Are there lessons to be learned from Singapore’s success?

The global education rankings battleground

Yeow-Tong Chia

Education, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

24 January 2017

Competition among countries to attain the highest educational standing has never been so fierce. Yeow-Tong Chia looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘Singapore model’ and its potential application elsewhere.

The emergence of global rankings in education in the past two decades has captured the imagination and attention of politicians and policymakers. The most prominent of these rankings are the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Singapore has consistently topped both TIMSS and PISA rankings in mathematics and science. Many articles have been written offering reasons for Singapore’s education success, ranging from valorisation to subtle vilification. In the academic literature, the key factors behind Singapore’s success in these global educational rankings are teacher quality, school leadership, system characteristics (such as high academic standards and expectations) and educational reform that promotes independent student learning, creativity and higher order thinking.

While these factors appear comprehensive and convincing, what is missing is a discussion of the historical and cultural context behind Singapore’s impressive educational attainment.

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Since achieving independence in August 1965, Singapore’s government has placed a strong emphasis on mathematics, technology and science education in order to prepare a skilled workforce for its industrialisation efforts. Over the years, Singapore also developed a unique model and framework for the teaching of mathematics in schools, which played a significant role in its success in the TIMSS and PISA rankings.

The stellar economic performance of Singapore, together with that of Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong from the 1960s to the 1990s, is a testament to the role of education, especially in mathematics and sciences, in supporting economic development. These four societies are also what is referred to as Confucian Heritage Societies, where families place education in high regard.

There are, however, some downsides to the overemphasis on mathematics and sciences education. Despite the reforms over the past two decades aimed at creative and critical thinking, research evidence suggests that “pedagogical practice in Singapore’s classrooms has remained largely traditional, directed towards curriculum content delivery and examination performance.” Conformity is implicitly encouraged and emphasised, while important competencies in the “new” economy such as innovation, resilience and the ability to think unconventionally are unintentionally neglected.

This is not to say that the Singaporean government is not actively promoting these much needed “soft” skills. In fact, the government has recognised the importance of inculcating these skills, as seen in the various reform initiatives since the mid-1990s such as the Thinking Schools Learning Nation initiative, the Information Technology Masterplan and the Teach Less Learn More initiative. But such well-intentioned efforts do not fully achieve their desired results due to the over-arching importance placed on examination results. This remains a key dilemma in Singapore’s education system.

In a way, Singapore’s success in TIMSS and PISA reflects the role that mathematics and sciences education played in Singapore’s economic development. While its current prowess in these global education rankings correlates to past economic success, it is no guarantee of Singapore’s future economic development.

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Another key casualty of the emphasis on mathematics and the sciences is humanities and civics education. In particular, the teaching of history was de-emphasised for close to two decades following Singapore’s independence as it was not regarded as useful for Singapore’s industrialisation efforts. Singapore’s civics education, by and large, focuses more on nation-building than the inculcation of democratic values. Despite achieving high levels of literacy and numeracy, one could argue that many Singaporeans remain rather politically illiterate.

Given what I have discussed, I would urge caution in applying any “lessons” from Singapore’s educational success. There is no “Singapore model” that is fully replicable, as each cultural and historical context is unique. Nonetheless, developing countries could possibly learn from Singapore’s experience by placing more emphasis on the teaching of mathematics and sciences in order to foster social and economic development.

While developed countries are rightfully concerned and worried over their slide in these educational rankings, the wrong “lesson” would be to emphasise standardised testing like NAPLAN to purportedly raise educational standards. It is ironic that the OECD seems to be advocating for standardised testing at a time when Singapore and East Asian countries are moving away from standardised testing to diversify their education systems.

At the end of the day, education is not a spectator sport like the NBA or English Premier League; we should not be too fixated on the global rankings like those sporting league tables. Every country has its unique culture and heritage and resultant strengths in its education system. It is important to be careful that in efforts to improve one’s education system, we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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