Learning for learning's sake helps nullify the fear of failure
Singapore’s schools are among the best-performing in the world. But, after years of results-focused teaching, the country now wants to foster creativity in the classroom, as Clarissa Tan reports
As a tiny island in the middle of south east Asia, with a population composed of Chinese, Malays and Indians as well as a large expatriate community, Singapore has developed a curriculum designed to keep it competitive yet flexible.
“Being a small nation, the survival instinct is well-ingrained in us,” says Ho Peng, director-general of education at Singapore’s Ministry of Education.
“We are constantly looking at what we do, and seeing how we can do it better. We have focused on the fundamentals - literacy, numeracy, and a strong emphasis on science and technology.”
“Placement” - shuttling students into different streams or lanes of learning, according to their grades, vocation or abilities - happens as early as 12. And higher education in the UK or the US is a popular option among families who can afford it.
Competitive pressure is something both students and parents groan about. There is an enormous emphasis on good results, and parents often hire after-hours tutors for their children to do everything from repeating a lesson already learnt in school, to teaching music, drama and dance.
There’s a word in Singapore to denote a certain state of mind - kiasu, which comes from the Chinese Hokkien dialect. It means literally “scared to lose”. In education, the lament is that students are propelled not so much by a desire to learn, but by a fear of failing.
In recent years, the Singapore Government has tried to deal with this issue head-on. It has significantly broadened the criteria for judging a student’s performance - by including more physical and creative pursuits such as the arts and sports - and has moved away from rote learning.
There is also a greater emphasis on learning for learning’s sake, as well as group and project work.
Despite the changes, the standard of academic competence remains high, with programmes such as Stellar (Strategies for English Learning and Reading) and plenty of tuition after school.
One mother whose sons attend the Temasek Primary School feels the advantages of a Singapore education are “a strong foundation in maths and science and a good work ethic”. The downsides, she says, are a very heavy workload and “an elitist mentality throughout the schooling system to select top performers”.
Among those are Singapore teachers who are hired from the top third of each cohort. They must be degree holders in their teaching subjects. Earnings can be up to S$2,900 (£1,364) a month, and teachers are also entitled to an annual bonus, usually amounting to one month’s salary, as well as a performance bonus.
Clarissa Tan is a freelance journalist and author, based in Singapore.