Excerpts of Heng Swee Keat's speech

From 'study book' or du shu to learning with joy for life

This is an edited excerpt of a speech by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament yesterday.

Hillgrove Secondary has an Applied Learning Programme on flight and aerospace, giving keen students a chance to nurture their field of interest.
Hillgrove Secondary has an Applied Learning Programme on flight and aerospace, giving keen students a chance to nurture their field of interest.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

In 1965, education meant du shu or "study book". Our pioneers had a sense of where they wanted to be in the future, where they were, and worked hard to bridge that gap. The big gap then was basic literacy and numeracy skills - so "study book" made sense as they learnt the three "Rs" - or reading, writing, arithmetic.

Many became literate and numerate. We then built on this education system. At critical points, we made important choices to adapt and change. Educators, parents, students responded with spirit, and each wave allowed us to make further progress with purpose. But there were also inadvertent negatives. In our mind, "study book" became increasingly about exams, grades and qualifications.

A strength - in focusing on academic grades - can be overdone and become a weakness, as we leave little time to develop other attributes that are necessary for success and fulfilment.

Students tell me of the stress they faced because of the high expectations placed on them. The chase for better grades fuelled a tuition industry. It created a vertical stacking of qualifications, as well as the tiering of schools in the minds of parents based mainly on academic results - a hierarchy of grades.

We are not unique in this. The same "study book" culture that enabled the three East Asian dragons - South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan - to make great strides is also generating the same, if not even greater, pressure in their societies.

Like our pioneers before us, we have to ask anew: Where do we want to be in the future, where are we today, and how do we make the leap?

The future will be more uncertain, volatile as the global economy and political order change in unpredictable ways. An ageing population will create challenges that we cannot totally foresee. A younger generation that is digitally connected can either be more united or more divided.

The nature of jobs will also change. Many existing jobs will disappear. Smart machines and lower- cost workers elsewhere will take these jobs. We have to change jobs, maybe several times over our lifetime. But jobs that need uniquely human qualities cannot be displaced by machines, and will become more valuable.

Traits like creativity, inventiveness, adaptability, socio-emotional skills, and cultural and global awareness will give Singaporeans an edge. Some of us will create jobs for others as entrepreneurs. And if our economy grows well, more jobs will be created. All these present new and multiple pathways for success.

At a crossroads

WE ARE at a crossroads. We have two options.

We could continue with the "study book" path, with a narrow focus on grades and exams, and descend into a spiralling paper chase and expanding tuition industry, as many of you have warned. Employers choose not to invest in employees, relying wholly on academic qualifications to determine who gets the job. Educators drill and test, and see their duty as helping students obtain the best exam grades possible. Parents obsess over grades and spend ever-increasing amounts of resources to give their child an edge over other children. And students chase the next point, and spend most of their time going for more tuition and enrichment in very narrow areas.

Stress levels in society climb, and the system churns out students who excel in exams, but are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future, nor find fulfilment in what they do. And unemployment or under-employment becomes pervasive.

Or we can have another outcome.

We can act with boldness and resolve to embark on a major transformation. We will need collective will and action by employers, teachers, parents and students and society at large.

Where employers look beyond academic qualifications in hiring and promoting the best person for the job, where bosses support employees in skills upgrading, where educators focus on holistic education, building a strong foundation of values and the capacity to learn, where our institutions of higher learning play a leading role strengthening the nexus between learning and work, learning and life, where parents recognise every child's unique strengths, and do their part to build their children's character, where students flourish through a range of academic and co-curricular activities, take different pathways to success and grow up to be well-rounded.

The economy stays resilient and flexible, with high levels of employment, and many opportunities. High skills, high productivity, high wages. And our society and our people continue to be caring, harmonious, gracious, cohesive. And we do not see education as a race among our children.

Charting this new territory will require us to once again be pioneers.

We developed new ways of learning in our schools, made every school a good school, expanded applied pathways in tertiary education and, in this Budget, outlined a series of SkillsFuture initiatives that built on Aspire's (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review) recommendations. All these changes have laid the groundwork for a transformation that creates a better future for Singapore, anchored in deep skills and strong values. But this future will belong to us only if we, as a people, shift our mindsets about education.

This is not about "study book" or du shu.

It is about learning in every domain, any time, anywhere for a purposeful, fulfilling life. In other words, we need to live the pioneering spirit, beyond learning for grades, to learning for mastery, beyond learning in school, to learning throughout life, beyond learning for work, to learning for life.

Learning for mastery

THE first major shift is to go beyond learning for grades, to learning for mastery.

When I was in the Police Academy 30 years ago, more than 30 years ago actually, one of my pioneer instructors was Mr John Chang. He did not have high academic qualifications, but he was, in my mind, one of the best instructors - he knew the law, he knew how to deal with tense situations, he knew how to teach.

He explained to me that after handling each case, he would reflect on how he could have done better. He would imagine in his mind scenarios - how should he have reacted if the criminals that he was dealing with had been more violent, if they were armed with a firearm, or if the victims were less cooperative, and so on and so forth.

He studied on his own, he attended classes, he asked his peers, he asked his seniors. Everybody he could get, he would ask. John was one of the few police officers who started as a constable, got many promotions and went all the way and retired as an assistant superintendent of police. Quite a feat in those days.

I learnt a lot from John as a very young officer about what it means to be an effective learner, and how one achieves mastery.

He was self-directed: No one told him how to learn, but he did so on his own. He was reflective: He thought through his own experiences and learnt from both mistakes and successes. He learnt in bite-sized modules, picking up what he needed, when he needed. He kept an open mind and learnt from everyone, everywhere, at any time. He was disciplined: Learning was not left to chance, but built into his everyday routine. And he was passionate: He cared deeply about what he does.

We should aim to be a nation where Singaporeans develop mastery in every field, Singaporeans who are resourceful, inventive and break new ground. This will take a collective effort across our schools, institutes of higher learning (IHLs) and industry.

  • Learning with interest and joy: An important aspect of learning for mastery is to match our students' strengths and interests to opportunities in our schools and IHLs, in careers and enterprises. A recent innovation in our schools is the Applied Learning Programmes or ALPs, in fact in almost all our secondary schools, and this is part of our Every School A Good School movement.

In fun and creative ways, our students apply various domains of knowledge to solve complex, real- life problems in their field of interest. Hillgrove Secondary has an ALP on flight and aerospace. Students learn fundamental aerospace theories, and apply maths, science, design and technology by building and flying their own model planes. Students go on to take advanced elective modules in aerospace, where they fly in flight simulators and learn how planes defy gravity.

Rayner Lee really enjoyed learning at Hillgrove and in fact he's now doing aerospace technology at Nanyang Polytechnic and he says: "I chose Hillgrove because of the Youth Flying Club CCA. I wanted to be a pilot. My parents and school teachers encouraged me to take up the Private Pilot Licence (PPL). Now that I have my licence, I hope to join the RSAF (Republic of Singapore Air Force) as a pilot."

Well, I hope Rayner flies high.

  • Mastery in whichever field: Different ALPs open up different possibilities for students to put knowledge into action and bring learning to life. Learning becomes relevant and engaging for every student, in every school.

We are not channelling students to specialise early. In fact, deep skills acquired in one field can be transferred to another.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic uses the technical know-how in building unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs to build unmanned underwater vehicles or UUVs to clean ship hulls - so transferring the skills from air to sea.

A team in ITE working with the Singapore Zoo applied medical technology to design an incubator, and succeeded in increasing the hatching rate of reptile eggs from 25 per cent to 75 per cent.

With more choices, we need good education and career guidance or ECG. There are many domains and fields that students could explore and develop deep skills in - whether it's in design, business, arts, music or sports. By exposing students to possibilities, we empower them to make better choices and choose suitable pathways. ECG curriculum in schools, ITE and polytechnics will be enhanced and, by 2017, we'll have a professional core of ECG counsellors and an online ECG portal that shows many exciting opportunities - enriched by our SkillsFuture initiatives.

Learning throughout life

THE second major shift that we need to make together deeper is to go beyond learning in school, to learning throughout life.

Fifty years ago, Seletar was better known for the smell of pig farms. And 50 years on, I visited Seletar to witness the delivery of our first Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 jet engine - made-in-Singapore for a Singaporean company, Scoot. A world of difference.

Ravinder is a team leader with 24 years of aerospace experience. You would have thought that he knows everything, but he told me: "To me, every day is a learning process." And this gentleman was serious when he said that.

It turned out that his son was also interested in aerospace engineering. So Ravinder decided that he, too, should return to school to pick up new skills and more skills, so that he can mentor his son, and pass on his skills to the next generation. He enrolled in Temasek Polytechnic's Diploma in Aerospace Engineering and is now six months into his course. Now, all that, while working hard at Rolls-Royce mentoring his young colleagues, like Cheria and Siti.

Now, Cheria is technically Ravinder's "schoolmate" in TP, as she is also pursuing a Diploma in Aerospace Engineering. But she is one-third his age - about. As an intern, she is learning at the workplace, even as Ravinder is learning at TP.

Siti, an ITE student in aerospace technology, was also part of the team. While working at a bookshop at Changi Airport, she saw the aeroplanes taking off and it piqued her interest. She started to wonder how do planes fly. So, today, she is a Rolls-Royce ITE scholar, thrilled to be building an impressive and complex engine with some 30,000 parts and learning all that as an intern. So you see it's not just about learning technical skills.

Ravinder, Cheria and Siti are at different stages of life but all actively learning to be better, to succeed both at work, and in life.

Self-directed learning

AS WE resolve to learn for mastery and learn throughout life, we need to rethink a few issues about learning and the significance of the changes.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) did a recent survey of adult skills. Workers in Japan ranked highly in their skills, but ranked badly in terms of how well these skills are utilised on the job. At the opposite end, workers in the US ranked poorly in skills, but ranked among the top in using skills on the job - so whatever skills they have, they use to the fullest.

Besides the multiple pathways in our institutions of higher learning, you can now create your own learning pathways - build a portfolio of skills, just in time, tailored to your own needs, at your own pace. You can stack modules towards a qualification, or just choose relevant modules. It empowers each of us to take charge, direct our own learning, and build our own unique skills map.

This self-directed, independent learning must start young. Our teachers must not spoon-feed our students and give them model answers.

In life, there are no model answers. I once had a parent who wrote to me to argue for an extra mark for her child's term test in school. Rather than seek an extra mark in tests, let us nurture our children to make their mark in society.

We have to encourage our children to be independent, self-directed learners, skilful at figuring out their own way.

Professor Tan Tai Yong made an important point that we must not over-protect our children, so that they can develop adaptive resilience and learn to deal with uncertainties in life. But if we intervene when a child did not get the extra mark, how does he or she develop that resilience?

So let us start early in our schools and make our children self-directed, independent learners. Let us all take a collective pause and see whether the way that we are bringing up our children in school, at home, is helping them to develop that independence, that self-directed learning, that resourcefulness and initiative, or whether we are spoon-feeding them, that they are going to lose that; that when the crutch is taken away, they cannot go out and create and invent and build new things.