Three shifts in education beliefs to become the future economy

We need to shift from a belief system that a few bright people, identified early and groomed, will lead us to a sunlit future to one where the leaders of tomorrow can emerge at any age and from any path

The economy of the past was organised upon an emphasis on travelling up a predictable ladder of development. To assist the economy to make transitions, the government very ably focused on ensuring the infrastructure and the workforce were well in place to anticipate demands.

Those convenient times are well past. The economy of the future will not be predictable and will also be less predicated on heavy investments in infrastructure.

Historically, the focus had been on meeting industry-specific demand for skilled labour as a condition for attracting foreign direct investment. Generations of Singaporean workers were components assembled in the Ministry of Education factory to be salaried labour force inputs in the economic growth equation.

This has led to the entrenchment of a number of structures and mind sets. These can be collectively categorised as an approach centred on "achievement to meet needs".

To be fair to the Singapore education authorities, our system has also been a narrative of gentle transformation. From the 1960s to the late 1990s, the education system was essentially a manufacturing line for a disciplined workforce skill-matched to the anticipated demands of the economy. It used pure academic performance as a filter to stream the young into path-dependent tracks from which they had little recourse or remedy.

It is encouraging that we have changed the rhetoric of one path to talk of many paths to success. But even the changed rhetoric reveals an unchanged fixation with success. This is wholly understandable, but at odds with the future of an unpredictable, idea-driven and value-creating economy.

Individual interest or particularities of development counted for little. What mattered was an efficient outcome at the cohort level expressed in the generation of required "X" number of doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers and general workers. A cadre of highly educated civil servants spent their energies trying to "solve X" to keep the system in sync with changing requirements.

In more recent years, under the consecutive leadership of ministers Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Ng Eng Hen and Heng Swee Keat as they held the Education portfolio, the system has become more nuanced, varied and flexible. But to create the future economy, we need to be prepared to be more radical.

The late Steve Jobs famously commented that you cannot connect the dots forward, but only make sense of them in retrospect. What he meant was that in the space of value creation, there is no linearity. You cannot tell in advance what will pay off. He thus encouraged the young to follow their interest and not let the pursuit of good grades become their interest.

In Singapore, too, it is time we move on from an approach that tried to load the dice in favour of gifted children to an approach that treats every child as a gift.

This will require several subordinate adjustments.

It means shifting from an approach in education where we want students to "achieve to meet known needs" to one where students "learn to meet unknown needs".

What does this mean in practice?

First, I would argue that we should begin with doing completely away with streaming in the mainstream school years, not just tweaking it. Our children should be focused on learning, not testing.

There is ample time when they go to post-secondary education for them to be "streamed" into - or for them to select - paths that meet their aptitude and interest.

Streaming is based on the assumption: First do well, then you get to study what you choose. To encourage a learning mindset, we should flip this to: You get to study what you choose so you will do well.

None of the above means that we should be doing away with standards. Students who have interests not supported by ability will have to consider other subjects if they cannot meet, even with coaching, certain minimum standards of learning.

As such, the learning approach is not about doing away with testing. It is about using testing to gain feedback on learning progress - but not using testing to determine achievement potential - most certainly not at the age of 12.

Second, doing away with the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination in particular is critical to forcing the system away from the educational "arms race" it has become, to the learning place it needs to be.

The current approach rewards initial academic success by creating supported path dependency. This is neither fair to many young people who develop at different rates or have unconventional interests; nor even fair to those who do well, who are then subject to pressure to stay on the path of achievement even if they have other interests.

The PSLE system is also hugely loaded in favour of those with means, as they can afford to equip their children with tuition and enrichment activities. This could be seen as surplus parental investment to develop the human capital of their children, or it could just be called what it is: an arms race more concerned with social status than about the status of society.

Third, we need to shift from a belief system that a few bright people, identified early and groomed, will lead us to sunlit uplands in our future - to one where the leaders of tomorrow can emerge at any age and from any path.

It is encouraging that we have changed the rhetoric of one path to talk of many paths to success. But even the changed rhetoric reveals an unchanged fixation with success. This is wholly understandable, but at odds with the future of an unpredictable, idea-driven and value-creating economy.

Odd as it may seem, we need to shift from being addicted to success to being comfortable with failure. This fundamentally means allowing people to learn - and fail - without being judged.

Being comfortable with failure does not mean not working hard or being serious. It means taking the risk to learn something new or something that has no immediate or obvious economic pay-off.

It leads ultimately to more flexible minds, more interesting personalities and more resilient hearts. Those are not qualities to be deferred to the period after an education, but should be the object of education.

These various adjustments are ultimately about giving up guessing the future economy to having the confidence to become the future economy.

• The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Three shifts in education beliefs to become the future economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe