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Messy, risky work of stirring kids' creativity

The Straits Times got experts to let their minds wander on the topic. Their ideas range from less 'sorting' of children at age 12 and more school types, to getting students to take ownership of their learning.

Children here need to be more creative, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a recent lecture at Nanyang Technological University, where he outlined broad shifts that the education system has to make to keep up with the times.

"The science tells us that having the time and space for your mind to wander when you are young is critical in developing creative abilities," he said, calling for schools to reduce academic workloads and provide diverse experiences outside the curriculum.

"It doesn't happen if we spend a large amount of time working on high-stakes exams - you don't develop the creative part of your brain. So we need a mix of defined and challenging tasks, and space and time for your mind to wander."

Mr Tharman's comments come as Singapore schools are known for being the best worldwide in terms of producing results, but not in producing innovators who think out of the box. But channelling resources to creativity can be disruptive and time-consuming, especially in classrooms - and there is no certainty that it will pay off.

However, a report in 2015 by the World Economic Forum titled New Vision for Education said that to thrive in today's innovation-driven economy, employees need a different mix of skills from those required in the past. "In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative," the report said.

"Skilled jobs," it added, "are more and more centred on solving unstructured problems and effectively analysing information."

The Singapore Government has in fact centred its future economic strategy on innovation, and schools are exploring new ways of learning, but there is room to go further so as to be at the cutting edge of education disruption.

WHAT SINGAPORE HAS DONE RIGHT

Singapore students are known for being top performers in international tests, who know how to apply their knowledge to solve problems in science and mathematics. Schools have over time made deliberate shifts from purely imparting knowledge to helping students take a more active role in learning, trimming content so that teachers can focus on higher-order skills like inquiry and relate lessons to real life.

All mainstream secondary schools here offer two distinctive programmes - Applied Learning Programme and the Learning for Life Programme. Nearly all primary schools also have at least one of these programmes.

The first helps students see the relevance of what they learn - for instance in applied science, business and entrepreneurship. The other builds character and skills such as teamwork through school expeditions, sports or the arts. Some schools like Commonwealth Secondary School have also set aside "makerspaces" - environments where students can gather to explore, tinker with materials and learn to solve problems.

The Republic's education landscape has expanded, with several specialised schools catering to different student profiles. From the School of the Arts, the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, and Crest Secondary to Northlight Secondary, students today have more options than before, and more pathways to find their own niches and strengths.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Integrated Programme schools were meant to provide high-ability learners with a seamless six-year education to develop intellectual curiosity, for instance.The School of Science and Technology, Singapore offers an alternative to mainstream secondary schools for those with an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These shifts in the education system are laudable and Singapore is on the right track, but there is a greater need to keep pushing the envelope.

OVERSEAS EXPERIMENTS

Across the world, a crop of universities have sprung up in countries such as Germany and China where students do not sit in lecture halls and take exams. Dubbed the "challenge-driven universities", their students work in teams on practical problems across disciplines with no clear answers. Here, the Singapore University of Technology and Design has adopted a multi-disciplinary approach for some modules.

Finland is going through a wave of school construction and refurbishment to adopt flexible and open learning spaces. Desks and chairs are switched with sofas, rocking chairs and sliding walls.

In Germany, the Evangelical School Berlin Centre has done away with set timetables and exams until the age of 15. Students choose their subjects and take abstract courses such as responsibility and challenge.

The school's philosophy is that as demands of the economy and the way young people process information change, the greatest skill education can impart is to be self-driven and cope with change.

About 40 schools in Germany are in the process of adopting some of the school's methods.

The Khan Lab School in California has reinvented learning according to its founder's dream: a school where homework, 50-minute class periods, grades and classes organised by age are abandoned. Students aged five to 12 work on personalised projects, have smaller sessions with teachers, and are grouped by their level of independence and executive function skills, such as being able to focus.

GOING FORWARD

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, told The Straits Times: "It is unrealistic to expect a high degree of creativity and innovation in every student. Some people are born more enterprising and lateral in thinking than others. However, the overall level of creativity and innovation in schools can be raised, regardless of starting point."

Education policy expert Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education said it is also difficult to find other forms of assessment to replace national exams. The direct school admission (DSA), introduced in 2004, was meant to be a "supplementary admission system, to send a message that it's not all about the academic subjects", he said.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said the DSA scheme "has shifted sentiments a little, but not as significantly as we hoped".

She added that "the current system with its over-reliance on exams as the primary evaluation tool has discouraged many from taking risks. Most would prefer to focus their energies on conventional preparation, and would not risk engaging in non-academic activities".

There is more variation at university level, and undergraduates take part in out-of-classroom activities in entrepreneurship, for instance, which encourage more innovation, said Professor Straughan, who is the Singapore Management University's dean of students.

But the overall reality is that mainstream schools are always a few steps behind economic changes, and it takes a while to tweak curriculum and pedagogy, said Associate Professor Tan.

"The traditional model - rows of desks, fixed time blocks, subject-specific lessons, the belief that students must learn together with their age peers - has proved to be so resilient over time and deeply entrenched in all societies."

Ms Phua said change must start from within the education sector, "in pockets where there is too much of a command-and-control hierarchy", adding that such cultures and structures reflect the industrial revolution rather than the digital revolution.

"MOE (Ministry of Education) headquarters can itself start with more visibly embracing and recognising school leaders and other educators with 'out-of-box' ideas in trying out ways to improve the education system," she said.

"School leaders must learn to develop whole-school cultures of innovation and embrace ideas from staff and students."

Prof Tan suggested that more learning could take place across age groups and subject boundaries, and students be given even more space for self-directed learning in mainstream schools.

Dr Yeap Ban Har, principal of Marshall Cavendish Institute, which conducts professional development courses for teachers, said they need to understand that their role today is not to explain concepts - which can be done more efficiently by videos - but to be facilitators of learning.

"But many teachers would be quite uncomfortable with this because this means you don't have total control over the flow of a lesson - you need to pull ideas together to come to a conclusion," he said.

Creativity is messy, but the world is also increasingly so. Careers lie at the intersection of disciplines and the world is not divided into subject areas. But innovation is an inherently risky endeavour, especially so in education where children are involved. Tinkering with one part of the education system can also have effects on other parts.

So top-down approaches to cram innovation into a massive school system will not work, and even examples of schools overseas going against well-entrenched conventions of learning are "minority phenomena", said Prof Tan.

"You also need very confident school leaders with bold visions to lead such schools," said Dr Yeap, adding that such progressive schools are still in their infancy.

Rather than an overhaul of schools, what may work are smaller pilot schools which dare to try new and bolder methods of learning. This could include mainstream schools with special education classes, or classes where students have mixed academic abilities, said Dr Yeap. Such schools may be more agile because of their smaller size, and it would be easier for their teachers to have the same vision as their school leaders, he said.

He called for more innovation, collaboration, conversation and reflection for students in schools. "Students need to take more ownership of their learning for it to be meaningful to them," he said.

"It doesn't necessarily mean cutting content to make way for these things. It involves changing the way we deliver lessons, for instance, moving away from explaining information to letting students explore so that they are more invested in the lesson."

Ms Phua feels there is room to go further. She said: "MOE should seriously consider piloting the through-train school system that removes the high-stakes PSLE to free time traditionally used to prepare for such exams. There are many school systems in the world that do not 'sort' students at the age of 12."

Innovation is an uphill task, and so will be communicating these ideas to parents, who often want to know the outcomes of their children's learning and time spent in school. But Dr Yeap said that parents should at least be given more choices of school type. "For example, a through-train 10-year school system would draw parents who don't want the stress of PSLE. If such schools are popular, then education should be responsive and provide more of such schools."

The PSLE can remain as a way to evaluate students, but it does not always have to be a sorting mechanism, he said, adding that this would reduce the current obsession with the national exam.

"There are parents who prefer to stick to the status quo, but I know there are some who are enlightened and willing to try new ways of learning, especially if they're in touch with how fluid the job market and technology changes can be," said Dr Yeap.

Uncertainty in job sectors looms, but the work done by schools here will stand students in good stead.

However, more can be done. To keep Singapore moving ahead, schools must be places where the young go to not just grasp content, but to develop a spirit of self-direction in the face of change.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2017, with the headline 'Messy, risky work of stirring kids' creativity'. Print Edition | Subscribe