Singapore’s Education Reforms Learning Is not a Competition
Dec 02, 2019

In the global rankings of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses the performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics, reading and science, Singapore took the top spot in all three categories. In 2016, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Singapore’s elementary school and junior high school students both led the rankings.

When it comes to education, the dazzling performance of this small island is impossible to ignore. In recent years, however, Singapore has hoped more than ever that what the world sees is its approach and commitment to lifelong learning.

Similar to Taiwan in that it lacks resources and is highly dependent on talent, Singapore launched an education reform program in 2011 that was “student-oriented” while also incorporating the concept of “competence” and nurturing children who will never stop learning.

A key driver of the education reforms has been Ee Ling Low, a dean of teacher education at Nanyang Technological University’s National Institute of Education. She not only represents Singapore in Harvard’s Global Education Innovation Initiative but is also Singapore’s representative for the OECD’s Education 2030 initiative.

In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, she analyzed the evolution of Singapore’s education reforms and identified the next stage of reform, which in fact has already begun. Here are excerpts of the interview (conducted in English):

Evolution of Reform

Singapore’s education reforms must be seen along a continuum. It started with the survival-driven phase (1959 to 1978). We knew that to build our most precious resource, i.e. human resources, we needed to invest heavily in the education of our people. Our education system had to produce workers who would be able to contribute to growing the economy. We then moved to the efficiency-driven phase (1979 to 1996) where our emphasis was to reduce student attrition rates.

The ability-driven phase (1997 to 2011) was where we recognized that we needed to provide multiple academic pathways for every student in the system to bloom. Next is the student-centric, values-based education phase (2012 to 2018).

Every phase was relevant to the respective social, economic and national context of the time of its introduction. One phase may be viewed as a continuation or next evolutionary step from the previous.

Focus on Values, Competencies

We are now moving into a new phase that is called the “Learn for Life: Remaking Pathways” education phase. But to fully understand it, we need to first delve deeper into the student-centric, values-driven education phase, where the nation saw the need to focus centrally on the holistic development of the student. Values were emphasized as being as important as content knowledge and skills.

We also focused on competencies, embodied in the Singapore Ministry of Education’s (MOE) graphic representation of the 21st Century Competencies and Student Outcomes Framework, which aimed to build the 21st-century learner as a confident person, concerned citizen, self-directed learner and active contributor.

There was a broadening of admission criteria to recognize students’ achievement beyond just academic ability. We did away with the ranking of secondary schools and stopped releasing information on the top-scoring students who did exceptionally well in our national examinations. One of those national examinations, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) also received an overhaul as it moved towards scoring bands, away from the T-scores that it had used for many decades. This progressive move will be completed in 2021.

Although these started in the student-centric, values-based education phase, all of them will see fruition in the “Learn for Life: Remaking Pathways” education phase.

Less Emphasis on Academic Results

In the secondary schools, we are changing to a full subject-based banding (SBB) system. This, again, will be progressive and fully completed by 2024, though some schools have already taken the leap and changed to the SBB system. For each subject, secondary students will be able to choose which level suits them best: G1, G2 or G3. G1 is suitable for advanced learners and G3 is suitable for students less inclined to that subject. Unlike the three-level academic streaming system where all students of one class takes the same level for all subjects, students may choose a level more suitable to himself or herself and those of the same level go to one class for that one subject. This flexibility allows them to be agents of their own learning and preparing them to be lifelong learners. Our primary schools are already in the SBB system.

We have further recalibrated the number of examinations and assessments students are required to sit for, as part of efforts to reduce the emphasis on academic results. This has begun and will go full swing from next year onwards.

The reduction will also allow schools more space in the curriculum to better pace out teaching and learning, giving them more opportunity to deepen understanding and develop 21st-century competencies in students.

Preparing for the Future

These educational changes are all set in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) era, where uncertainty and fast-paced changes are the name of the game. Ways of living and massive changes to jobs are confronting businesses, societies and nations. For the individual, not only are knowledge, competencies and values important, but also of importance is their attitudes and dispositions, which must include an attitude of lifelong learning.

In the emerging Learn for Life phase, the emphasis would be more aptly described as an intensification of the impetus for change begun in the past few phases of educational reform. Lifelong learning is extremely important in the 4IR era. The main drivers of societal, economic and cultural change are technological and digital advancements, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), automation and robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), nano-technology and bio-technology, to name a few. And unlike the other industrial revolutions, advances these days are not improving in terms of decades or centuries. Advances are progressing in a matter of years or even months. We recognize that jobs of today may not exist in their current form or exist at all in the near future.

In two World Economic Forum (WEF) surveys published in 2016 and 2018 reports, WEF asked employers what were the most appealing and relevant top-10 skills that they liked to see in employees. In a span of just three years, those skills were re-prioritized and two were even replaced completely. It is clear that our citizens now need to learn throughout their lifetime, upgrading their knowledge, skills and competencies at multiple points in their life. All the more, our teachers need to model lifelong learners needed in this 4IR landscape. In Singapore, we view teachers as professionals and as professionals, it is important to commit to lifelong learning and improvement.

Getting Teachers Ready

As we enact the student-centric, values-driven education phase, student teachers are prepared in tandem. The central core of all our teacher preparation programs is the emphasis on values. We categorize the values that our teachers need in three paradigms.

The first is learner-centered values which include empathy, a belief that all children can learn, a learner-centeredness, which is defined as the belief that all students can learn and the role of the teacher is to nurture the potential in each child, and valuing diversity. The learner must be at the core of all our educational endeavors.

The second paradigm is a strong sense of teacher identity, or pride, and the third value paradigm is service to the profession and community, which includes mentorship and stewardship in growing the next generation of teachers. Teachers are, at the core of our system, nation builders.

Challenges of Pushing through Reforms

It is very easy to become exhausted, to lose sight of the initial goal, to doubt and give up in the face of challenges. But if you had the right motivations at the start of the educational reform and your purpose is to level up the entire education system so that each and every child can maximize his and her potential, you will persevere to ensure that the reform efforts are implemented with fidelity.

We need to recognize that nothing goes according to every step of your plan. That is why, in Singapore, each subject’s curriculum and syllabus undergoes a review and renewal every five years to ensure the subject is relevant to the times. At the mid-point of the five years, whether it be at the second- or third-year mark, there is a review done to track the progress and if changes need to be made. In some cases, nothing gets changed or a little tweaking is done. In other cases, there is a major revision. But Singapore presses on, knowing that change will always come.

Listening to Stakeholders

Singapore has always and will always have a focus on delivering the best possible education to our student, to the community and to our nation. Once this basis has been established, the next step is to prove to parents and teachers, and whichever other stakeholder, that your reforms will help students, not just in the here and now but much more to position them for the future.

There needs to exist humility on the part of the reformists. The education system is not just made up of policymakers. It includes the students, their parents, teachers and the community the live and work in. Take time to listen to these key stakeholders, interact with them, be sensitive to their needs and their views and be willing to adapt the initiatives to suit the climate of the stakeholders where appropriate.

Education is a national societal concern and as long as we convince parents and teachers that this is to secure the future progress of the nation, they will change their mindsets and be willing to walk out of their comfort zones to implement the new initiatives.

What is important is to always focus on why you want to carry out a reform. The important part is really to reform not for reform’s sake, but to conduct a reform for the sake of improving student learning outcomes for the betterment of society. That is the basis I would evaluate any reform on: the motivation. Also, we need to recognize that we are only human, not perfect beings. Good results may not present themselves immediately. Sometimes, they take a while to be seen. Sometimes, unexpected results may reveal themselves. And sometimes, we need to learn from failures. These are all part of the long and winding route to achieving the benefits of educational reforms but we should never lose sight of our purpose.

By Meng-hsin Tien
Translated by Luke Sabatier
Edited by Sharon Tseng