Accepting broader definitions of success

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday called on Singaporeans to rethink what constitutes success in life so that the education system can have meaningful reforms. Here are excerpts of his speech.

MANY parents and students feel that our education system is too focused on examinations and grades. This excessive focus has several consequences:

  • It may come at the expense of the development of well-rounded individuals, including the character and values of the student, which ultimately matters most.
  • It may come at the expense of learning as students "study to the test" and teachers respond by "teaching to the test" rather than to stimulate curiosity and a love of learning.
  • Students may choose subjects, and indeed, schools may offer subjects, based on how easy it is to score good grades rather than on their intrinsic value. The recent debate over literature, which Ms Janice Koh brought up, is a case in point.
  • Other forms of talent - in the arts, sports, music, leadership ability, applied skills using both hands and head, etc, are not sufficiently recognised. We should not just have an exam-based meritocracy. Rather, we should have a talent-centric meritocracy that recognises talent in a wide range of areas.

A major consequence of a single-minded focus on examinations is stress, in particular, stress related to competition and high-stake examinations such as the PSLE, which Ms Denise Phua and several others have spoken about. Mr Lim Biow Chuan also opened this debate by talking about stress. Some mothers take leave for an entire year or more to help their children prepare.

Many see entry into top schools as critical to their children's future and prepare their children very early, some as early as kindergarten, and even send them to two kindergartens. Many compete to get a place in popular primary schools or spend significantly on tuition, as Mr Low Thia Khiang mentioned.

Others worry about their children being streamed into normal streams, and suffer from the labelling and stigma associated with it. Some teachers who are committed to helping their students succeed may give a lot of homework or set tests that are difficult to stretch their students, but often with good intentions. I appreciate the stress that parents, students and educators feel. This is an important issue.

Is stress a necessary evil?

SOME are concerned about the effects of competition. Successful students may develop a narrow, competitive mindset.

They may come to believe that: "I have succeeded because I have worked hard, so I deserve nothing but the best for myself."

While there are concerns about high-stake exams, I have also heard other views, and there are others who see merit in the current system. Many feel that the current system sets clear standards. Many students have told me exams challenge them to learn better. Teachers use exams to determine students' mastery of the different subjects and tailor their teaching strategies accordingly.

In a public education system, exams provide us with a standardised measure of progression and achievement, and ensure accountability across the system to uphold rigorous standards. In fact, this is one of the reasons why public examinations started. It also provides an objective way of determining entry into the next level of education. In Singapore, exams have helped assure a very high average among our students. That is why our students, even those who score average here, perform so well when they go overseas.

Some countries, such as the UK, Japan and Korea, and some states in the US that abolished exams or made these easier are now reversing course. Their experience has been that while removing exams was popular and brought short-term relief, over time, insidiously, standards fall. They are now concerned that their youth are not equipped to compete in the global marketplace. I should note that the people who suffer the most when educational standards drop in these countries are not the best students but the average students. That is why in some countries, while they say they have "high peaks", they also have "deep valleys".

As for the stress that comes with high-stake exams, many have observed that some amount of stress is almost unavoidable. While excessive and prolonged stress is bad, the right amount of stress can bring out the best in each of us. But what is optimal depends on each individual. Some parents have also said that some amount of competition is necessary - it is a reality of working life, and equipping our students to learn this early in life strengthens them for the future.

Singapore is not alone

INDEED, this issue of stress and competition is not unique to Singapore. Some of you may have read that in New York, parents queue to admit their children into high- end kindergartens, while a recent report noted that in the UK, rich parents pay up to £80,000 a year (S$150,000) to hire "well-qualified private tutors".

The common position is that we all want our children to get ahead in life. And the higher the aspiration, the greater the drive. The question we have to ask is, what exactly will ensure that our children can get ahead and be successful in the face of global competition and not just relative to other Singaporeans?

Social mobility

THE second area is that of opportunities, social mobility and inclusion. Some parents are concerned that without tuition, their children cannot cope or cannot do well enough to excel. Others, and Ms Mary Liew spoke about this earlier, whose children are doing well want them to do even better, and procure all sorts of tuition and enrichment classes to help them advance. Some are concerned that in some schools, students tend to come from similar social-economic backgrounds and have similar academic abilities.

Without the opportunity to interact with students from different backgrounds and academic abilities, our students may not develop empathy and our society may lose its cohesiveness.

But some have also cautioned that if we mix up our students too much, it will be harder to cater to the learning needs of different groups. We will lose our peaks of excellence and also fail to support those who may fall behind without different approaches.

Policy options

IN THE next phase of Our Singapore Conversation, we can discuss the various policy options. For example, the PSLE serves as an objective benchmark for secondary school posting today. So important questions that we need to discuss include:

  • How do we maintain our rigorous standards and accountability and whether we can allocate all secondary school places without an objective benchmark like the PSLE?
  • Are there alternative posting systems that are still objective but can minimise the current over-emphasis on academic results, and enhance social inclusion?
  • To what extent should choice or proximity to school be a consideration in secondary school posting, as some have suggested?

Mr Gan Thiam Poh's suggestion about PSLE cut-off points is something that we can consider further. Ms Denise Phua spoke about a through-train model from pre-school to secondary school. Mr Yee Jenn Jong had other suggestions.

As another example, streaming at the secondary level allows us to tailor instruction to the abilities and learning styles of our students. But some have questioned if we should re-think whether streaming is absolutely necessary.

So important questions to discuss in the next phase of Our Singapore Conversation include:

  • Can we ensure that every child can learn at his or her own pace if there is no streaming?
  • Will our schools be even less diverse if we did not have students from the various academic streams?
  • Can we replicate what we have done at the primary level, such as subject-based banding, at the secondary level? And that was the specific suggestion by Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar.

Whatever we do, we must be deliberate and thoughtful about what we need to change, how fast we can change and how far we can sustain these changes. We must have the resources to sustain any change.

I have been watching the debates on resourcing education in various countries. Countries that have started with a big bang now have to make painful changes to cut back.

A long way ahead

EDUCATION is a long-term endeavour and always a work in progress. We should not rush into anything as the results, whether good or bad, are evident only many years down the road. And even as we seek to address current issues, we must be as thoughtful as we can.

It is also critical for us not to see our education system in isolation. Education alone cannot enable Singaporeans to realise our aspirations. If our society fails, the able will emigrate and the rest of us will be stuck here in failure. But if we stay and move together, we can succeed together. Education alone cannot give us a good life, and we need to be clear what a good life is. If a good life is simply about getting ahead of others and achieving the 5Cs (cash, condominium, cars, credit card, and country club), the competitive pressure in the workplace will define how we, as parents and teachers, view education. Then no amount of changes in the education system can alter the reality of each of us chasing after material and positional goods.

We cannot have broader definitions of success in education without our society accepting broader definitions of success in life. In many respects, the education system reflects societal norms and expectations.