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Educating for a Renaissance: Is there a Rightful Role for Shadow Education in Singapore?

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A recent survey of 500 local parents conducted by a leading news organisation in Singapore claimed that 70 percent of all schoolchildren here had undergone some form of tuition.1 That is very likely realistic, as several different sources give similar figures. What is truly eye-opening is the concurrent conclusion that among those who did receive tuition, almost two-thirds of their parents have found no noticeable advantage in their having been tutored. These figures are somewhat supported by other forms of research at the country’s universities.

 

The math is obvious: two-thirds of 70 percent is almost 50 percent of the school-going population. Half of the children in Singapore appear to be feeding a multi-billion industry with nothing to show for it as far as they are concerned.

 

Whether this is in fact the case, or is merely a psychological phenomenon associated with a ‘Red Queen’s Race’—a competition in which everyone is running furiously and so nobody sees a competitive advantage relative to the rest—it would seem that tutoring and the tuition industry are subjects worthy of inspection. And so, researchers around the world have looked at this, and some of them have given it the label of ‘shadow education’.

 

When assigning such a label, we must ask the question of what the term ‘shadow’ implies with respect to established frameworks of ed- ucation. The nature of shadow is that it occupies a region that is not fully lit and is seen to shade from light into darkness. The question should be asked: “If there is a shadow, of what is it a shadow?” Clearly, the term ‘shadow education’ is in itself incomplete in its ability to convey specific meaning. Moreover, just as a shadow changes and moves, so too does the context and the evolution of ‘shadow education’ in the light of universal education.

 

Many researchers and thinkers have tried to help with that.2 The general ideas are that shadow education can be seen as some kind of mimicry, symptom, derivative or complement—with respect to a main, standard, or public system of education. As mimicry, it is a dif- ferently structured knockoff; as a symptom, it allows us to indirectly examine perceived successes and failures; as a derivative, it can show us the way forward or outward into new educational possibilities; as a complement it fills in the voids that a standardised public system may overlook or ignore.

 

The public, of course, makes the simple formulation: ‘Shadow education’ translates to ‘tuition centres and private tutors’. That is a crude over-simplification, but to elucidate requires some expansive thinking.

 

Art historian Kenneth Clark once said that civilisation could be said to have survived by the skin of its teeth in Western Europe because of the Emperor Charlemagne.3 He recruited Alcuin of York to begin a programme of mass education that started in the Emperor’s court but was designed to be promulgated to all. The monasteries were coerced into providing an education to local children, creating the in- stitution known as the‘external school’, the forerunner of our modern tuition centres. Charlemagne’s directives to the monasteries were part of the Carolingian Renaissance, the first of several phases of European Renaissance, more than a millennium ago.4

 

Charlemagne’s contemporary in the Islamic world was the famed Caliph Harun al-Rashid who founded the House of Wisdom as a centre of scholarship in Baghdad. Scholars there developed the empirical method, and tried to translate and preserve ancient knowledge and research to produce new knowledge. The Islamic world was effectively a bridge between Europe and Tang China, and this was one enabler of the Islamic Golden Age of Harun’s time. However, for nearly all of the next three centuries, the dissemination of knowledge amongst the masses was problematic, and there is little evidence that these institutions had significant direct impact on the bulk of the general population. They did, however, supply many private tutors to those who could afford them, spreading elite knowledge to less- elite merchants.

"My opinion is that shadow education has some very valuable options to offer society, if managed ethically and intelligently."

The next landmark was the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088, the oldest continuously operating university in the world. The point of this landmark is that the university was founded by students from all over the civilised world. They got together and used their collective bargaining power to make contracts with wandering scholars to provide an education, which the civil structure could not provide. Indeed, for the next 100 years, partly under the direct command of Emperor Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, the university consisted of ‘private schools opened and run by each master after his own fashion, gathering together the students who had entered into an agreement with him and paid him fees (collectae) in return for his teaching,’ as Verger5 puts it. To this day, those who teach students in universities such as Cambridge and Oxford are still called ‘tutors’, and they work in colleges headed by a master.

 

In other words, the earliest universities were what we would now call ‘tuition centres’ and sources of ‘private tutors’; they were shadows cast by very few bright spots in a world mostly illiterate and ignorant of scholarship. Shadow education was better than none, and so the role of shadow education was to act as a buffer between rarefied, elite knowledge and practical applications amongst the common people.

 

Most of those early centres of education were religious in origin and purpose: monasteries and the orders who lived in them being a case in point. The Christian religious orders eventually came to Singapore in the 19th century, planting both Catholic and Protestant educational institutions throughout the island. The majority of schools in Singapore were for a time run by missions, the religious, and local communities. The colonial government, by contrast, had much less to do with islandwide education, and it was to take more than a century before the establishment of nationwide examinations in 1960.6

 

In other words, there was no need for the label ‘shadow education’ because the main centres of education until the mid-20th century appear to have been decentralised. If we think of the general availability of education as ‘light’, there was no central light to cast shadows. If anything, the wealthy paid to send their children to be educated or to bring a qualified tutor to their homes.

 

As we zoom in to the present day, almost two centuries after Raffles established his ‘factory’ on Singapore, we see much the same as far as the wealthy are concerned. However, the big difference is that there is now a very bright central lighting system attempting to provide basic illumination to all, as well as specialised illumination to some. As the intensity of that light has increased, the shadows have become more clearly defined by it.

 

How so? Well, if the light isn’t considered bright enough (people feel that standards are low or teaching is bad) then ‘shadow education’ steps in to provide more light. If the light is too bright (people feel that they are confused by the intensity of it all), ‘shadow education’ steps in to make the light more bearable, and to ease transitions between degrees of illumination.

 

The problem, if one thinks of it as such, is that no matter how much educational provision the state bestows upon its people, there will be people who feel as if they are losers, or that they should have a better chance to win. Thus, there will always be institutions and educators who will seek to profit from that market, as well as those who invent new markets (and profit opportunities) after identifying the gaps in the existing milieu.

 

So, besides this economic sense of meeting a demand and maximising profits, what should the role of ‘shadow education’ be?

 

My opinion is that shadow education has some very valuable options to offer society, if managed ethically and intelligently. If we begin with the premise that such institutions are there to help people understand and negotiate whatever the central lighting system is all about, we can identify those options. Here are some suggestions.

 

First, those providing shadow education services should provide in- formation and insight as to the benefits and gaps in the main system. They should explain what they see as the specific problems of the system and what they are doing to solve or ameliorate them. If such centres of alternative education perspectives can conscientiously update parents on the possible impacts of various changes (i.e., initiatives and policies) in the main system as a public service, they become a useful part of the discourse.

 

Second, they should provide intelligent support for the main system by working with it. This is something I do not think many people want: The centralised system loses legitimacy and risks appearing incom- petent or weak if shadow education is seen as providing recommen- dations or advice for improvement, and they are seen as accepting it. On the other hand, shadow education tends not to profit from making itself redundant, but shadow education is a parasite on the body politic if it does not contribute—and the body politic remains sub-optimal if it refuses to entertain useful thoughts of improvement.

 

Third, building on the previous point, it would be interesting to see the central system actively outsource more of its functions to shadow education. It is already the case that if you get on the public tender system, GeBIZ, you will find schools requesting tenders for various services: coaching, English remedial classes, teacher workshops, and so on. These are often paid for by the Ministry of Education, which cannot possibly meet all these needs on its own. Why not outsource some parts of curriculum development, testing and student evaluation, and even teacher evaluation? I am certain that the shadow education community, which partly comprises experienced former teachers and even heads of department, is able to provide such services.

 

Last, but not finally, they should provide ethical service. This means that whatever they provide, they should be able to justify as useful in the sense of helping students move towards their appropriate goals. There should be cost transparency to the consumer and a fair distribution of revenue to teachers—who after all are providing the bulk of the service.

 

Do not mistake me. I am not advocating that all these things should be imposed by fiat, by law and regulation. I am suggesting only that there can indeed be a role, in fact multiple roles, for shadow education in any public system of education. Just as you cannot avoid your own shadow unless in perfect light or perfect darkness, so too centralised systems of education cannot avoid shadow education. It can be a valuable complement, and as history has shown, sometimes the shadow educators end up being the brightest sources of the light.

PROF GORDON REDDING

Dr Alistair Chew is a director and researcher at Findings Education, operating in the shadows between central lighting and general darkness. More than 20 years of teaching experience have not yet made him cynical despite his decade in management at top Singapore schools. He teaches mainly chemistry, sometimes history and literature, and is delighted at the way in which these disciplines produce enlightenment out of chaos. He researches education systems and how they perform.

OCTOBER 2017 | ISSUE 2

Challenges of Our Time

  1. Davie, S. (2015, July 4). 7 in 10 parents send their children for tuition: ST poll. The Straits Times. Retrieved from: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/7-in-10-parents-send-their-children-for-tuition-st-poll. Accessed August 12, 2017. The article also references Cheo, R., and Quah, E. (2005). Mothers, maids and tutors: An empirical evaluation of their effect on children’s academic grades in Singapore. Education Economics 13(3): 269–285.

  2. For example, see Bray, M. (2007). The shadow education system: Private tutoring and its implications for planners. Fundamentals of educational planning, no. 61. Paris: UNESCO International Institute of Educational Planning.

  3. Clark, K. (2005). Civilisation: A personal view. London: John Murray.

  4. Hildebrant, M. M. (1991). The external school in Carolingian Society. Boston, MA: Brill Academic.

  5. Verger, J. (1992). Chapter 2: Patterns. In H. de Ridder-Symoens (ed.), A history of the universities in Europe: Volume 1, universities of the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 35–65.

  6. Tan, Y. K., Chow, H. K., and Goh, C. (2008). Examinations in Singapore: Change and continuity (1891–2007). Singapore: World Scientific.

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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