Education is broken, but subtly different from how you think it is

Crossposting with facebook

Preamble: This piece was not originally intended as a response to Monica Lim’s piece regarding education in Singapore. In fact, I was initially taken by how she succinctly summarised the gripes I hear very often about education. However, being struck by an idea (the thesis I shall forward), I felt that this piece, if not a reply to Monica Lim, might at least be something to keep in mind when reading what she published a week ago.

How harmful do you think Singaporean teachers are?

The education system in Singapore is deeply flawed. Hardly enough is being done to renovate an outdated system designed for the ’80s industrialisation programme. We will continue to score well on international rankings for science and mathematics, but will also produce cohort after cohort of stunted children. Teach less learn more is a lie. Our children’s creativity is being crushed by attempts to teach to the test. They will continue to attend endless tuition classes to get those prized perfect scores. We stifle their passions and bury their potential for growth in non-academic areas.

Sound familiar?

I’m willing to wager that a fair number of Singaporeans have agreed at least in part with the above at some point in time. It is not an uncommon position. Take a look at this very recent open letter by Monica Lim that has become immensely popular on facebook. It succinctly covers the main gripes that we often hear about education in Singapore:

-Teaching to the test (and the negative consequences for our children’s development)

-Obsession with academic (i.e. test) results and their inordinate importance to future opportunities in life

(An aside about this: the fault lies not only with the mandarins in charge of education, but also with our employment culture. It is a problem with our society’s perception of education which I will elaborate on later)

-Replacing growth and the nurturing of learning and inquisitiveness with mere teaching to meet standards

-The apparent inadequacy of schools and teachers, so much so that tuition is necessary just to keep up with minimum standards

The point is, many people (myself included) believe something needs to be done about our stifling education system. Ideally, it should deemphasise standardised testing and emphasise a learning and inquisitive spirit that promotes holistic growth and encourages children to pursue whatever field they may have talent or interest in, guiding development into self-actualised individuals. (Give or take. You ought to get the idea I’m driving at, so, now that you have a picture of it, we can proceed)

Ideals & Realities: Why not everyone agrees with you

I’m afraid, however, that hoping to reform the educational system with the sole aim of providing such an educational experience, leading up to a liberal arts-esqe university education with broad-based knowledge and thinking skills before specialisation, might be a tad misguided, as many plans formulated in ivory towers are wont to be. I’ve had (let’s call it) an epiphany: this position with regard to our education system is elitist and idealistic.

However much we might believe education should enrich a person holistically, guiding them to realise their full potential and to achieve self-actualisation, encouraging learning and thought instead of mere success at tests, we must also acknowledge the fact that, for a majority of the population, education is foremost a path towards employment.

The idealistic vision of education we hold dear is, for many, not even an unachievable dream. It is inconceivable. To be realistic is to acknowledge that, for the most part, only the upper-middle class and the rich can afford this dream; to hope that all can approach education in that manner is the cloistered thinking of those who can afford university tuition without qualms, or, better yet, afford to have a parent not work should they wish to homeschool their children.

Education in Singapore is still widely regarded, even by some of those upper-middle class I’ve mentioned, as a way to boost personal employability. It is a belief that permeates our society; I’ll take a look at a couple of articles in the Straits Times (not saying that it is always the impartial deliverer of news it claims to be, but it does, to a sufficient degree, reflect the beliefs of the majority of Singaporeans) to illustrate the point.

In the 29-05-2011 Sunday Times, there appears on the second and third pages an article bearing the headline “Holidays? What holidays?” It is a not-unusual report on children signing up for extra tuition classes during the June school holidays, but three quotes are particularly noteworthy. According to Mr. Tan Koh Min, who runs a tuition centre, “this is Singapore. It’s normal to see some families pack their children’s schedules with lots of activities in the holidays.” Mrs. Yang L.Y. believes tuition is necessary even during the June holidays, because “if you want to go to your dream school, you must work hard. These are the rules of the game.” And student Sherwyne Tan is studying 12 hours daily this June because she intends to “work hard now to gain a good future for the rest of her life.”

In the 30-05-2011 Straits Times, Sandra Davie has an Op-Ed piece on liberal arts education, in light of the Yale-NUS liberal arts college tie-up. Essentially, she acknowledges the value of a liberal arts education which equips one with multidisciplinary foundational knowledge and reasoning, critical thinking, information gathering and synthesising skills, but believes that the Yale-NUS liberal arts college ought to offer double degree programmes with professional degrees such as medicine, law, or engineering, in order to make graduates more competitive in the job market and, I assume, make their time in university less of a complete waste in terms of “succeeding” in Singapore. As she puts it, “the Yale-NUS College will thus have its work cut out for it when it comes to winning over students, parents, and employers [if it only offers a liberal arts education].”

Now, I’m not suggesting that the Straits Times is perfectly representative of Singaporeans as a whole, or that Sandra Davie has a perfect understanding of the Singaporean psyche, but I am suggesting that a significant segment of the population believes that children should work hard in school (i.e. study hard to do well on standardised tests) in order to get into a good school/tertiary education course (i.e. one that has brand name recognition among potential employers/HR executives), to achieve the eventual goal of, as Ms. Sherwyne Tan puts it, gaining a good future for the rest of their lives (i.e. as high-paying a job as possible).

The cost of education: why mostly it’s the rich who bitch

Are your sensibilities suitably offended yet? Does it sadden you that there exist people who apparently cannot conceive of education for learning’s sake, who cannot grasp the value of a liberal arts education that teaches reasoning, knowledge synthesis, critical thinking, and skills that develop one into a learned individual capable of independent, creative and critical thought? Do you think it an ironic tragedy when you hear employers’ complaints that fresh graduates lack resourcefulness, out-of-the-box thinking and the ability to challenge conventional wisdom, and clamouring for teaching and testing of creative thinking? (That last one comes from another of Sandra Davie’s pieces)

You might have answered “yes” to the above, but you might well be in the minority.

I reiterate: the Straits Times is hardly a perfectly representative picture of the public, but it gets reasonably close. I understand my argument is lacking in foundation in empirical fact regarding the socioeconomic class or motivations in education of the Singaporean John Q. Public, but rather is based on a gut feel about the Singaporean psyche. However, I doubt that there exists sufficient data to either disprove or prove the fact, so perhaps the department of statistics should get cracking.

For the majority of Singaporeans the ultimate purpose of education is to increase employability. Saddened as I am, I am forced to bite the bullet and conclude that the ideal vision that I (and at least some others) have for education is an unreachable ideal. It is elitist and entrenched in the values of the already well-off. Because the well-to-do have few unmet desires for creature comforts, they can afford to contemplate the ideals of education and bemoan the unlofty goals the system sets. It is because they can afford to choose any course of study that they are saddened when they hear of students stuck is a course they neither understand nor have interest in, or who are generally disillusioned with studying to get the degree ticket to employment.

To summarise: there exists a vocal group of Singaporeans who regularly bemoan the state of education in Singapore because it kills learning and is geared towards standardised testing. This group comprises (I believe) mostly of the well-to-do who have the financial wherewithal to choose a path of study of their choice. However, they fail to realise that the majority of Singaporeans view education primarily as a vehicle towards increasing employability, be it through paper qualifications to appear more attractive to potential employers, or through vocational training.

How the system is broken & why you shouldn’t blame the MOE

However, this does not discount the fact that the system is flawed. The issue is not quite the obsession with standards and standardised testing and the host of associated problems resulting in the neglect of holistic child development. Rather, it is that the education system, constrained both by limited resources and having to cater to the general need of the public, is often forced to resort to the lowest common denominator, and hence ends up repulsing the idealists while not doing stellarly at pleasing those purely interested in gaining work skills or boosting their employability. The system (as it is exists now) cannot cater to both, and expectedly fails to do so in reality.

To be fair, the problem lies not solely with the education system or the ministry of education, but with Singapore itself. As a new member to the club of developed economies, Singapore still lives in the shadow of times before industrialisation, and when GDP per capita was a tiny fraction of what it is now. Although the definition of success is moving away from merely climbing up the social ladder by accumulating wealth towards self-actualisation and the chasing of non-material dreams, some Singaporeans still feel pressure to measure success in life through income and to make life choices based on that measure. This pressure is primarily exerted on younger Singaporeans, starting to make their way in life, by parents who never climbed as high up the social ladder (of material wealth) as others. Their families, which may feel they have missed out on the “5Cs Singapore Dream”, are still pursuing that dream, playing catch-up to those who have already attained the wealth to enable them to pursue non-material dreams. Hence, we see a Singapore split in two with regard to its perception on education and its purpose. The problem is fundamentally the existence of this rift and how groups on each side of the rift have different expectations of education.

To Finnish up: a possible remedy

As with most problems associated with governance, there can be no perfect solution to the education policy issue. It is likely that, as Singapore becomes a more established developed economy and social mobility decreases, the gulf between the two groups will widen and their perception of education will become more distinct. Taking a look at the Finnish education system (one of the best in the world, according to the UN’s Human Development Index) is both enlightening and helpful in devising improvements to education in Singapore.

Singapore’s model is already similar to the Finnish one with respect to splitting upper and post-secondary education into vocational training and university. Finland offers two main tracks, one leading to university and the other to vocational school and further qualifications from a polytechnic, similar to the Singaporean model of junior colleges as university- preparatory schools and polytechnics offering vocational education and qualifications suited for entry into the job market. Both countries also offer a reasonable degree of movement between the two tracks, with vocational qualifications being sufficient for application into university. The difference lies in their primary and early secondary education (up to age 15).

Finland mandates free and compulsory education up to the age of 15, with students staying in the same school throughout this period. There is no streaming and no competition for entry into elite secondary schools, schools have a large degree of autonomy and are concerned with not only teaching a syllabus but pedagogy as well. There is no mandatory testing except for students who choose to take the university preparatory path after the age of 15.

The subtle but important difference between Singapore and Finland is the path in which students end up choosing between pre-university education and vocational training. In Singapore, high-stakes standardised testing coupled with the existence of elite schools with intense competition for entry, instead of 9 years of free, compulsory education within the same public school (which are of similar high quality nationwide) in Finland, gives rise to overstressed students resorting to means such as round-the-clock studying or tuition classes striving to be the best to get into their course of choice, instead of students who can take their time to learn and develop up the age of 15, and then make a choice to enter vocational training and obtain a diploma, or to prepare for the university entrance examination.

Ironically, the idealistic vision of education without standardised testing but with a focus on holistic growth and good pedagogy is the solution to the problem Singapore faces. Not because every Singaporean needs or wants education like that, encouraging learning for learning’s sake, eventually leading to a liberal arts education or a professional/technical degree coupled with broad-based knowledge and thinking abilities, but because the Finnish take on education, allowing students to develop in a stress-free environment without hurting their prospects, regardless of whether they wish to enter the workforce quickly, obtain university qualifications with good future pay prospects, or take up studies in a field they are passionate in, has proven workable.

It is possible for Singapore to make it such that not only the well-to-do, but everyone, can afford the idealistic type of education. The secret ingredient might be more hard work at improving the teacher cadre, in order to replace the elite/neighbourhood school distinction with a consistently high standard of schools, so that high-stakes standardised testing and streaming can be done away with, eventually replacing the competitiveness to be the best (because of the effects it has on one’s future educational/job prospects) and the unnecessary tuition classes with a nurturing, stress-free environment where children can develop their potential and decide what sort of higher-education path they wish to take.

If you’re interested in how the Finns manage education, take a look at these two pages:


4 Responses to “Education is broken, but subtly different from how you think it is”

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