“In his first major speech setting out his vision for schools yesterday, Mr. Ng said schools must go beyond teaching students to be good at solving problems, but help them develop the instincts and ability to be value-creators” (Students “Must Be Innovators For Singapore To Succeed”, Toh Ee Ming).
As encouraging as it may be for Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng to stress the importance of innovation as well as the need to possess “the instincts and ability to be value-creators” (TODAY, Dec. 30) – even if his predecessors have made similar remarks in the past – the reliance on traditional, national examinations as the primary mode of assessment remains a roadblock. As a consequence the likely continuation of rote memorisation and regurgitation practices, themselves persisting features of the education system in Singapore, will crowd out endeavours to foster innovation or creativity. And mind-sets of the perceived superiority of the academic pathway will remain entrenched.
Against this background historical undertakings should be evaluated. In a 1997 speech then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” vision, elaborating that “Thinking Schools must be the crucibles for questioning and searching, within and outside the classroom, to forge this passion for learning among our young”. In addition, he contrasted the “passion for learning” with “studying for the sake of getting good grades in their examinations”, signalling the need for less rigidity and greater diversity. Therefore, almost two decades on, how much has changed? Or what has changed?
The reliance on examinations is problematic because it shapes syllabus and pedagogies in the classroom. Mr. Ng wants students to be encouraged to explore, to be given options, or not to feel too self-conscious, but achieving these aspirations is hard in an environment with pre-determined answers or standardised expectations of responses. Few feel safe to fail, when grades or standards have been defined, and failure – often premised upon just academic benchmarks in the primary or secondary schools – is treated with contempt. Moreover, students cannot be spurred to “build up a reservoir of disparate learning, and innate curiosity of wanting to know what is happening around them” if time beyond the classroom is spent on tuition or enrichment, for an edge in a competitive environment.
Many of my teachers tried to work around these constraints by encouraging co-curricular or community involvement exercises, and within the newly-launched integrated programme there was also more time for pursuits besides the scholastic. However when the final “A” Level examination loomed, revision for the subjects – working through past assignments, ten-year series, and cramming information – took precedence throughout the year. Paired with such national examinations are expectations of good performance, which increases the stress involved. Performance below expectations can be demoralising for many entering the next phase of their lives.
Thinking about how examinations are structured – especially its relevance to technological trends, for instance – can be the first step. Progressively, modes of assessment can be diversified so that skills, rather than knowledge per se, are learnt. And moreover involving more in discourse, to ascertain sentiments about the status quo, can be helpful too.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.