Singapore’s recent education reforms have brought sweeping changes to the country’s approach to teaching, learning, and the curriculum, in an effort to promote a more “student-centered, values-centric” education. In this post, Paul Chua, a Senior Teaching Fellow in Singapore’s Office of Educational Research of the National Institute of Education, provides a brief overview of the reform and the effort to implement a more nurturing education system.
What are the key features/steps in the current shift to a student-centric, values-driven education?
While there are many strands to the response to this question, I would put it as a 2-step process. 1) Laying out the vision of student-centric, values-driven education, and 2) Putting in place and implementing the many pieces of strategies and structures to systemically drive and support this vision.
First, the vision. The vision of student-centric, values-driven education is primarily about nurturing the children of Singapore to be equipped with the core skills and competencies to be economically productive and to flourish in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, as well as to be imbued with the Singaporean values to be successful, moral and committed citizens of the country. To unpack that vision, the ministry has spelled out four attributes: “Every Student, an Engaged Learner”; “Every School, a Good School”; “Every Teacher, a Caring Educator”; and “Every Parent, a Supportive Partner.”
On the strategies and initiatives, numerous of them have been announced to comprehensively and systemically drive and support the vision. For example, the 21CC framework and the new Character and Citizenship curriculum has been launched and efforts have been made to embed them into the practices and culture of the school. Yet another example is the abolition of school league tables and modification of the school achievement awards to change the incentives for schools to focus more sharply on holistic development of the students, and blunt the focus on academic achievements. A quote in the Minister of Education’s recent work plan seminar 2013 speech to illustrate the seriousness of the ministry in its efforts to strengthen the focus on holistic development is: “To deal with the demands of a VUCA environment, good grades in school are not enough. In fact they might not even be relevant.” Very recently, the ministry has publicly said that they have posted the most experienced and senior principals to lead heartland schools, in an effort to make “Every School, a Good School” a reality.
Why is Singapore making this shift?
The previous quote cited that, “To deal with the demands of a VUCA environment, good grades in school are not enough. In fact they might not even be relevant” (Leo Yip, cited in Heng, 2013). This is indicative of why the Ministry of Education is making such a shift to rebalance the education system towards holistic education and values-centricity. Nurturing the students with the right competencies and core skills, as well as the right personal, moral and citizenship values is a national imperative. The different strands of values “are intertwined and are critical for the success of the individual and society” (Heng, 2011). Ensuring Singapore’s continued relevance and competitiveness in the new economic landscape in a globalized world is always on the minds of the policy makers. In the face of modernization and globalization, it is also imperative that the Singaporean identity and way of life is preserved.
What are the biggest concerns of policymakers, teachers, and the public in making this shift?
The biggest concern of policy makers, I surmise, is to ensure the shift is successfully carried out so that Singapore continues to be economically relevant and prosperous. The assumption is that with economic prosperity,then the social and cultural well-being of Singaporeans will be looked after. Essentially, it has been said that the best social policy is economic growth.
For the public, we learned quite a lot about their concerns through the recently concluded series of national conversations with the different segments of the populace, called “Our Singapore Conversation.” Many of the members of the public recognize the importance of education in providing opportunities for all, despite their expressing concerns that the Singaporean society has become more stratified. Some specific worries include the high stress levels faced by our students, the over-emphasis on examinations, and the proliferation of tuitioning to supplement schools. Nonetheless, the public do acknowledge that the Singaporean children need to be adequately prepared for life in the VUCA world (Heng, 2013).
For teachers, the biggest concern is how to implement all the new initiatives effectively for the benefit of the students, as well as to manage the various work demands in a work-life harmonious manner.
What has happened so far? What should we be looking out for in the future?
While no data on the progress so far has been published, we can look forward to the upcoming release of the PISA 2012 results for some assessment of impact of the recent policies and the on-going educational efforts of the ministry. If we see Student-Centric, Values-Driven Education as educating the children for the future, the education system in Singapore has been focused on this agenda for many years already. So, we can take the PISA results as a good proxy of the efforts of the Ministry in educating the young for the future.
We can also look out for efforts by the Ministry to gradually shape the public’s perception of what counts as success in schools by expanding the emphasis from just academic grades alone to a broader basket of holistic education measures. A key plank of that effort is the impending tweaking of the grading system of the national examinations for 6th graders as well as broadening of the criteria for discretionary admission to secondary schools to include more non-academic attributes such as student character and student leadership.