ST Aug 15, 2008I found the speech quite lacking in vision. It seems that Ng Eng Hen's only concrete plan was to "raise the number of teachers" and get "more with higher qualifications".
Next step for schools
It's time now to go beyond grades: Education Minister
By Amelia Tan
SINGAPORE'S education system has been very successful at the nuts and bolts - it churns out top students, and is ranked highly worldwide - but it is now time for it to evolve.
Parents these days are more educated and demanding, while children are more questioning and learn in different ways, and the system needs to keep up with rising expectations.
It needs to do more than simply churn out students with good grades, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday in a speech at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
At the end of the day, he said, education in Singapore needs 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'.
To turn out such students, several things are needed, Dr Ng said.
At the top of the list: Raising the number of teachers, and getting more with higher qualifications, so that more can be done to develop students.
That does sound like a sensible idea. However, it is also an utterly obvious idea. Considering the size of Ng's salary (about two million dollars a year), surely one might have expected him to offer a more compelling, powerful or innovative blueprint for Singapore's education system.
It really doesn't take a genius to come up with a plan like "hire more people" and "hire better people". My grandmother could have thought of that.
I browsed several media reports on this event. My impression was that in fact, the most insightful observations did not come from Ng Eng Hen, but from members of the audience. For example, this is what one Mrs Angeline Soo had to say:
EXAMS, rankings and stress.Maybe SHE should be the Education Minister, LOL. She certainly seems more in touch with the real issues.
That is what some parents think Singapore's education system is all about.
Mrs Angeline Soo, 42, a part-time Master in Public Administration student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, is one.
And at a question-and-answer session after Education Minister Ng Eng Hen delivered a speech there yesterday, she let him know it.
Mrs Soo complained that her 13-year-old daughter could not join her school's dance team as she was told she was 'not good enough'.
The school could lose its niche in dance if the team admitted less talented students, she said.
Her question: Would such intense focus on short-term 'key performance indicators' hinder the long-term development of students?
........ Speaking to The Straits Times later, Mrs Soo, who is also a manager at U21Global, an online graduate school, said she was satisfied that Dr Ng wanted the system to change.
However, she was concerned that his goals might be 'lost in translation'.
'When the top decides something and it starts filtering down and the next level interprets it...it may become another numbers game, driven towards certain goals that they think the minister wants to see,' she said.
But she added that parents also had to be more involved in the holistic development of their children.
Mrs Soo said she tries not to pressure her kids as they are stressed out by the expectations of their teachers, schools and peers.
'Parents are too driven and focused on results. There is a need to look at the child in his or her entirety.
'We need to look at character and emotional development, and I don't see that happening with a lot of parents,' she added.
To be fair, Ng Eng Hen did discuss the importance of values. However, he did it in an oh-so-typically-Singaporean wrong sort of way. This is what he said:
"We must maintain this academic rigour and continue our emphasis on maths and science ... But increasingly, we will have to create space and structure to infuse our education system to impart values and not just grades to students."Let me tell you what I think is on Ng's mind. When he says "space", he means that we must get schools to re-jig their schedules, reorganise the school calendar, and make some time available in the class timetables, for teachers to talk about "values" to the students. Fit it in, like an extra subject.
And when Ng says "structure", he means that we must develop some kind of teaching plan, such as a syllabus or an MOE-approved textbook, so that a teacher has the necessary materials to stand up in a classroom and systematically teach "values" to 30 kids. And maybe give them some homework questions to do.
This would be the right way to teach maths. This would be the right way to teach science. This would be the right way to teach any subject of an academic nature. However, in my opinion, this would be a wrong way to teach values.
Values can be learned, but they cannot really be "taught". They are absorbed, naturally, as if by osmosis, through personal experience and observation.
For example, at home, you could "teach" love to your little children, by giving them lectures from a book and making them memorise their lecture notes. But if in fact you treat them unkindly and also quarrel with your spouse every week, then love is simply not going to be a value that your children understand.
On the other hand, if your family is a close, loving one, then the children do not need to be taught the value of "love". They wouldn't need a classroom lesson in it. Simply by watching how Mum and Dad treat each other, the kids learn about love everyday. It would be a value that naturally instils in them.
Currently, our students do acquire values, as a result of being in school. In fact, this is an inevitable process. But the values that they truly acquire are not the ones that the teachers deliberately teach, as part of a formal plan like National Education.
Instead the values that the students truly acquire are simply the result of their personal experiences in school. It is an automatic, ongoing and largely unconscious process.
For example, suppose I am a science teacher. Every day, I may encourage students to ask questions freely. Or I may ridicule those who waste my time by asking "stupid" questions.
I may encourage curiosity and exploration. Or I may insist on a rigid adherence to the exam syllabus, to maximise the students' chances of scoring well.
If a student does badly, I might scold him and say, "I think you'd better drop this subject. I don't want you to drag down the school's overall scores!". Or I might tell him that it's important to keep trying and not give up.
I may choose to lavish praise on the students who score the highest marks. Or I may choose to lavish praise on students who try hard and show improvement (even if they still aren't scoring A's).
I may tell students, "If your dream is to be a doctor and help sick people, you should definitely choose to study Biology." Or instead I may say, "If you want to be rich, you'd better study Biology and become a doctor one day."
Those are just a few examples. In each case, I create a different kind of experience for my students, and they absorb a different kind of value. The effect goes well beyond Science. The students' attitudes in life are being formed and shaped.
In other words, they're learning values - even though I was only teaching Science.
Now, here we should stop to ask ourselves - what kind of experiences are our students having in school? How are these experiences shaping their values? What values did YOU learn in school?