Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Why The Singapore Education System Is Everybody’s Business – Vanessa Tai

We’ve all had gripes about the local education system, but beyond just complaining, what else can we do to stimulate an environment of creativity? 

A local tuition agency recently made the news for a distasteful ad it ran in this month’s issue of POP Club, a magazine by local bookshop chain Popular Bookstore. The full-page ad, which was promoting an education workshop, included an image of a child being crushed under a truck with the headline, “Breaking news: Child trapped under 4 tonnes truck!” This is followed by a few lines of copy, asking “concerned parents” of children taking the GCE O- and A-Level examinations this year what they would do to “save” their child.

This is not the worst part. When interviewed by journalists, the founder of the tuition agency seemed to be clueless as to why the ad was creating such a furore. She explained that the intent of the ad was to convey to parents that their child’s future is “a matter of life and death”, and that parents have the power to change their child’s destiny.

Parents who’ve seen the ad have slammed it as “morbid” and “inappropriate”. And I agree with them. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that this results-oriented point of view is a myopic one. It’s not new news that the Singaporean education system places great emphasis on results and paper qualifications, but I daresay the winds are slowly changing. If we want to be able to compete on an international stage, we need far more than just good exam results.

Why Everyone Needs To Care About Education 

As you’re reading this, you may still be a student or perhaps you’ve even been working for several years. You may have school-going children, or you may not. That doesn’t matter. Education isn’t just a phase in our lives that we leave behind when we start work. As American philosopher John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

In order for our society to thrive as learned and creative individuals, we need to inspire a culture where “alternative” education and careers are encouraged and celebrated.

Unfortunately, stressed out students are the norm in Singapore.

Unfortunately, stressed out students are the norm in Singapore.

In his series of TED talks on education, British education advisor Sir Ken Robinson talked about why our system of rote learning needs a complete overhaul. The public education system as we know it was created to meet the needs of 19th-century industrialism, so the subjects that were deemed most useful for work (for example, Math and Science) were pushed to the top. However, as we approach the golden years of the information age, we need more than just hard skills to excel in our careers.

Redefining Success 

As any seasoned career professional can tell you, paper qualifications can probably get you the interview but what determines whether you get the job (and the subsequent career progression) involves a whole slew of factors. These include having drive (also known as the hunger to succeed), a good learning attitude, and of course, experience. In this pragmatic article, the CEO of Black Marketing declares, “Singaporean qualifications don’t mean a thing without experience,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. How many times have you met someone who has an impressive list of degrees and MBAs but little to offer when it comes to real-world work projects?

Success doesn't always have to come from traditional careers.

Success doesn’t always have to come from traditional careers.

Local ministers have also voiced their concerns on this hive mentality when it comes to our definition of success. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan have echoed sentiments that “Singaporeans do not need to be university graduates to be successful”. In fact, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has openly said that Singaporean students lack drive, and that it’s a worrying trend.

The irony of these statements is, Singapore’s education system was built to create workers, not innovators or entrepreneurs. Thus, when students reach the end of their formal education, they’re often lost as to what to do for a living. It’s therefore unsurprising that Singaporean workers are the most unhappy in the Asia Pacific region. According to a recent Randstad World of Work Report, “23 percent of employees in Singapore feel unmotivated in their jobs and that their skills are not being used effectively.”

This is precisely why I am adamant that an education revolution is not just an isolated concern for students or parents of students. Government policies may not change overnight, or even within the next few years, but as concerned citizens of Singapore and of the world, we need to rally for a shakeup in the way we view education. As they say, “education starts at home,” so what does that mean for us? Here are some nuggets of wisdom from Sir Robinson that we can chew on as we interact with our children, our co-workers, or as part of our personal introspection.

1. Everybody learns differently

Playtime is one of the richest learning experiences in a child's life.

Playtime is probably one of the richest learning experiences in a child’s life.

Human beings are naturally diverse and different. What comes easily to one child may be a stumbling block for another. The problem with our education system is its rigidity and linearity. There’s this idea that education starts at a certain point, then you go through a track and if you do everything right, you will be set for the rest of your life.

We all know that’s not true. Life has a way of throwing different curveballs at us – economic crisises, getting laid off, job scopes becoming mechanised – and if we don’t build up a resilience early in life, it’s going to be tough to survive. We need to teach our children that it’s okay to fail, that in fact, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from failure. If one method of teaching doesn’t seem to be working, we need to be patient and tenacious enough to find another that works. Which brings me to my next point … 

2. Curiosity is the driver of human growth 

As Sir Robinson said, “Children are natural learners. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will often learn without any further assistance.” Isn’t that true? As a very young child, my mother started reading to me, and it didn’t take long for me to get hooked. I visited the library and bookstore every week, and would spend long hours just reading. 

Conversely, when it came to Math and Science, I was completely averse to the system of “memorising and regurgitating facts”, and did poorly in these subjects. I understand, it’s not going to be easy to fight the system as an individual. But if you can come up with interesting and creative ways to teach the same principles, I assure you learning will come much easily. In secondary school, I had a Physics teacher who was passionate about the subject and he would conduct unusual experiments to help us remember Physics laws. That, combined with my friend’s patient (and very creative) coaching, I actually managed to do quite well for ‘O’ Levels Physics. 

3. Create a climate of possibility 

On the topic of alternative education, Sir Robinson said, “They’re very personalised. They have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community, and a broad and diverse curriculum, and often programs which involve students outside school as well as inside school. And they work. What’s interesting to me is, these are called ‘alternative education’. All the evidence from around the world is, if we all did that, there’d be no need for the alternative.”

How true!

As a society, we need to encourage our children (and each other) to pursue our dreams and passions, no matter how old we are or how lofty our dreams may be. There needs to be a culture of support where being a “musician” or an “activist” is not considered alternative, but part of the mainstream. Yes, there will always be a place in society for professional occupations such as doctors, lawyers, and bankers, but the human experience runs much deeper and wider than that. Equal importance needs to be accorded to “unconventional” education and career options, to the point where these options no longer become outliers but the norm.

Remember that memorable scene in Dead Poets’ Society where Robin Williams’ character declares, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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