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Guest Contribution, Musings

The Process Of Education (In Singapore): A Response

One of my juniors wrote a delightful piece on pedagogies and how the education system in Singapore could change for the better (here), which I reproduce for your reading pleasure. In addition to that (and also in response to the gentleman’s propositions), I have slotted in some of my own perspectives or arguments specific to Singapore, towards the end (indicated in bold).

“The Process of Education”, Jerome Seymour Bruner

Any act of learning should in fact serve us in the future, through the applicability of tasks that can be acquired through a structured education system.

Jerome Seymour Bruner, philosopher most known for his work in the field of cognitive psychology, wrote a fantastic book “The Process of Education” which gives some invaluable insight regarding the whole, well, process of education. “Unless detail is placed into a structured pattern, it is rapidly forgotten.”

Bruner’s idea of learning is really simple. At the end, learning should be the means for us to go further, with the knowledge and information acquired when we learn. Any act of learning should in fact serve us in the future, through the applicability of tasks that can be acquired through a structured education system.

For example, John in school learns how to chop wood. With the basic skill of placing the saw on the surface of object and bringing it up and down continuously, John can use this information to cut various different objects and surfaces as well.

Any good curriculum should focus on the development of the basic ideas. Before doing anything, a child must have a general idea of the phenomenon being handled. Fundamental knowledge should be continuously repeated and revisited as the child continues to learn. Life-long learning, the very heart of the education process, hence relies on a well-constructed structure. Therefore, our curriculum needs to be reconstructed; it should be one that can be taught by ordinary teachers to students while at the same time reflect the fundamental ideas that a child needs to know and grasp.

Other than the mastery of fundamental ideas, a good education structure should groom and foster a positive attitude towards learning and inquiry. A good starting point will be the Reggio-Emilia approach, which is currently implemented throughout certain pre-schools and pre-primary education in the world. It places great emphasis on the process of learning through inquiry, and a structure should allow for guessing and hunches, allowing the child to solve problems independently through inquiry.

Lastly, a structure should reduce gap between advanced and elementary knowledge. This is achieved by the constant re-visiting of the ideas taught previously. The curriculum should reflect advanced material that can be built upon basic, essential concepts that any child can easily grasp. “Knowing and communicating are in their nature highly interdependent, indeed virtually inseparable.”

Intuitive and Analytic Thinking

Bruner recognises the importance and the need for intuitive and analytic thinking in our education system.

In the book, Bruner recognises the importance and the need for intuitive and analytic thinking in our education system. What exactly is analytic thinking anyway? Analytic thinking proceeds a step at a time, and it allows people to break down complex information to better understand it and ‘arrive at an appropriate course of action’. It requires relatively full awareness of information and operations involved, and involve careful and deductive reasoning. Moreover, analytic thinking usually is logic-driven.

Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, is way more interesting. The thinker arrives at an answer, which may be right or wrong. However, he does not know how he gets there because he does not directly utilise rational processes such as facts and figures to arrive at his conclusion.

Bruner believes that intuitive and analytic thinking are complementary, and there is no reason to disagree. The relationship between the two should be recognised. For example, through intuitive thinking, the individual may arrive at solutions to problems which he would not have achieved at all through facts or figures. After arriving at this conclusion, he can confirm his deductions through analytic methods. Idiot-proof.

Unfortunately, the formalism of school learning has devalued intuition. The horrid over emphasis on textbooks, examinations and rote learning leads to analytic thinking being more valued. More work needs to be done to develop intuitive thinking in early ages, as intuition weeks or months ahead of our knowledge, and it is in fact what makes a human a thinker.

Bruner first hypothesis is that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development”. This is achieved through the spiral curriculum. A spiral curriculum relies heavily on fundamental ideas, and requires the constant “revisiting of basic ideas repeatedly”. For example, in math, a child is taught how to add in ones. He then proceeds to learn how to handle hundreds in primary school, before being taught the whole concept of algebraic addition that is slowly introduced in secondary school. Bruner’s solution that encompasses all his philosophies of intuitive and analytic thinking and importance of structure comes in the form of a spiral curriculum.

A Spiral Curriculum in Singapore?

Streaming allows for accelerated learning for certain programmes, leading to students not even able to grasp the basic content and moving on to advanced stuff.

Now, are Bruner’s philosophies implemented in the Singapore education system? He once famously remarked: “Stimuli, however, does not act on an indifferent organism”.

In Singapore, we see the constant drilling that a child undergoes in school. This ensures mastery of fundamental skills. However, there is a gaping hole between primary and advanced knowledge. Why is that so? I blame streaming. Streaming allows for accelerated learning for certain programmes, leading to students not even able to grasp the basic content and moving on to advanced stuff.

This is a unique criticism, because the main opposition against streaming in Singapore is that students who may not perform well academically could be stigmatised, or presented with fewer opportunities. I believe that scholastic streaming can be constructive if managed intelligently (with the right educators and resources), because pedagogies can be tailored for the benefit of the students. Here nonetheless, it might be true that a “recap” component might be helpful, to help schoolchildren make sense of what they have learnt year-on-year. But how would the removal of streaming address this challenge? Could it potentially exacerbate dissimilar learning aptitudes?

Intuitive thinking, similarly, is not encouraged in Singaporean schools. Although certain schools are moving forward with an ‘independent learning’ approach, all the student cares about at the end of the day is how much he scores for the exam. As such, he is naturally discouraged to guess, and to make hunches, as all a student will care about is getting that perfect answer, which is hugely dependent on a student’s analytical skills.

I think there are two separate mediums discussed here. First an examination, in and of itself, will rarely exercise the analytical skills of a student. Test-setters can try their utmost to include probing questions that require the test-taker to go beyond mere memorisation and regurgitation, but questions and answers – in their permutations – can still be drilled. Second, however, when assessments are continuously diversified (that is, going beyond the high-stakes written test), and educators design curriculums well, there should be no reason why a student’s analytical faculties cannot be stretched.

At its very foundation, I would also argue, some subjects demand exact, precise answers. Knowledge has been built up, and we accept conventions as truth (we can most certainly question the underlying assumptions, but at some point we must accept these practices). Take Physics for instance: there are governing formulas that must be applied correctly. We can question the presumptions made by the formulas (on the premise of questioning everything), but at some point it has to cease. Even to refute the veracity of a formula would require a sound comprehension of the formula’s functions and references.

Furthermore, classroom sessions are mostly inclined towards analytic thinking. Intuitive thinking is used more often in the learning of soft skills like leadership, public speaking, decision making, and not in subjects like Chemistry, Math or English, due to the results-oriented nature of the Singaporean education system. “A curriculum is like an animated conversation on a topic that can never be fully defined, although one can set limits upon it.”

In conclusion, a spiral curriculum can in fact bring out better results, due to the constant revision allows for better fundamentals. However, what this system is currently lacking is the philosophies that a spiral curriculum is derived from. For example, intuitive thinking is not ‘encouraged’ in the system. A spiral curriculum can produce great results, but is that the only thing a well-constructed curriculum should achieve?

I beg to differ.

A well-constructed education system should be made for life-long learning, and that should be the direction schools in Singapore are heading towards

My straightforward answer would be that – from personal experience – my school struck a good balance between the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills. To contend that soft skills can only be used in the aforementioned domains and not in the academic-scholastic sphere is not entirely accurate. Group work and presentations require not only a sound understanding of the concepts, but also some of the referenced skills. I feel in no way disadvantaged in college, or at the workplace.

My counter-question: what’s wrong with being results-oriented per se? Or is there only a problem when it is perceived to be the be-all and end-all for the student?

This commentary was written by Josea Evan (Mr.). He can be reached at joseaevan5@gmail.com.

About guanyinmiao

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

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