Singapore, Holistic Learning, and the Future of Education

A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement indicates the direction of travel of education systems throughout the world (though not, regrettably, in the UK and the USA):

The article’s headline – “Curriculum – Singapore heads in a bold new direction” – is not particularly helpful – since it suggests that Singapore’s reinvention of its education system is a fairly recent occurence (whereas the “Teach Less, Learn More” strategy was launched around ten years ago). This revolution may be proceeding slowly, but its destination has been clear for a very long time.

“High-performing Asian nation shifts towards ‘holistic’ approach”

Professor Lee Sing Kong, director of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, told a seminar in London recently, “We go beyond academic education to work on the holistic development of the child. We are emphasising a holistic education rather than one that just emphasises knowledge and skills.”

The TES goes on to say,

“As reformers in the UK and the US emphasise the importance of core knowledge and traditional teaching methods, Singapore is sending its schools on a different trajectory. Holistic child development, student-centric lessons, a less prescriptive curriculum and flipped learning are among the radical reforms being introduced by the country.”

“Professor Lee said the country was now aiming to give children the confidence and resilience to contribute to a “more equal and caring society”. To create this “values-based and student-centric education”, classrooms were being redesigned to encourage collaboration, with rows of desks replaced with circular or hexagonal tables.

singapore flag

“We are dealing with 21st-century digital learners who have a very different expectation of what learning is about,” Professor Lee said. “They prefer learning from their experiences and like to study as a group”, he added.

John Bangs, a consultant for Education International, said that Singapore’s shift in emphasis could result in other countries changing their approach. “Where Singapore leads, others follow,” he said. “This shows a country with a highly responsive and flexible system, and is a harbinger of the things that are going to be argued for in the most successful countries elsewhere.”

Mr Bangs should know that Finland went down this road a very long time ago, and so, more recently, did Shanghai province and Hong Kong. Shanghai’s highly successful transformation will now be spread to the rest of China. (see

The TES article continues –

An emphasis on basic numeracy and literacy will survive the latest developments, but they are accompanied by a drive for “21st-century skills” such as teamwork, and by flipped learning where students use classes to apply knowledge gained from watching online lessons at home.

“It is estimated that knowledge will double every two and a half years,” Professor Lee said. “Employers are telling us that they cannot predict what kind of jobs will be available in five years’ time.”

Singapore night scene

Singapore no longer judges its schools on exam results. According to Professor Lee, “the philosophy of holistic education (means we) must move away from just academically centred parameters of measurement”.

Professor Lee said that although teacher trainees spend a third of their time in schools, it was essential that they learned theory away from the classroom. “A good teacher must be a reflective teacher,” he said. “They must not only know the how of teaching, they must also know the why.”

We don’t expect any of these developments to change the attitudes of die-hard “traditionalists” in the UK, any more than it impresses their colleagues in places like South Korea, where hothousing, ‘direct instruction’, and maximum performance in high-stakes tests and exams continue to be the central concerns of education systems and schools.

For our part we don’t deny that the zeal and determination of Hirsch/Willingham followers can “drive up” attainment in timed tests and exams, which is seemingly the be all and end all of their vision of what’s important in education.

But this is not about a competition between teachers and schools that are striving for the highest possible attainment in tests and exams. This is about the all-round development, wellbeing and abilities of students in the 21st Century.

If attaining the top grades and ensuring entrance to the best universities is your main aim, then there is something to be said on both sides of this argument. If, however, other sorts of achievement, self-directed independent learning, creativity, etc, are considered to be of much greater importance, then Singapore and Finland are leading the way. (As are some  of our own UK schools and teachers – inspired by a great tradition of British ‘child-centred’ education)

It’s worth restating that the heads of elite schools such as Eton and Wellington fully support the aspiration of making education holistic to ensure the development of the widest possible range of talents and abilities.

The Confederation of British Industry is also calling for radical change.

It’s time to take notice, and change course.

singapore people

See also:

A Slow Revolution

An Education Revolution for a Good Society

Radical Approaches to Education

Enlightenment – Thanks to the CBI

Our Friends in Business

A Genuine National Debate

Children, their World, their Education – The Cambridge Review Part 2

Action for Happiness – Anthony Seldon

How to Change Education – Aims and Purposes, Adaptability and Creativity

– Ken Robinson: “A revolution is needed, and it should start from the ground up.”

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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