education qualifications were important in the labour market. Thus, education performance and achievement is highly valued and Singapore's students are prepared to work hard in schools.
The second C is 'Context'. Singapore is a small multi-ethnic country, resource-poor and with neighbours with large populations and resources. At independence, there were questions about its legitimacy as a sovereign state. Clearly, it had to demonstrate that, despite its limitations, it could thrive. The development of human resources via high quality, relevant education and training was the key. As noted earlier, the emphasis on English and science, mathematics and technology were responses to economic imperatives. The need to survive also meant that the government was very focussed on achieving its aims and education policy was planned for the long term; certain continuities remain, but policies have changed when needed; reform initiatives have been incremental in nature, not 'big bang' politically-driven initiatives.
Finally, 'Capacity'. Singapore could not have achieved its success without its ability not only to make good policy but also to implement it effectively. Singapore's administrative service is probably the best in the world. They were able to recognise the complex, interrelated nature of education and curriculum change. For instance, in attempting to raise standards in maths and science, they paid careful attention to teacher quality, ensuring that high school teachers had domain expertise and were well prepared. Curriculum, textbooks, instruction materials were carefully planned and teacher capacity built up via relevant curriculum development.
In conclusion, education quality in Singapore is best understood as multi-layered. The evidence for student ability and performance is found in Singapore students' performance in international assessments. But underpinning that is a whole ecology of institutions and processes starting from a whole-of-government vision of high-quality education and training, ability to see education as a complex, interrelated process, involving a whole-of-government approach. Thus, many institutions, beyond the MOE, are involved in policy making and implementation. Finally, there is high regard in the wider society for education and high familial and student aspirations. Singapore is thus placed to weather new challenges that will inevitably confront education in the future.
This article was contributed by Professor S. Gopinathan and first published on Ruta Maestra, a Spanish magazine. Professor S. Gopinathan is an Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and Academic Director at The HEAD Foundation . He has served on various MOE review committees and was a Resource Specialist for the Government Parliamentary Committee on Education, as a consultant for the Singapore Teachers Union, and a Board Member of the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board. Professor Gopinathan was also involved in setting up the Singapore Centre for Teaching Thinking, the Principals' Executive Centre and is also a founder member of the Educational Research Association of Singapore.
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