To improve education, go beyond classroom

Examine parts that fall outside the system which will impact community and society

At the beginning of the video, the Primary 5 pupil shows what's in her school bag.

Apart from the usual textbooks, there is a tablecloth, a pair of chopsticks, a toothbrush and a handkerchief.

She is set to go to school.

I was watching an American documentary about a school in Saitama, Japan, and what goes on during lunch hour there.

There are 628 pupils, and all the food is cooked and prepared in the school kitchen.

When it is time to eat, a team from each class goes to collect the food and take it to the classrooms.

There, they dish out the food, including to the teacher, who eats with them.

The pupils eat at the same table they use for lessons, using the tablecloth they have brought.

Meal over, everyone washes up everything, including the corridors, stairs, washrooms and the rest of the school.

They go down on their knees to wipe the floor clean.

There's one particular scene which makes a deep impression on me. The pupils tear open empty milk cartons, and someone rinses them under a running tap. The cartons will be left to dry for a day before being sent to be recycled.

The proper way to recycle milk cartons is to wash away the remaining milk, and these pupils are learning it at an early age.

What else have they learnt?

How about these: Working together as a team in a community, cleaning up your own space, taking care of the environment, being considerate to others.

I didn't mention they had potatoes for lunch that day, grown by the pupils in the school farm.

That's another set of lessons to do with resourcefulness and self-reliance.

(One other point that impresses: It takes only five workers to prepare and cook the food in the kitchen for more than 700 people, including teachers, an outstanding example of Japanese productivity.)

The lesson for me is that, often, the most important characteristics of an education system lie outside the formal structure that comprises the curriculum, pedagogy, textbooks and examinations.

These are important, but they do not tell the whole story, and they certainly are not what education is just about.

You have to look at what happens outside the formal lessons - what students actually do during school hours (including at lunch time), how they take care of the school and how they relate to people around them.

These aspects of school life are as important, perhaps even more so, because they leave a deeper impression on young minds.

Small wonder Japanese people display such a high level of civic consciousness and social responsibility, and the schools play a big part.

This is what the principal of the school said: "The 45-minute lunch period is considered an education period, same as maths or reading."

But you won't find these things discussed at education conferences or captured in international test results, such as the Pisa scores and country rankings.

The point is that when educationists study what works or doesn't in other countries, it is important to look at all aspects of what shape students' behaviour and attitudes.

So, too, when reviewing what changes to make to Singapore schools.

Too often, the usual list of evergreen topics dominate the agenda here: Whether to retain the Primary School Leaving Examination, or the through-train scheme, or to do away with the O-level examinations, or what other subjects, such as social studies, to include.

Some of these issues do need to be resolved, but not all the shortcomings of the system here can be addressed by tweaking the curriculum or examination system.

You have to look at the overall school environment and ask whether it contributes to or hinders the development of students who are not too narrowly focused on academic achievements, who dare to take risks, and are self-reliant and civic-minded.

When I gave a talk at Raffles Institution (RI) last year, I challenged the students to clean the school without employing paid cleaners.

If the premier school in Singapore did this, it would be a first here and demonstrate RI's commitment to developing well-rounded students.

It would be a much more effective lesson in civic responsibility than any number of classroom lectures.

So, what other aspects of school life here are different from other countries' that might be worth looking at?

Here's one: In many countries, including Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States, students do part-time work while in school and university.

In Australia, for example, a study found that more than half the students in Year 12 (that's equivalent to junior college here) work part-time, and even more do so in university.

By age 15, two-thirds of American teenagers have had some form of work experience.

When my daughter was in university in Japan, she said almost all her Japanese classmates did part-time work.

It's the cultural norm in these places, and they do so to earn pocket money as well as to gain work experience.

Along the way, they learn to be financially independent and self-reliant, and gain valuable life skills in time management, teamwork and networking.

In contrast, Singaporean students in school or university generally do not do part-time work and suffer from not having had the experience, compared to their counterparts elsewhere.

A New Zealander who works here and employs young Singaporean graduates remarked to me that the absence of work experience was the biggest difference he found between them and those he had managed in other countries before coming here.

As with the Japanese school lunch experience, this isn't an issue that the formal education system can address, but you can be sure it makes a difference, not just in school, but later in the workplace and society at large.

I hope that when policymakers and educationists study how to improve education here, they take a more rounded look at those parts that fall outside the system.

It won't show up in Pisa scores and country rankings.

But it might in the other important areas that have to do with community and society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'To improve education, go beyond classroom'. Print Edition | Subscribe