Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Singapore Education System: On the right track?

(Dedicated to all Singapore's wonderful teachers... non-wonderful ones too!)

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Mark Twain

The recent teachers’ day gives each of us an opportunity to reflect upon our education system as well as the crucial role played by our teachers during the most impressionable years of our lives.

I whole-heartedly and unreservedly agree with our PM’s quest as per our media’s headline: Govt determined to develop every student's potential to the fullest: PM Lee (see link) Our teachers will determine whether our next generation of citizens will be better than the last.

At the risk of sounding like a sycophant, I also support the Ministry of Education as it unveils a $250m plan to boost the teaching profession

1.Past policies were ok, but not great…

Not being an educationist, I can only comment as a parent and past student and of course as an active citizen. I also believe in life-long learning and those who know me, will confirm that I walk the talk.

I will just dwell briefly on some past policies which I consider to be mistaken. These include policies relating to “graduate mothers”; streaming; school ranking etc.

Thankfully, most of these have been abandoned or modified significantly or just left to die natural deaths. Authorities do not like to reverse policies, for to do so would be to admit to errors in policies or its implementation.

i.Graduate mother policy
However, the "graduate mother" policy was one in which the authorities openly reversed when Dr. Tony Tan became the Education Minister. He still has my respects for this. This ridiculous policy allows children of graduate mothers to have priority in the choice of school. A non-graduate's child queued further down the line and hence is disadvantaged. This was Eugenics in broad daylight! How could any nation tolerate such an unfair and distasteful policy? I am still speechless...

ii.a Streaming ( amended due to inaccuracies pointed out by a "commenter")
Children at the age of 9-10 years old ( end of Primary 3) are streamed into EM1/EM2/EM3. The lowest of these classifications ( can't remember which) indicates that the child should only be challenged with one language (ie monolingual). This policy has been "watered-down" considerably recently. Why don't the MOE just swallow their pride and end this unhelpful policy once and for all.

Also, at this juncture of their young lives, the so-called "really smart ones "are channelled via assessments into the GEP ( Gifted Education Programme) where they almost get a through-train to parent's nirvana! Sigh.. a subject for another post.

At the end of the primary school curriculm (Pr. 6), they will be categorised into Express/Normal classes etc. The stigmatisation from such labelling continue to affect many children in our very achievement-conscious society. For the uninitiated,"Normal" is not the stream of choice for most.

Let me state categorically, that my son's classmates, whether in Express or Normal classes are all extra-ordinarily intelligent and likeable boys who are the pride of their parents.

ii b Other type of Streaming
In my time at school, intelligence was too narrowly defined and talents were looked for almost exclusively in the sciences and mathematics. Any outstanding scholar with an eye for the Arts & Social Sciences would be the exception rather than the rule.

How can we forget how the smarter students would be automatically channeled into the “Science stream” without question as if everyone desired to be doctors and engineers! The rest would fill up the places in the “Arts stream” classes.

iii. School ranking system
This system was introduced to induce the schools to excel. It is a sort of insidious "Amazing Race" where annually, each school would try to outdo each other in their students' grades and statistics in order to be top of a league table. Some people continue to believe that without competition, we humans will be lazy and not try hard.

With the school ranking system, many schools were known to have dropped subjects like English Literature for no reason other than that it is harder to ace this subject compared to others like Mathematics etc. For the same reason, students deemed to be academically challenged were encouraged by some schools to drop subjects. Rumours even have it that some schools actually advised some students to leave the school or sit for examinations as private candidates.

Of course I do not know of any principals who have admitted to such practices.

2.Enlightened Era of the Multiple Intelligences

I am particularly encouraged that in recent years, our Education Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has brought about the establishment of specialist schools for Sports, Art and Music etc ( have I missed any?).

This shows that new educational theories such as Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences are not only being accepted but also being put into practice.

Educationists amongst us would know that Howard Gardner, is a professor at Harvard University and the author of many books and articles. His theory of multiple intelligences has challenged long-held assumptions about intelligence -- especially about a single measure of intelligence.


Howard Gardner first identified and introduced to us seven different kinds of intelligence in Frames of Mind.
· Linguistic intelligence: a sensitivity to the meaning and order of words.

· Logical-mathematical intelligence: ability in mathematics and other complex logical systems.

· Musical intelligence: the ability to understand and create music. Musicians, composers and dancers show a heightened musical intelligence.

· Spatial intelligence: the ability to "think in pictures," to perceive the visual world accurately, and recreate (or alter) it in the mind or on paper. Spatial intelligence is highly developed in artists, architects, designers and sculptors.

· Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: the ability to use one's body in a skilled way, for self-expression or toward a goal. Mimes, dancers, basketball players, and actors are among those who display bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

· Interpersonal intelligence: an ability to perceive and understand other individuals -- their moods, desires, and motivations. Political and religious leaders, skilled parents and teachers, and therapists use this intelligence.

· Intrapersonal intelligence: an understanding of one's own emotions. Some novelists and or counselors use their own experience to guide others.

Gardner has also identified other intelligences such as the naturalist intelligence, and according to him, Charles Darwin is an example of one.

Links about Howard Gardners: The Theory of Mutltiple Intelligences

3.How to bring back the joy to childhood? (Clue: not more tuition classes)

Even if the government had the most enlightened education policies, not much will change for the kids, if our parents insist on anachronistic attitudes.

My personal observation is that there is just too much private tuition. It is not uncommon to find parents transporting their children from tuition class to tuition class on weekends and nights.

Don't be surprised that these children are not 10 year-old primary kids but 17-year old grown-up’s , many of whom go to very reputable Junior Colleges like Raffles and Hwa Chong.

Let’s pause and think. These ace students ( for one needs almost perfect score in the GCE O Levels to get admission into the top 2-3 JC’s), still need extra-coaching in those subjects that they are already aceing? Or did they ace only because they had weekly extra coaching? Should not our students’ school-teachers’ remedial classes be sufficient?

It is no wonder that the tuition industry is one of 2 industries thought to be recession-proof, the other being the food industry.

Let the children enjoy their childhood. Don’t spoon-feed them.

Let them learn how to learn.

4.Eh… shouldn’t we be getting more world-beating adults?

If we listen to our school children in radio talk-shows, one cannot but be impressed by how articulate they are and that they do not talk nonsense, unlike our generation.

Universities round the world love having Singaporean students as they generally do well.. very well. So if these smart kids graduate summa cum laude from the world’s most prestigious colleges, what really happens to them after they re-enter Singapore’s work-force?

Shouldn’t we expect more world-beating adults? ( I know I am revisiting some old issues which had ruffled many feathers a while ago in the MSM).

But seriously, what else can be done in order for our society to benefit from this enlightened education system? Any takers?

5.SAP schools-I think they are not conducive for the mixing of races
(NB: SAP-Special Assistance Programme- mainly Chinese-based schools which supposedly train future Chinese cultural elites)

I know this is sensitive and controversial, so I will state my personal view and pack up.

I strongly feel that in Singapore, it is not right that a student can be in an environment where there is nary a non-Chinese student for the whole four years of secondary education. Period.

Cheers to all,

Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan


Anthony said...

“We don't need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.”

Pink Floyd

I rest my case, Doc.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Tony,
Can I enrol in your school where the teachers won't teach and just leave me to do what I want?
Ha ha.
But seriously, in the field of education, Sg has improved from the time you were in the schools.
But there is still much more that can be done , eg not spoon-feeding them eg with propaganda.
Hope these kids are better than the apathetic kids that we were.

visceral said...

perhaps what we should do is stop engaging butchers to roleplay as academics and educators
`whether the duties of the Minister of Information and Broadcasting are to produce closed minds or open minds, because these instruments - the mass media, the TV, the radio - can produce either the open minds receptive to ideas and ideals, a democratic system of life, or closed and limited`

recruit ong said...

NS is the reason why most Sg males stop becoming world beaters. National slavery does untold damage to the idealism, passion and intellectual growth of the average 19 or 20 year olds.

nofearSingapore said...

visceral: actually I had some very good teachers, so of whom I still keep in touch. There were of course some forgettable ones too!
Recruit : Actually NS could be made better. Somehow (..i don't know why), the moment we don the Temasek green uniform, we go into brain-hybernation. In reservist in-camp training, it gets frustrating and I am glad that I have fulfilled my obligations ( I did 10 high-keys.. more than my requirements) ( can't say anymore or Mindef will cite me for divulging state secrets.. ha ha)

visceral said...

Not all butchers are bereft of merit. But its not easy to find a pious butcher
`Girls from the school told The New Paper that some protected their modesty by using their files or school bags. Others borrowed brassieres from their friends as there are male teachers in the school`

Anonymous said...

"ii.a Streaming
Children at the age of 9-10 years old ( end of Primary 3) are streamed into Express/Normal classes etc. For the uninitiated, Normal is ... not quite normal and is a euphemism for "subnormal". "

I believe you are confusing this with the secondary school streaming. When children were streamed at 9-10 years old (Primary 3), there were "normal", "extended" and "monolingual" categories. That was in the 1980s, when we had even Primay 7-8 students. "Normal" students were "normal" in that classification.

sei-ji rakugaki said...

I dun have the luxury of having any teacher that makes an impact on me, even though i know that they are out there,just a minority.
i only remembered in my report book..my principal remarks were " should try to do better in maths and arts"

nofearSingapore said...

Hi anon 2.44pm
I was confused!
So many changes !!
I will make the appropriate ammendments.
Thanks a million


nofearSingapore said...

Hi sei-ji,
Your art teacher must have been good! ha ha
Or someone from your school must have traumatised you so much that it caused you to express your angst in your lovely cartoons and caricatures..
So school is not all bad.. as we are all benefiting from your talent.

aliendoc said...

I share your sentiments exactly! I was fortunate enough to transfer my kids to an international school from the local system - what a difference it made!

Let's hope that it's not just lip service from MOE & changes will be implemented soon.

Anthony said...

On her first visit to Singapore, my European wife was flabbergasted to see so many children in my brother’s home going through the torture known as tuition, many of them staying late into the night, and then watching them rushing off to school the next morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted. Even on weekends the house was full of the neighbourhood kids, studiously staring at their books. She was amazed because such a thing is virtually unknown in Europe, where out-of-school hours and weekends are often spent in activities that bring about a real education, one “where schooling does not interfere with education”.

What’s education anyway? A doctor or an engineer is instructed or trained in a certain field and he is undoubtedly of use to society, but is he necessarily educated? Are we being educated so that we can be compliant slaves to the State? I would think that the aim of education would be to produce well-balanced and happy individuals, the kind that any society would cherish. But is that the case? If so, then why are people like Jun (in the previous post) choosing not to have children? And why are a growing number of Americans home-schooling their children, keeping them away from State-controlled schools?

In the old days, education was reserved for the aristocrats while the masses were kept ignorant and dumb with just enough knowledge to work in the fields and produce children. In the American South, a slave was severely punished if he was caught learning to read and write. We can’t have a slave better educated than his ignorant master, can we? And then “universal” education was introduced and most of us became familiar with the three R’s. It sounds wonderful, but is it really?

You know, Doc, I am one sceptical and suspicious son-of-a-bitch and I am not convinced that the State has our best interests at heart. Maybe it’s just me, but if we are being so expensively educated, then you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be to our detriment. Our much-vaunted education is just a brain-washing tool, churning out obedient, productive and well-fed slaves.

(Recruit Ong above makes a valid point. I have always felt that my thirty months spent in the army had very little to do with national defence and security, and that it was actually a subtle way of brainwashing and indoctrinating our young minds. And, of course, national service is just another form of education, where the young are moulded into unimaginative robots, hardly world-beaters. Just look at Switzerland…)

nofearSingapore said...

aliendoc:I heard the international schools are not possible for S'poreans (if both parents S'porean) to get in unless the kids have psychiatric/psychological referral) or come from well-connected pedigree.. is it still that way? How have your kids benefitted from this new environment?
Tony: How wonderful to hear different pts of view from you!
Sometimes I am so bored talking to pple who regurgitate similar view points as .. ahem.
Hey, since you mentioned it,what is the Swiss NS system like? Can it be any worse than the ones we love so much here? Any idea? If the Swiss ways are better, maybe I can stir some shit and try to get Mindef to listen since they always talking about becoming like the Swiss,,, blah ad nauseum! ha ha

Dr Oz bloke said...

Dr H, you forgot the MOST IMPORTANT STREAMING OF THEM ALL. The one streaming that rules them all and in the darkness binds them!

The SAF OS SCHOLARSHIPS and PRESIDENT'S SCHOLARSHIPS and lesser "rings" eg PSC, EDB Scholarships.

These 18 year olds are assessed and then judged. And then their ENTIRE WHOLE LIFE AND CAREER is planned out for them till they are 65 years old! Can you beat that?

No where have I ever heard of any company or government telling a 18 year old "Ok kid, I think you are damn good. As it is I have decided you will become a General in my army and then later on join one of our multinational companies and command 6 figure monthly salaries and then later on join politics with me in my political club. All you have to do is to make sure you don't screw up and do anything bad. Play safe and you will be fine"

But that's our education system for you.

Why is it we don't get world beaters? Well the name of the game is really to beat everyone else in Singapore to become the best of the best IN SINGAPORE and then play safe.

Get it?

I for one think we should scrap this scholarship crap once and for all.

It's not working. Just look at our ex-generals heading all those MNCs under Temasek!

aliendoc said...

Dr H:
You're right about admission to international schools here; so we were lucky to fulfil the criteria.
1) Broader exposure to the world around us. Apart from the core subjects of Language Arts (i.e. English/Literature), Math, Social Studies (which may include Geography or History) & Science, they get Music, Art, a second language, technology. Emphasis is not on scoring A* in CA's or SA's; weightage also given to effort, participation in class & ability. Hence the kids are not stressed out with doing assessment papers & having tuition just so they can get good marks in the tests/exams

2) Exposure to not only different races, but also different nationalities of the world. I think this is important with the world getting smaller with globalisation. Oftentimes, in local schools, your classmates/playmates end up being of a particular ethnic group.

3) Method of teaching - not the "I lecture, you listen" way that we were used to in school! The kids are encouraged to speak up & voice their opinions. Creativity also encouraged because instead of rote learning, they are encouraged to analyse & discuss what they are reading (eg in Literature or in History or in Geography - discussing differences in political systems, economies etc - & this is at the equivalent of Pr 6 upwards!)

4) Small student:teacher ratio

My kids changed from quiet-as-a-mouse/afraid-to-open-their-mouths in class type of students, to kids who are confident & not afraid to voice their opinions in discussions (although some local parents may think that this is a detriment rather than an advantage!)

nofearSingapore said...

drozbloke:I share your sentiments abt eliticism associated scholarship system. The gahmen is firm believer of the Imperial Mandarin system and uses public monies to attract young lives to commit whole career to them. In exchange they get prestigious degree/secure&hi salary. There is some wisdom attached to this.The really good ones get to formulate policy, the others to implement them etc. With scholars under their watchful eye, they also ensure all on the same side ...(as them )
aliendoc: I am so envious of you.
I am firm believer that kids should be kids and that learning is best through inquiry and curiosity.
I will make some enquiry about placements in international schools for my own interest.

Dr Oz bloke said...

Placement in international school?

I would be interested too. Dr H. do share what you find :) From what I know, you must have the approval of MOE. And that makes it very subjective.

For instance LKY's grandson who is dyslexic was granted approval to join an international school as he was not able to cope in our spanking-no-child-will-be-left-behind 250 million dollar boosted education system. No suprise that MOE did not turn LKY down.

I had a patient who complained to me that MOE refused to grant them permission to send their son who is dyslexic to an international school.

Double standards in full view.

Whispers from the heart said...

Hi Doc,

I am glad you still seem to be very excited when MOE announces new policy changes.

Since Tharman took over, it's been a parade of policy changes ... oops, better to call them enhancements.

Education of our children is too important to leave it in the hands of MOE... if you view education in a more holistic perspective.

First, they'll introduce a change, 1 year later or so, they'll announce it's working very well with support of statistics and annecdotes to boot. Ten years later, it's a different story. Of course, by then, there would be a change of Minister in charge. The merry-go-round starts again.

I think there's a chinese saying that goes like "it takes a hundred years to groom a man"?

If we keep rooting for short term results, we may have to pay for them eventually one day.

Ah but then, it's the cycle of life....

jun said...

'a coin with two different sides is still the same coin' -jun

jun said...

A foreign friend once commented that, to know whether a state education system (SES) is sufficient, all you need to do is to count the number of private education institutions (PEI) (including so-called tuition centres). The lower the number of PEI, the more comprehensive (hence, the better) the SES is. Opportunities for PEI only come when the SES is incompetent.

aliendoc said...

Criteria for admission if you are NOT a foreigner or hold dual citizenship I believe is only for kids who have a learning or developmental disorder like dyslexia or autism. But still have to get approval from MOE with supporting documents from psychologist/psychiatrist on child's condition.

Food for thought: LKY spoke as guest of honor at the anniversary celebration of my kids' school a few months ago. He said that his dyslexic grandson had thrived in the school, & his self-esteem was restored.

I hope that there will come a day when Singaporean children who are NOT dyslexic or who are dyslexic but cannot afford to go through the international school route will also be able to thrive in the local system, and not have their self-esteem thrashed if they are not that great at getting A*s in school

Dr Oz bloke said...

Aliendoc: You don't say!

To be frank, even the kids who do get some As and are in the top schools also get their self-esteem trashed! I speak from personal experience.

Would a child prefer to be the TOP STUDENT in a not so great school and appear to be achieving (probably what is happening to LKY's grandson) or would he be better off in THE TOP SCHOOL but just be one of the students in there?

I think the former is far better for self esteem. But then the scholars don't come from those type of schools.

What is education anyway?

Interestingly my wife is now a trainee teacher in NIE, one of those mid career switch people. It is interesting what she tells me everyday from what she learns about the system.

There are a lot of lofty ideals and all, but I am highly skeptical because we are essentially still a very elitist society.

One of her lecturers actually said that there is nothing wrong if a child says their ambition is to be a plumber, carpenter, hairdresser etc. But our society would frown on this and urge the child to have more "ambition".

Just goes to show what we are really about in Singapore.

Casper said...

There is really no perfect education system. Singapore system pushes too hard but an average graduate from Singapore school system is more likely to be able to read and write and count then one from Malaysia, or UK school leavers.

The US parents appeared to try to solve this by taking the problem into their own hands - group of home schooling groups and parents who send their kids to school 2 days a week and then teach them for the rest of the week.

In UK, many parents have problem getting their kids into a school which at least deliver the basic standards.

I suppose a little bit less stress and less subject would be good for singapore students. Really, looking back my schooling days, probably half of the stuff that I learnt has no relevant whatsoever in my career and business.

Also, nofearsingaproe made a good point in recapping that IQ means lots of things, and not jsut AI (Academic intelligence hah.. or not just like artificial intelligence/robot).

As long as education system produces graduate who can support themself, have respect for the society and contribute to the society, I think the system is a success - and Singaproe education system has been reasonable in achieving these criteria...

Anonymous said...

little by little, I do believe the Singapore system is getting better. In my son's class, there was a ADHD students who threw a chair. Ok I think that was scary for the other kids, but it is a sign - for students to learn acceptance. Also, the latest Northlight project inspired confidence in me - 20 students to the class - showing that our government is putting resources into the poorest of the lot. And kudos to those teachers who volunteered for the job. Is this just a veneer for the teachers to 'police' the kids and keep them off the streets? or a sign of more enlghtened thinking? I believe there is hope yet. TC

nofearSingapore said...

Hi anon,
Let's keep our fingers crossed and eyes opened.
Hope that all spheres of our society continue to open up and progress.