Singapore EducationThe Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s challenged policy makers to take a long hard look at the educational system that they developed, and ever since they have been acutely aware that the pedagogical model that had propelled Singapore to the top of international leagues table is not appropriately designed to prepare young people for the complex demands of globalisation and 21st knowledge economies.

By 2004-5, Singapore’s government had more or less identified the kind of pedagogical framework it wanted to work towards, and called it Teach Less, Learn More. This framework urged teachers to focus on the “quality” of learning and the incorporation of technology into classrooms and not just the “quantity” of learning and exam preparation.

While substantial progress has been made, the government has found rolling-out and implementing these reforms something of a challenge. In particular, instructional practices proved well entrenched and difficult to change in a substantial and sustainable way.

This was in part because the institutional rules that govern classroom pedagogy were not altered in ways that would support the proposed changes to classroom teaching. As a consequence, well-established institutional rules have continued to drive teachers to teach in ways that prioritise coverage of the curriculum, knowledge transmission and teaching to the test over “the quality” of learning, or to adopt high-leverage instructional practices.

Indeed, teachers do so for good reason, since statistical modelling of the relationship between instructional practices and student learning indicates that traditional and direct instructional techniques are much better at predicting student achievement than high leverage instructional practices, given the nature of the tasks students are assessed on.

Not the least of the lessons of these findings is that teachers in Singapore are unlikely to cease teaching to the test until and unless a range of conditions are met. These include that the nature of the assessment tasks will need to change in ways that encourages teachers to teacher differently. Above all, new kinds of assessment tasks that focus on the quality of student understanding are likely to encourage teachers to design instructional tasks. These can provide rich opportunities to learn and encourage high-quality knowledge work.

The national high stakes assessment system should also incorporate a moderated, school-based component that allows teachers to design tasks that encourage deeper learning rather than just “exam learning”.

The national curriculum should allow substantial levels of teacher mediation at the school and classroom level. This needs to have clearly specified priorities and principles, backed up by substantial commitments to authentic, in-situ, forms of professional development that provide rich opportunities for modelling, mentoring and coaching.

Finally, the teacher evaluation system needs to rely far more substantially on accountability systems that acknowledge the importance of peer judgement, and a broader range of teacher capacities and valuable student outcomes than the current assessment regime currently does.

Meanwhile, teachers will continue to bear the existential burden of managing an ongoing tension between what, professionally speaking, many of them consider good teaching, and what, institutionally speaking, they recognise is responsible teaching.

One of the central challenges confronting the Ministry of Education in Singapore is to reconcile good and responsible teaching. But the ministry is clearly determined to bed-down a pedagogy capable of meeting the demands of 21st century institutional environments, particularly developing student capacity to engage in complex knowledge work within and across subject domains.

The technical, cultural, institutional and political challenges of doing so are daunting. However, given the quality of leadership across all levels of the system, and Singapore’s willingess to grant considerable pedagogical authority to teachers while providing clear guidance as to priorities, I have no doubt it will succeed. But it will do so on its own terms and in ways that achieve a sustainable balance of knowledge transmission and knowledge-building pedagogies that doesn’t seriously compromise the overall performativity of the system.

It is already clear that the government is willing to tweak once sacred cows, including the national high stakes exams and streaming systems. However, it has yet to tackle the perverse effects of streaming on classroom composition and student achievement that continues to overwhelm instructional effects in statistical modelling of student achievement.


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