The problem and possibilities of improvement and “innovation” in education (Singapore and Malaysia edition)

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The first problem with innovation is that it is hard to define. It is one of those, “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things.  As a consequence, almost any “new” practice, program, resource, or idea that departs from convention may appear “innovative” to some.  Yet for others, only the most revolutionary, transformative, or disruptive practices or materials deserve to be called “innovative.”  A shift from thinking of “innovations” as a singular category –  something is either “innovative” or it’s not – to thinking about the “symptoms” of innovation provides one way to address this definitional ambiguity.  (The philosopher Nelson Goodman, one of Noam Chomsky’s teachers, took this approach when discussing the definition of “art.”)  Symptoms of innovation include the extent to which something departs from convention as well as the extent to which it changes or transforms related activities. For example, even “smart” phones still retain some of the features of the land-lines that preceded them, but their mobility and wireless connectivity are new and make possible all kinds of activities (texting, surfing the internet, using apps etc.) that have changed the ways people behave and interact.  Other symptoms might include the extent to which something is viewed as innovative within a particular context (a region or industry) or as cutting across contexts.  From this perspective, mobile phones appear to be quite innovative as they have spread and contributed to changes in behaviors and activity across international contexts.  At the same time, technologies like whiteboards that seem commonplace in classrooms in many countries nowadays may still seem innovative in parts of the world where they are just being introduced.  In either case, the extent to which these new technologies have or might change behaviors and activities remains to be debated.

In education, many different practices, programs, and school models have been hailed as “innovative” in different times.  Nonetheless, substantial departures from conventional classroom practices and activities rarely seem to take hold across schools and contexts (as Larry Cuban continues to examine when it comes to technology and computer use in the classroom). In order to explore some of these “issues of innovation” and the challenges and possibilities for improving conventional educational practices, I am working with colleagues Deirdre Faughey, Jordan Carson, and Sarah van den Berg to look at what educators consider “innovative” both inside conventional school systems as well as outside (in alternative schools, after school programs, tutoring programs, museums, online activities etc.); and I’m looking at what’s “innovative” in both developed and developing education systems (such as those in New York City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Johannesburg). Theoretically these different educational settings should create different opportunities for, and perhaps different kinds of, innovations. Ideally, looking at how innovative efforts evolve in different contexts will provide some clues about what it really takes to transform conventional learning opportunities so that all students, from all backgrounds can be successful.  (For a look at some initial descriptions of efforts to improve different aspects of education, see posts on Citizen Schools, New Visions, the iZone, the Millennium Villages Project in Africa, and the India School Leadership Institute.)

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on what I learned when I visited and talked with colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia about recent efforts to improve their educational systems and what might be “innovative” in education in each context. The education systems in Singapore and Malaysia are particularly interesting because they are geographic neighbors with some shared history and culture.  Education systems in both countries are quite centralized, and both have introduced a number of initiatives to change and improve their performance.  Nonetheless, their education systems are at very different stages of development. Singapore continues to be at the top or near the top on comparative tests like PISA and TIMMS, while Malaysia ranks below more than fifty other countries in reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, while Malaysia has substantially increased enrollment rates at every level of schooling, it is in the midst of increasing compulsory schooling from six to eleven years, and it is still working to increase enrollments in upper secondary education which stood at 82% in 2011.

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

What struck me most, however, in my visits, were the differences in where efforts to produce more innovative learning opportunities are taking place.  What I found in Malaysia, for example, reminded me in some ways of what I see in New York City: the growth of alternative schools, after school programs, and other educational opportunities created by independent groups and individuals operating outside the public school system. Those I talked to about innovation in Kuala Lumpur pointed to a number of for-profit and not-for-profit efforts to create private schools and to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day. Among private schools, the alternatives to government-run public schools include international schools often connected to or resembling those operating in the US and elsewhere and some newer international schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University. There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  Outside the school day, organizations and collaborative like Edunation, Arus Academy, Tandemic, and EnglishJer have sprouted to address what their members see as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system.

At the same time, the government in Malaysia has continued efforts to ensure all children have access to education while also launching a variety of initiatives to increase the quality of education. Recent initiatives have focused on integrating Higher Order Thinking Skills into the curriculum, establishing a technological infrastructure in all schools (including internet connectivity, computers/computer labs, and a virtual learning environment), and programs to establish “Trust Schools” (modeled after the academies in England or what those in the US would consider charter schools).  Often, the Ministry of Education, with limited resources, finds a contractor to lead these initiatives, but then these contractors have to find and develop the means themselves to roll their work out across large numbers of teachers and schools.



In contrast, when I asked about innovation in Singapore, those I talked to generally pointed to major initiatives launched by the government as part of continuing efforts to improve and change the education system. These include efforts to focus on the development of 21st Century skills amongst all students and to integrating technology productively into teaching (as part of Singapore’s Fourth Master Plan for technology integration). These efforts reflect what colleagues in Singapore have called a “centralized decentralized” approach to create opportunities for schools and teachers to develop innovative practices, which if effective, can then be scaled up across the system. This approach included the creation of a set of Future Schools in 2007 that experimented with different approaches to using technology and that could serve as models or prototypes that could inspire other schools to change their instructional practices. In addition, in 2011 the Ministry of Education established Edulab which now provides support for educators to develop new practices and resources and creates opportunities to share those practices and resources across teachers and schools.

There are numerous educational opportunities outside the regular school classroom in Singapore, but those generally connect to and complement the work going on in the government-run schools rather than serving as independent educational alternatives.  Educational programs established outside the public schools in Singapore include workshops and field trips organized by cultural institutions such as the Singapore Discovery Center and the National Gallery of Singapore.  These educational opportunities serve as “Learning Journeys” that schools are required to offer students as part of Singapore’s commitment to integrating National Education into the curriculum.  The opportunities for learning after school and on weekends are also dominated by tutoring offered by a host of individuals and “tuition centers”.  Despite the concerns of the Singaporean government and many educators and parents, tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  Tuition centers focus primarily on preparing students for the national exams that students in Singapore take at the end of primary  and upper secondary school and before admission to university; but some centers try to distinguish themselves with their own educational approaches and some aim to help students develop skills that go beyond those emphasized in the tests.

Singapore and Malaysia present very different contexts for developing new educational opportunities for students, but both have to contend with the challenges of figuring out which new practices and programs might work and what kinds of mechanisms will help educators and schools to build on any successes. In the next few weeks, I will be following up on these initial impressions with closer looks at the evolution of some of the programs and organizations that are working to improve the educational opportunities in each of these systems.

— Thomas Hatch


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