Tag Archives: Singapore

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.

Early childhood education and the economy

A scan of online news reports published in countries around the world over the past month found that current reports on the topic of early childhood education show a range of economic concerns. While the news in some countries focuses on early childhood education as it relates to childcare, others focus on the connection between education in the early years and economic development. For example, reports from China focus on education as one aspect of whole child development, and similarly, reports from Thailand, India, and Australia, emphasized that early childhood education can be a crucial factor in lifting individuals out of poverty. Other reports focus on the ways in which early childhood education can be an overall investment in a country’s future.

In a recent article, titled “Household income and preschool attendance in China,” Xin Gong, Di Xu, and Wen-Jui Ham, found a positive association between household income and preschool attendance in both rural and urban settings. By showing that household income is influential in determining which children access early childhood education, this article relates with findings presented in a recent report on early childhood development by UNICEF. The UNICEF report points out that “millions of children, especially the most marginalized, are excluded from school,” and finds that international funding for education is on the decline. Yet, according to an article in Want China TimesChina has increased spending on early childhood education, budgeting 50 billion yuan ($8 billion) for a three-year project to provide access to quality education.

Singapore presents the example of a country that, according to the World Bank, placed “education at the core of the nation’s development.” Yet, as an article in The Huffington Post explained, “early-childhood education is one of the few spots where Singapore is not yet a world leader.” However, in response to the 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked Singapore’s early childhood education system 29th in the world, the government has “announced funding initiatives for subsidies for parents and childcare centers, new sources of scholarship money for teachers, and the creation of new preschools and kindergartens.”

In Australia, a Productivity Report on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, released on February 20th, received a critical reception in the press because it did not recommend an increase in funding. Instead, the report recommended the simplification of a complicated system with the introduction of a single early learning subsidy. Geraldine Neylon, writing for The Conversation, called this a “missed opportunity” to build upon prior reforms that focused on teacher quality. In another commentary, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade emphasized that while the current system is due for an overhaul, an investment in early education would lead to greater economic gains for the entire country. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abbott has suggested policy reforms that would (similar to the report’s recommendations) make childcare more affordable and less regulated, noting in particular that such a move would potentially enable more women to join the workforce. As John Cherry, advocacy manager with the non-profit Goodstart Early Learning, explained in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The number one reform objective is to make childcare more accessible and more affordable for low and middle income families….The number two objective is to continue to raise the quality of care so that children have a better start to their school education. The number three one is to make sure that vulnerable children are getting the support that they need. That costs money.”

Deirdre Faughey

The School Day: Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Hatch

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New OECD report leads to questions about educational innovation

While the OECD has released a number of reports this year, their most recent report addresses the measurement of educational innovation at the classroom and school levels. In this report, the OECD looked at “innovations” in education improvement strategy and ranked 19 countries accordingly. The report acknowledges that while the private sector has established innovation indicators derived from research and development (R&D) statistics and innovation surveys, the measurement of innovation and its effectiveness in the public sector is still in its infancy. Creating such measurements might be more difficult, as the report states that “cultural values, social policies and political goals can lead to differing prioritization of these different objectives across countries.” Innovation indicators will need to be linked to specific objectives, such as learning outcomes, if they are to be better understood.

Denmark came in first place, followed by Indonesia, Korea and the Netherlands. While I could not easily find news reports that focused on the high ranking of Korea, and the sole report I found on the Netherlands referred to parental concerns over a lack of educational innovation, multiple sources published reports that pointed to the near-bottom ranking of the US. Yet, even with the report citing a ‘dearth’ of innovation in the US, EdWeek has a feature article on the ways in which school principals in the US are increasingly acting like entrepreneurs and innovators in business.

Interestingly, as Pasi Sahlberg pointed out in his recent article in The Washington Post, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Finland—all high performing countries—have sought out innovative ideas for education from the United States, where many such ideas are largely ignored by the country’s education reformers. So, not only is educational innovation difficult to measure for the ways in which the concept of innovation might be country-specific, as the OECD explained, it might also prove difficult to measure due to the ways in which innovative ideas can travel, as countries share and borrow ideas from one another. In his brief response to Sahlberg’s article, Howard Gardner pointed out that innovative ideas have a history of being co-opted, borrowed, and misunderstood. Further, he notes that it is a mistake to attribute these ideas to sole individuals, such as himself–for he was inspired by other scholars, and all scholars are influenced by the freedom or constrictions of the conditions in which they work. To that point, a recent study of Norwegian teachers, which aimed to study those conditions in which “newness is created,” showed that innovative work is brought into being when “pluralities of perspectives” are taken into account.

In The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss also questioned the meaning innovation by looking at the language used in the report. She notes that Hong Kong’s main innovation was “more peer evaluation of teachers in primary and secondary education”; Korea’s main innovation was “more peer evaluation of teachers in secondary education”; and Singapore’s main innovation was “more use of incentives for secondary teachers.” But is innovation a matter of degree? Reports such as this one raise questions about how we can measure concepts without a shared understanding of what those concepts mean. As the news report from Indonesia points out, even Indonesian education experts were surprised to see the country at the top of the list, especially when it has been ranked among the lowest performing countries in math and science on the 2013 OECD Pisa exam.

Deirdre Faughey

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Singapore emphasizes 21st Century Competencies

In the wake of our posts on some of the current issues in education in Finland, we asked Paul Chua, Senior Teaching Fellow at the National Institute of Education, to let us know about some of the current discussions in Singapore.

Although Singapore was one of the highest-performing countries on the PISA Computer-Based Problem Solving test, a test meant to, amongst other things, measure students’ ability to think flexibly and creativity, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) took the opportunity to reiterate the rationale and approaches launched initially in 2010 to cultivate students’ 21st Century Competencies (21CC) .

In reiterating their approach, the MOE  continues to emphasize some of the features of their framework for 21CC that are shared with other countries, including creative and critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and social and cultural skills (see for example Soland et al. 2013, and Voogt & Roblin 2012). However, the MOE has also highlighted a unique connection to the core values that the Singapore education system hopes to cultivate in all its students. Instead of learning the 21st century competencies in a vacuum, in Singapore, the competencies are supposed to be learned in the context of core values, like respect, resilience, responsibility, and harmony. From the Ministry’s perspective, such an approach should remind educators in the classroom of the role that values play in education and help them to enable students to become the self-directed learners, confident people, concerned citizens and active contributors that are the desired outcomes of the Singapore education system.

The MOE’s reiteration also includes an update of their approaches to the delivery of the 21CC.  Rather than creating a separate subject called “21CC,” the Singaporean approach calls for the integration of 21CC into both the academic and the non-academic curricula, such as Character and Citizenship Education and Co-Curricular Activities. In order to support that integration, the MOE hopes to help teachers develop the capacity to deliver a 21CC-embedded curriculum through pre-service and in-service learning courses, as well as on-going collaborative teacher learning through professional learning communities. Schools are also to collaborate with community partners to augment the learning and teaching experience with more imaginative and authentic learning environments and programmes. Finally, while cultivating a school culture that values and promotes the delivery of the 21st century competencies is not mentioned explicitly, that concern is reflected in the Singaporean school quality assurance framework.

In recent years, the MOE has also introduced a slew of initiatives to better assure the effective delivery and attainment of the 21st century competencies. These include modifications to the assessment practices in the primary schools; introduction of more varied secondary schools landscape; tweaking of the direct secondary school admission criteria at the interface between primary and secondary school education; and re-alignment of the school self-assessment and recognition framework. First, modifications to the primary schools assessment, including the development of holistic assessments, were recommended by the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee. These modifications were intended to better balance the acquisition of knowledge with the development of skills and values. In addition, a review of the reporting of the scores of the primary school leaving examination is currently underway “to support a more holistic education for students … on equipping students with values, attributes, knowledge and skills for work and life in the 21st century.” (Heng, 2014a). Secondly, to create a more varied and colourful (secondary) school landscape to realize the vision that “every school a good school,” and thereby alleviate the parental pressure of getting their children admitted to schools with the best academic reputations, all (secondary) schools are being supported by the Ministry to develop distinctive and rich learning programmes through the Applied Learning Programmes (ALP) and Learning for Life Programmes (LLP). Many of these Learning Programmes are themselves focused on the development of students’ 21st century competencies. Third, the Direct (Secondary) School Admission scheme is being tweaked so that a greater range of non-academic attributes such as resilience, character and leadership are recognized and hence encouraged, and yet implemented without adding to the burden of assessment. Finally, the Ministry has re-aligned its school self-assessment and recognition scheme to reflect its desire to nurture “every school a good school.” The re-alignments have been made for the intent of “broadening our definitions of excellence” (Heng, 2014b), as well as to give schools “more space to design student-centric programmes … and to create distinctive schools, good in your own ways” (Heng, 2014b).

How does one of the top-performing countries in the world think about technology?

The following post was written by Sarah Butrymowicz and originally published on The Hechinger Report.

Going ‘at your own pace’ isn’t part of the equation in Singapore

SINGAPORE—Forty students in bright yellow shirts hunched over their computers in Singapore’s Crescent Girls School as they raced against their teacher’s digital stopwatch. They had just a few minutes to add their thoughts about a short film on discrimination into a shared Google Doc and browse the opinions of their classmates.

When the time was up, their teacher led a discussion about the meaning of discrimination and how to judge the credibility of an argument. The computers sat mostly forgotten.

“The technology just fades away, and that’s what we hope for it to do,” said principal Ng Chen Kee.


Students at Crescent Girls School in Singapore discuss conflict and discrimination in groups while working on a shared Google Doc. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Crescent Girls has plenty of flashy gadgets, but balances those with these more subtle exercises in a way that’s emblematic of how Singapore tries to approach education technology. Glitzy tech that serves no purpose other than being cool is frowned upon. In classrooms in Singapore, digital devices are increasingly viewed as a means to bring students together in collaboration, rather than separate them further.

In contrast, American students who have tools like tablets and computers in the classroom often use them in isolation, powering through interactive worksheets and online quizzes. Indeed, technology’s main purpose often seems to be giving students personalized learning paths and a way to progress at their own pace.

In part, it’s because online learning in America grew out of a push to move away from rigid requirements of the number of hours a student should spend on a subject in favor of allowing them to move on once a concept is mastered. “That’s where the conversation started within the U.S.,” said Allison Powell, a vice president at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNacol). “In a lot of other places, it wasn’t about taking an individual online course. It was ‘Let’s integrate it into the classroom.’”

Singapore has been one of the highest performing countries on international assessments for decades, while the United States remains stuck below the top performers. Investments in education technology have been a key part of Singapore’s national plan for two decades and have been cited by some experts as a reason that the country has so much academic success.

Singapore, South Korea and Uruguay were praised by Richard Culatta, director of the United States Department of Education office of educational technology, as global leaders in technology in the classroom. “These are impressive places and they didn’t get there because they randomly decided to do it. These are countries that have not taken their eye off the ball,” he said. “There’s a point where if we’re going to remain competitive globally, we need to make sure we’re keeping up.”

In the late 1990s, the Singapore Ministry of Education unveiled its master plan for technology. The first phase was spent building up infrastructure and getting computers into schools. In the 2000s, in phases two and three, the ministry focused on training teachers in how to use gadgets and identifying schools to experiment with new innovations.

The Ministry of Education would not provide information on how much money it had spent on these initiatives, but in a presentation for the World Bank, said phase one had cost $2 billion over five years and phase two $600 million over three years. In 2010, the Ministry of Education committed another $610 million over eight years for technology in schools, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Crescent Girls School was selected in 2008 to be one of these so-called FutureSchools. With extra money from the Ministry and support from the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore’s teacher training university, these eight schools must develop and trial new types of technology. If they work, the plan is to spread them to other schools.

History teachers at Hwa Chong Institution are working to create new social media platforms for students to share reflections. Students at Canberra Primary School visit a 4D immersive lab in groups to learn about different environments, like the rainforest.  Crescent Girls has developed the “digital trails” platform, where students and teachers make interactive maps by adding text, photos and videos. The school also has a room full of touch-screen tables, loaded with games and applications to prompt discussion and teamwork. In one, four students, each with a different responsibility, must use geometry concepts to protect a submarine from enemies.

A student at Marsling Secondary School in Singapore navigates around a virtual environment for the first time. His teachers plan to make a digital gallery for the students to show case designs and comment on each other’s work. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

A student at Marsling Secondary School in Singapore navigates around a virtual environment for the first time. His teachers plan to make a digital gallery for the students to show case designs and comment on each other’s work. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Beyond the FutureSchools, the Ministry is also bankrolling other tech endeavors for schools. Researcher Kenneth Lim has set up a lab at the NIE where he’ll design custom immersive virtual environments for any lesson teachers want, such as a lesson on perspective in an art class or one on water shortages in geography.

The worlds are designed to be incomplete and act as a virtual workbook, where students can try to fill in the blanks. They wander around with their avatars, talking to classmates in person and online. “Their whole threat level is lowered,” Lim said. “They make mistakes.”

Singapore is trying to move beyond the much-criticized culture of high-pressure testing and studying by memorization here and in many other Asian countries. That’s why officials are focusing on soft skills, like collaboration and confidence. Technology, like Lim’s work, is becoming a popular way to allow students to learn by exploring without worrying about the consequences of failure.

On a January morning, Lim and his team helped eighth graders in a Design and Technology class at Marsiling Secondary School enter their virtual world for the first time and practice drawing basic shapes. The end goal was create a gallery that would allow students to comment and help each other on their work.

It’s the first major technological project the school has undertaken, and as Principal Foong Lai Leong stood in the corner watching, she was trying to think of other courses that might benefit from some digital lessons. Science and art, definitely, she decided. Maybe even certain topics in math.

There’s no pressure from the Ministry of Education to use technology for any particular subject or in any way. It is encouraged, but always with a reminder to “be wise, be judicious,” said Ng Pak Tee, an associate dean at the NIE. “It should not be a teacher looking at a technology saying, ‘Wow.’”

This careful and deliberate introduction of digital devices into the classroom sets Singapore apart from many places in America. While some districts or schools have rolled out programs thoughtfully, they’re still the minority, Powell said. “I get calls from superintendents and principals on a daily basis [saying], ‘I went out and bought 500 iPads. Now what do I do?”