The Singapore education system is still “unfixed” — but is fixing required?

The debate over education in Singapore has been raging for as long as anyone can remember.

Recently, Dr Tony Wagner, an expert-in-residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, suggested that Singapore’s education system would only develop good test-takers and not innovators due to the emphasis on meritocracy.

His statement is true — if taken at face value.

But who really needs that many innovators anyway?

Innovators are good, but too many cooks spoil the broth

In tackling the problem of there being not enough innovators in Singapore, the policy-makers have to make sure the needs of Singapore are still met. And Singapore needs workers to keep the economy afloat.

Also, the majority of Singaporeans aren’t, and will possibly never be innovators. We can possibly point to the education system as a fault, but to do so would be ignoring the problems Singapore has to tackle — that is, a lack of workers.

The education system here appears conducive for our needs in theory. Merit is stressed and competition is fierce even from primary school. This should allow for the best and brightest to occupy the more lucrative jobs.

However, in practice, the ones who aren’t the brightest academically are left behind and shunned by relatives and employers. The tendency of employers to look at academic achievements even before a job has been offered may be a more toxic element of our society than the education system.

Changes have to come all the way from the top to the bottom

While examinations have been gradually tweaked over the years to promote more application of learning than mere regurgitation, tests and papers are still incredibly stressful and teachers have not adapted to the newer system.

When students are told to only memorise, they end up sticking to the “right” things and never deviate. The reluctance of teachers to step out of what they are prescribed to do is a symptom of what they have been taught in the National Institute of Education (NIE). But that’s not the teachers’ fault.

The problem stems all the way to the top of the Ministry of Education, which prescribes the teaching courses to teachers in NIE. Teachers, just like students, should have the ability to think out of the box when required. Provided modal answers should be used as a guide to marking, instead of being the Bible of marking.

Prof Sugata Mitra perfectly summed up his impression of the education system when he said: “We need to ask questions to which there is no answer”.

We need both doers and thinkers, not just one or the other

Singaporeans are doers, but not necessarily thinkers. Both qualities should be equally desirable traits. Making students think about their answers rather than simply remembering them should be the focus of the MOE and schools.

By allowing creative answers, students will be more informed and willing to challenge the status quo, like innovators do. At the same time, the mindset of employers will also have to change to not focus solely on academic grades and school status, but also proving their ability through trials and portfolios.

At the same time, we need to get rid of the mindset that only those who do well academically are fit to be leaders. This isn’t getting rid of meritocracy; doing so simply means the need to test more skills. Coming up with new ideas should also be a requisite for leaders, and that requires not just creative minds, but also problem solvers to execute them.

Singapore does not need to get rid of problem-solvers to be more innovative; we simply have to nurture creative minds alongside them too.

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Featured image via tunafish1990
With references from TODAY Online, TODAY Online