Teaching better


Wikipedia picture of Nan Hua students. Picture by Mailer Diablo.

Our education system has evolved over time, in response to the changing needs of our nation, as well as the external environment. We have a first class education system that is respected internationally. But we can always do better. We want to maintain high educational standards that give every Singaporean student a valuable cachet and recognition worldwide. Moving forward, we want to create more space and focus in our system to impart values to our children. We want to nurture each child, to believe in himself and be self-sufficient, to care for his fellow man, and to be able to contribute to the larger society around him. These are simple goals of any public education system, but few can say that they have delivered. Singapore must aspire to attain these worthy educational goals. MOE will lead the way, but to succeed, we will need all stakeholders to support these initiatives.

– Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the 4th Anniversary Public Lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, on Thursday, 14 August 2008, at 11.30am

Educating The Next Generation


All great and good, dear Minister, but I’d also like the education system to be able to sport the following.

1. Impart (not teach) a proper history of modern Singapore and why we are the way we are today.

I doubt anyone reading this blog has a clear understanding of how Singapore came about. What we read in history textbooks in secondary school was sanitised and severely truncated. For eg. there was never a clear explanation why Singapore was booted out of Malaysia (ie. LKY vs Malay nationalism), because of the desire to maintain racial harmony in class. It took me years after school to finally see the bigger picture and hidden facts of the past. Kids today will probably learn more reading Wikipedia’s SG entry and the PAP-Umno conflict page. The first step to true nationhood is understanding your roots, and we don’t know it at all. Racism simmers under the surface of the society, but we often brush it aside as if it doesn’t exist, and many Singaporeans have no idea what type of region the small island is surrounded by.

2. Teach a view of Singapore that is not just through the Gahmen’s lenses.

This is going to be tough, given that PAP ideology stretches throughout the civil service and has been embedded for decades. There are many good things about PAP ideology (which they and media supporters keep harping on incessantly). But teachers need to be able to give a balanced perspective on all things. When foreigners criticise Singapore, it’s not always because they want to tell us how to run the country, but because they simply have a different viewpoint. The Singapore way is to tell this guys to shut up and cover our own ears…or sue them. What happens in the end? Our people grow up, see reality for themselves, and leave the country for good because they don’t want to be nagged at anymore. 

Brain drain doesn’t only occur because we are better educated academically, but because we may not want to stick around with people with closed minds and hearts. Teachers and students need to be able to question and prod the system that nurtures them, but the system still encourages rote learning at all levels. GP classes need to stretch minds, not impart fixed views. I guess scholarly policymakers don’t grasp this concept – Nationhood starts from the buzzing classroom, not some boring government public campaign or social studies textbook. Look at the French as a classic example – they argue about everything to death but they love the idea of France.

3. Get more teachers who actually know what the real world is.

I don’t know if anyone realises this – but teachers are being churned out like crazy out of NIE, and they become teachers without having any experience outside of the school system. As they are not affected by profit and loss margins, they don’t know the realities of the business world, economic shakedowns, the relationship between government and businesses, you scratch my back I scratch yours, ERP and parking costs, 360 degree employee feedback mechanisms and so on. These are things important for students to learn about because the world is getting increasingly flat and more competitive. I see young people today entering the marketplace thinking they deserve a mid-level manager’s post immediately because they have some fancy graduate or masters’ degree.

Wake up, kids, everyone needs to start at the bottom to excel at the top. Grades mean little in the long run when you cannot perform.

Of course, the question is why anyone doing well in the business world would want to teach a bunch of students and not get the pay they are used to.

4. Stop stressing on just performance but on individual development.

Obvious statement right? Every child is special, and every child develops at his own rate. Our system is unforgiving and does not recognise soft skills (another reason for the low levels of cultural development here). Self-expression and creativity is not truly encouraged because it does not help raise the school’s academic ranking or make parents desire to send their kids there. When some schools enter music competitions, the intent to win it is far greater than the intent to expose the students to musical expression.

Some kids don’t do well at studies, but they are potentially great leaders because they sport abnormally high EQ levels. Yet are teachers or the system able to nurture these people to reach their natural height of abilities? In ACS where I came from, there were teachers who could, and we appreciated them for there effort with eternal gratefulness. But it’s a thankless job when the majority are just focused on finishing the curriculum for the day.

5. Let the kids have fun

Duh. Many students spend too much time studying in Singapore, too little time hanging out, falling in puppy love, getting into hijinks etc. People learn life lessons from the mistakes they make, and I fear there is little room for such minor infringements in many schools to let students tumble and pick themselves up.