Singapore’s educational system has always been geared towards producing talent for a particular industry the government considers important at that material time. Today it may be the computer industry, tomorrow life sciences.
In 2001, the education minister related that this was because the government had to prepare Singaporeans to ride the “next wave in scientific and technological innovations.”
This utilitarian approach continues through to the university level. Top students at the National University of Singapore will now be enrolled in a special curriculum where they will be trained “for the new economy.”
In short, the PAP’s education policy is a massive effort to teach students what to think, not how to think. It reduces students to digits to be trained, not minds to be expanded.
Professor Roger Schank, director of the Institute of Learning Sciences in Northwestern University said of Singapore’s education system: “You don’t have a great education. Your sense of a well-educated man is someone who has memorised all the facts.”
Also, there is a socio-economic divide in our school system where the haves and have-nots experience drastically learning environments which lead to very different outcomes in academic success.
These and many other shortcomings in our educational system need urgent reform, measures which are proposed below:
It is important that we teach our children that reading and learning can be enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding. To achieve this we must:
1. Rethink our educational philosophy.
Learning should be made an enjoyable activity where discovery of oneself and one’s aptitude is given priority instead of making students perform an endless series of classroom tests.
The priority should be placed on the learner; it should not be decided by educators or, worse, the government. We need an enlightened educational system where we develop a well-rounded curriculum, emphasizing on foundational knowledge, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.
2. Reduce class size.
Presently, the number of students per class remains at around 40. Such a large number of pupils per class means that each student receives less attention. The SDP proposes that the teacher-student ratio for each class be 1:20.
This not only allows teachers to spend more time per student but it also means less marking and administrative duties for our educators, freeing them up for more interactive time with students.
3. Increase funding for neighbourhood schools.
Data from the Ministry of Education suggests that educational achievement of students is correlated to economic status of families. Neighbourhood schools are often attended by students from lower-income families and students there have poorer academic performances that the elite schools.
More financial resources should, therefore, be given to neighbourhood schools to enable them to employ more and better-trained educators, as well as build better facilities to improve their standard of teaching.
4. Reduce content and rote-learning.
The classroom syllabi are too much to fit into school hours. This causes teachers to dump the material on students regardless of whether the students understand what they are being taught or not. Seeing their children unable to cope with their schoolwork, parents are forced to put their students through private tuition classes. Reducing curriculum content will facilitate better learning and appreciation of the subjects taught.
The number of classroom examinations should also be reduced. In their place introducing more hands-on projects that emphasize discovery and creative thinking will cultivate a love for learning. Spelling lists should be reduced and replaced by games such as Hangman, Scrabble, Charade, etc. as forms of learning.
5. De-emphasize the PSLE, GCE examinations.
Students do little else other than to cram for examinations. The sole objective is to “spot” questions so that they can regurgitate the content that they have memorised from 10-year-series model answers. All our students do is to become “exam smart”. They do not master or appreciate the content that is taught in class.
Reduce the significance that is placed on such major examinations. Emphasize, instead, on continual assessments that enable educators to more accurately gauge the level of understanding of material taught as well as better assess the potential of students.
6. Introduce single-session schools.
School hours should be limited to one session with the hours lengthened to eight hours a day, starting at 8 am and ending at 4 pm. The longer hours would allow non-teaching time where staff can supervise students on their homework as well as conduct extra-curricular activities.
Clearly, the PAP does not have a clear idea of what education is or should be besides defining it in terms of dollars and cents. Who is the educated Singaporean? What qualities would we like to see in our children? How should education serve the needs of Singapore over and beyond economic considerations? Why are Singaporeans not reading as much as their counterparts in other countries?
These are not esoteric questions. They are fundamental issues that are essential in the formulation of sound educational policies.