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I am Singaporean III – Re-Education August 16, 2008

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean, Vol. II.
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So okay, there’s been talk about the education system and how it needs to be reformed. I will refer you to the transcript published by the States Times, and it is this text which is analysed and commented.

§2-§7 deals with the worldwide situation of education, and the bottom line of what Mr Ng is trying to say is that money is not equivalent to good education. Educational initiatives do not necessarily result in improvement, and public spending does not mean a sound public education system. In fact, the education is like a maze with many dead ends:

[2] Universally, there is strong interest and commitment to ensure that the young receive a sound education. But in practice, this yearning has not always resulted in approval when new educational initiatives are introduced. […] [7] Unfortunately, for many countries, the quest to educate the masses well through a strong public education system has been akin to going through a maze with inaccurate maps or directions. Many have taken wrong turns or landed up in dead ends. The best intentions and socialist ideals did and could not translate into practical and effective outcomes for students.

At the closing of §7, Mr Ng asks how the Singaporean education system has performed and how we are going to improve it.

I will now deal with §8 and §9, but will skip the history lesson. It is not my intention to deal with it here. In §8, Mr Ng says that Singapore has topped international rankings, and the lowest quartile still performs better in our system than others (but does this deal with the difference in methodology, as in how students are rated? It probably is easier to show that we perform better with poor students when it is based on simple black-and-white questions which can be crammed for than with questions which require thinking). But anyway, Mr Ng goes on to say that the elite schools send more people to top overseas institutions than any other international school (RI is an international school??) and topped other secondary schools (again, see methodology.) Again, Mr Ng takes up rankings in §8 and 9.

Unfortunately, rankings do not deal much with other aspects of being a student: it only deals with concrete results. I don’t know how many times this has been said, but concrete results are not THE ONLY marker, it is only the marker which is easiest to analyse. Until someone actually compiles a complete report on the education system and the students, these reports do not say much at all. They say we are good in one aspect but doesn’t say much about the other aspects. Pretty much like a drug which tells you that it is good in treating a disease but doesn’t discuss the side-effects.

The success of Singapore is summarised at §40, which i will quote in full:

40. To summarise, our success can be attributed first to socio-political considerations in the choice of English and the bilingual policy and then putting into place sound educational fundamentals of good teachers, instruction and streaming. These are the factors that maintain us on an even keel. We must keep each of these elements, but at the same time, we must also evolve our system to keep up with new challenges and structural trends in the future. I will just mention three broad directions.

This is referred to as a ‘Golden Mean.’ Well, I wish it was so simple. This is all based on the premise that concrete results are the most important. Good teachers ARE present, but how many of them are forced to teach less, and do more admin? Instruction is questionable: as long as this fixation on rankings persist, I am doubtful that this is good instruction. Good instruction should build passion, not kill it. Which comes to streaming. Subject banding is now used to avoid the sad situation where the students’ self-confidence is affected by streaming. Steps are being done, but the effectiveness is still questionable. But, maybe Mr Ng is right, because such humanistic ideals and the best intentions don’t work, as he said in closing to §7. The world wants concrete results. Pragmatism is the driving force behind our educational system, not some ideal which students tend to and want to have.

The next part, §41-§43, deals with “Great Expectations.” Basically, it means that schools should be given more autonomy and teachers better qualified to teach their students. A better teacher-student ratio is definitely something sorely needed in Singapore. “Employing good enough teachers with passion to teach and nurture” (§42) is going to be a continuing challenge. So how does this come about? The money solution? Teaching is considered by many to be a dead-end job, and unless teaching can be made as financially attractive as, say, business, you can bet that those who come to you are desperate, OR are the good teachers you are looking for. Also, the part on more autonomy: does that mean less red tape, doing less work on the side and teaching more, and the abolishing of the ranking system? If not, there is only a fake autonomy you are looking at: all schools are still caught up in the same quest to be number one.

Lastly, Mr Ng talks about “Values” – what values actually? He does not specify them, but he acknowledges that the young are becoming more questioning and they are more apt to go by self-discovery and discourse. Rootedness must increase, but as long as the policies do not agree with the real situation, as long as the educational system remains a system devoid of passion on the side of the students, and the work attitude in Singapore, although good, leaves one yearning for more (not materially, but spiritually), rootedness is difficult to build. People don’t leave just because things are better overseas. People also leave because they are unhappy with the way things are at home. Ideally, Values should also involve the very open recognition of the fact that Singapore is not perfect, and that the leaders are willing to listen and not challenge people with different ideas to come into politics.

My suggestion for values would be to instill a passion for learning and to de-emphasise the importance of results. De-emphasising doesn’t mean that it is gone: it is still there, but not the ultimate priority of schools. One way of doing it would be abolishing the ranking system, but keeping application criteria (e.g. PSLE to secondary school, etc) there. That way, students are under less stress from the school to perform for the school, and with the right cultivation of passion, will want to perform for themselves.

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