LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Elaine Simmt

Dr. Elaine Simmt is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. Her scholarship is in mathematics education. She began her career as a secondary school teacher of mathematics and physical sciences. She completed doctoral studies in mathematics education under the supervision of Dr. Tom
Kieren. Dr. Simmt also serves as Associate Dean and the Co-Director of the Centre for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education. Dr. Simmt’s research is focused in mathematics education. In particular, she explores teaching and learning as understood through the frames of enactivism and complexity thinking with colleagues Brent Davis, Lynn McGarvey, Jo Towers, Lyndon Martin, Jerome Proulx, Jennifer Thom, Joyce Mgombelo and Florence Glanfield. A second and complementary area of study is centred in teacher education, specifically mathematics-for-teaching. In her most recent work, Dr. Simmt has been involved in international projects in Tanzania and Oman where she and colleagues are working to build capacity for mathematics teaching and learning. Dr. Elaine Simmt can be reached at: esimmt@ualberta.ca

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Simmt talks about her work with mathematics teaching and learning as well as complexity theory. As Simmt puts it:

I explore mathematics teaching and learning in “classroom” contexts. That is, contexts that are complex by even everyday definitions of complexity. While working with data from a 7th grade mathematics class that I had taught, Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara, and I
had been co-teaching courses in cognition and curriculum, and doing in-service work with K-12 teachers. The synergy from these activities resulted in us specifically focusing on learning systems in complexity terms. Particularly we were interested in the emergence of “the class” as a collective learning system (Davis & Simmt, 2003; Davis & Simmt, 2006; Davis, Simmt, Sumara, 2006). This work continues today among a group of colleagues (McGarvey et al., 2018).

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Kirsi Pyhältö.

Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: A Conversation with Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji

This week, IEN shares a conversation with Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies at Bowdoin College. We discussed her latest book, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia (University of California Press, 2018). The book is available for free download here.

Dr Khoja-Moolji 2

Photo credit:  Dennis Griggs/Tannery Hill Studios


IEN: What was the impetus for the book?

Shenila: I had been researching and writing about the convergence on the figure of the girl in international development policy and practice for some time. I noticed that many development campaigns portrayed girls in the global South as not only threatened by poverty, disease, and terrorism, but also as holding the potential to resolve these problems. Education was often presented as that ‘silver bullet’ that would help girls overcome any issue they faced. I explored if girls really were the key to societal progress, and contemplated on the kind of girlhood that was portrayed as being desirable. Crucially, I wrote about how the burden of development and ending poverty was being shifted to black and brown girls, without any due consideration to how poverty is political and an effect of historical relations of power.

As I did this work, I was reminded of how this girl resembles her predecessor, the “Moslem woman” or “Musalman woman” who, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in colonial India, emerged as a figure to be saved from backward cultural practices of purdah, seclusion, early marriage, and religious superstitions. We find writings where colonial administrators, Christian missionaries, as well as Muslim social reformers—for different reasons—claimed that education would save/civilize/reform native women.

So, in the book, I decided to track these multiple articulations of the figure of the ‘educated girl’ in the context of Muslim South Asia during the last 100 years or so. In a way, I wanted to discover her allure and promise.


IEN: Can you offer an overview of the book?

The book is a genealogy of the figure of the educated girl and it is situated in the context of colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan. I have organized the book into three time-periods—the turn of the twentieth century, the early decades after the political establishment of Pakistan, so the 1950s and 1960s, and the turn of the twenty-first century. I explore a broad range of texts: novels, political speeches, government documents, periodicals, advertisements, television shows, and first-person narratives, with an eye to examining how the figure of the ‘educated girl’ is being conjured: What are rationales given for women’s and girls’ education? What is the ideal curriculum for girls? What are imagined as the most suitable spaces for girls’ education?

I found that calls for girls’ education are often entangled with other societal goals. During the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, women were to be educated so that they could signal a respectable status for their families; after the establishment of Pakistan, women and girls were to be educated in order to become ‘scientifically-inclined mothers’ or ‘daughter-workers’ and by doing so contribute to the development of the state and family; and since the turn of the century, girls are called on to educate themselves and become flexible workers for the neoliberal economy.

Of course, there is a lot more going on in the book. For instance, I discuss how it is crucial to pay attention to social class; that there are different expectations for girls from different economic backgrounds. I also trace the rise of mass schooling as a central institution for disseminating knowledge and how this shift has elevated particular forms of knowledges over others. Finally, there is also a discussion of how over the course of the century different kinds of dispositions and practices of women have come to signify respectability, and how they are linked with advancing the welfare of the patriarchal state and family.


IEN: Can you say more about the expansion of mass schooling?

Well, the book traces how the institution of the modern school, with its systems of learning, bureaucratic administration, and examinations, gradually becomes the hegemonic institution for educating young people. The modern school has displaced the multiple community-centered and home-based educative spaces that were prevalent in colonial India. In doing so, it disturbed some of the ways in which the elite reproduced their privilege through education but replaced it with new hierarchies. For instance, it was “English schooling” that conferred upward mobility through access to the British administrative apparatus and exposure to Victorian norms.

Schooling in contemporary Pakistan, like elsewhere, is viewed as a pathway to obtaining jobs. For low-middle-class girls – who were the subject of my study, as you know in chapter four – schooling, unfortunately, did not really deliver on its promises. This group of girls desired more vocational education, which has been excised from formal schools. So the book also traces the promises and failings of mass schooling for girls of a particular socio-economic class.


IEN: With whom is the book talking?

The book is primarily aimed at an academic audience in the fields of gender studies, South Asian studies, and international education. However, I also think that it would be a useful read for development policymakers and practitioners to situate the current enticement of the figure of the girl.


IEN: What does it/can it say to policymakers / how might it be of use to policymakers? What possibilities are offered for policymakers and the like?

The purpose of a genealogy is to de-stabilize taken-for-granted categories and truths. So my hope would be that the book compels policymakers and practitioners, particularly those in the field of girls’ education, to interrogate some of the assumptions around girlhood and education. In particular, it calls on them to pay attention to the range of meanings that are often subsumed in calls for girls’ education. These meanings are frequently linked to reproducing particular privileges; in the book for instance, I focus on the reproduction of social class and masculine privilege. So I would hope that the book serves as a case study so policymakers and practitioners can engage in similar analyses in relation to other contexts.

Headlines Around the World: The United Nations General Assembly and Girls’ Education

Last week in New York City, the UN held the 73rd session of the General Assembly. Though many headlines focused on stories like diplomats laughing at Donald Trump’s claims, education featured prominently in many sessions. “Education really came of age at this year’s UNGA,” Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly,  Save the Children ’s head of education policy and advocacy was quoted as saying in Devex ’s review of education stories. That review described a series of announcements of new investments as well as a high level meeting on refugee education. Among education issues, a renewed focus on girls education emerged as the most prominent theme.

Canada, Kenya, Niger, Jordan, France, and the UK released a joint statement on ensuring that the world “leave no girl behind

Coverage focused both on speeches that reinforced the message and the potential impact of new initiatives for girls’ education:

  • French President Macron focused part of his speech on girls’ education
  • British Prime Minister May spoke at an event for girls’ education
  • An article from Kenya about educational equality and conflict
  • Another article focusing on the British Foreign Secretary and Kenyan Education Minister co-chairing the platform for girls’ education meeting
  • NGOs and other organizations lauded the commitment as a “milestone

Of course, other headlines remind that nations, multilaterals, and organizations have already taken up many campaigns for girls’ education in recent decades. Furthermore, headlines on girls’ education have not exclusively focused on the commitments coming from UNGA. Just yesterday, for example, it was reported that $600 million of World Bank money intended for girls’ education had not been used.


For more information, we have provided some organizations focused on girls’ education:

A list of organizations working specifically in India

A broader list of organizations around the world

The UN’s girls’ education initiative

The Plan International page for girls’ education, which includes facts and ways to take action





Dr. Kristin Kew serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Management and Development at New Mexico State University. Dr. Kew’s teaching and research interests include educational change, school reform, community organizing, and the principalship. She has taught at all levels of schooling and assisted in the creation and management of educational leadership networks. Dr. Kew was awarded the College of Education Service Award and the Dean’s Teaching Award. She is serving as the Chair of the Educational Change Special Interest Group through the American Educational Research Association. Her new anthology, co-edited with Helen Janc Malone and Santiago Rincon-Gallardo, and published in 2018 by Routledge is titled, The Future Directions of Educational Change: Social Justice, Professional Capital, and Systems Change. Dr. Kew may be reached at kew@nmsu.edu

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Kew talks about her work with the Educational Change SIG and her transnational research on immigration and education. As Kew puts it:

I am doing some transnational research in this area of the NM/Mexico border as many
pK-12 students come across every day for school. Around 850 students make a one-hour
trip across the border, passports in hand. They are U.S. born but their parents are not citizens so they send their children to get a public education in the states. Crossing is a pretty normal phenomenon for those living near the southwest border as families have been visiting one another for generations. As per the census count in 2017, 48% of the
population in New Mexico is Hispanic, 37% White, 11% is Native American, 3% Black or
African-American, and 2% Asian.

Our faculty and graduate students in Educational Leadership and Administration
choose to conduct their research on immigration, transnational students, bilingual
and multilingual education and leadership, culturally relevant pedagogies and identity,
and culturally and linguistically responsive instruction and leadership. New Mexico was the first state in the U.S. to have a bilingual multicultural law (1973). The law was expanded in 2004, making the state an exemplar. There are also a number of indigenous languages spoken in New Mexico and these are also recognized in the bilingual/ multilingual law.

Regarding immigration and educational leadership in this area, schools are a safe
haven for students in New Mexico. School leaders and teachers do not ask or share
documentation information on their students with U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) http://www.aps.edu/about-us/policies-and-procedural-directives/procedural-directives/j.-students/immigrant-students-regardless-of- documented-status.

Deportation is a fear for many and there are thousands of children separated from their families because of raids. Everyone in the community, and country, is affected some way by what is happening on our borders. For more information and updates on the current immigration policy in the U.S, one of our SIG partners, International Ed News, has a wealth of information on their site.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Kim Fong Poon-McBrayer and Kirsi Pyhältö.

Arc of Progressivism and “Grammar of Schooling” (Part 3) by Larry Cuban

**This week, we are re-blogging the third part of a recent series from Larry Cuban‘s blog on School Reform and Classroom Practice. The first two posts in this series deal with education reformers’ attempts to get rid of the “grammar of schooling” within the U.S. This post pursues a similar theme but with a more international focus.

blog 1 image

blog 2 image

Take your pick of above quotes (or choose both) and you have the kernel of the story of progressive reformers actively trying to alter traditional teaching and school practices over the past century.

Well, at least part of the story since binary choices, the either/or dichotomy of success or failure omit the creation of hybrids, mixes of progressive and traditional classroom practices that have occurred over the past century in the U.S. and internationally.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe many attempts of progressive reformers to get rid of the “grammar of schooling” or reduce its effects on teaching and learning. These efforts, at best, have created hybrids (see here and here) and,at worst, have signally failed (see here and here).

Part 3 looks beyond the U.S. experience to see what has occurred internationally since the ideas of John Dewey and his acolytes about teaching and learning have entered many nations outside of North America.

In Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame (Springer, 2011), Australian academic and consultant Gerard Guthrie has synthesized many research studies and evaluations on the influence of progressivism in developing nations and largely found few traces of these reforms altering traditional ways of teaching and learning. That is, “formalism” in teaching and learning–Guthrie’s phrase for teacher-centered instruction–remained intact after determined efforts were made in African, Asian, and Oceania nations to introduce progressive education. Guthrie focuses on the risks connected to the error-filled assumption–what he calls the “progressive education fallacy”–that inquiry-based classroom practices are necessary to promote academic learning among non-western school children. He also lays out the strengths of traditional and didactic teaching. He concludes that the primary reason for continuity in traditional ways of teaching and learning in these nations spanning continents is the abiding cultural context of these nations favorable to teacher-centered instruction.

In his study, Guthrie has chapters on the Confucian tradition in education in China and efforts to introduce progressive classroom practices in African nations such as Botswana, South Africa, Namibia,and Tanzania. The bulk of the evidence he provides (research studies and evaluations) to support his case of traditional teacher-centered instruction overcoming top-down mandates to shift classroom practices to student-centered ones is found in Papua New Guinea, where he has had extensive first-hand experience.

One excerpt illustrates Guthrie’s summary of studies on teachers in Papua New Guinea responding to progressive-driven reforms amply funded and mandated by ministry of education officials.

The teachers were not necessarily averse to change as such. Although they
ignored many of the precepts, some had developed their own contextually
appropriate approaches for promoting student learning. Often these reflected
cultural tradition in assuming that teachers should centrally control teaching and
learning, and were contrary to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new curriculum
Teachers expertly used a variety of strategies to transmit skills and
knowledge, including showing respect towards their students, an essential approach
in a shame-based society. Strategies also included speaking in short simple sentences,
providing examples relevant to students’ own experiences, providing concise
definitions, using visual aids, and scrutinising facial expressions for understanding.
[Researchers]found that non-implementation could be partly attributed to
the gap between the technical demands of the progressive curriculum and the
capacity of the teachers to meet those demands. Significantly, [one researcher] added, non-implementation could also be attributed to culturally embedded teacher resistance
to the facilitative roles expected in the classroom and to teachers’ scepticism about
constructivist learning theories.
In essence, these independent findings showed that the progressive ideas inherent in the new curriculum were little used, with improvements in teaching being predominantly within a formalistic rather than a progressive approach. The implication was that ‘policymakers should work with rather than against educational realities’….

One caveat about the evidence Guthrie provides. Classroom studies where researchers observe, interview, and document both stability and change in teaching practices are few and far between. The above excerpt, however, includes such direct classroom research.

Now what does any of this have to do with the “progressive arc’ of reform in U.S. schools that I laid out in Parts 1 and 2?

I see similarities and omissions.


First, the pattern that Guthrie found in developing nations of top-down curricular and instructional mandates to shift classroom practice from teacher-centered to student-centered has occurred in the U.S. on at least two occasions. Between the 1920s-1940s, and the 1960s-1970s, determined efforts to introduce new progressive curricula and teaching practices happened across the U.S. in big city, suburban, and rural schools. A few researchers using historical sources such as photos, teacher and student diaries, lesson plans, and journalist descriptions have documented the minimal changes that occurred across classrooms (see here and here).

Second, Guthrie documents the failure of progressive methods to transform  traditional teaching practices and recommends that existing traditional practices be improved rather than dismantled.

Among U.S. reformer ranks this suggestion has been made many times, particularly since the 1960s when nearly 90 percent of all students attended public schools. Divisions do exist among reformers some of whom wish to dump the existing system and erect new ones. Most reformers, however, seek improvements in the present system including building the capacities of teachers and supporting their  professional growth to carry out incremental changes in schools and classrooms.


Researcher Guthrie omits other possible explanations for “failure” of “progressive” reforms. His argument is clear: cultural context determines the fate of “progressive” reforms especially for those instructional policies out of sync with historical and cultural setting in which the reforms appear.

The first omission is flawed implementation of these top-down reforms. Researchers have pointed out (see here and here) the complexity of putting policies aimed at classroom instruction into practice. Moreover, that complexity often leads to some policies being inadequately and partially implemented. When that occurs the validity of the innovation or new program can not be assessed as worthwhile or worthless. Yes, in summarizing the studies and evaluations of other researchers, the idea of errors made in implementing the policy is mentioned, but the center of gravity in Guthrie’s argument rests on his claim that failed “progressive” reforms occurred because they were incompatible with the culture of the developing nation.

The second omission is instances of teachers creating mixes of old and new ideas and practices. Hybrids of traditional and “progressive” practices have happened among U.S. teachers over the past century (e.g., spread of small group activities in teacher-centered classrooms). At various places, Guthrie notes such occurrences but largely ignores the common practice of teachers throughout the world maintaining their dominant ways of teaching yet incrementally changing daily practices by incorporating ideas they believe will work with their students.

Guthrie’s study of the “arc of progressivism” and the strong influence of a “grammar of schooling” in developing nations gives the often parochial study of U.S reform-driven policies aimed at classroom practices a global perspective. And for Guthrie’s focus on the importance of context in shaping teachers’ responses to top-down mandates, classroom researchers owe him a thank you.

Headlines Around the World: Back to School Edition

Schools around the world get started at different times of year (this Wikipedia page offers a calendar with a partial list) but here in New York City students head back to school in September.  Therefore, we did a quick scan to see what’s being written about the start of school in different places.


Around the World

An article describing different back-to-school traditions from around the world (Business Insider)
9 back-to-school traditions from around the world

National Geographic recognized the return to school with a fascinating collage of photos of classrooms from around the world (National Geographic)
These Vintage Pictures Celebrate School Around the World

Another perspective about students going back to school around the world, describing UNICEF’s work to help children go to school in the face of adversity (Independent)
Top of the class: Children go back to school around the world

Similarly, this UNICEF report on conference in the Lake Chad Basin provides a reminder that millions of children around the world remain unable to go to school.
Education at risk for more than 3.5 million school-aged children in the Lake Chad Basin



Some basic tips on adjusting back to the daily school routine (CBC)
Back to school? Here are some tips to help you and your kids get back to sleeping easy

As they head back to school, families face an increasing burden of paying for everything from school supplies to extra-curricular activities (CBC)
Back-to-school bills and unexpected fees dividing classes, says youth advocate

 An article about how British Columbia is set to start off the new school year facing a teacher shortage (CBC)
B.C. short 250 teachers as new school year begins

Introducing a new sex-ed program in Quebec (CBC)
3 Quebec school boards say they’re ready to teach new sex-ed program



Even as they face a funding crisis, half a million children headed back to school in Palestine (Their World)
Day of celebration as Palestinian children go back to school amid funding crisis



Some new education reforms as students return to school in France (The New Republic)
The French Plan to Fix Inequality—by Ignoring It

France has banned mobile phones from schools this year (The Strait Times)
Back to school for French kids, without their phones



Many new teachers to address the teacher shortage (Greek City Times)
Schools in Greece start their first day of the new school year



A poll finds that as students in England head back to school, nearly half fear returning as a result of bullying (Telegraph)
Half of children worried about returning from school holidays because of bullying, poll finds

The BBC offers a short quiz to help parents and students get ready for heading back to school (BBC)
Back to school: How much do you know?



An article from the Brookings Institution about different issues to watch in the new school year (Brookings)
As kids go back to school, these are the education story lines experts are watching 

A back-to-school reminder of persistent school segregation across the country (Hechinger)
Take a closer look at those back-to-school photos: Is something missing?

An article about tech trends for the new school year (Ed Surge)
10 Inspired Tech Trends Every Teacher Should Know About

Students in a number of districts are returning to a new schedule as some schools are set to begin later in the day
Students catch extra winks with later start times for new school year (Burrell school district, Pennsylvania)
Students Head Back To School, Some With New Start Times (CBS, St. Paul, Minnesota)

However, many schools have started earlier in the year, including a few places starting before Labor Day for the first time
Back to school coming earlier for more Michigan students (Michigan)
Elected officials, students, families rings the bell to start off new school year (Philadelphia)

In Tacoma, WA students will not head back to school as teachers strike for better pay (USA Today)
Teachers are striking again; in Tacoma, they’re prepared to picket for weeks
Students in Los Angeles are already back in school, but teachers have authorized a similar strike (LA Times)
L.A. teachers authorize strike as tensions rise

Teachers and other school employees in Chicago face issues with receiving clearances (Chalkbeat)
Chicago schools start Tuesday, but 511 employees don’t have clearance yet

New York and Virginia have added teaching about mental health to their curriculum (Governing)
New School Year, New Mental Health Lessons: 2 States Now Require It

In New York City, the chancellor and mayor opened the year emphasizing equality (Wall Street Journal)
NYC Chancellor, Mayor Greet School Year, Emphasizing Equity

Also in New York City, as teachers head back to school, social media plays an increasingly important role (Chalkbeat)
New York City teachers head #backtoschool, both in real life and on Twitter


Some information and statistics about students starting and heading back to school in Iceland (Iceland Monitor)
Back to school today

Creating Coherence in Education Outside Schools in Singapore

As students in New York transition back to school from the summer break, IEN founder Thomas Hatch shares a post that explores how Singapore works systematically to connect learning outside of school with learning inside school.

This post initially appeared on thomashatch.org

Workshop Spaces

Workshop spaces at the National Gallery Singapore (Photo Credit: Thomas Hatch)

The constant emphasis on Singapore’s high performance on educational tests masks the extent to which Singapore continues to try to improve the educational system. Since the launch of the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” campaign in 1997, Singapore has pursued a series of initiatives to shift the system to provide a more holistic education that supports the development of 21st Century skills and learning throughout life.  As the Education Minister (for Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung recently explained “more emphasis should be placed on teaching students critical soft skills — such as building up their resilience to be able to fail and pick themselves up — and also helping students discover what they are passionate about.”

Until my last trip to Singapore, however, I did not understand the extent to which the Singaporean government supports efforts to create new kinds of learning opportunities outside of schools in order to achieve these national education objectives. Although concerns about an overload of afterschool tutoring persist, the Singaporean government actively aligns and connects work in the “outside of school” sector with efforts to expand the focus of learning in schools.

“Co-curriculars” and camps

The Singaporean education system has a well-known academic focus that has spawned fears about the consequences of excessive testing and rote learning. Yet the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” effort also supports a series of initiatives designed to create spaces and opportunities for more holistic approaches to students’ development.  In particular, Singapore has developed a set of co-curricular activities at the end of the school day designed to foster the development of a wide range of abilities. While in the US, extra-curricular activities are largely locally determined, the Ministry of Education in Singapore requires every secondary student to participate in at least one of these co-curricular activities, including clubs and societies, physical sports, uniformed groups (such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts), and visual and performing arts groups.  To reinforce the importance of these activities, students are assessed on their performance in their co-curricular activities, based on a framework that emphasizes Leadership, Enrichment, Achievement, Participation, Service (LEAPS).  Students can even boost their chances for placement in post-secondary institutions and get “bonus points” for assessments of ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ in their co-curriculars.

Reflecting the increasing attention to students’ holistic development, the Ministry of Education in Singapore also recently established a National Outdoor Adventure Education (NOAE) Master Plan. That plan mandates that starting in 2020 all secondary students will participate in a 5-day outdoor adventure camp.  Carried out in a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Outward Bound Singapore, the program is designed to immerse students in “authentic and often challenging situations, where they need to work in teams and learn to take responsibility for decisions they make.”

S pore Discovery

S’pore Discovery Center (Photo Credit: Thomas Hatch)

Learning Journeys

On top of the co-curriculars and camps, the Ministry of Education (MOE) also created what they called “Learning Journeys” in 1998. Learning Journeys are “experiential and multi-disciplinary learning trips” that students make to learn about key national institutions and heritage sites. Learning Journeys complement curriculum in subjects like Social Studies, History and Geography, they were conceived specifically to support the goals of National Education and to help students understand and appreciate the role that these institutions and sites play in Singapore’s development.  The National Education initiative first established in 1997 seeks “to develop national cohesion, the instinct for survival and confidence in the future” by helping students develop an “awareness of the facts, circumstances, and opportunities” of Singapore’s history and current realities and to help students “develop a sense of emotional belonging and commitment.”

While schools can create their own Learning Journeys, the Ministry of Education has invited a host of government agencies and other institutions to serve as Learning Journey partners.  For example, the Energy Market Authority (responsible for maintaining Singapore’s energy supply) offers five different Learning Journeys including “Gas It Up” and “Clean and Green.” These Journeys take students behind the scenes to local energy facilities “to bring engineering concepts to life and interest students to seek out a career in the Power sector.”

There are now over 50 Learning Journey partners including the Maritime and Port Authority, the Singapore Stock Exchange, and the Public Utilities Board.  In the process, the government both encourages these organizations to use their resources to support schools and provides schools with the funds they need to pay for these out-of-school experiences.  In addition, every year the Singaporean government deposits about $200 in an Edusave account for each Singaporean child enrolled in schools funded by the Ministry of Education. Those funds can be used for a variety of educational resources and enrichment activities including Learning Journeys and educational trips overseas.

As a result of the government’s investments, a whole group of not-for-profit and for-profit organizations have gotten into the act by offering Learning Journeys and other enrichment activities. For example, the Singapore History Consultants have developed a wide range of Learning Journeys for different age groups that focus on topics like “Our Journey to Nationhood” and “The Dark Years: World War II & Singapore under Japanese Occupation.”  The offerings of the History Consultants are designed both to appeal to students but also to be relatively easy for teachers and schools to implement: while teachers and schools can design their own field trips, they can also purchase packages that include, as the History Consultants put it, “worksheets, air-conditioned transport, and tour facilitators/chaperones.”

The initiatives of organizations like the National Heritage Board (NHB) also illustrate the extent of support for education outside of school in Singapore.  The National Heritage Board is a statutory board established in 1993 as the “custodian of Singapore’s heritage”, which has also taken on responsibilities for the development and maintenance of many of Singapore’s museums and historical sites. (Statutory boards in Singapore are autonomous government agencies often designed to spur economic development in particular sectors).  The National Heritage Board has pursued those goals by using funds allocated by the government as well as funds raised through its own institutions to foster a wide range of educational activities that help to connect work in schools with work in the institutions overseen by the NHB.  For example, the NHB has helped to fund the development of education departments within museums and they have also offered grants and encouragement for smaller galleries and other organizations to create programs for students and the general public that help “tell the Singapore story” and accomplish their mission.

The NHB has also helped to fund the development of Heritage Trails, which local organizations create to highlight particular aspects of Singaporean history and culture. Among the many trails, a “Spirit of Saving Lives” Trail winds through the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital and introduces visitors to Singapore’s medical history. The Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations also offers a trail dedicated to “Walking in the footsteps of our foremothers” to highlight the contributions of women to the development of Singapore. The National Heritage Board’s efforts also include support for schools to adopt nearby heritage trails, to train their students to serve as trail guides, and to incorporate the trail’s educational opportunities directly into their school curriculum. More recently, the NHB has provided funding for schools to create their own Heritage Trails and Heritage Corners.  In turn, the efforts of the National Heritage Board have helped to encourage other governmental organizations and statutory boards, like the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the National Parks Board, and neighborhood groups to get into the act and develop their own Trails.

Beyond Schools: Museums and Discovery Centers

In addition to the co-curriculars, camps, and Learning Journeys that come directly under the purview of the Ministry of Education, the Singaporean government also fuels the work of a wide range of other public and quasi-public entities that support students’ development and help to integrate educational initiatives across sectors. Government agencies, particularly the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth (MCCY), and groups like the National Arts Council provide funding for educational activities that serve the objectives of Singapore’s education system. For example, Singapore’s National Gallery also receives funding from the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth and corporate sponsors to support educational activities including field trips and workshops.  Many of those programs are offered to schools for free, but schools can get grants from the National Arts Council to pay the National Gallery to provide more customized “in-school” programs. In turn, the National Gallery staff develop their programs with an eye to both the national curriculum established by the Ministry of Education and the National Gallery’s own mission, vision, and special exhibitions.

The S’pore Discovery Center (SDC) provides another example of the way that cultural and national institutions support Singapore’s educational goals. Launched initially by the Ministry of Defence as a museum to showcase the history of Singapore Armed Forces, the SDC has now evolved into a multi-faceted “Discovery Center” and “edu-tainment” complex (complete with paintball, a “4D thrill ride”,  “Crisis Simulation theatre,” and a first-run movie theatre) that also plays a key role in supporting Singapore’s goals for National Education.

In addition to infusing National Education topics and goals across the school curriculum, the Ministry of Education has also fostered National Education through active participation and experiential learning in informal settings outside of school.  The S’pore Discovery Centre has been a natural partner in those efforts. With a mission To “Share the Singapore Story and inspire a desire to contribute to Singapore’s future,” the S’pore Discovery Centre offers a series of interactive exhibits that give students opportunities to explore Singapore’s governance and values and current affairs as well as Singapore’s future. Permanent exhibits like Dream Lab gives visitors a chance to learn about Singapore’s future plans while Harmony Circle features a game show with questions about Singaporean culture.  Those exhibitions also include a roster of changing activities linked to four commemorative events held on an annual basis to celebrate key events and values.  These include Total Defence Day, International Friendship Day, Racial Harmony Day, and National Day.  The Discovery Center also develops a variety of “outreach” programs, including travelling exhibitions that schools can choose to bring right into their classrooms as well as partnerships that engage students in becoming guides to the exhibitions.

Coherence and constraints inside and outside schools

Far beyond the kind of “1000 flowers bloom” philosophy often found in the US, what Pak Tee Ng and others have called the Singapore government’s “centralized-decentralization” approach seeds “ground-up” initiatives (what those in the US might call “grass-roots” efforts); but it also creates a context of support and pressure that reinforces alignment with national education and coherence across initiatives. In many cases, government agencies (or quasi-government agencies like Statutory Boards) provide some (but not all) of the funding for these activities, often in the form of seed investments or grants and awards linked to Singapore’s national goals.  As a result, as investors, the government has some influence over the work, but these organizations also have to develop their own sustainable business plans and their own sources of revenue.

The government ministries, statutory boards, and institutions like the National Gallery and the S’pore Discovery Center also have advisory or governing boards with members drawn specifically from different sectors (this is similar to the governance of entities like eduLab in Singapore that I wrote about earlier).  Having board members from different ministries, industries, academia, and other institutions helps support cross-sector communication and information sharing. For example, while the S’pore Discovery Centre operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence, it has a board that includes members from other government agencies including NEXUS (the Central National Education Office) and the Ministry of Education as well as from other organizations in the public and private sector.

Pressure and support also comes from Singapore’s embrace of many of the principles of Total Quality Management and performance management, particularly a focus on customer service. That embrace includes the use of a variety of customer surveys by organizations like the Discovery Centre and the National Gallery. At the same time, the Ministries of Education, Defence, and Community, Culture, and Youth, and the National Heritage Board also get feedback on the work of these organizations through nationwide surveys like the National Education Orientation Survey and the Heritage Awareness Index.  As a consequence, the S’pore Discovery Centre and the National Gallery have to figure out how to fulfill their goals in ways that satisfy the government agencies with which they are associated, and they have to respond to the demands of their customers and attract children, schools and families in a competitive marketplace with a wide range of public and private vendors.

Some constraints, however, come along with the close connections between the work inside and outside the education system. In particular, despite the interest in supporting more holistic development, this work outside of school still faces the reality that the most popular programs are usually those most closely tied to the academic topics covered in high-stakes tests.  This is a particular challenge for institutions like the Discovery Centre that focus on National Education, which is not a tested subject.

Nonetheless, the systemic support and pressure in Singapore means that an extensive, well-resourced, and aligned set of educational opportunities outside of schools surrounds an already focused and coherent public education system. Furthermore, that coherence is achieved even though many of those learning opportunities outside of school are not overseen directly by the Ministry of Education.  That coherence and coordination benefits from the mix of government funding and competition for those educational opportunities, the many organizational and personal connections across institutions and sectors, and the focus on customer service and the embrace of feedback throughout.

Botanic Gardens

Singapore Botanic Garden (Photo Credit: Thomas Hatch)

— Thomas Hatch