According to OECD’s much talked about PISA testing, Singapore is one of the World’s leading education systems. Ranking 2nd, 4th and 5th respectively for Maths, Science and Reading, Singapore joins Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland at the top of the world rankings for the educational achievement of its 15 year olds.
I recently had the fortunate experience of visiting Singapore with a group of principals from Melbourne on a joint quest to find out what made Singapore’s education system so successful. What transferable skills, attitudes and approaches could we learn from a country that could fit inside our own country a whopping 10,995 times?
As a part of the tour organised by the Asia Education Foundation and the Bastow Institute we visited several schools as well as the Ministry of Education (MOE), The National Institute of Education (NIE- where all pre-service teachers in the country are educated) and the Academy of Teachers and Principals.
Throughout the discussions with principals, teachers and officials, some strong themes emerged and they can be divided in to three separate levels of influence: school level, ministry level and government and societal level.
The world is Singapore’s classroom. Students are regularly given the opportunity to travel to other countries and engage in projects, partnerships and cultural learning. Singaporeans are very outward looking and realise the importance of knowing their place in the world.
Schools value partnerships with the community, industry and the outside world. Many principals discussed their industry based partnerships when talking about opportunities they provide for their students. Examples of these included links with scientists, specialists and community groups in other countries.
Technology and pedagogy
Technology is valued in Singaporean education however it is not the central focus. The pedagogy and curriculum come first and the technology comes second. This is not to downplay the importance of technology in a growingly technologocial world, it is just that Singaporeans do not want to integrate technology at the expense of rich pedagogy and curriculum.
Unless it is highly rich, real and relevant it is not done in a Singaporean school. There is a sense of urgency about the time involved in students education and it is very evident here that every minute counts. (I felt that although we have a saying ‘every minute counts’ to try and get our students to school on time, our schools could do more to ensure that every minute throughout the school day counts towards each child’s education).
Talent scouts are always looking for student potential. Once talent/potential has been identified, rich, real and relevant extension opportunities are then provided to the identified students. As one member from the Ministry said ‘The essence is that any child that is willing to work hard will be provided with the resources to succeed.’ (This was something that made me reflect on the lack of extension opportunities we have for our students at the top end).
Surveying the students
Several of the schools visited made reference to their use of student opinion groups in improving what they are doing in their schools. Schools make a point of speaking to the students past and present to evaluate the school program and learn from the students what they can do differently. It sounded as though these opinion groups were a regular feature and were also taken very seriously.
The success of previous students is celebrated at the entrance to the school. This immediately sets the tone of the school and motivates the students to do well.
Singaporean schools excel in selling their brand. This occurs internally as well as externally. Internal branding (done to positively impact school culture) included banners, photo walls, trophy cabinets and constant reminders of the school’s motto and beliefs. External branding was used to get people interested in attending their schools (even the state schools were big on this). The image at the bottom of this post shows an example of an inspirational banner hanging in the school grounds at the Sport School.
Ministry of Education Level
Opportunities to apply knowledge
Whether organised by the Ministry, the Academy, outside organisations or even international organisations, students are given multiple opportunities to apply their knowledge in competitions and events. These events (such as the International Math Olympiad) act as benchmarking assessments for students and schools to compare their results against others. Events are not always based on academics, many sporting competitions are also held. Whatever type of event it is, they help to motivate the students of Singapore to continue to work hard and strive to do well. (What a great way to help students see the relevance of their education- giving them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in an authentic manner and more regularly than just at the end of a unit of work or at exam time. The medals / ribbons etc received in these events are then placed on show in the school- helping to build the profile of a culture of success and contributing to the school brand).
The belief that the capacity of the teacher is the lynch pin of a good education system was highlighted in every conversation. Initial teacher training is therefore taken very seriously as is ongoing support for qualified teachers. The Academy of Teachers is an example of oe of the support services offered to teachers. They are responsible for offering professional development to teachers and facilitating educator networks across the country (beginning teachers, maths teachers, science teacher etc) throughout the year. This Academy is also linked to the Academy of Principals; responsible for the professional development etc of prospective and current principals.
Teachers continually refer to the fact that they are educating students for the future of Singapore. The Ministry of Education developed a Teacher’s Pledge that includes 5 different facets- one of those is ‘Our Nation, Our Pride’ and states that ‘We will guide our pupils to be good and useful citizens of Singapore.’ (This is probably not a theme we could emulate in Australia but admirable all the same).
Just as the role of every teacher is to be a talent scout for their students, the Ministry acts as a talent scout for its teachers- identifying potential future leaders and providing opportunities to develop this potential. Teachers identified by the Ministry as showing potential as a future principal are placed into a 6 month principal training course before returning to their school and potentially being placed in a school as a principal.
Government and Societal Level
Across all levels of the Singaporean education system early intervention is prioritized. This intervention happens for students, teachers and principals. Pre-service teachers are invested in in order to ensure the initial quality of a teacher is high, the same goes for principals. Struggling students are identified early and placed in to early intervention programs in order to give them the best possible chance of success in school.
Value of education
The sign reads: Need a conducive environment to study but can’t find one? Visit our new learning centre on level 3. Open 10am-10pm.
Education is highly valued in the community. The newspapers regularly report on it, there are signs everywhere in the community advertising it and there are even ‘learning corners’ in some of the shopping centres! Teachers are held in high regard in Singapore and many people every year apply to get in to the teacher education course at NIE. (The community hold the Singaporean education system in high regard- one taxi drive complained about all the road tolls and the extra costs for everything in Singapore but when asked about the education system he said it was excellent.) Singaporeans have identified that they have no natural resources in their country and must rely on the people as the main source of income for the country; education is almost automatically held in high regard by all as a result of this. Although this sense of importance cannot easily be replicated in our own country it is something we can continue to work on.
Perhaps we can aim to instil a greater sense of the value of education in our current students through striving to develop their global awareness- giving them a wider perspective on the world and their place within this. Of course this is not the ‘silver bullet’ in motivating our students to want to learn, however it could be a starting point on our difficult journey to help students realise the importance and relevance of their education.
Reflecting on our education system compared to the Singaporean system I have become aware of the differing attitudes our students and wider community have towards education. Generally speaking, our students accept education as something they ‘have’ to do and something that is done ‘to’ them. Students in Singapore however, appear to take control of their education and work hard to reap the opportunities and benefits it provides. Their students’ role in education appears to be much more active rather than the passive approach of our own students.
Personally, I shall take home many learnings from this short visit to Singapore with the main three being:
- Singapore’s focus on developing the potential of EVERY child
- The importance of us developing globalised students and;
- The importance of our students learning about Asia.
Banners such as this one adorn the walls around the schools helping to create a positive school culture of success.