Tag Archives: Singapore

Revisiting The Power And Paradoxes of Education In Singapore: Lead The Change Interview With Pak Tee Ng

This week’s post features a Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Dr. Pak Tee Ng, Associate Professor, at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University. At the NIE, Dr. Ng previously served as Associate Dean Leadership Learning and Head of the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group. His main work is in educational change, policy and leadership. His latest book is “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes” (Routledge, 2017).

This is the fifth in a series of interviews inviting some of the authors of earlier Lead the Change interviews to review their previous responses and consider how they might modify/ adjust/add to what they wrote based on their experiences and insights since publication.  The fully formatted interview and the original interview  from 2015 can be found on the LtC website of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  

Lead the Change: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?

Pak Tee Ng: My previous interview in Lead the Change Series was published in 2015. Most of the questions then were about the key success factors and developments in the Singapore education system at that time. Since then, in 2017, I published my book called “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes”, which is part of the Routledge Leading Change series edited by Andy Hargreaves and I. In my 2015 interview, as well as my 2017 book, I pointed out a very important philosophy in the Singapore education system: “Education is an investment, not an expenditure.” We invested heavily in our public education system and professional development of our teachers.  We ensured our children would receive good education even during periods of tough economic conditions. Our education system worked to shift its focus from quantity to quality. Instead of obsessing over examination results, we tried to help students appreciate what they were learning, to apply their new knowledge in real life and to experience joy in learning. The education system provided more pathways to nurture different talents and fulfill different aspirations. Those points are still valid today. Singapore’s education system is always a work in progress. There is still much room for improvement.  But let me give readers an update regarding the more recent initiatives in Singapore through a few examples.

First, we changed our national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system. Instead of absolute points, students with scores within a certain range are now awarded the same grade. In doing so, we hoped to reduce the keen competition and high stress levels among students because they would no longer need to chase after every point. We also scrapped some mid-year exams at the lower primary levels.  Teachers can use the time originally reserved for examinations to engage students in activities that develop them holistically. At the secondary level, we introduced subject-based banding in the place of streaming. In streaming, students in a particular stream take all their subjects at a particular pace. In subject-based banding, students can engage in subjects in which they have strengths at a faster pace than some of their peers. We hope to give students more flexibility to take various subjects based on their strengths and learning pace.

Second, we are also promoting a culture of lifelong learning in the country through the SkillsFuture initiative, a movement that encourages Singaporeans to learn and acquire deep skills continuously throughout life. This is a national effort to shift the focus from academic performance as the primary measure of success and towards mastery of deep, practical, skills relevant to industries and the future economy.  For example, many Singaporeans use SkillsFuture credits (essentially financial sponsorship from the government) to learn how to better function in a digital workplace.

LTC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?

PTN: In my book, I explained the importance of a paradox in Singapore, which I called “timely change, timeless constants.” There is change, and there is continuity. Education in Singapore has to change to keep up with the times, but there are certain evergreen principles in education that we do not change. For example, in Singapore, an evergreen principle is that we see education as investment rather than an expenditure1. Keeping evergreen principles, in itself, is an important principle in the field of educational change. We need both change and continuity. To change or not to change, that is a question that needs both courage and wisdom to answer.

“We need both change and continuity. To change or not to change, that is a question that needs both courage and wisdom to answer.”

Education is highly influenced by technological advancement and changes in industries and work. New jobs appear and traditional ones disappear. Everywhere in the world, education has to change to keep itself relevant and to prepare children for the future. But because we must change continuously, we must exercise good judgement on what to change, rather than to jump on the bandwagon of any new reform. Sometimes, when everyone seems to be constantly and mindlessly changing, those who stand firm on solid fundamentals, stand out! For example, why does the release of international test rankings so often move educational systems, that were often previously unwilling to evolve, to change? Why should such tests become wake up calls? We should take education seriously, with or without international comparisons!

In my book, I also mentioned another important principle. Education reform is usually a contested process because every intervention has its benefits and consequences. Different stakeholders have different ideas about change and thus there will be tensions among these groups as they negotiate solutions. And yet, despite these tensions, for half a century, Singapore has been able to reform its education system quite systemically and systematically. These reforms include giving schools more autonomy and moving away from an examination-oriented system. Despite differences in opinions, there is generally coherence in the system and change is implemented with order and method.  Therefore, the main question here is whether reform is shouting slogans superficially or fighting missions meaningfully. Slogans fade away, replaced by new ones in perpetual cycles. Missions rally people to bite the bullet of change to benefit the next generation. So, academics in the field of educational change must take care so advancement in the field does not become ammunition for slogan shouting, but rather becomes the driving force for purposeful change. Real substance, which focuses on really improving learning and teaching, lasts. Fads, which distract us from such improvement efforts, don’t.

LTC: What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going?

PTN: I think that if the field of educational change can succeed in advocating for the importance of formulating far-sighted education policies (rather than knee-jerk reactions), based on sound fundamental principles (such as equity and excellence) and implemented tenaciously over the years, that will be exciting. I have observed some jurisdictions that have flip-flopped too often in their education policies. That is difficult for stakeholders, especially the professionals on the ground, who need stability to create a conducive environment for students to learn. We need change that is meaningful and purposeful, and that is given the necessary time to bloom.

“We need change that is meaningful and purposeful, and that is given the necessary time to bloom.”

An evidence-based approach to change is important. But I am more concerned that evidence-based decision-making is sometimes actually decision-based evidence gathering. Someone has made up his or her mind about something and is just looking for ‘evidence’ to support their case. Therefore, I think other than researching for evidence, or developing more measures of performance or comparisons, it would be exciting to develop a deeper and more philosophical discourse about educational change. Many jurisdictions make changes structurally in response to performance measures and comparisons. Not that many districts currently address fundamental issues such as meaning and joy in learning, or student well-being and character education.

For many of us who work in this field (and indeed in any other field), we have benefitted from more senior academics who advised us or opened doors for us. This is not about the direction of the field per se, but I think it will be exciting if there is a systematic way of paying it forward. One way is what this SIG has done for a few years through its mentoring of students and early career faculty! The SIG provides a platform for mentors and mentees from different parts of the world to come together. I think it is great for growth, understanding, and continuity in the field. As an example, I served as a mentor last year and I had a mentee from the United States. It was great as I had an opportunity to understand her work and I brought her in contact to some others working in the same field. I hope to see such mentoring expand its scope and influence.  

LTC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?

PTN: Do not change for the sake of change! Do not charge forward blindly just because the fast-pace change in the world seems to mandate change at a fast pace in education. I am not suggesting that schools and systems should look for excuses not to change, or to take a “back to basics” approach for everything. However, it is good that we sometimes examine certain fundamentals to either refute, revise, or reaffirm them. So, a discussion about improving access to education and/or student well-being is more inspiring than how one jurisdiction can outdo another in international comparisons, although the latter can appear more pressing due to political pressure or media attention. The way to stay strong under such pressure is to commit ourselves to fundamentals and proceed on a sure footing, even when progress seems slow. The main question is whether one would like to do good or just appear good. Of course, it would be great to be able to do good and appear good at the same time. But when it is a choice between one or the other, one chooses to focus on doing good, rather than appearing good.

Improving education is a long process. Change is seldom, if at all, neat and orderly. We need to be patient and adaptable. The approach to change is also important. We should increasingly draw upon the expertise of the professional teaching community. The professionals in school should feel they are engaged and empowered in the change process. They should not be made to feel that change is done to them. As a result of greater teacher input, the innovations that emerge in schools will be more organic and appropriate to the operating context and gain wider acceptance.

Most importantly, those who are interested in affecting change and improvement should embrace a very positive spirit of education. They should believe passionately that they are not merely doing a job, but they are, as an education fraternity, contributing to the future of the next generation. Education is not just about transferring knowledge and skills. It is about building lives.  

LTC: What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

PTN: During my 2015 Lead the Change interview, I pointed out that while many educational researchers bemoaned policy makers’ failure to pay attention to research, perhaps academics (including myself) also ought to examine the nature of our academic output. I think that point is still valid and perhaps even more pertinent than ever. In the area of nutrition, I am not sure how I should understand the field’s various research reports, each saying different things, for example, about the benefits or perils of consuming egg yolks or red wine. So, what does a person who is more confused than enlightened by all these reports do? Just rely on common sense and eat in moderation! In the same way, I think academics, who would like to advocate change, have to work together on a common message that is easily accessible and understood by all stakeholders. 

Academics can be powerful advocates of positive educational change by highlighting areas that require attention (for example, the needs of the disadvantaged), but they also have to work well with policy makers and other stakeholders so research findings can really hit sweet spots in practice. Moreover, we have to re-examine the meaning of ‘impact’ in educational research.  For tenure considerations, academics aim to publish papers in high-impact journals. That is not wrong. But often the general public does not understand the content in these journals given the esoteric way it is communicated. Therefore, academia becomes an ‘exclusive club’ in which only some have access. We would not want a defense lawyer who was good at collecting evidence to speak in lawyers’ jargon rather than plain language to a jury. In the same way, I hope that educational researchers who do good work can translate that work to a lay audience.  One future research direction is to make research relevant and accessible. This is not the role of just one researcher. It should be the collective quest of all academics.

“One future research direction is to make research relevant and accessible. This is not the role of just one researcher. It should be the collective quest of all academics.”

While doing the final refinements to this interview piece, Covid-19 struck. In many parts of the world, many students learned at home through the use of internet. Over a short span of time, teachers who were not inclined to use information and communications technology (ICT) in teaching were forced to do so. Many picked up skills of using online learning tools because of necessity. Covid-19 also threw into sharp relief the divide between families who were well equipped for home-based leaning, and those who were not. Well-designed research will be critical to understand the experiences of teachers, students, parents, and school leaders as they all adapted to the change. What worked? What did not? What were the challenges? What were the lessons learned? Well-articulated findings will be very helpful to policy formulation: what has changed, what still needs to be changed, and what changes, if they were positive, need consolidation after the pandemic. A point has been made that teachers should not simply replicate their lessons in the virtual medium, but to develop new and more effective ways to help students learn. That is a good point. So, what are these new and more effective ways? Why are they more effective?

The world is shaken up by Covid-19 and policy makers are looking for guidance in making decisions regarding schooling during and after the pandemic. There is a time for quick reaction during the pandemic so that learning could continue in some form, but there is also a time for careful deliberation regarding long term change after the pandemic. Academics should step up as thought leaders. Reflect. Research. Argue. But make the discourse simple. Make it clear.

Notes

1. During the 2008-9 global financial crisis, Singapore’s economy was badly affected but the education budget increased from S$8.0 billion before the financial crisis in 2008 to S$8.7 billion during the crisis in 2009, so that Singaporeans would be ready to take up new challenges when the economy picked up [read Ng, P. T. (2017), Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes. New York: Routledge, pp. 50-51].  During the current covid-19 pandemic, the government raised the quantum of various school-related subsidies and bursaries, and topped up SkillsFuture credit for Singaporeans to pick up new skills for better job prospects. For more information about Budget 2020, please read https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2020

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change SIG, Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

Response to PISA: Exploring the success of Singapore

Last week, when the PISA 2015 scores were released, Thomas Hatch shared a response and a scan of headlines from around the world. We reached out to an international group of scholars and asked them to share their own response to the PISA results as well. Today we share a comment from Dr. Saravanan Gopinathan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

2016 has been a good year for Singapore Education. Results released in the TIMSS and PISA assessments shows a sustained trend towards high performance in Maths. Science and Literacy. Those who are critical of Singapore’s education model point to two features. One is that while Singapore students have admirable mastery of PISA content domains, they are incapable of problem solving, applying content to authentic situations, etc. This is attributed to teacher dominated teaching, memorisation and extra out-of-school coaching. The other is that while Singapore may have an excellent system, it is not sufficiently equitable, showing a long tail in performance. And yes, we have not produced any Nobel Prize winners.

What can be said in its defense? There has been a conscious, sustained effort since 1997 to promote knowledge building pedagogies via curriculum and assessment reform, teacher professional development and textbook redesign. It would be reasonable to assume that in a tight compact system like Singapore, reforms are beginning to change teaching and learning practices. With regard to the second, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has pointed to the fact Singapore’s proportion of low performers in each of the three domains is at about 10% among the lowest of all participating systems and its proportion of top performers in each domain is the highest among all participating education systems.

Let us enjoy our status as a top education reference system, at least until the next PISA results!

For more from Dr. Gopinathan, read “Real Singaporean Lessons: Why do Singaporean students perform so well on PISA?” which was published as part of the Leading Futures series on IEN.

For more on the recent PISA results, explore the following recent articles:

Pisa results 2016: Singapore sweeps the board http://buff.ly/2hr1zYN (TES, 12/6)

Behind Singapore’s PISA rankings success http://buff.ly/2hsWfRB (ABC online, 12/7)

Asian countries dominate, science teaching criticised in PISA survey http://buff.ly/2hsS3RJ (Business World, 12/7)

 

Real Singaporean Lessons: Why do Singaporean Students perform so well in PISA?

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Zongyi Deng and S. Gopinathan shine a spotlight on the success of Singapore’s school system and argue that the country’s success comes from educational policies and practices that have helped to develop social cohesion, economic development, and nation building. As Deng and Gopinathan suggest, reforms that aim to borrow “best practices” must consider the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part.

Singapore has been widely recognised as one of the world’s top-performing systems. Its extraordinary record of students’ performance in international comparative studies of achievement includes: first in problem-solving, second in mathematics, and third in science and reading (PISA 2012); second in mathematics, fourth in science and fifth in reading (PISA 2009); first in science (both primary 4 and secondary 2 levels) and second in mathematics (primary 4 level), and third in mathematics (secondary 2 level) (TIMSS 2007); and fourth among 45 education systems (PIRLS 2006). What explains the top rankings in the current PISA tests? What lessons, if any, could Singapore offer other countries who want to improve on their educational performances?

As with other high-performing countries, answers to these two questions can be found in a body of literature (reports, books and articles) written by international organizations like the OECD and the World Bank, consultancy firms like McKinsey and Grattan, and educational spokesmen and scholars like Pasi Sahlberg and Pat Tee Ng. Singapore is said to have a high- quality teaching force ensured and enhanced by high standards of teacher recruitment, effective teacher preparation and professional development. The school system is run by high-quality school leadership developed through careful selection, leadership experiences and professional development programmes. In addition, the country sets high academic expectations and standards for its students and monitors the performance of schools against those expectations and standards. Furthermore, Singapore is noted to have implemented educational reform to promote student-centric and ICT-enhanced pedagogy that encourages deep learning, critical thinking and creativity.

Overall, this body of literature adopts the “best practice” approach to explaining the educational success of a high-performing system wherein a set of particular characteristics are identified and translated into best practices for borrowing worldwide. However, whether the identified characteristics are causally linked to the system’s superior performance in PISA is an open question, with little or no empirical evidence to justify the identification. In addition, lacking in such explanation are those factors beyond school—educational history, family aspirations, parental involvement, private tuition, etc.—that could play a part in PISA success, particularly in Asian countries.

In our latest article (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016), we provide an alternative explanation for Singapore’s education success and, in so doing, question such an approach to explaining the education success of a high-performing country. From a historical perspective, education has played a vital role in the success story of Singapore—the remarkable transformation from a fishing village to a first world country over four decades.  Such a transformation has much to do with the effective implementation of a set of educational policies and reforms by a strong and competent government. Among these policies were the bilingual policy in the 1950s which encourages Singaporeans to be proficient in both the English language and in their respective ethnic mother tongues (Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil), and the streaming policy in the late 1970s which track primary and secondary students into various streams based on their examination results.  The implementation of the bilingual policy entails a commitment to equality with respect to language rights of the three main ethic groups and a recognition of the necessity and value of English as an international language to Singapore.  The streaming policy, modified and adjusted over the years, has reduced attrition and early school leaving.  In addition, the government mandated and implemented a uniform and common curriculum (taught in English) centered on the study of mathematics, science and languages, with technical subjects as a supplement, and made a firm commitment to the principle of meritocracy.  Universal free primary education and curriculum standardization were achieved by the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively. In short, educational policy and practice in Singapore has functioned as a means for social cohesion, a vehicle for economic development, and for nation building.

While it has been sometimes fashionable to decry the significance of school education in the West, and indeed be skeptical about the role schools can play in social, civic, and even economic functions, in Singapore there are few such doubts (Gopinathan, 2007). This leads to our questioning of the employment of PISA results as the prime yardstick of the educational performance of an education system. The primary function of school education as conceived in PISA is economic—developing competencies for the economy in the 21st century. Such a conception entails a narrowing of the function of education, thus reducing the social and civic significance of an education system.

The historical perspective also brings to light two basic features of the system that may better help explain Singapore’s high rankings in PISA:

First, the national curriculum stresses the development of students’ competences in mathematics, science and languages – the three subjects tested in PISA.  Second, a commitment to academic rigour and standards, underpinned by the principle of meritocracy and enforced by a system of national high-stakes examinations (PSLE [Primary School Leaving Examination], ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels), has lifted the floor under the quality of teaching and learning for all student groups throughout the school years (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016).

However, the national curriculum, together with the high-stakes examination system, has steered classroom practice towards a kind that is still largely traditional and didactic in nature, directed towards the transmission of curriculum content and examination performance. Since the mid-1980s the government has attempted to alter such a traditional practice through educational reform.  The most progressive and radical reform came in 1997 when then Prime Minister Goh introduced the framework of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN). Subsequently, a plethora of reform initiatives have been rolled out in schools, which aim at producing pedagogical changes characterized by: (1) more opportunities for constructing knowledge, higher-order thinking, and innovation; (2) more meaningful use of ICT for teaching and learning;  (3) more time on interdisciplinary learning and a greater emphasis on knowledge application.

What has been the impact of reform initiatives on conventional classroom practice? What is the present nature of pedagogy in Singapore’s classrooms? According to the findings of Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) in the National Institute of Education (NIE),

Notwithstanding multiple reform initiatives to encourage the TSLN’s pedagogical vision, pedagogical practice in Singapore’s classrooms has remained largely traditional, directed towards curriculum content delivery and examination performance. There is very little evidence of sustained teaching for higher order thinking, meaningful use of ICT, students’ constructing knowledge, and interdisciplinary learning (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016)

This finding, in fact, is consistent with what is found in the international literature about the inability of reform to alter conventional classroom practice.

It is therefore questionable that the success of Singapore in PISA can be attributable to the government’s implementation of educational reforms aimed at transforming classroom pedagogy. In fact, if TSLN’s reform initiatives had an impact on classroom practice, it would probably have led to a fall in students’ performance in PISA. There is empirical evidence in Finland and Canada (Quebec) confirming that when the traditional and teacher-centred pedagogy is replaced by a student-centric, constructivist one, the PISA results of a system decline (Sahlgren, 2015).

The CRPP’s empirical findings reveal a distinct kind of ‘hybrid pedagogy’ that serves to explain in part Singaporean students’ success in PISA:

  • Classroom teaching is largely driven by content coverage and preparing students for semester-end and high-stakes examinations, with the primary focus on the transmission of knowledge and skills contained in the national curriculum (represented by teaching and examination syllabi).
  • Accordingly, classroom teachers tend, to a large degree, to rely on whole-class forms of lesson organisation, with whole-class lectures and question-and-answer sequences (IRE) as the dominant methods. They also depend heavily on textbooks and instructional materials and provide students with a significant amount of worksheets and homework, with a special focus on their mastery of specific procedures and problem-solving skills.
  • When teachers do make limited use of constructivist pedagogical methods – such as checking prior knowledge, monitoring understanding and providing formative feedback – they largely do so for the purpose of getting students to know the correct answers rather than developing their conceptual understanding and higher order thinking. Classroom talk, largely dominated by teachers and used mostly for checking content mastery, does not lead to extended conversation and critical thinking on the part of the students (Deng & Gopinathan, 2006; also see Hogan, 2014).

And, this pedagogy is regulated and shaped by a centralized education system, with a national curriculum that prescribes what is to be learnt and taught. It is also powerfully driven by high stakes examinations which stream students into various school types and curriculum tracks based on their examination performances.

In view of such pedagogy and its underpinning cultural and institutional arrangements, Singapore’s superior performance in PISA no longer appears to be a miracle.  Here comes a paradox. Singapore’s pedagogy is still largely conservative, directed toward the transmission of predetermined content and examination performance. Yet PISA is strongly forward-looking and future-oriented, with the ambition of testing skill in authentic contexts deemed essential for the 21st century. If this is true, then Singapore’s pedagogy must be seen as functioning well in preparing students for the 21st century. However, it has been widely recognized that such pedagogy is ineffective in developing individual talents, critical and innovative thinkers for the knowledge-based economy.

The paradox exists because of the uncritical acceptance of PISA by many politicians and policy-makers.  PISA tests, framed by the test taking situation and in the form of paper-and pencil items, do not live up to its promise of testing real-life skills and competencies in authentic contexts. Furthermore, the claim that PISA measures the competencies needed for 21st century, Stefan Hopmann argues, is unwarranted and questionable; OECD provides neither sufficient justifications nor systemic research evidence for it.

In conclusion, the social, cultural and institutional contexts of schools in Singapore, and the kind of pedagogy regulated, supported, and constrained in such contexts, are vital in understanding Singapore’s top rankings in the current PISA tests. It is therefore questionable that one can borrow “best practices” from a system without a careful consideration of the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part. Furthermore, the OECD’s claims that PISA results provide the prime indicator of the educational performance of a country and that PISA measures skills needed for life in the 21st century are questionable and contested.

Notes on Authors

Zongyi Deng is an associate professor at National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

S. Gopinathan is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

 

Professional Learning in Top Performing Systems, part 2

PDinfographicv2The National Center on Education and the Economy’s (NCEE) Center on International Education Benchmarking has released two reports on professional learning environments in top performing systems: Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems and Developing Shanghai’s TeachersTo explore and share the findings of these reports, the NCEE held a conference last week featuring presentations and panel conversations with the leading voices in education from around the world. This conference was also streamed live and can be viewed online. Moderated by Marc Tucker, president and CEO of NCEE, speakers included Ben Jensen (author of Beyond PD) and Minxuan Zhang (author of Developing Shanghai’s Teachers).

Ben Jensen began his presentation with the questions, “What is at the core of high performing professional learning systems? What is the strategy to ensure effectiveness?”

Jensen argued that we need to move past the idea that there is a single answer. Instead, we need to understand the fundamentals behind effective professional learning. We need to think about an overall strategy for change, rather than specifics, such as how many hours should be required, or the regulatory environment. According to Jensen, high performing education systems around the world all have one thing in common. They are all really clear in their belief that school improvement = professional learning.

While countries such as Australia and the United States set high expectations for outcomes and leave it up to schools and teachers to meet those expectations in any way they see fit, top performing systems such as Shanghai and Singapore don’t take the same approach. Instead they look for broad policies that will make sure organizations have great professional learning, and talk about accountability as being a cornerstone of good practice for professional learning. While Australia and the U.S. see a dichotomy between development and accountability, higher performing education systems look at the two as interconnected, with several individuals directly accountable for the quality of professional learning.

Jensen explained that assessment of student learning is at the heart of professional learning in high performing education systems. These systems recognize how difficult it is to assess student learning well, and yet how fundamental it is to good teaching. They start by identifying student learning needs, and then how to change instruction. They look at evidence, try new things, work together, and evaluate impact. This inquiry approach has different names in different countries. For example, Singapore has Professional Learning Communities, while Shanghai has Learning Groups. Yet, these approaches are all focused on teacher learning and aligned with accountability (not focused solely on outcomes). Responsibility is shared, and individuals are held accountable for how well they collaborate with each other.

To read the full report: Beyond PD

Deirdre Faughey

Leading school change in Singapore

How do school principals make sense of education reforms that push them into unchartered territory?   I recently spoke with Dr. Vicente Reyes, Lecturer, with the School of Education, University of New England, Australia, who argues that when schools leaders are faced with uncertainty they have an opportunity to create the future they would like to see. In 2015, Reyes published a study titled “How do school leaders navigate ICT educational reform? Policy learning narratives from a Singapore context.” In this study, Reyes (2015) examined the experiences of school leaders in Singapore as they grappled with policy reforms that aimed for ubiquitous use of information communication and technology (ICT). Reyes (2015) found that as they tried to respond to these policies, school leaders experienced “shifting identities, emerging roles and ambivalent capacities.”

The policymakers Reyes spoke with described ICT as the “external wings that would propel the economy to the next stage.” As Singapore has a small domestic market of only 4 million people, cloud technology is valued for the potential it holds to help the country reach out internationally, to China, India and beyond. Similar to the view that the cloud technology can broaden Singapore’s economic reach, Education Ministry Officials also view it as holding the potential to broaden the traditional definition of a classroom, and therefore develop the skills and competencies students will need to participate in this future economic market. However, while the direction forward has been identified, and education has been identified as the vehicle for implementing the required changes, no one knows exactly what changes need to be made or how it will play out.

As the Singaporean education context is highly structured and focused on high stakes exams, both in primary and secondary school, the ICT reforms introduced a promise of creativity and experimentation that was a stark contrast to the traditional “drill and kill” educational focus. However, the new policy introduced a predicament for school leaders who need to remain high achievers while experimenting with creativity.

Reyes shows that in order to respond to this predicament, school leaders had to adopt a pioneering spirit. Since these leaders didn’t have prior experiences or examples to learn from, they needed to go outside of their comfort zones, which can be unnerving. Reyes used the metaphor of a captain on a ship— a ship in the middle of an ocean without functioning navigation tools. As Reyes explained, “If you don’t move forward, you will find peril. If you do, you might hit an iceberg. School leaders need to make those decisions.”

In order to help school leaders navigate these difficult contrasts, as Reyes explained, Singapore’s Ministry of Education has made an effort to promote create incentives to encourage innovation and eliminate pressures that might limit risk-taking. One example is their “Coyote Funds,” or funds given to school leaders to use for experiments. MOE officials encourage school leaders to think of the goal of these projects as experimentation that leads to learning rather than to focus on whether or not they are “successful.” However, as Reyes explained, a number of the proposals for Coyote Funds were rejected for their “failure to be true failures,” or insufficiently innovative. Each proposal was scored and evaluated, which ultimately supported Singapore’s high stakes status quo. While Singapore is interested in creating an education model inspired by what they view as a meritocratic and creative U.S.A. school model, Reyes cautions that the changes may be incremental rather than fundamental or transformational.

–Deirdre Faughey

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21st Century Skills in Japan

Regular IEN contributor Paul Chua has reported several times on Singapore’s efforts to shift to a focus on 21st Century skills. As part of an exchange program with Waseda University, he had a chance to visit several schools in Japan and learn about their approach to 21st Century skills. In this post, with contributions from Prof Takao Mimura, Dean of Waseda Graduate School of Teacher Education, Paul reflects on what he observed in visits to four elementary, junior high and senior high schools, as well as interaction sessions with student teachers of the Waseda Graduate School of Teacher Education.

In Japan, as in Singapore, the competencies and pedagogical moves associated with 21st Century competencies are seen as a central means of using education to ensure sustained economic prosperity in the years to come. These 21st Century aspirations have been articulated in a New Growth Strategy announced by the Japanese government in June 2010 as well as in “The Future Vision on Career Education and Vocational Education at School,” by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in January 2011. Further, the 21st century competencies I observed in the Japanese classrooms I visited were not dissimilar from what I have known in Singapore: problem solving, communication, collaboration and use of Information Communications Technologies (ICT).

In the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classes I visited at the Suwadai Junior High School, curriculum design and classroom pedagogy has been shifted to teach these competencies. For example, teachers are asked to design their instruction around any of four pedagogical moves seen as supporting these competencies: discussion; use of ICT; use of library as a learning center; and utilization of guest lecturers. In one lesson that leveraged ICT and discussion, the teacher used a jigsaw strategy to break the students into groups to discuss the ICT-based research work that they had been doing. The discussion centered on evaluating the quality of the research work that they had completed. When the group discussion was over, selected students had to make presentations of the group findings and discussion. In another class, using discussion and guest lecturers, students were set instructional tasks that required them to rank and discuss their ranking of student art works and to compare their rankings with professional artists who had been invited to the school. In a science class, students compared and contrasted a video simulation of a science experiment with their own experience with the same experiment. Even in a physical education class, students reflected on and critiqued their baton-passing in a video-tape of their performance in a relay race.

In another school, the Shioiri Higashi Primary School, we were given an understanding of how Japanese education tries to support the development of a sense of teamwork and collaboration in the students. It is instructive that the school objectives are to help the school community to “shine together, learn together, communicate with each other and to support each other.” Social interaction and collaboration are a focus of attention in both the daily classroom instruction and other school activities. These include mixed-age interactive activities involving students from across grade levels a few times a year as well as activities involving students from the neighboring junior high school who come over to read with the younger students. In other Japanese schools, community life is also a way of living and learning. Large-scale communal activities in virtually all Japanese schools include Entrance and Graduation Ceremonies, and annual Sports Day and Choral Festivals. Although the school lunch might be outsourced to private operators, students are required to serve themselves and the cleaning up of classrooms and the school by students is part of the curriculum.

At the Waseda Senior and Junior High Schools, which are elite private schools, we witnessed how policies (as opposed to activities) could be used to promote the 21st century competencies. For example, the senior high school students do not need to sit for the matriculation examinations to gain entry to Waseda University. According to the headmaster, the rationale for such a policy is to remove the pressure of to master examination techniques so that the students can develop holistically i.e. spiritually, morally with a hope of living in the future world. When asked to elaborate, the headmaster stressed that the purpose of the education in the schools is to help the students to answer the question of “who are they?” and then to choose their university and career options based on this understanding. He did not want the students to just choose a prestigious university without regard of their interests and abilities.

Although the whole exchange visit gave me a good peek into how some Japanese schools are preparing their students for living in the future world, it should be noted that the schools selected for our visit were higher performing ones. Nonetheless, the approaches to developing the 21st century competencies we saw in Japan are broadly similar to those used in Singapore schools, including using non-academic activities to develop the social competencies and allowing select groups of students to bypass some milestone examinations.

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The “biggest-ever” league table?

The latest education report from the OECD ranks 76 countries according to the percentage of the population that lacks basic skills. The report, by Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, derives the ranking from the latest test scores from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year-olds and the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 14-year-olds. In what BBC News called the “biggest-ever education league table,” Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan (again) top the charts. Coming in at number six, Finland is the top-ranking non-Asian country. Our latest scan of education news around the world finds many media reports highlighting the relative ranking of particular countries, but a number mention as well the report’s claims of a connection between improving performance on the tests and economic growth. At the same time, it is worth noting that not everyone agrees there is a straightforward relationship between performance on tests like PISA and TIMMS and economic outcomes. James Heckman and colleagues Tim Kautz, Ron Diris, Bas ter Weel, Lex Borghans, in particular, have emphasized that current tests like PISA and TIMMS “do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills, personality traits, goals, character, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labour market, in school, and in many other domains.” As they explain in Fostering and measuring skills: Improving cognitive and non-cognitive skills to promote lifetime success and Hard evidence on soft skills, for many outcomes, the predictive power of non-cognitive skills rivals or exceeds that of cognitive skills.

“Global school rankings: Interactive map shows standards of education across the world,” The Independent

“Asian kids race ahead on learning: OECD,” The Australian

Bottom in EU on OECD education league, again,” Cyprus Mail

“New education rankings from the OECD put Finland in sixth position worldwide—the top European country and the first non-Asian country in the list,” yle UUTISET

“Ireland ranks 15th in global league table for maths, science; GDP would be boosted by 2.3 per cent if universal basic skill levels were achieved,” Irish Times

“OECD report links school achievement and economic growth; despite oil wealth, Arab world trails far behind,” Israel Times

“When it comes to education, Singapore is a world-beater,”  The Straights Times

“Turkey ranks 41st in education on OECD report of 76 countries,” Today’s Zambian

UK below Poland and Vietnam in biggest ever international education rankings, TES Connect

“Improving Basic Education Can Boost U.S. Economy by $27 Trillion,” U.S. News & World Report

–Thomas Hatch

Interview with Pak Tee Ng

Dr. Pak Tee Ng

Dr. Pak Tee Ng

Pak Tee Ng is Associate Dean of Leadership Learning and Head of the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, he describes where he would like to see the country’s educational system moving forward:

“I would like to see that teachers will believe, even more strongly, that they are not merely doing a job in school but they are, as a whole teaching fraternity, contributing to nation- building and the long-term well- being of Singapore. Teachers will also change their mindsets towards teaching and learning, so that we will succeed in teaching less, so that children may actually learn more.”

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 published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

A Framework to Organise the Enabling Factors for the Spreading of Curricular Innovations in a Centralised-Decentralised Context of Singapore Schools

As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world  at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago this week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants.  Today’s contribution is from Paul Meng-Huat Chua and David Wei Loong Hung, of the National Institute of Education, Singapore. 

Contextual and Research Background

Building on descriptions of the Singaporean educational context as a blend between centralization and decentralization, this post seeks to provide a framework to account for the way that curricular innovations may spread both inside and across Singapore schools. Individual schools in Singapore are first organized as clusters then into geographical zones. Schools in Singapore are expected to develop curriculum innovations and deepen them into distinctive identities while a set of recently-launched Future Schools are also expected to spread their digital-based curriculum innovations to other schools throughout the country. In short, we argue that the centralization of the system can complement the decentralized schools’ efforts to develop and spread their own curricular innovations.

The research behind this blog post was carried out in two Future Schools in Singapore, as well as on three other Singaporean technology-mediated innovation-occurring schools. From the data collected, three models of curricular innovation diffusion have been identified, which exist along a continuum. These models range from “deep but narrow” diffusion to “non-deep but wide” diffusion, with a variety of models that exhibit neither deep nor wide diffusion in between. Some of these models adopt a school-based approach to innovation spreading while others adopt a cluster-/zone-based approach to innovation diffusion.

In the case of “deep but narrow” diffusion, a six-year inquiry-oriented, mobile technology-based science curriculum innovation for primary three and four students (aged 9–10 years) has been diffused to five other schools within the same zone since 2013. An example of the “non-deep but wide” diffusion relates to the spreading of a digital-based learning trail innovation from one school to over two hundred schools in a space of a few years. Digital-based learning trails harness real-world data found in a physical trail for students to subsequently apply their inquiry skills to actively construct knowledge.

Several factors appear to support the spread of curricular innovations in each instance, including significant numbers of expert-teachers who can mentor novice-teachers; cross-schools’ leadership and champions; augmentation of school resources from the community; capacity of school leaders and teachers; social capital (trust); as well as passion and belief in the innovation.

Framework to Organise the Enabling Factors of Curricular Innovation Spreading

From these enabling factors, a 3-tier framework to account for the spreading of curricular innovations was developed. The 3 tiers comprise:

  1. Micro-supports for spreading innovations
  2. Macro-supports for spreading innovations
  3. Meso-supports for spreading innovations

Micro-Supports for Spreading Innovation

The micro-level for spreading curricular innovation focuses on the practices within the innovation spreading schools that teachers and leaders are engaged in to develop capacity, since capacity building is a key factor in enabling the spread of curricular innovations. From our research, it was found that both the design of the capacity building tasks and the process of the capacity building mattered. On the task design, a feature of effectiveness was when teachers engaged in the co-designing of the innovative curriculum with teacher-experts. In terms of the process of capacity building, when the learning relationship was approached from an apprenticeship perspective of observation and critical inquiry and reflection, the learning relationship was productive as the teacher-novices were able to appropriate the dimensions of innovative pedagogy (e.g. hypotheses formulation and critical and creative thinking) i.e. to develop the capacity needed to enact that innovation.

Macro-Supports for Spreading Innovation

Any education system exists within a larger environment or eco-system of infrastructures, policies and alignments. The macro-supports for spreading curricular include the macro system-at-large socio-technical-economic and policy infrastructures that facilitate and sustain the spreading of innovation. In the Singapore educational context, features of the larger environment that are established by the Ministry of Education include policy signals for curricular innovation; school autonomy policy vis-à-vis the school cluster system; a tight-loose-tight of perspective for curriculum-pedagogy-assessment design; and the augmentation of resources (financial and technological).

Meso-Supports for Spreading Innovation

Where the contribution lies, we suggest, is in conceptualization of a meso-tier of innovation spreading, which allows for the interplay of the macro- and micro-supports for innovation spreading. The meso-tier has be structured into existence at the level of the innovation spreading schools such as a sub-group of cluster schools which decidedly want to spread the curricular innovation. The meso-tier consists of leadership stances, behavioral norms and structural/organizational arrangements that seek to leverage the affordances of the macro infrastructures in order to “distribute” the learned capacity at the micro-level to other schools within the group of innovation-spreading schools.

From our research, instantiations of the meso-tier leadership stances, norms and structural/organizational arrangements include the culture of learning and innovation in schools. As this tier mediates both macro and micro dimensions, success of this mediation is observed when teachers’ passion towards curricular innovations are stirred; teacher champion-leaders serve as “experts” to apprentice other teachers; visits by principals create awareness of the curricular innovations; and resources such as time, financial, technological and capacity are created and harnessed towards the end of innovation spreading. Last but not least, a final piece to the meso-tier framework is the presence of system leaders who initiate, orchestrate and drive the development of leadership stances (e.g. cultivation of teacher leaders); cultivate behavioural norms (e.g. culture of innovation); and put in place structural/organizational arrangements (e.g. principal visitations, harnessing of resources). In the same vein, Yancy Toh and colleagues have theorized the need for ecological leadership which mediates and orchestrates the various tiers.

Conclusion and Next Steps

This framework has been conceptualized using data from the case study research of two Future Schools in Singapore, as well as on three other technology-mediated innovation-occurring schools. A thread running through the framework is that macro infrastructures that are centrally determined in Singapore schools could be leveraged or appropriated to enable and facilitate the spreading of innovations in individual autonomous schools. For instance, system leaders in the research have been known to capitalize on the affordance of school autonomy in the macro environment to initiate and ensure the spreading of innovation (i.e. learned capacity) from his or her school to another group of schools within the cluster.

A possible next step in the trajectory of this research is to test the robustness of this organizing framework of innovation spreading by using it to predict the extent of innovation spreading in other educational scenarios (including for non-technology mediated innovations) in Singapore schools and to ascertain the reliability of the predictions.

What’s New? Challenges and Possibilities for Educational Innovation Around the World

Over the next two weeks, we will be trying something different at IEN. We are participating at a symposium – “What’s new? Challenges and possibilities for educational innovation around the world” – at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago (April 17th, 8:15 to 9:45 AM, Swissotel, Lucerne Level, Lucerne I). In order to broaden the conversation, we will be sharing short papers by the participants in that symposium who will be talking about efforts to support educational innovations in Mexico & Colombia, Finland, Ghana & Mali, and Singapore:

  • Bringing Effective Instructional Innovation to Scale in Mexico and Colombia, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
  • How Do School Sites Support the Adoption of Educational Innovations in the Finnish Context? Jari Lavonen, Tiina Korhonen, & Kalle Juuti
    Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Real-time Data for Real-time Use: Case Studies from Ghana and Mali, Radhika Iyengar, Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • A Framework to Organise the Enabling Factors for the Spreading of Curricular Innovations in a Centralised-Decentralised Context of Singapore Schools, Paul Chua and David Hung, National Institute of Education, Singapore

While the participants will be focusing on what has worked in their countries as well as the challenges they’ve faced, in the symposium we will also be looking across contexts and discussing some common questions including:

  • What kinds of resources, expertise and networks are needed to create an “infrastructure for innovation” in different contexts?
  • What commonalities are there in the spread of innovations across these contexts? To what extent are these “context-specific” lessons?
  • To what extent and in what ways are “innovations” in these countries really “new”?
  • What really changes and “improves” if/when innovations take hold?
  • When, under what conditions, and for whom, can innovations be considered “good”?

We invite you to follow along and share your own examples of the possibilities and challenges for innovation in different contexts.