Nurturing a range of skills in schools

SINGAPORE students' consistently good scores in international mathematics and science competency tests have often made non-Asian school cultures wonder whether rote learning explains the success. It is a facile way of explaining Asian scholastic achievements, of course.

The high rating gained in a different OECD-devised test, in knowledge application, could revise opinions somewhat. Singapore schools need not be hung up on labels applied by others if they are confident about where they are headed.

Some parents, however, might cling to the notion of exam candidates in imperial China memorising Confucian texts for entry into the highly-sought mandarinate. Perhaps it reflects a parental hope that their children, by dint of sheer application, can take pathways perceived as desirable by parents even though their children's natural interests and abilities might pull in another direction.

It is important to acknowledge that there is room for different learning methods. Mathematics is mainly about deductive logic, whereas law students who have to study case histories for precedents will be grateful for the memory-retention skills they possess. Lateral thinkers need the habit of exploring different avenues without losing their way.

Changing pedagogies which the Education Ministry describes as a "total" learning experience, stressing self-application in retrieval and processing of knowledge, have moved classrooms away from mechanistic learning while open-ended test questions probe critical analysis. Look to the evidence: The number of Singaporeans venturing abroad in fields as diverse as finance, computer science, aid work and the performing arts is accelerating the self-actualisation process. These cannot be the product of robotic learning.

Shortcomings must be acknowledged, though. Singaporean students and workers could do better in articulate communication, a critical competency. Being diffident or not speaking up in work settings can be confused for lacking in knowledge, as a lawyer MP observed.

Other factors might play a part in reticence like self-consciousness - perhaps a result of a cultural reluctance to "lose face" - or the way groups react to comments and ideas that are unconventional. A culture that encourages participation and respects diversity can help to boost self-confidence generally.

Speaking accurately and writing with clarity are not easy skills to master but the 21st century economy confers a premium on these attributes. Hence, schools and tertiary institutions should do more to develop oral and written communication. The place to start is primary school, as children have fewer inhibitions.