The addition of seven subjects to hands-on learning along O- and N-level tracks underscores the Education Ministry's goal of catering "more fully to the interests and aspirations of students who are keen to progress along an applied and practice-oriented path of education". It is a boundary-crossing pedagogy that can aid the development of new skills and attitudes by relating academic knowledge to real-world situations. The new subjects, which range from robotics to sports science, are diversified enough to appeal to a broad swathe of students.
Of course, foundational subjects such as science, mathematics and languages will retain their core place in pedagogy, but they will need to be complemented judiciously by applied learning. The principles of thinking inherent in traditional subjects based on many eras of human development remain relevant. However, old boundaries are not sacrosanct. Hands-on learning of sufficient rigour and scope can help to make the influence of academic content more direct and tangible in the real world .
Educator Michael Short at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers powerful reasons for the importance of a hands-on education. Most of his students came into class afraid of making mistakes. His response: "This is the class in which I want to see things exploding. This is where I want to see you do the high-voltage dance. This is where I want everything to go wrong, because you can't get it to go right unless you see what goes wrong." In short, the classroom provided a safe space for students to make mistakes. Indeed, students earned points for making mistakes because that was how they learnt and discovered new things. By contrast, "the only way to fail was to do nothing".
The same spirit of daring needs to imbue the teachers and students who will be brought together by expanded hands-on learning in Singapore schools. Education experts note that carefully tailored curricula focusing on experiential learning help students master skills such as critical thinking, creativity and innovation. These literally will become life skills as technological disruption, particularly changes unleashed by digital, robotic and genomic technology, renders economic structures obsolete rapidly.
The key challenge is to engage the natural curiosity of young learners and channel it into problem-solving through closely supervised teamwork. Experience provided by the teaching of previous hands-on subjects should be utilised to create curricula for the new subjects that emphasise what students find interesting. Singapore is on the cusp of dramatic economic change which will be wrenching and exciting at the same time. Students must be at the vanguard of the march into a territory with precious few boundaries.