There’s plenty of misunderstanding and misinformation about Singapore’s approaches to education, and about its drive to improve learning and teaching within a system that has long been regarded as highly successful.
Singapore’s system of education was mentioned in Michael Gove’s ‘interview’ at the London Festival of Education, where he was clearly trying to point to Singapore’s great education success story as an example of ‘traditional’, exams-oriented, rote-learning success. The problem with this is that it’s untrue. As Prof Guy Claxton later tweeted, the Singapore Mr Gove was referring to is the Singapore of 15 years ago. Things have moved on. Such ignorance on the part of a secretary of state for education was inexcusable. Surely he had teams of experts to brief him on these sorts of subjects?
Unfortunately it’s not just Mr Gove who lacks understanding, who needs to sort out his ‘facts’, who scores an F for both accuracy and effort in research. His consistently inaccurate message is distorting the truth for others who are seeking a more enlightened approach to education in this country.
We’ve already blogged about Singapore’s approaches to education, and we’ve advised our readers to visit Singapore’s government website to read for themselves details of Singapore’s policies and practices. Singapore’s strategy is called “Teach Less, Learn More”.
The following is a brief summary. After reading it please have a look at this 7-minute video which also sheds light on this important subject:
Singapore’s 21st-Century Teaching Strategies (Education Everywhere Series)
The video begins, “I think it’s important to make schools fun.”
What is Teach Less, Learn More?
Teach Less, Learn More is about teaching better, to engage our learners and prepare them for life, rather than teaching more, for tests and examinations.
• TLLM aims to touch the hearts and engage the minds of our learners, to prepare them for life. It reaches into the core of education – why we teach, what we teach and how we teach.
• It is about shifting the focus from “quantity” to “quality” in education. “More quality” in terms of classroom interaction, opportunities for expression, the learning of life-long skills and the building of character through innovative and effective teaching approaches and strategies. “Less quantity” in terms of rote-learning, repetitive tests, and following prescribed answers and set formulae.
• Teachers, school leaders and MOE all have important roles to play to make Teach Less, Learn More happen.
It calls on everyone of us to go back to the basics
• Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN) was adopted as the vision statement for MOE in 1997. It continues to be the over-arching descriptor of the transformation in the education system, comprising changes in all aspects of education.
• Since 2003, we have focused more on one aspect of our DOEs, i.e. nurturing a spirit of Innovation and Enterprise (I&E). This will build up a core set of life skills and attitudes that we want in our students. It promotes the mindsets that we want to see in our students, teachers, school leaders and beyond.
To Remember Why We Teach
• We should keep in mind that we do what we do in education for the learner, his needs, interests and aspirations, and not simply to cover the content.
• We should encourage our students to learn because they are passionate about learning, and less because they are afraid of failure.
• We should teach to help our students achieve understanding of essential concepts and ideas, and not only to dispense information.
• We should teach more to prepare our students for the test of life and less for a life of tests.
To Reflect on What We Teach
• We should focus more on teaching the whole child, in nurturing him holistically across different domains, and less on teaching our subjects per se.
• We should teach our students the values, attitudes and mindsets that will serve him well in life, and not only how to score good grades in exams.
• We should focus more on the process of learning, to build confidence and capacity in our students, and less on the product.
• We should help the students to ask more searching questions, encourage curiosity and critical thinking, and not only to follow prescribed answers.
To Reconsider How We Teach
• We should encourage more active and engaged learning in our students, and depend less on drill and practice and rote learning.
• We should do more guiding, facilitating and modelling, to motivate students to take ownership of their own learning, and do less telling and teacher talk.
• We should recognise and cater better to our students’ differing interests, readiness and modes of learning, through various differentiated pedagogies, and do less of ‘one-size-fits-all’ instruction.
• We should assess our students more qualitatively, through a wider variety of authentic means, over a period of time to help in their own learning and growth, and less quantitatively through one-off and summative examinations.
• We should teach more to encourage a spirit of innovation and enterprise in our students, to nurture intellectual curiosity, passion, and courage to try new and untested routes, rather than to follow set formulae and standard answers.
About the TLLM logo:
The logo, constructed from the acronym derived from “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM), depicts a happy student with outstretched arms, eagerly embracing learning. The star-shaped hands remind us of the starfish story. From it, we
learn that we can make a difference to every student, develop him to his fullest potential, help him make his own future, and reach for the stars.
Read the rest of this piece (posted on 3D Eye on July 21st) here –
This is a world away from Mr Gove’s emphasis on ‘facts’, rote learning, creating a culture of sheep and goats, and a fear of failure.
The main problem that faces Singapore’s policymakers and educationalists is to do with an education system being like an ocean liner – it can take a very long time to change direction, let alone turn it around. The difficulties can increase when many of the crew and the passengers are unhappy or unwilling to go along with the change of direction. Parents and teachers (as well as many students) who have been persuaded that academic performance is paramount and that all else should be sacrificed to ‘driving up standards’ may be highly reluctant to embrace a new philosophy that puts so much emphasis on ‘life skills’, attitudes, creativity and personalisation, as well as personal, social and emotional learning, and indeed the enjoyment or even love of learning for its own sake.
Watch this space.
This article just falls far short of what it purports to do. It’s not a bad article per se – it’s just woefully inadequate for the mantle it takes upon itself with such a strident, assertive introduction.
The authors clearly don’t have much of a notion of what the situation really is like. They are not completely wrong, in that some nice noises are indeed being made and some lip service is being granted at least to the right kinds of ideas, which is better than no lip service at all and a tight-lipped adherence to outmoded philosophies and methodologies.
But it is painfully obvious that the authors have very, very little genuine understanding of the reality on the ground. I suggest they look less to Youtube videos put up by the establishment, and more to actual people and their experiences.
As an earlier commenter said, and I paraphrase, it won’t be the first time we see a serious disjunction between intention and execution in Singapore. A truly… overwhelming… understatement.
Thank you for this interesting critique. It would be helpful to know whether you have personal experience of Singapore’s schools, either as a teacher, a parent or a student.
As you say, the Singapore government clearly took a decision to introduce its ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ strategy, although this philosophical shift has no doubt been difficult to accept and/or to implement by some schools and some teachers, and some will have done so more effectively than others. What’s not in doubt is the existence of the strategy itself, which was officially adopted 15 years ago and is described in great detail on the official website.
It’s not for us to say whether every teacher is working to the strategy. We presume the government and its education department will have in place effective monitoring systems and will take whatever steps are necessary to achieve compliance with the strategy and the philosophy. We certainly hope they do so, for the sake of the students, the schools and the country itself.
It seems to us the key aspects are:
* TLLM aims to engage the minds of learners, to prepare them for life
* It is about shifting the focus from “quantity” to “quality” in education. “More quality” in terms of classroom interaction, opportunities for expression, the learning of life-long skills and the building of character through innovative and effective teaching approaches and strategies. “Less quantity” in terms of rote-learning, repetitive tests, and following prescribed answers and set formulae.
* The aims of TLLM are for the learner, his needs, interests and aspirations, and not simply to cover curriculum content.
* It aims to encourage students to learn because they are passionate about learning, and less because they are afraid of failure.
* It aims to prepare students for the test of life and less for a life of tests.
* It aims to teach students the values, attitudes and mindsets that will serve them well in life, and not only how to score good grades in exams.
It seems you don’t disagree with these aims and aspirations, but you doubt whether TLLM is actually happening in schools. Could you perhaps describe the data and the research you base your opinions on? For our part we’ll undertake to contact the appropriate authorities and seek further clarification.
In the meantime, we’re aware that parental attitudes in Singapore have shifted very little in some instances, and that many parents still put tremendous pressure on their children to achieve well academically. It seems that many parents also continue to send their children to private tutors – especially to prepare them for the high stakes timed tests and exams that remain. Whilst this pressure is very regrettable, it’s a matter for families to agree on, and a matter that government policy and the schools themselves can do little about.
All that we and others can do is continue to speak out on behalf of children and young people and to argue for policies and practices that seem to us to support the wellbeing as well as the all-round achievements of all students everywhere.
We hope that the aspirations that Singapore has for its students are becoming better understood, even if those aspirations are not being realised in all cases and in actual practice.
“We presume the government and its education department will have in place effective monitoring systems and will take whatever steps are necessary to achieve compliance with the strategy and the philosophy. We certainly hope they do so, for the sake of the students, the schools and the country itself.”
The presumption is unfortunately way off course. You ascribe far too much efficacy to our bureaucracy. I am indeed most sorry to inform you that your hopes, and ours, are being disappointed on a daily basis.
Kindly observe this miniscule chipping off the apex of the tip of the iceberg:
Nice blog, I enjoyed reading your blog about the Singapore education system, which is indeed stressful.
I am a patient and dedicated math tutor offering Individual or Group Tuition, to help students learn effectively at their own pace.
Wish you a nice week ahead.
I realise I’m a little late to the game on this post (I came at it through a link from another of your posts) but I was wondering if you have any direct experience of the educational system in Singapore? The only reason that I ask is that I’ve lived and worked in Singapore in recent years and I’m not sure I recognise the educational system that you’re describing.
Admittedly, the work that I have done has been in the international education sector (which is very much as you describe here) and I may be completely wrong about the way Singapore actually runs its schools having never worked in one. Anecdotally, however, many educators that I’ve spoken to do still feel that Singapore schools tend to rely heavily on summative assessment and didactic teaching.
Again, I may be wrong but it wouldn’t be the first time there was a gap between what Singapore said they intended to do and what they actually did. Let me know your thoughts.
I wrote a similar piece in Washington Post after the US hysteria about PISA which sounded alot like Gove’s (UK) and Gillard’s (Aus) reactions and perspectives http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/what-other-countries-are-reall.html Keep keeping people honest!
Shame about the lack of Free Speech though…
It is said a drowning man will hang on to anything that looks as though it will float with an iron grip. Those who are frightened will cling to a security blanked and try to shut out the world. We instinctively close our eyes when frightened. When under stress or pressure we revert to seeking comfort not challenge, we do and say what we know. Rushing from a burning or flooding building we grab what we can, a reminder of the past, something familiar that we can save.
Mr Gove’s inability to see the world around him in anything other than his own reflected light suggests he is all of the above. He does not appear to have the capacity to objectively look at education without reaching out to grab the familiar. I have some sympathy for his motives, he may be trying to develop our education system but he is incapable of rationally analysing the research and evidence that will point him in the right direction. If you prised his retro approach away from education and applied them to anything else they would be seen for the absurdity they are.
Lets send boys down the pit to do their apprenticeship.
Working 14 hour days is good for developing character.
Girls should stay at home and become home makers.
Let us re introduce cottage industries it will help bind the social fabric.
Investing in steam trains is the way forward.
Slate is the new learning tablet.
E-mails are responsible for the decline in handwriting we need to return to developing penmanship and the use of the quill.
Perhaps it not just Mr Gove that is trying to recreate the past. Perhaps it those who advise him that are so frightened of the future they want to smother everyone with their security blanket too.
Should we be working towards another way of electing/appointing those who have so much control over the futures of so many. There is no hesitation to do it for the Bank of England when our financial wealth and security is at stake.