The present time is a challenging one for educators, policy- makers, parents and students alike. There is general consensus that we are in new times of volatility and uncertainty, that the triumphs and failures of the past no longer hold lessons for the future. The education policy discourse is all about 21st Century competencies, about grit, resilience, need for multi and technological literacy, entrepreneurial daring and so on. Poor old fashioned public schooling, with its emphasis on self-management – also known as discipline, content mastery, acceptance of examinations as reliable instruments for measuring learning and so on – gets a bad press.
In a recent opinion piece in the Guardian entitled ‘In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant’, author G. Monbiot castigates the prevalent model of schooling…
- …children (are) being taught to behave like machines
- …children (are) dragooned into rows and made to sit still while being stuffed with facts
- …why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating? Finally, “teachers are now leaving the profession in droves, their training wasted and their careers destroyed by overwork and a spirit-crushing regime of standardization, testing and top-down control”. Mind the exaggeration!
While no one is contending that everything is fine with present day systems data and sober reflection is needed to chart education’s way in the future; exaggerated and hyperbolic commentary will not provide reliable guidelines for change.
It has to be noted that the present model of public schooling emerged in tandem with the rise of the nation state and industrialization. It lifted millions, in the past in our present day developed world, and now in the developing world, out of ignorance. School based socialization created the new citizens, and literacy, numeracy, with some instances, technical skills fuelled economic growth in these nascent nation states. The truth is that not all countries are in a post-industrial, knowledge economy state; indeed, even within developed economies, there can be radically different economic conditions. Educational responses must take account of this.
A second point is that Monbiot takes perhaps an overly romanticized view of childhood. Yes, children have a natural curiosity, are creative, and do learn much by watching and experimenting. But it is a big leap from that to say that all pedagogy should respond to these traits. Schools do need to socialize children from different social classes, faiths, and other classifications etc. to for a shared understanding of their common humanity, of their country and its circumstances. That will require some telling from an authoritative figure, a teacher. Reasonable order and discipline at the school and classroom level are necessary for learning to take place. Not all knowledge needs to be self-discovered. What is required is a hybrid pedagogy in which context a teacher draws from a wide range of strategies, and selects from them as appropriate to the age of learners andage-appropriate the aims of the learning task.
Singapore provides a good example of a system which, since 1997, has sought to move schooling from an industrial model to a knowledge economy model of schooling. It offers a good case study of how to do it, especially in the context of a system of public schooling. It has been a journey of some over two decades, and there is still some distance to go. Yes, children do sit in rows, respect their teachers, do their homework and know the value of academic achievement. Yet, inquiry-based learning, learning outside the classroom, relevant use of technology, learning by doing, assessment via project work, doing projects in the community etc. are all commonplace. Singapore students show high levels of content mastery and knowledge application skills.
Two brief examples will suffice. In every primary school in Singapore, the Programme for Active Learning provides for varied and curiosity-stimulating activities. A great deal of attention is also being directed, at the upper primary and secondary schools, to 1–1, the MOE’s Programme for Applied Learning in a diverse array of subjects and areas.
Singapore achieved this by careful long-term planning, adjusting and fine-tuning its system to meet changing circumstances. It adjusted curricula and pedagogy in line with new objectives for the system. And it invested in its teachers, seeking high quality entrants, creating a teacher education model based on values, knowledge and skills, and making sure not to delink teacher preparation from the messiness of actual teaching. And, it incentivised good teachers to stay in teaching by investing in their professional development. It has sought to develop teacher professionalism and autonomy in a calibrated way via the creation of school clusters, progressively given greater autonomy to principals.
The key lesson from Singapore’s journey towards an education system more relevant to 21st century needs is that seeking rapid transformations will make for poor policy and shaky implementation. Education systems are embedded within society, both preserving and reflecting society and also acting as a catalyst for change. System signals are strong, if in the old order, advanced academic certification was the key to social mobility, it is reasonable to expect that parents, as much as teachers, will value academic performance and all the effort that requires. Changing such signals is a society-wide effort, requiring all stakeholders to move in tandem.
In conclusion, to quote Minister Ng Chee Meng, in order for Singapore to succeed in the future as well as it did in the past, the ministry’s policies will be directed to promoting entrepreneurial dare, in which aspects like resilience, adaptability and an enterprising spirit will be promoted. But as always this too will be done the Singapore way!
S. Gopinathan is Academic Director at The HEAD Foundation. During his career spanning four decades, he held senior positions in several education institutions and served as the Dean of the School of Education (1994-2000), at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University. He has consulted widely with organisations such as the World Bank, UNESCO, McKinsey and is acknowledged internationally as an expert on Singapore’s educational development.