The School Day: Singapore

With school starting again here in the United States, I’ve been thinking back to my children’s experiences at the end of the last school year in Finland that we chronicled last June. To get another perspective on what school is like in another country, I asked our colleague here at IEN, Paul Chua, to talk with me a bit about his son’s experiences in 2nd grade in Singapore. We discussed what primary school is like there today and how different it is not only from when he was in 2nd grade (some thirty five years ago or so), but also from when his oldest son was in second grade about ten years ago–before the PERI (Primary Education Review and Implementation) reforms were launched in 2009. As Paul outlined in a previous post, the PERI reforms are designed to prepare Singapore’s students for the future by balancing the acquisition of knowledge with the development of skills and values.

While my children are just starting their third week of school here in New York (see NPR’s “Sounds From the First Day of School”), Paul’s youngest son has just completed his third ten-week term of his second-grade year. The first day of school in Singapore was in early January with breaks of 1-week between terms in March and September, a four-week break in June, and then a six-week break coming up at the end of the school year in November. During the longer breaks, some students go to parks or camps, school related programs or community-run programs, while others stay with their parents or relatives. During these times, some parents will take leaves from work, and many of those families that can, will take the opportunity to travel. (With an emphasis on internationalization in Singapore schools, many primary and secondary schools also organize trips for upper primary students and above to travel abroad during the breaks). Many students will spend part, though not all, of their break completing tutoring programs that run after school during the regular school year, since many of those programs don’t run on the regular school schedule.

Paul’s son attends a public school well known for it’s bilingual English-Chinese program. (Primary school assignment in Singapore involves an application process, in which parents apply to schools of their choice and assignments are based on priorities like having a sibling in the same school, having a parent who attended the school, having a parent who has volunteered at the school and other criteria.) In addition to English and Chinese languages, his weekly schedule includes periods (of roughly 30 minutes or so) for math, physical education, art, music, social studies, health education, Form Teacher Guidance Period (to strengthen socio-emotional competencies of students), character and citizenship education (CCE) and assemblies (often including performances by arts groups). English classes follow a national curriculum, called STELLAR (Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading). It is a “big book approach,” with teachers bringing a big book that the students read together, with a variety of related reading and writing. Math classes also follow a national curriculum, with an emphasis on mathematical problem solving.

Science is taught mainly from 3rd grade on to allow for more attention to language and math in the “formative” years of 1st and 2nd grade, but the PERI reforms have also led to changes in testing and grading meant to provide teachers and schools with more opportunities to emphasize both skills development and holistic development. For example, while 1st grade and 2nd grade for both Paul and his oldest son included mid-year and end-of-the-year examinations, for his youngest son those examinations have been eliminated for the most part and replaced with bite-sized assessments used in class several times a year so as to build confidence and desire to learn. Teachers are also encouraged to provide more constructive comments on the students work throughout the year. Furthermore, report cards that consisted almost solely of numerical marks and grades for each subject, now include descriptions of the students’ growth in cognitive, physical, emotional, social domains, discussion of how the students reflect the schools’ values, and more qualitative comments on the holistic students strengths and areas of need.

In addition, consistent with the aims of the PERI reforms to encourage schools to develop new ways to teach 21st Century Competences, the primary school Paul’s second grader attends has developed a special emphasis on physical education, art and music. The school also emphasizes personal development by providing students with leadership opportunities. For example, Paul’s son acts as a class monitor whose responsibilities include helping to keep the room quiet when there are transitions in between classes (when students sometimes have a chance to play while they wait for their next subject teacher to arrive). Paul’s son has also been a subject monitor for the English and Chinese languages last year, which meant helping his English and Chinese language teacher with tasks like getting supplies, distributing workbooks in the classroom, and returning them to the staff room after class. There is a deliberate school policy to rotate these monitor positions every year so that every child in the class and school has a chance to be a student leader. Besides developing confidence and other leadership qualities, these opportunities are also intended to develop character values such as responsibility and service to the fellow classmates, school mates and progressively to the neighborhood and community.

The school day starts around 7.50 AM with flag-raising, continues with periods of about 30 minutes (including about 30 mins for recess), and ends about 1: 15 PM. The school day for Paul’s son actually starts a little later than normal in Singapore to accommodate major construction at the school.   Similar school construction projects are underway across Singapore to fulfill PERI recommendations that call for schools to provide more space for teaching and learning and to facilitate the transition of “double-session” to “single-session” schools. This recommendation builds upon an earlier policy change in 2005 of reducing class from 40 to 30 in 1st and 2nd grade. When Paul was in school, before the PERI reforms, many schools actually had “double sessions” with one group of students and teachers in school in the morning, with a second shift of students and teachers in the afternoon. While younger students’ like Paul’s son usually go home after school, the change to the single sessions will free up the schools to offer and engage upper primary students in activities that support the development of a wider range of “soft skills” and abilities through participation in co-curricular activities such as various sports and games, uniformed groups and clubs and societies (e.g. girl guides, boy’s brigade, school choirs, chess clubs, art clubs, drama clubs and the like).

Thomas Hatch

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