When urging students to take risks is a 'risk'

Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng is right in challenging educators to give students the space to innovate and take risks ("Students 'need the space to innovate'"; Dec 30, 2015) as well as to "try, fail and try again".

Such an innovative and resilient spirit is indeed necessary for the future progress of Singapore.

While I am sure educators fully understand the need to encourage students to take risks, the realities of the education system present them with constraints that prevent them from fully putting this into practice, hence, giving rise to their unfortunate label of being "traditionally conservative and risk-averse".

These constraints arise from the very nature of the education system: a packed syllabus which needs to be completed in a given time; academic advancement being determined by summative high-stakes exams; and marking schemes with answers that adhere to a certain format. No matter what methods educators wish to employ, these constraints will always be at the back of their minds.

Thus, innovative pedagogies that encourage students to take risks are a "risk" for teachers, since they cannot be sure that students will eventually discover the "right answers" accepted by examination marking schemes.

They may think: Why not employ the tried and tested method of teaching to the test, since, at the very least, students would be equipped for academic advancement?

Furthermore, innovation and risk-taking cannot be rushed - they require time, which, unfortunately, teachers do not often have, given the tight schedules they have to adhere to in completing the syllabus and preparing students for examinations. There is "no time" to allow students to fail.

For Mr Ng's vision to become a reality, elements that form the very core of the system (syllabus content, the summative nature of national examinations, the nature of marking schemes and the role of teachers) may need to be thoroughly reviewed.

Changing such elements may be a "risk" we eventually have to take.

Ng Chia Wee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'When urging students to take risks is a 'risk''. Print Edition | Subscribe