Singapore is focused on test success. Students are under significant pressure to achieve: they receive extensive tutoring and support, particularly when they reach exams which track them towards different qualifications. It’s easy to return from Singapore reporting that stressed students are worried about their tests: there is certainly truth in this (more here). Yet Professor Pak Tee Ng claims that Singaporean schools are:
Now focusing on learning for life, embracing holistic education, and developing its young people to think critically and creatively (2017, p.41).”
The previous post examined this holistic and life long learning, asking, why do students like school? This post examines how a country which has achieved impressive success on international tests is pursuing a creative, critical curriculum.
Many Singaporeans (and foreigners) are concerned that there is too much rote learning and insufficient creativity and critical thinking in schools. Mary, the tuition centre owner, worried whether students think critically, empathically and environmentally: Singaporeans will be “highly literate, but not very good thinkers”. Ahmed, the civil servant, suggested that “Not many teachers place a premium on making learning enjoyable and making learning meaningful for students.” David, a foreign academic teaching at the university, said that students did not think for themselves. Yet, while Singapore’s educational success relies on students knowing a lot, we found significant efforts to make the curriculum more creative: as one experienced teacher educator put it, it’s vital that students ‘see the links, connect the dots, react to the future’.
Fostering creativity among schools
Central control of education, and tight alignment of the education system to Singapore’s priorities risks uniformity. The Ministry of Education has fostered diversity and creativity by supporting ‘independent’ schools, which remain public but are free to experiment (and, until recently, received additional funding). These schools pioneered some initiatives which have since spread, such as larger senior leadership teams, heads of year and character education. To make time for deeper and more innovative teaching, beyond the test, ‘Teach Less Learn More’ reduced the amount of content in the curriculum (Ng, 2017, pp.92-93), and students who are certain to progress to A Level exams (at eighteen) are no longer required to sit O Levels at sixteen. We visited Nanyang Girls High School, which has benefited from both initiatives: it is an ‘independent’ school which has specialised in curriculum design, and its students do not sit exams at sixteen.
Curriculum experimentation and disciplinary bases
At Nanyang, teachers have used these freedoms to cut six weeks from the existing curriculum and create an interdisciplinary curriculum. This is designed to connect what students have learned in different subjects by focusing on the underlying concept of sustainability. At Secondary One, students focus on ‘sustainable living’ starting with the environment and people around them. At Secondary Two, students focus on ‘sustainable community’. The interdisciplinary curriculum also includes ‘macro-concepts’ which are important across subjects, such as change, evidence and communication. Students connect underlying ideas and are offered the chance to learn more autonomously, choosing their own topics within themes of sustainable living or sustainable community, managing their own groups and refining their projects
What I particularly admired was the sophisticated understanding of learning which underpinned this experimentation. Innumerable advocates demand a more creative curriculum, but suggest jettisoning subject knowledge to achieve it. At Nanyang, the interdisciplinary curriculum relied explicitly on students having already gained strong disciplinary understanding. Teachers described how, after two years experimenting with interdisciplinary study, their focus had now returned to disciplinary curricula, to ensure students have the knowledge needed for their interdisciplinary studies.
Singapore recognises two parts to a creative curriculum: “Students have to learn the conventional knowledge solidly. Then they have to learn not to be trapped by the conventional knowledge so that they may be adaptable and innovative (Ng, 2017, p.97).” The basics are crucial: Dr Ridzuan Abd Rahim, at the Ministry of Education, described the importance of factual fluency – ten minutes practice a day in basic arithmetic until students had mastered it, for example; but he also discussed the importance of making that practice meaningful, balancing repetition, variation and motivation, using card games for fluency, for example. Professor Ng noted that mastery of a subject discipline remains crucial to excel in any specialist field. Discussion of Singapore’s focus on a broader curriculum sometimes suggests that this means renouncing knowledge of the basics: in reality, Singapore is pursuing a creative, critical curriculum founded on the knowledge it requires.
Professor Pak Tee Ng argues that:
Singapore has to kick away the ladder that got it to where it is now, while still standing on that ladder. It has to abandon its obsession with learning for examinations (p.41).”
This is challenging when exam success determines students’ life chances: Ng describes parents as in an “Educational Arms Race (2017, p.170).” Yet Singapore is altering its system such that schools and teachers can work towards curricula in which students gain extensive knowledge and can use this knowledge flexibly, creatively and critically. It may appear that Singapore’s success relies on conformity and rote learning, yet the ministry and schools are seeking to ensure schools go beyond this.
Too often, I meet evangelists for creativity and 21st century skills who seem unaware that we can only think critically about things we know about (see, for example, Bailin et al., 1999). Less frequently, I meet passionate advocates of a knowledge-rich curriculum who struggle to articulate how novice learners will ever become experts. In Singapore, teachers are seeking to ensure that students know the content, then move to interrogate the concepts.
So who are the teachers who are to achieve this? The next post describes Singapore’s approach to recruiting, developing and retaining teachers.
Particular thanks to Lena Teo and her colleagues at Nanyang Girls High School for welcoming us and explaining their work.
What to read next
Previous posts in this series:
Education in Singapore: 1) Making sense of Singapore’s priorities
Education in Singapore: 2) The pressure on students
Education in Singapore: 3) Why do students like school?
Education in Singapore: 5) Attracting, developing and keeping teachers
Education in Singapore: 6) “The best trained teachers in the world”
Education in Singapore: 7) The secret of Singapore’s success
Education in Singapore: 8) Which policies can England borrow?