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Mr. Eugene Chiong And His Take On Singapore’s Education System: My Perspectives

On Saturday, Mr. Eugene Chiong penned a poignant commentary – one that was a little verbose, some might say – that detailed his perspectives on the problems that plagued Singapore’s education system (here). His opinions may not be entirely new, but the personal anecdotes and experiences he raised resonated with a number of Singaporeans, and I do agree with several points raised; however, I felt that some of his arguments were not entirely fair, and he did not exactly raise tangible solutions or recommendations that should be contemplated to address his proposition of “the suppression of creativity”.

The nurturing of creativity and the development of basic academic-scholastic abilities – primarily in the form of linguistics, mathematics and science – are not mutually exclusive.

The Importance Of Foundation Education

Those having an interest in something they loved since young have their passion stifled because the schools do not have anything to nurture the creative thinking of their students, and the workload from school occupies most of the free time they have to do what they truly love … Is it their fault that they are forced to learn something they have no love for?

The nurturing of creativity and the development of basic academic-scholastic abilities – primarily in the form of linguistics, mathematics and science – are not mutually exclusive; along the same tangent, the pursuit of aspirations can run parallel to the transfer of these capabilities. Mastery of these knowledge and skills are of utmost importance, because a basic level of proficiency is necessary before any student wishes to go forth, chase their ambitions and to “do what they truly love”.

Literacy, in the words of one of my acquaintances, is of utmost importance to a nation’s development, because it facilitates the transfer of information. The present execution of teaching-learning pedagogies, to continue the policy of bilingualism, may not be that most satisfactory (here and here), but the significance of literacy cannot be undermined.

The conclusion that students are “a jack of all trades, therefore a master of none” is too convenient, and not entirely accurate. After eight years of basic education in a primary and secondary school, schoolchildren are given the option to choose what subjects and areas they would like to specialise in (broadly-speaking, the Science or the Humanities). In the past few years, there has also been the proliferation of institutions to diversify pathways: the Integrated Programme, the International Baccalaureate, the sports and arts schools, as well as schools for mathematics, science, and technology et cetera. These would allow niches to be explored, and interests to be progressively cultivated.

In those high schools, creativity is generally encouraged, many good schools there nurture young talents by having their teachers recognise some special skill or passion the students have, and give them the necessary opportunities to develop that.

In Singapore, the Institutes of Higher Learning – the junior colleges, polytechnics and ITEs – do provide methodologies that encourage the exploration of creativity. This is especially true with the polytechnics and the ITEs, where students are encouraged to go beyond traditional benchmarks to develop new ideas or concepts for their projects.

The main problem I have with the status quo is this: that kids who are not academically inclined are immediately stereotyped as being “stupid” or “underperforming”.

The Woes Of Standardised Examinations

From primary school till JC, most students go through the same few things over and over, and all they do every semester is to study enough to score well for the next exam. Most do not care about learning anything outside of their school’s curriculum, what mattered was just their grades.

The main problem I have with the status quo is this (and Mr. Chiang, I think this is something we can agree on): that kids who are not academically inclined are immediately stereotyped as being “stupid” or “underperforming”. The role of the parents and teachers is crucial here.

The irony is that while Mr. Chiong is lamenting the “sheer rigidity about our education system”, he should realise that he himself is a beneficiary of a framework that has provided him with tremendous flexibility, as well as avenues for the exploration of creativity. Unless Mr. Chiong is arguing that schools in general are inherently inflexible (which would not carry much weight, since his formative years were spent in a specialised institution), he is a perfect example of how our education system – with the right parents and teachers – can churn out outstanding graduates.

Mr. Chiong’s lucidity and clarity in expression, as well as his assorted achievements, could mean that we are headed in the right direction.

All that mattered was to do well in the exam, after which, what was learned could be forgotten since it was not needed anymore. I found that very unsettling.

I have always been quite critical of examinations in general (here), because of two propositions: first, stakeholders treat major, standardised assessments as the be-all and end-all of one’s life, a view which is not exactly accurate; second, it encourages monotonous processes of rote memorisation and regurgitation. I think the latter is inevitable, because it highlights the value of preparation; and, to a certain extent, can be helpful for the student in the future. Assessments and judgements are unnecessary evils: even in sports and the performing arts, results carry heavy magnitude.

What needs to change is our mindset towards end-results and performances, and how we perceive tests in general. They are learning points, not immediate conclusions.

It is difficult to call for the removal of the examination system, but we could consider rendering the assessment process more holistic and dynamic.

What Can We Do?

Otherwise, I did have quite a number of takeaways from Mr. Chiong’s FaceBook Note; to just round everything up, I figured it would be meaningful to touch on a few other points, as well as to propose a few broad recommendations that could be considered.

Involve parents more holistically, and also bridge the gap between parents and teachers. One thing that really stood out for me was how Mr. Chiong enthusiastically recounted his learning experience at home, which inadvertently highlighted the value of education in households. Such practices should ideally be emulated, and can be sparked off if the gap between parents and teachers and bridged.

Traditional parent-teacher meetings are often dominated by discussions on grades per se, and how the child can improve his scholastic performance in a certain domain. However, it would be constructive if educators could shift these perceptions, and incorporate elements that define the student, or aspects that might make him unique (leadership abilities, talent in artistry, character development). It is difficult to get over deep-seated barriers and assumptions, but such advances are increasingly imperative.

Have faith in our teachers. Sometimes, I think our educators shoulder too much of the blame for underperforming students, or for the limitations of our current system. I feel that they deserve much more support from the ground, and a greater deal of affirmation for the multitude of sacrifices they have made over the years. My achievements today – albeit insignificant in the grand scheme of things – would never have been possible without the support and care from my teachers.

Reduce emphasis on examinations. The MOE is aware of the popular viewpoints from the ground, and has instituted changes in this direction (for example, removing formal examinations in select primary schools for the first two years). It is difficult to call for the removal of the examination system, but we could consider rendering the assessment process more holistic and dynamic.

Increase interactions between students, and thereby expose them to diversity in the education system. I have always been a huge proponent for the increasing in interactions between students from different institutions (here and here). In this context, it would allow students and parents to comprehend varying dynamics in dissimilar schools, and appreciate these differences in learning styles and emphases.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


4 thoughts on “Mr. Eugene Chiong And His Take On Singapore’s Education System: My Perspectives

  1. Wonderful insights. Perhaps another issue to consider is the recent proliferation of tuition centres and exam-prep courses – is this an indication of an ailing and inadequate education system?

    Posted by StrawberryChipCookie | March 5, 2012, 9:35 pm
    • Perhaps it is an indication of an obsession with measuring, and in doing so forgetting what we actually are measuring.

      Why do we measure? We measure because numbers allow us to compare. Numbers give us a way to compare present performance to past performance. Numbers give us a way to compare one person’s performance to another. In fact, the pervasiveness of the bell-curve system starting in PSLE and never ending, shows that we measure to compare the performance of one student to another.

      But what are we actually measuring? Should we not be trying to measure how much a student has benefited from his education rather than his relative standing among his peers?

      Posted by Quanxiang | March 5, 2012, 10:28 pm
      • Determining the ability of someone relative to his peers also allows us to choose the ‘better’ candidates for ‘more difficult’ jobs or courses. It helps in selecting people for over-subscribed jobs, schools or courses.

        The relative ability of a student also helps indicate whether he has the ability to cope with a certain course. Ideally, we should have some objective point system to indicate each person’s ability and determine his suitability based on that, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to come up with one. The bell-curve works well enough for this.

        Measuring how much a student has benefited from his education would give other information, such as the quality or suitability of his education, instead.

        As for the tuition issue, I’d say that’s more of a result of the ‘kiasuism’ of Singaporeans, coupled with the importance of obtaining good examination scores, rather than inadequacies in our system. Parents enrol their children into these courses to try and inflate their scores, thus obtaining an advantage over other students. I think it’s an inevitable problem – as long as you have some scoring system, people will try to game it. Also note that other countries have similar issues – Japan, Korea and many other countries have ‘cram schools’.

        Posted by Zi Kang | March 6, 2012, 7:13 pm
  2. It is shocking to understand still majority really believes in current type of schools are important for children’s learning and their future…
    I think Singapore parents should see outside of this country and what kind of things are talked about in the world now.

    1. Sir Ken Robinson. He is well-known educator and advisor all over the world and actually Singapore government also requested his advise to improve the direction of education in Singapore.
    Here is his famous speech: Schools kill creativity

    2. John Taylor Gatto: He was NY city’s school teacher for 30 years and he was even chosen NY state of teachers award but he left education system because he understood schooling does nothing but teaching to obey orders for the authorities.
    Here is some of his talk in 1991: Schooling is not Education

    3. Chris Thompson: MD of GREEN SCHOOL in BALI. He was worked as education advisor in Singapore but decided to built his own school in Bali and move whole his family there.
    Green school teach children how to make sustainable future and planet though living in full of nature and outdoor activities.
    Here is more information of Green school: http://www.greenschool.org/staff/chris-thompson/

    4. There is no monolithic definition of democratic education or democratic schools. But what we mean here is “education in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults,” as quoted from AERO’s Directory of Democratic Education.
    List of democratic school in the world ( Not even ONE in Singapore…)

    5. Vatican Tells UN to Respect Parental Rights and Homeschooling
    As some totalitarian-minded governments escalate their attacks on parental rights and homeschooling, the Vatican’s delegation to the United Nations called on the world to respect families, the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, and non-governmental forms of education. The Holy See’s representatives also called on governments last week to stop indoctrinating the youth.

    Posted by LightForChildren | May 16, 2012, 7:56 pm

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