Thursday, July 26, 2018

S’pore’s education system at crossroads, trade-offs necessary to prepare young for the future: Ong

By Siau Ming En


26 July, 2018

SINGAPORE — The Republic’s education system is at crossroads, and in order to prepare young people for the future, several trade-offs have to be made, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Wednesday (July 25).

The choices that Singaporeans make will “set the agenda for education in the coming years”, he added.

Picking up from where he left off in a recent speech in Parliament — where he pointed out that there was no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising Singapore’s collective standards — Mr Ong also reiterated the need for Singaporeans to “have faith in meritocracy, but make sure it takes a broader form that goes beyond academics”.

[So... "Meritocracy" is a religion? So... have you accepted Meritocracy as your personal Lord and Saviour?]

But he acknowledged that it may take a whole generation for the mindset shift to take root.

Nevertheless, the process has started, said Mr Ong in his keynote address at the annual Economic Society of Singapore dinner held at Mandarin Orchard Singapore.

Noting the need for the system to respond and send a clear signal, he suggested the possibility of reviewing how some local universities take into account polytechnic graduates’ O-Level results for admission.

Currently, some universities here use a composite University Admission Score to review applications from polytechnic students, which comprises 80 per cent of their polytechnic GPA and 20 per cent of their O-Level results. This practice, he said, “will just raise the stakes of O-Level examinations”, and could be reviewed.

In order to prepare young people for the future, the Singapore education system needs to recognise that “something fundamental has changed”. The idea of lifelong learning has changed the concept of how an individual with a good education would most likely be prepared for the rest of his or her career, and life.

On that note, Mr Ong said Singaporeans need to ask this “difficult question” on the tension between gaining skills and a degree, and if a degree is required for one to do well in his or her career.

While an academic degree will help open doors, it should not be the only path to success, said the minister. Young people have diverse talents, passions and aspirations, and they can excel through a “multi-path system” of attaining degrees, skills or professional training outside universities.

Increasingly, employers are also looking for demonstrated skills and competencies – beyond academic qualification – when they are hiring or promoting employees.

[The greater challenge is to diversify our definition of "success". And we can count on the young Singaporeans to do that. Older Singaporeans may just want to get out of the way, and resist imposing our views or our values, or our judgement.]

As a result, the higher education landscape is evolving to become more diverse and offer more options. It also puts more emphasis on students’ demonstrated interests and aptitudes, he said.

“It may take a while for this human resource approach to be truly widespread, but the macro trends to me, are very clear,” said Mr Ong.

Dwelling on another key issue for education, the customising of students’ curriculum, Mr Ong said that tailoring teaching to students’ needs will give them a greater chance of doing well, and that dropout rates had fallen drastically since this was introduced in the 1970s.

However, that could lead to the stigmatisation and labelling by society, which could over time become “demoralising or inhibiting for the students”, he said.

This was why the “controversial streaming system” in primary schools was removed.

Dedicated schools and customised curriculum were created to address different learning needs, but Mr Ong acknowledged that this also means the education system loses the opportunity for different segments of students to mingle and interact.

Finding a balance between the rigour of education and the joy of learning is also important, said the minister.

A deeper understanding of disciplines allows students to innovate and create, and some difficulty in education will help them build resilience and the right attitude to learning.

However, too much rigour can cause burnout, affect mental health, “kills the joy of learning, and snuffs out the spirit of lifelong learning”, he added. There has to be “age-appropriateness” in teaching and time for children to have fun and grow up.

With the emphasis on results and examinations, parents and students beyond primary school level continue to feel the stress of the education system, partly because of “effort inflation”, where more effort is put into learning the same things through school, tuition and additional homework.

The authorities will try to curb this, said Mr Ong, as it is the “right thing to do in this era of lifelong learning”.

He added: “If we recognise that and make the necessary adjustments, we will raise the quality of our education system further, such that it is not just strong academically, but also instills the joy of learning and an enterprising spirit in our young. The change has already begun.”


During the 30-minute Question & Answer session, Mr Ong fielded several questions on the education system which ranged from whether students can be taught economics at a younger age, to how learning can be restrictive when students are told they are wrong for offering different solutions to teachers’ questions.

On the latter, Mr Ong noted that teachers could perhaps better communicate why those were not the answers they wanted, instead of telling them that they were wrong.

This could appear rigid as teachers want the child to learn and apply a particular concept to solve the question. “If they come up with another way of solving it is not wrong, maybe the communication ought to be better,” he said.

But he also likened this to what some may experience at the workplace, where bosses insist that their employees do things in a certain manner.

“So in a positive light, sometimes we train ourselves to take setbacks and failures that way too,” he added.

Raising the issue of “effort inflation”, a member of the audience compared the situation to a prisoner’s dilemma, where one could be tempted to push his or her child more and improve his prospects when everyone else was more relaxed about examinations and results.

To overcome this, the authorities could change the admission system, said Mr Ong. In order to do that, the current curriculum could be less rigorous, and the scores not so defined to differentiate one child from another.

When asked how students can deal with failure, the minister said it was a complex issue.

The school system could be part of the issue, he said, and the authorities may need to recalibrate the trade-offs he mentioned in his speech.

He added: “Do we need so much rigour? Do we need the sense that this exam is do-or-die, it will affect the rest of my life?”

“If we can unwind that, you free up the spirit… and have a bit more time for students to do more interesting things in school, to tumble sometimes, to experiment, to do projects, to fail and yet not be penalised.”

[The good news is, the govt is listening, has listened, and is trying to fix the issues raised by parent.

The good news is they are trying various ideas - scrapping streaming in primary school to allow students to mix, to mingle.

The bad news is, they don't have all the answers. 

The bad news is, they and we are learning as we go.

The bad news is, the future is uncertain, and the government, the schools, the educators, the students, the parents are all finding their way, exploring new paths, and defining success differently, and diversely, and uniquely, and innovatively.

We just need to keep an open mind.]

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