Singapore has created a strong teaching workforce through a careful approach to attracting, developing and retaining teachers. Yet this, alone, would be insufficient to explain Singapore’s impressive results: effective teachers are made, not born. Here too, Singapore has made a careful and concerted effort: TALIS, an international comparative survey, found Singaporean teachers to be “some of the best trained teachers in the world (Ng, 2017, p.150).” This post examines Singapore’s training and professional development, showing how teachers are supported to improve and what is prioritised at different stages of a teacher’s career.
Initial teacher training
All new teachers are trained at the National Institute of Education (NIE), through a range of routes. In many ways, the NIE’s approach familiar: it combined taught courses and placements in schools, supported by mentors and tutors. However, meeting Jessie Png, Associate Dean for Practicums, a few features stood out.
- The NIE’s priorities were clear: asked, for example, whether training was subject-specific or generic, she described it as entirely subject-specific; asked what mattered more, teachers’ progress during the course or their mastery of teaching, she chose mastery unhesitatingly.
- The NIE addressed the limited time available in initial teacher training by prioritising, saving topics like working with parents and Special Educational Needs until later in teachers’ careers.
- An important focus is the pedagogical content knowledge needed to explain ideas to students: primary teachers specialise in two subjects, so students are taught by subject-specialists in Grades 5 and 6, and have three or four teachers in younger grades.
- Teacher training has broader goals too: Group Endeavours in Service Learning is a community service projects which connect trainees to their community.
After qualification, trainees enter a two and a half year ‘Beginning Teacher’ programme, which provides both support both nationally and in schools (NCEE, 2016).
Some teachers expressed frustration about their training. One described it as having focused on motivation, social and emotional aspects of learning – when it came to designing learning, “We were riding more on intuition.” Another complained that his training mostly involved following the poorly-thought-through dictates of his mentor. Nonetheless, overall, our impression was of a clear and coherent national system for initial teacher training. Professional development in schools reinforces and builds on this foundation.
Improving as a teacher
Schools spend a lot of time and energy on professional development, led by teachers and the schools’ teacher educators. Eunoia Junior College holds structured professional development sessions one afternoon a month: these are currently focused on the principles of educational neuroscience (what we would call cognitive science), with training sessions for teachers and observations; more importantly, teachers described the value of open practice, resource sharing and lesson exchange. Nanyang High School has time for teachers to meet every day in different groups: all staff, departments, research groups. Additionally, much professional development is led by teachers (NCEE, 2016): numerous groups organise themselves spontaneously, without the support – or sometimes even the knowledge – of the School Staff Developer (the school’s head of training and research). Similarly, one School Staff Developer described the benefits of an informal network and Whatsapp group which connected him with others in the same role.
Professional development does not just rely on individual teachers and schools. Initiatives in schools receive central support from the Academy of Singapore Teachers. The Academy seeks to facilitate rather than direct, picking out the best work of teachers and encouraging them to lead workshops sharing it; it offers courses, a huge library and even a mobile library service which goes to teachers. Within schools, almost every teacher is either a mentor or being mentored by someone a step ahead of them (OECD, n.d.; Ng, 2017, p.150), mentors receive support and their mentoring is part of their performance evaluation (NCEE, 2016). At Eunoia Junior College, a cadre of five senior teachers and a lead teacher provide a depth of expertise for colleagues and for the School Staff Developer to call upon to lead training or offer support. Singapore seems to have extensive professional development: one former teacher told us there’s always enough money for it; a vice principal described having “Sometimes too many” opportunities to learn.
The previous paragraph described support for teachers to improve; more broadly, the education system is supportive of teachers. For example:
- The average teaching load at one junior college we visited was 16 hours: four courses each of four hours.
- Curriculum reviews include no seismic changes: “Announcements are normally made five years in advance” Dr Ridzuan Abd Rahim told us. Teachers provide feedback on the curriculum and the ministry studies what is happening, creating a cycle of continual improvement.
- Schools are in local clusters, providing another source of support and a place to share good practice.
- The best teachers’ resources are uploaded and shared on the Student Learning Space, accessible by teachers nationwide.
Similarly, schools seek to keep teachers engaged and happy. A school workload commission concluded that reducing workload was almost impossible: teachers want the best for their students and if some tasks are removed they are likely to add others in their place. Instead, the commission advocated refreshing teachers’ motivation. Eunoia Junior College sought to encourage teachers to look after themselves, to maintain their sense of purpose and to form social relationships with their colleagues. They encouraged teachers to contribute to the college’s leadership by being part of one of the committees charged with guiding the school’s direction.
Singapore’s teacher education is not perfect. We heard that it is hard to find enough cooperating teachers (mentors for new trainees) and hard to get them to attend training. One teacher complained that weak teaching was overlooked unless it was truly awful, criticised the poor teaching of colleagues held up as models, and teachers’ failure to share their resources. While courses for School Staff Developers sounded excellent, one described having received no training at all.
Nonetheless, Singapore appears to have an exceptionally coherent, consistent and carefully-designed approach to teacher training and development – and to provide the resources and time this requires. TALIS reports 98% of teachers receive rigorous initial training, the same percentage receive professional development and collaborate in professional learning teams, while 80% participate in observation and feedback: in every indicator this is substantially above international averages (Ng, 2017, p.150). This reflects what may be Singapore’s greatest asset: the system’s alignment to its purposes, a theme discussed further in the next post.
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: 4) A creative & critical curriculum?
Education in Singapore: 5) Attracting, developing and keeping teachers
Education in Singapore: 7) The secret of Singapore’s success
Education in Singapore: 8) Borrowing policies for England