Education system in Singapore

Last week, Prime Minister Lee announced a series of small changes to the education system during his National Day Rally speech and as expected, many people have been discussing rather fervently over those tweaks. One thing I like about this country is that people are really enthusiastic about getting a good education. It’s rather heartening.

When I was younger, I used to dislike the education system – I found it rigid and too academic-oriented as Istudents are streamed and judged based on their obtained grades. When I got older, I found the system demanding and overbearing because not only do students have to excel in their studies, they have to be good at something, be it in sports, dance, music, in order to be construed as a successful, all-rounded product of the system. Now I actually think we have a pretty good education system in place in comparison with other countries. We have a pool of trained teachers who are then distributed to the various nationalized schools such that every school is guaranteed a decent minimum standard. I also realize that my earlier accusations towards the education system were wrongly directed. It is actually not the fault of the system; it is the fault of the culture. The education system can be amended but the stress associated with education will not go away if people still think of education in the same way. Education can be the social equalizer or the machinery for social mobility but it can’t change culture.

I postulate that it is a deep-rooted Chinese thing to hold scholars, people who are recognized for their excellent academic achievements, in high regard. It has been the way in China for many thousand years since the days of Confucius. In a country with a majority of Chinese, it comes as no surprise that, culturally, people place a lot of emphasis on education. However, interestingly, most people do not know much about education. To begin with, “scholars” are one of the most misused and misinterpreted terms among Singaporeans. Many Singaporeans see “scholars” as students whose university studies are funded by government/ corporate organization  and who are thus bonded to the organization for a certain duration. In actual fact, “scholars” actually refer to people in academia who read scholarly literature and conduct research in their area of specialization (see Google Scholar). In summary, “scholar” actually refers to a very specialized profession in most parts of the world and it is not a tag affliated to students under scholarships or grants. Another issue is that people classify and brand schools based on their admission scores and regard certain schools as “prestigious”. For me, this is ridiculous and very superficial. I was in a “second-tier” secondary school but I felt that I was educated and encouraged there and those were really my formative years. When I didn’t do well, the teachers encouraged me and helped me. I got into perhaps the “most prestigious” junior college in the country and I really hated the school environment and culture – people constantly gossiped and judged other people and classmates were perceived as competitors instead of comrades. When I didn’t do well, I had to stand up on my own. That was when I realize that people judge the schools really based on the admission scores instead of the school environment and culture. At the end of the day, how much does that brand name matter to an individual’s education?

I have a Spanish friend, Anna, who worked in PWC in Hong Kong for a couple of months and she said that she thinks that Asians are very good doers because they are very focused and work very hard on a given task. However, she feels that Asians do not think so much about the whole picture and they do not have creative solutions as they prefer conservative, tried and tested methods. I think the same applies to Singaporeans who follow given instructions and work hard towards achieving a goal. This is perhaps the biggest challenge posed to our education system – how do we nurture creative minds without compromising on academic rigour? Creativity needs space and time to develop and the piles of homework certainly do not provide students with the adequate space and time. But certainly, there are some ways to nurture creativity while teaching a concept. I have not tried them yet but theoretically, they should work pretty well. One way is to give students a problem set before teaching the concept and get them to discuss in groups the possible solutions. The teacher then checks on each group and prompts the group to think in the direction of the concept. I feel that this way students can remember the concepts better as well since they “derive” there themselves. Another way is that after teaching the concept, the teacher could get the students to think about real out-of-textbook instances in which the same concept applies. In a history class, the teacher could get the students to look up on cases in history which have similar conflicts and analyze if they work in the same way and why not.

Another main issue that really needs major adjustments in the education system is that students are not opportunistic. The reason is that the system is so fair that students feel that as long as they excel, they will be rewarded duly with increased opportunities. It is nice and fair but the problem is that the students from China and India tend to be very opportunistic and Singaporeans who are used to waiting for their opportunities lose out massively. I think spoonfeeding should be a thing of the past. Teachers should not be nannies; students have to take responsibility of their own lives.

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