SkillsFuture in Singapore

Last week on IEN, Helen Janc Malone, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Kristen Kew previewed their newly published book, Future Directions of Educational Change. This week, Pak Tee Ng provides highlights from his chapter in the book, focusing on the development of lifelong learning efforts in Singapore.  Pak Tee Ng is Associate Dean, Leadership Learning at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Pak Tee’s latest work on the Singaporean education system and his latest book Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes is also summarized in his recent IEN post for the Leading Futures series, The Education Paradoxes of Singapore.


I believe many people have studied or are studying the Singapore education system. But the spotlight tends to shine on the country’s primary and secondary education sector, given its stellar performance in international comparative tests.  The efforts aimed at promoting lifelong learning beyond the schooling years are often overlooked. However, if one examines the reforms in the education system carefully, one will discern that Singapore has been implementing a suite of strategies with aims much broader and future-oriented than merely having a good schooling system. When I published my book “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes” in 2017, I explained this point and further explained that the standing in international comparative tests was not Singapore’s report card. Education for the young, continued learning for adults, and the good of the nation are the real objectives.

Therefore, when Helen Malone, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Kristin Kew invited me to contribute a chapter to their latest book “Future Directions of Educational Change”, I was delighted to do so and to present a more detailed account of the lifelong learning efforts in Singapore, a national imperative for the foreseeable future.

Lifelong Learning and SkillsFuture

Lifelong learning in Singapore has always been critical to the country’s development since its independence in 1965. The articulation of that became very clear in 1979 with the institution of the Skills Development Endowment Fund to encourage workers to upgrade their skills.  Government initiatives such as the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund (LLF) in 2001 and the establishment of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) in 2003 further showed the government’s commitment to promote learning beyond schooling. In 2015, all these strategies were brought into an umbrella initiative called SkillsFuture, with a high-powered SkillsFuture Council set up to champion lifelong learning and adopt a multi-sectoral approach to advance the movement. As part of this movement, a SkillsFuture Credit of S$500, that will be topped up at regular intervals, was given to all Singaporeans aged 25 and above.  This amounted to a budget of more than S$1 billion from 2017 to 2020.  Citizens can use this credit to subsidize their continuing education through a range of government-supported courses.

Latest Development in SkillsFuture

The latest developments in SkillsFuture show us how Singapore addresses the effect of disruptive technologies on the workforce. For example, all Singaporean workers can gain the foundational knowledge and skills to cope with the impact of emerging technologies through SkillsFuture. At a more advance level, the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace Programme was launched in October 2017, with topics covering data interpretation and cybersecurity, to benefit a hundred thousand Singaporeans over the next three years. Results for SkillsFuture overall have been quite encouraging.  380 thousand Singaporeans benefitted from SkillsFuture programmes in 2016, 30 thousand more than 2015.

Support for those still in school is tremendous as well. Budget for post-secondary institutions (PSEIs) bursaries increased in 2017 from S$100 million to S$150 million. Adjustments were made to eligibility criteria so that more students would be eligible to apply for support to participate in SkillsFuture programmes. The number of students who will benefit from the bursary in deepening their skills is projected to increase from 12,000 to 71,000 students. In line with SkillsFuture, there is a shift in the philosophy of higher education to embrace ‘learning by doing’. The universities have begun creating and delivering ‘learning by doing’ programmes, in partnership with various industry stakeholders.

Mindset challenges

The toughest challenge yet for SkillsFuture is in changing people’s mindset regarding the relative value of skills versus qualifications, as Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung articulated:

First, all of us – parents, students, educators – we will need to move our focus away from a relentless pursuit of academic grades, to the larger view of human development… Second, employers must likewise do the same. Hire based on interest, skills, and cultural fit, and not just based on grades and qualifications… Third, society needs to recognise and celebrate a wide range of successes – not just managers and leaders, but also entrepreneurs, craftsmen, technicians, sportsmen, artists.

The provisions of SkillsFuture are generous and continuously calibrated. The challenge to SkillsFuture, however, is a cultural and systemic one.


Against a backdrop of increased global competition and disruptive innovations, Singapore is not leaving it to chance that a new learning ecosystem will emerge, one that favors lifelong learning and timely acquisition of deep skills over a chase for paper qualifications. In discussing the direction of educational change around the world, it is noteworthy that SkillsFuture champions a new normal of skills over grades in Singapore, one that will prove critical to the nation’s continued prosperity.

Book Preview: Future Directions of Educational Change

In this post, Helen Janc Malone, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Kristen Kew preview their newly published book, Future Directions of Educational Change. Rincón-Gallardo and Janc Malone also discuss their new book in a podcast titled “Separating Good Change from Bad” on Harvard’s EdCast. A brief interview with Santiago Rincón-Gallardo on the Huffington Post elaborates on his work in this book, focusing on the connection between social justice and deep learning.

Book Preview: Future Directions of Educational Change

By Helen Janc MaloneSantiago Rincón-Gallardo,Kristin Kew

Educational change and social justice have often been thought of as fields on parallel tracks; however, the growing body of equity-focused work in education indicates that the two areas should be approached as intertwined streams that must be understood, examined, and addressed together to move the needle on meaningful change in our schools and education system at large. The newly released book, Future Directions of Educational Change (Routledge, 2018), is an anthology of fresh, global perspectives, designed to start a dialogue on salient questions we must address at scale to realize positive outcomes for all young people. Our book addresses social justice, professional capital, and systems change, elevating thought-provoking arguments at the intersection of equity, practice, and policy.

The book opens with a section titled Social Justice. While equity of educational opportunities and student outcomes has long been acknowledged as a desirable educational goal, the educational change field has touched upon social justice superficially in at least two ways. First, questions of power, oppression, and individual and collective freedom have been left mostly unexplored or pursued. And second, the connection between schools and the larger context in which they operate rarely takes center stage.

The four chapters in this section highlight some of the core issues and propose ways forward to infuse educational change practice, policy, and research, with a deliberate focus on social justice. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo (Ch. 1) proposes four theses to link educational change to the pursuit of freedom and social justice. Allison Skerret (Ch. 2.) sheds light on transnational students, the challenges they face when attending school in multiple countries, and possible solutions at the levels of classroom practice, school management, and education policy. Alfredo Sarmiento and Vicky Colbert (Ch. 3) discuss the historical and philosophical foundations of positive discrimination – giving more to those in conditions of disadvantage – and feature Escuela Nueva in Colombia as an example of high-quality education for children in rural and other historically marginalized communities. Patti Lather (Ch. 4) discusses what it means to do empirical research in an unjust world and discusses some of the implications of searching for an emancipatory approach to research in the human sciences. Taken together, the chapters in this section offer key insights on how to turn educational change into a deliberate vehicle to advance the dual – and often conflicting – pursuit of (individual and collective) freedom and a harmonious social order.

Education is the catalyst and central motivator for increasing human prosperity and equity and building more socially just nations. Investing in professional capital and human agency is a necessary and integral part of enacting and sustaining systems change. Building on the ideas from the beginning section of the book on social justice in directing educational change, authors in the second section of our anthology focus on the need for sustained, socially just reforms through the building of professional capital. Authors in this section share their stories on successful educational change reforms in the United States, New Zealand, and Canada.

Jon Saphier (Ch. 8) discusses the need for teacher ownership and moving educators into the political arena in the United States. To Saphier, the problem is, “not uncovering the knowledge for good teaching and is not revealing the components of a knowledge-based profession…but how to mobilize collective action of those to whom the power constituencies listen” (p. 111). In Canada, according to Carol Campbell (Ch. 9), leadership at the top needs to support skills and opportunity for sharing professional learning and exemplary practices and to “facilitate knowledge exchange for spread and sustainability of practices” (p. 128). In her stories of the Maori and Pacifica tribes in New Zealand, Jan Robertson (Ch. 10) shares her research on advocacy for those who most need the resources and the importance of having a holistic knowledge of systems change that appreciates and empowers marginalized student populations.  Robertson shares how capital is developed and aligned within a system to achieve its goals. The last author in the professional capital section, Alan Daly (Ch. 11), shares that embracing the value of building professional capital alongside socially just initiatives can provide a larger system of change – moving from individual silos and traditional grammars to shared responsibility and socially-networked systems-thinking. This has and can support transformational leadership that moves isolated people and schools into system networks that inspire and motivate within and across borders.

Educational change that is focused on social justice and professional capital at its core requires reimagining systems change. The last section of the book is designed to provoke new ways of thinking about educational change. Beatriz Pont (Ch. 13) examines the role policy, politics, and people have played in the constant churn of school reforms that have done little to address the underlying causes of inequity or to bring coherence to both design and implementation of meaningful change. Brahm Fleisch (Ch. 14) situates his chapter in the Global South—India, Kenya, and South Africa—as nations that have received little attention in the Global North, yet whose methodological approaches bring intriguing perspectives on measuring and moving change at scale. Pak Tee Ng (Ch. 15) furthers the conversation by addressing the need for systems alignment between education and workforce to promote lifelong learning that propels a society forward, as it is the case in the recent Singaporean efforts. The book concludes with a coherence framework by Joanne Quinn and Michael Fullan (Ch. 16) who pave the way for emerging discourse on future directions, collaborative cultures, deeper learning, and shared accountability.

Overall, as Andy Hargreaves notes in the book’s foreword, “System-wide change movements are beginning to reconnect with the humanistic purposes that have classically been central to the basic idea of what education is—a process of “leading out” of the whole person, not of depositing rote learning in standardized forms into systems of banking education. In doing so, these movements are also reconnecting with what teachers have always most valued—that their job is to develop the whole person, build character, create citizens, open up opportunity, and cultivate kinds of success that amount to more than a set of grades and achievement scores” (p. xiv).

The book illuminates present thinking on educational change and challenges conventional approaches to research, practice, and policy, proposing instead equity-driven alternatives that could shape education of the future. As Dennis Shirley concludes in the book’s introduction, “Educators must now stand up to the nettlesome realities that now confront us with fortitude and dignity, mindful of our historical responsibilities and with full gravitas of the consequences should we falter” (p. 6).




Lead the Change with Osnat Fellus and Helen Janc Malone

Osnat Fellus is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. Her PhD work focuses on learning and teaching with a specific concentration in theories of identity in mathematics education. Dr. Helen Janc Malone is Director of Education Policy & Institutional Advancement and is National Director of the Education Policy Fellowship Program at the Institute for Educational Leadership. She is also an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University.

This Lead the Change issue captures a qualitative analysis of the first 70 issues of the series. These findings were presented at AERA 2017 in the Educational Change SIG symposium. Malone and Fellus offer a reflective notion of the series’ potential as a site for considering and reflecting on educational change:

One venue for engaging in conversation about educational change has been the Lead the Change Series (Educational Change SIG, 2011-present). The Series features both established and emerging educational change experts from around the globe who have engaged in groundbreaking scholarship. The Series serves to offer an opportunity to identify common challenges across contexts, to highlight promising research, to offer insight on small- and largescale educational change, and to spark collaboration across the educational change community.

This Lead the Change report, unlike the majority of issues, provides a broad overview of the series and reflects on its ongoing work. It explores many previous interviews, but also points to future trajectories for the series.

Change Series (Educational Change SIG, 2011-present). The Series features both established and emerging educational change experts from around the globe who have engaged in groundbreaking scholarship. The Series serves to offer an opportunity to identify common challenges across contexts, to highlight promising research, to offer insight on small- and largescale educational change, and to spark collaboration across the educational change community.

This Lead the Change report, unlike the majority of issues, provides a broad overview of the series and reflects on its ongoing work. It explores many previous interviews, but also points to future trajectories for the series.

Further Lessons with Pasi Sahlberg

                  Since its release in 2011, Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons (a version 2.0 was released in 2015) has galvanized researchers and practitioners working in fields of education–some coverage of this interest and reflections on Finland’s education system can be found in IEN’s archives over the past few years. Sahlberg’s book explores the evolution of Finland’s educational system into a world-class system. Many saw Finland’s story as offering a direct rebuke to increasing the standardization and increased testing occurring in the U.S. at that time. As Sahlberg traveled and spoke widely on the book, he began to notice ways in which these “lessons” were taken up or ignored. Building on these new “lessons,” Sahlberg recently came to Teachers College, Columbia University to discuss his new book, FinnishED Leadership, with Sam Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College. Jordan Corson, a Managing Editor of IEN, had a chance to attend this discussion and share some key takeaways with us here. Teachers College has also recorded a video of the event, which can be accessed here.

Sahlberg and Abrams began their conversation by exploring some of the surprising reactions to Finnish Lessons. Sahlberg was shocked by people who seemed to intensely seek reasons to discount the success of Finland’s education system. For example, some suggested that Finland’s success is easy to achieve given its small population. Sahlberg retorts that little changes when shifting the unit of analysis to something like the state level in the U.S. Additionally, Sahlberg found that many people began cherry picking ideas from Finnish Lessons and developing myths about the Finnish education system, something on which he elaborated later in the talk. Other people, greatly inspired by the book, wanted to know how to simply copy this system. Given that Finland’s success is rooted in a specific context, Sahlberg has tried to warn, “don’t try this at home.” At the same time, he does see potential in creating educational change inspired by the Finnish system. It was this type of response that spurred Sahlberg’s thinking for his new book.

FinnishED Leadership begins with what Sahlberg calls an “accidental lunch”—an anecdote about an encounter with former New York governor George Pataki before the two spoke at a conference. As Sahlberg describes it, he and the governor met at a lunch and discussed solutions to schooling problems in the United States. While the governor initially reiterated common refrains about the need to kick out bad teachers and hire good teachers or create more competition through school choice, he also appeared taken with some of Sahlberg’s insights into how Finland achieved its success and reputation. As they rode to the conference, Sahlberg wondered what it would mean if someone with the influence of Pataki suddenly took up and promoted these ideas. He pondered what it would mean if Pataki walked into the conference and said, “I have another speech written, but I’m not going to read that…”. While Pataki ultimately stuck to common thinking about education reform (Abrams reminded the audience that Sahlberg intentionally calls this movement a Global Education Reform Movement), this experience inspired Sahlberg to imagine other leaders taking up Finnish lessons. He wondered what the world could learn from educational changes in Finland.

After this anecdote, Sahlberg spoke to the main points in his book. First, he argued for more of a break in the school day. Breaks mean recess and time off for the kids, but they also mean a break for the teacher. Altering the rhythm of work, he argues, including providing specific spaces like break rooms, creates a much better work environment. Both students and teachers have more time to mess around and hang out, things that allow for rest but can also lead to productive learning. Second, Sahlberg argued for what he calls “leading with small data rather than big data.” What happens inside the classroom is something complex. It is often something for which there is no algorithm. Additionally, if attention is paid to the small data of everyday classroom life, then teachers gain more agency in decision making and a school’s direction. Sahlberg also cautioned that big data can lead to spurious correlations. He provided multiple examples, but perhaps the most intriguing is that increased ice cream consumption correlates to higher PISA results.

Third, Sahlberg pointed out that Finland’s success is rooted in notions of equity. He decries the notion that school must choose between excellence or equity, arguing that education systems can have both. He suggests that a system with high learning outcomes can and should also be an equitable system (and equity means enfranchising teachers, looking at whole learners, and attending to equity in areas such as socioeconomic status). Furthermore, Sahlberg contends that curricular equity relies on schools being able to make their own choices. Fourth, and concluding by returning to the earlier conversation about responses to his first book, Sahlberg talked about issues of “urban legends about Finnish schools.” For instance, he found that many people believed that Finnish students do not have homework. “Of course,” he told the audience, “Finns have homework. It’s just different. And it looks different.” Such myths relate to the broader idea of cherry picking ideas and applying them in isolation. Sahlberg argued that places that want to achieve Finland’s success focus specifically on outcomes but do not look at the many potential paths toward getting there. Speaking specifically about the U.S., he pointed out while the U. S. clamors for the secret to Finland’s success, Finnish schools borrow new research and practice from places like Canada and the U.S.  For instance, Finnish schools integrate Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences into everyday classroom life. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not deeply explored or incorporated such ideas, or even made steps to move beyond isolated ideas.

Sahlberg highlights these elements of the Finnish educational system, but also acknowledges the difficulties in their broad application. During the Q&A, Diane Ravitch interjected with a question of where we might find state level politicians who listen to these four suggestions. Another audience member asked about the difficulty of leading with small data in the face of international agencies (e.g. Sahlberg’s former employer, the World Bank) that increasingly focus on big data. Sahlberg noted these difficulties but affirmed the possibility of using work like his new book to influence such policymakers. Abrams also pointed to a number of examples of success: Dallas schools have begun to focus more on recess and play time, Orange County schools have emphasized science education, and the state of West Virginia has shifted its approach to standardized testing.

Ultimately, Sahlberg’s goals here are help lessons from Finland’s success translate across contexts. To do so in the U.S. and elsewhere will require complex coordination. The ideas may be deceptively simple; Sahlberg reminds us that the true difficulty is in their implementation.

-Jordan Corson

The Education Paradoxes of Singapore

In the latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Pak Tee Ng reflects on productive paradoxes driving Singapore’s apparent success and future direction. Pak Tee Ng is an Associate Professor in the Departments of the Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning and Policy & Leadership Studies at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and Associate Dean, Leadership Learning. He is currently leading several projects on topics related to educational change in Singapore, including teacher mentoring, teacher motivation, and school leader perspectives toward change. Pak Tee Ng has also been interviewed in the Lead the Change series, featured on IEN in 2015. His latest book, Learning from Singapore: Power of Paradoxes, expands upon the ideas raised in this post.

The Education Paradoxes of Singapore

The excellent results in various international comparative tests put Singapore into a select group of countries and jurisdictions hailed as shining examples of educational success. On the PISA 2012 tests, Singapore students excelled not only in mathematics and science, but actually did better in English reading and comprehension compared with those from English speaking countries (!). For a country in Asia, a continent where students are thought to be rote-learners rather than thinkers, it is against the grain that Singapore students also topped PISA’s 2012 computer-based assessment of problem solving. Interested parties from many countries and jurisdictions visit Singapore to find out its key success factors.  They are also curious as to where Singapore could possibly be heading next, if it is already at the top.

Key Success Factors

Many international experts have analyzed the key success factors of Singapore’s education system.  Generally, Singapore’s success is attributed to shrewd educational policies that take a long-term view, and that are implemented with high levels of fidelity by the schools. Its meritocratic system ensures that students’ advancement in the education system is not based on race, religion or family background, but on their academic merit.  Singapore invests heavily in education, not just for children but for the teachers as well.  It cultivates professional capital systematically by employing high quality teachers, supporting professional development, developing systematic career paths, and grooming promising educators to become leaders. The curriculum is rigorous and there are support programs for students who are lagging behind. There is strong school accountability through a sophisticated school self-evaluation system.

However, some people who know something about Singapore still find aspects of its education success puzzling.  Many people have asked me how Singapore could possibly develop students who were the best problem-solvers in the world, when these students were gearing themselves to do well in standardized tests. Others who have actually visited Singapore schools remarked to me that it was strange that all school leaders in Singapore they have spoken with seemed so proud about how they aligned themselves tightly with national policies and at the same time claimed that their school programs are different from other schools!  When I was overseas, one person asked me why some Singapore parents would want to send their kids to schools overseas if the Singapore school system was so good. Another from the same country asked me how she could get her children into Singapore government schools.  So, there seems to be a richer reality to these generalized key success factors. These are Singaporean paradoxes to be appreciated. That is why in my latest book, “Learning from Singapore: Power of Paradoxes” I shared the Singapore story, told from the lens of paradoxes, rather than the ‘usual’ key success factors.

To understand Singapore, one has to appreciate the multiple pictures of the country that sometimes appear contradictory.  You get a different picture depending on with whom you speak and the perspective that you take. For example, if you talk with the parent of a high performing student, you may get one picture. If you talk with the parent of a low performing student, you may get another picture. If you talk with the parent of a high performing student, who disappointingly did not achieve perfect scores, you may get yet another picture. If you talk with the parent of a low performing student who surprisingly achieved better-than-expected scores… you get the drift. Also, because Singapore’s education system is undergoing change, both new and old paradigms exist at the same time. So, you can find examples of activities that reflect the new paradigm. You can also find those that reflect the old one.  Singapore has students who are problem solvers and those who are rote learners, and even those who are both problem solvers and rote learners.  Therefore, there are many different pictures of Singapore, each focused on a different part of the rich tapestry of realities. That makes Singapore sometimes paradoxical.

But these paradoxes are sources of creative tensions. A key strength of Singapore is that it is able to embrace and draw strength from the creative tensions generated by these paradoxes. They drive dialogues, rather than wedges, because its educators are united in the moral purpose of education.  The result is positive change, albeit non-linear and non-clinical.

There are many paradoxes in Singapore, but I explored four in my book. The first paradox is ‘Timely Change, Timeless Constants’. Singapore pursues change relentlessly, especially in moving away from a system that is obsessed with examination results, to focus on holistic education and providing more pathways to success for children. Yet, it is also resolute in holding on to certain timeless constants – values that serve as the foundation for change. Singapore exhibits the courage to change what needs to be changed, and the wisdom to hold invariant what should not change.

The second paradox is ‘Compassionate Meritocracy’. Singapore adheres strictly to its governing principle of meritocracy. A person’s success should be based on merit, not on race, language or religion.  However, the meritocratic principle in the education system can also mean fierce competition among schools and among students.  Therefore, Singapore has been developing a compassionate side to the meritocratic system, where pathways are built to help children who may be left behind to find success too.

The third paradox is ‘Centralized Decentralization’, an approach of school system management that centralizes strategically to achieve system-level synergies, and decentralizes tactically so that each school may cater more specifically to its students.  That is why Singapore school leaders align their school tightly with national policies and at the same time design programs that are different from other schools to suit their own context!

The fourth paradox is ‘Teach Less, Learn More’, an exhortation to teachers to reflect on their pedagogies to engage students fully in the learning process. The idea is that if teachers teach less but teach better, students should learn more and learn better! In this way, Singapore tries to improve the teaching and learning dynamics in the classroom.

Future Direction

Where is the Singapore education system heading in the future? Although Singapore ranks highly on international comparative tests, it is keen to improve the quality aspects of education and to open up more pathways for young people with different strengths and aspirations to find success in their own ways.  Singapore aims to be an excellent school system for all, rather than a system with good schools for some.  In 2012, Heng Swee Keat, who was then the Education Minister, presented a vision of ‘Every School, a Good School’ for the education system. Actually, in Singapore, the baseline standard of all schools is held high enough so that any school is good enough to offer their students, regardless of socio-economic status, a good chance of future success.  Current Minister for Education (Schools), Ng Chee Meng, said in Parliament that “in many countries, parents are not optimistic that their children will have a good education if they come from the lower socio-economic quartiles. In Singapore, this is not the case. In the 2015 PISA results, about half of our Singaporean students in the bottom socio-economic quarter were found to be resilient, performing better than what their socio-economic status would otherwise predict. This is almost twice the OECD average.”  The current challenge is to get Singaporeans to embrace the idea that any school that their child may go to is a good one, and to reduce the competition in the country among parents to get children into ‘elite schools’.

The education system also hopes to develop in students an entrepreneurial spirit, so that they have the courage to pursue their passions beyond the classroom and the well-trodden paths in the future.  It starts with improving curriculum and pedagogy, so that children find joy of learning and will be intrinsically motivated to learn. The end result is a generation of young people with deep skills, expertise and zeal for lifelong learning. At an MOE awards ceremony in 2017, Minister Ng wore a bow tie and told the audience that it was special bow tie as it was made by a secondary four student from a local school.  Using cut-offs from tailors to make bow-ties suitable for different occasions, this student had won the 2016 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and represented Singapore in the 2017 Network for Teaching Enterprise (NFTE) Global Showcase in New York. Minister Ng said “A Secondary Four student, who was inspired by his school and had the foundation of knowledge to see what is possible, started a journey to chase his dreams. I do not know if he will succeed, but I will certainly make sure I support him. I hope our whole system will support his journey of discovery and exploration to chase his dreams.”

But, this change in education does not stop in schools.  Lifelong learning is what Singapore needs of its people.  Minister of Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung shared in Parliament the story of one of Singapore’s top film-makers, who went to a Polytechnic for an Advanced Diploma in Film Production, after fulfilling her parents’ wish for her to complete her university education.  Pursuing her passion, she would later win a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival.  Minister Ong commented that the story was one “of pragmatism and passion; of meeting parents’ expectations but still chasing your own dream; of lifelong upgrading yet not conforming to the notion that what follows a Degree must be a Masters degree or a PhD; of venturing beyond Singapore while remaining Singaporean at heart” and that this “is a story about what education can and should do for Singaporeans, for all of us, across every field.”


Singapore’s experience with educational change show that paradoxes can be powerful in driving positive change, provided people are united in a common purpose, and there is commitment and tenacity to see through meaningful and long-term education reform.  Despite achieving what would appear to be great success in education, Singapore is choosing to ditch its past success formula for the sake of the future.  It recognizes that every country or jurisdiction is different and each will have to find its own path.  For a small country that has survived against the odds for five decades, it has the gumption to chart its own path and every intention to thrive for many decades to come.

“Brand-name” teachers in Finland?

New York Times’ reporter Natasha’s Singer’s recent article on “brand-name” teachers, created quite a stir.  Reaction in the Times and elsewhere in the US focused on “topdog” teacher Kayla Dalzel and what EdSurge called the “murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products.” For me, the emergence of “brand-name” teachers in the US (and “super tutors” and “celebrity tutors” in places like Singapore and Hong Kong) also highlights both long-standing tensions between private gain and the public good and the way that cultural and economic context shapes education systems.

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had this summer with Pekka Peura, a Finnish high school math and physics teacher who could be described as an “entrepreneurial teacher.” Peura takes advantage of Finland’s celebrated autonomy for teachers by regularly trying out new ideas in his classroom.  At first, he simply experimented with changing his homework assignments, giving all the assignments to students in 7 week blocks rather than every single day, and letting students decide when and how to complete their work. Now he doesn’t use exams (almost unheard of in the highly exam-driven context of Finnish high schools and in math and physics courses in particular), and he doesn’t do any grading – the students evaluate themselves. Peura explained that he made these changes in his classroom in order to create learning activities and environments where students want to work hard and can evaluate and direct their own learning.

Peura surprised me, however, when he told me that, at the same time, he works systematically to build his reputation and “brand” among educators in Finland. He does that by making his teaching visible and sharing his plans and tools (like a seven week plan for teaching vector calculus) in his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube videos, as well as in a new book, Flipped Learning, by Marika Toivola, Markus Humaloja, and Peura (the book will be published in English this fall).

Peura’s efforts to “build his brand” have paid off. His Facebook page now has 13,000 members, and he regularly receives invitations to speak at conferences and visit other schools and other countries. He’s gained access to other noted educators and those who wield power and influence in education, and his books and other works certainly have a bigger audience than he would otherwise have had.

Since my Norwegian and Finnish colleagues consistently emphasize the importance of equity and common identity – and not building an “individual brand” – Peura’s approach seem more American than Nordic. But Peura has always had a larger goal in mind: changing the traditional, academic focus of the whole Finnish education system.  As Peura explained, building his reputation is a key means of encouraging other teachers take advantage of the autonomy offered in the Finnish education system and to pursue and share their own efforts to change conventional instruction. “We just need a lot of teachers that are creating their own books, and blogs and leading their own subjects,” he told me.

From Peura’s perspective, Finnish teachers need to go public precisely because it is so counter-cultural. Although the Finnish education system is well-known for supporting teachers’ autonomy and independence, Finnish teachers are not particularly prone to collaborate or share their work. Furthermore, although many know the Finnish education system is high-performing, as Saku Tuominen (an expert on innovation and founder of HundrED) regularly points out, few people can name a single innovative educational tool or practice developed in Finnish classrooms (but everyone seems to know that Angry Birds was launched in Finland).

Given these circumstances, Peura explained to me that he feels that he not only needs to go public with his own work, he needs to help build an audience that is interested in hearing from educators and to encourage other educators to make their work and ideas public as well.  As he put it, “if you have some good tools or ideas to share, there is no one to share with unless people will listen to you.”

At the same time, Peura makes it clear that the relationship between commercial enterprises and classrooms in Finland is also dramatically different from the US.  As he wrote to me:

In Finland we don’t promote companies very easily. I don’t know any teacher, who gets money from some company to advertise them. But it is familiar that some companies give technology hardware or software for free for some classrooms to test them. But we give fair feedback, if the product doesn’t work in the classroom, it is said out loud.

From my point of view it is really important NOT to connect your name-brand with some one company, because we are a very small [community] and teachers know each other, especially if you are a well known teacher, and it eats into your credibility as a change maker. And one thing that is also quite common in Finland is that we try to seek open/free solutions, so if there is a free and a commercial product/solution, we promote the free one. It is crucial for your credibility to promote commercial products only if it’s the best and only solution for some problem. 

There are teachers like Kayla Dalzel and Pekka Peura all over the world, and all have to contend with the tensions between personal gain and the public good, but the context is different.  In this case, when it comes to the US and Finland, it all comes down to trust.  In Finland, they trust teachers.  In the US, we don’t.

We sometimes forget why that’s the case.  As Peura points out, trust, visibility and reputation are inextricably linked everywhere, but Finnish educators work in a system designed to build trust in teachers. US educators do not.


Tom Hatch

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Lead the Change Interview with Kenneth Russell

Kenneth Russell is an Education Specialist with UNICEF, currently focusing on education reforms in Zimbabwe. Previously, he worked in Sri Lanka and in Jamaica, where he studied community participation in schools. He holds an Ed.M. in International Education Policy and Ed.D. from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Russell shares his perspective on the vital role of public education in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially as governments are strapped for resources and for-profit and non-governmental organizations appear to offer more successful services in the short-term. While acknowledging the importance of cross-sector partnerships, he emphasizes the need to support sustainable, systemic changes that respond to particular African cultural and political contexts. Russell argues priorities should be on comprehensive reform, such as curriculum and teacher preparation, and meaningfully including youth in the process of educational change. As he puts it, reflecting on the AERA 2017 theme of “Dreams, Possibilities, and the Necessity of Public Education”:

The dream, which we should all share, is for public education systems to develop robust curricula and provide the investments that allow all children to complete a high quality basic education. This education should help young people develop the range of skills and competencies required for 21st century citizenship. This requires strong, and in some cases, non-traditional partnerships within a robust public education framework. This education framework should allow for flexibility in how education is offered and who provides educational services; it should be creative and innovative in terms of how content is developed and delivered; it should be robust in regulation, supervision, and support for service providers, teachers and students, and; it should be unflinching in the drive to ensure the most marginalized get priority access to education services.

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 Nic Spaull, himself based in South Africa.