Putting adult learning on world map

It would appear to be an oddity that a country whose name has become synonymous with excellence in mathematics, science and literacy tests for teenagers should be unable to replicate its success with adults examined for literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills.

However, that apparently is the case with benchmark exercises carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Singapore students have achieved an enviable international reputation in OECD tests run every three years for 15-year-olds. Yet, about 5,000 people aged from 16 to 65 here, who were picked for an adult competencies assessment last year, are not expected to be star performers in results due next year. The discrepancy revealed by the two tests could be due partly to a gap between learning in a classroom and applying that knowledge in the workplace to solve real multi-dimensional problems.

While Singaporeans should be concerned about the implications of the results of the adult competencies tests, they can harness this to drive home the point that scholastic achievement does not necessarily equate to success in the employment market or the world of entrepreneurship.

Alarm over the discrepancy in test results needs to be tempered with demographic realism. The good performance of teenagers in international tests reflects the advances made by the Singapore school system over the past two decades. Workers over 40 who possess lower skills did not benefit as much from that educational progress.

However, it also is worth pondering whether Singapore needs to go more emphatically beyond the paradigmatic preference of some East Asian employers for workers whose educational qualifications seem to overshadow the real skills that they bring - or do not bring - to the workplace.

Hiring and promotion based largely on paper qualifications will not help Singapore to compete with nations which privilege not the educational past of workers but their possible contribution to the economic future. Examination results should not be a dominant indicator of job fit or likely future success.

These cannot predestine academic achievers for the professional pinnacle. The United States treats grades as a minimalist way of screening job applicants for cognitive skills that are acquired, improved and rewarded at work.

In moving away from excessive reliance on examinations, Singapore must never go to the other extreme, where the skill levels of badly-educated young are below those of older people.

But it must be prepared to unpack and unlearn unproductive educational philosophies if it is to preserve its economic edge.