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Topic: Singapore - Thinking Schools Make a Learning Nation
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Singapore - Thinking Schools Make a Learning Nation
Posted: Sep 9, 1998 5:38 PM
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[Note: Our thanks to Prof. LEE PengYee (Republic of Singapore) for sharing
article with us. Prof. Lee suggests that we can find the latest news on
content reduction
at <>. This is the last of 3 notes on Singapore education.

From The Sunday Times (Singapore), August 3, 1997, p. 9

Thinking Schools Make a Learning Nation

Sidebar: Education Minister Teo Chee Hean put forward his bold vision for
the education system when he addressed Parliament on Wednesday. The
system, he said, must gear itself for change if it were to meet the
challenges that would come with a rapidly changing world. To achieve this,
there must be thinking schools, where teachers and principals are always
learning and coming up with innovative ideas to meet the needs of their
students. We reproduce below excerpts of his speech.

Our education system is fundamentally a good one. Our students have done
well. Our teachers, schools and educational institutions have done well.

The evidence for this can be seen from the achievements of our students in
the various examinations: the high percentage of our students who now make
it through our institutes of higher learning, and the high standards in
mathematics and science that have been attained by our students and as
demonstrated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

We have done well because of the many changes and the important policies
that have been put in place in our education system over the last five, 10
years. We are reaping the fruits of these changes today, as education is a
very long-term process.

But we can reach higher and we can do better. And the changes that we are
putting in place in our education system now are meant to see us through
into the next century.

The Ministry of Education has made several major announcements in the past
half year.

These are major programmes and major changes, and I can understand if
teachers and parents have a certain amount of anxiety about how all these
things are going to come together.

I would like to take this opportunity to place these various programmes and
changes in perspective to show how these various strands draw together:
national education, information technology, creative thinking as well as
administrative excellence in our schools.

21st-century schools

The goal that we are reaching for is "Thinking Schools". This encapsulates
our vision for the schools of the 21st century.

This is a concept that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke about during the
"Thinking Conference" in June this year when he put forward his vision for
"Thinking Schools and a Learning Nation".

While our education system has undergone changes in the past and produced
commendable results, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to be geared
for continuing change to meet the needs of the 21st century.

The world we are living in is changing. And our education system must
change to keep pace.

The body of human knowledge is growing day by day. And the discovery of
new knowledge continues. Our education system has to cope with this
explosion of knowledge.

The solution does not lie in simply adding more to the curriculum with each
passing year. We have to adopt a different strategy -- teach our students,
our young generation, how to acquire knowledge as more knowledge is
discovered in the future.

There are changes in the workplace, in the nature of jobs, in the skills
required; and we must continually seek new knowledge and new skills to
transition to higher-level jobs.

There are new techniques and innovations in education. If you look back at
our schools, we have transitioned from blackboard and chalk to overhead
projectors and transparencies, even educational television.

There is not much difference in the pedagogical style. Basically, the
students are there, they are receiving lessons from the teacher.

But with information technology and the Internet, there will be a
revolution. There can be different ways of interactivity, different ways
for students to access knowledge, different ways of combining students
together in different classes, different schools, different places in the
world to learn together and share together.

The changes will not be once off. They will come wave upon wave as the
power of computers and networks continues to increase.

This will have ramifications not only on teaching but perhaps in the
structure of our schools in future.

We are talking about virtual schools that will take some time to come, but
there will certainly be applications for people already in the workplace,
for example.

There will be different assessment systems. The scholastic aptitude test
in the United States today is taken by computer, I think, from this year.
This will need a different way of assessing and adapting people.

Everyone is grappling with this and no one quite knows the answer yet. We
also have to feel our way forward.

Our population and our society are changing. There is a new generation,
new influences, television, travel.

Their frame of reference and mind-set is changing. We need to continue to
find new ways of engaging, interesting and exciting our young people to
discover and learn in schools.

We must also make sure at the same time that they remain rooted in Singapore.

Our young people need values and a sense of belonging. They need cultural
and societal ballast so that they will not capsize or lose their way in
this bewildering sea of contesting ideas.

We need to strengthen our cohesion as a people and work together for a
better life for all Singaporeans. That is why National Education is such
an important element in our thinking schools.

We also need a new focus on creativity and innovation, to be geared to
change in our schools. We cannot produce adaptable, innovative and
creative students unless we have adaptable, creative and innovative
teachers and schools.

The pace of change has quickened. In the past, the way that we have
managed change in the Ministry of Education is rather top down.

Ideas are tossed up, discussed at meetings, we consider them, we think
about it, write a few papers. If they get approved, we pilot it in a few
schools first. We try it out for a year or two, we spread it to more, then
we spread it to all the schools.

This takes many years for any change to come through our school system.

We must encourage innovation and thinking in the schools so that many
different ideas and approaches can be tried at the same time. Good ideas
should be shared and spread between schools and multiplied quickly.

Keep our strengths

However, we must remember what are the strengths of our education system.
We must retain control of a few key areas.

We need to maintain our national curriculum and the high national standards
that we have. This will ensure that the rigour and the discipline in our
education system are retained and that what our students learn meets our
educational objectives and standards are maintained.

This is very important. Otherwise, at the end of the day, the certificate
that our students receive may be wrapped up in a nice red tube -- it is
meaningless unless the standards and the quality are maintained.

There must be benchmarks which our schools and our students are expected to

Other countries that do not have such standards are moving towards them.
The United Kingdom, for example, has reintroduced a national curriculum for
most subjects across all levels and instituted national standard tests for
pupils at ages seven, 11, 14, 16.

I was in the US recently and President Clinton and (Education) Secretary
(Richard) Riley, whom I also met there, are pushing hard for national

But it is difficult for them to push this through because the Federal
Government has no direct authority over education and they have to persuade
states to come on board to adopt national standards for the territory.

But these two countries, among others, have studied the results of the
Third International Maths and Science Study and realised that they cannot
improve unless they push for standards, high standards.

We need to keep these aspects of our education system and the rigour and
discipline in our education system so that we will always have a system
that sets and demands high standards from our schools, our teachers and our
students and consequently, will produce the high standards and the results
that we want for our children.

New and fresh ideas

But within these boundaries, I am prepared to consider new and fresh ideas
on how to achieve a high standard in our educational system and to meet our
educational objectives.

We will not change precipitously because we have a good education system
and I am in no hurry to dismantle it. But we need to encourage ideas and
innovation on how to achieve our goals.

We will devolve more powers to make decisions, to decide on educational
strategies for achieving our educational objectives, to make decisions on
the use of resources and on personnel and financial matters.

We want to get a better match between the authority to make decisions on
the use of resources and responsibility for achieving educational outcomes.

These are the broad challenges that our thinking schools must meet.

What's a thinking school?

Now, what is a thinking school? The foremost prerequisite of a thinking
school is that it must itself be a learning organisation.

The mindset of continual change must pervade each and every member of
staff. A culture of continual improvement must permeate the entire school.

The key to any learning organization is its people. As exemplars of the
spirit of lifelong learning, every teacher has to be a continual learner
himself, seeking constantly to upgrade his instructional competencies.

As professional practitioners, every teacher must keep abreast of the
latest in educational research, every teacher must innovate and adapt
classroom practices and keep up with the advances in his own subject.

An attitude of active ongoing learning is crucial for every teacher and
they are ultimately responsible for motivating and realising their own
professional development.

This not change for the sake of change. What teachers must strive for is
change that is carefully thought through, based on new but sound principles
and test them and expand on them and improve on them.

This is the continuing professional challenge that should keep our teachers
excited about their job for five, 10, 20, 30, 40 years in their teaching
career. He has to go on creating and innovating, modifying and adapting.

Yes, teachers are facilitators but this is a term which is too neutral for
my liking. A facilitator suggests that it just allows the student to learn.

Our principals and teachers are the heart and soul of our education system.
They make a difference to what our students learn, their motivation level
and how they learn.

They are meant to have an effect on their students. They cannot merely be
neutral facilitators. I think that is much too neutral a term.

They provide the motivation, the inspiration, sometimes the extra push to
get the students going so that they can achieve something beyond what even
the students themselves thought they could achieve.

This is the role of teachers and principals -- not merely to facilitate the
students to do whatever it is that the students want or like to do.

Collective creativity

All this sounds like a tall order. Indeed, it would be a tall order if
teachers have to work alone. The results of solitary effort will be
subject to the limits of one's own creativity.

One of the catalyst of creativity is bouncing ideas off one another,
allowing other people's ideas to trigger one's own.

Therefore teachers will have to work together. Teachers within their
subjects and departments will be encouraged to generate and share ideas
about how best to motivate the pupils and deliver difficult concepts and

The collective effort of teachers and schools must be harnessed to identify
bottlenecks to workflow and hindrances providing quality education.

The Ministry is committed and will provide every support for teachers and
schools. We have a number of programmes on to help prepare our teachers
for some of these changes that are coming.

I agree ... that if you just introduce computers in the schools and do not
train the teachers properly, nothing will happen or the wrong things may

So a large part of the resources that we are allocating for the IT master
plan goes into the training of teachers.

It is not just the training of teachers to use particular software packages
but the training of teachers to use computers in the teaching environment,
to teach the subjects that they are teaching.

To help prepare our teachers, our goal is for every teacher to have at
least 100 hours of training per year by the year 2000.

Helping teachers

The Ministry is also committed to providing teachers a more conducive
working environment and this will range from things like better staff rooms
to better working conditions in general. We want to give them the
resources to do their jobs well.

More importantly, the Ministry recognises that the workload of our teachers
is very high and we are taking steps to try to ease the workload of our

There is no single magic bullet solution for this. This will come partly
through the use of technology, partly through providing a comprehensive
range of administrative and other teacher supports and partly through a
review of the curriculum.

Most importantly, if we are able to sustain the recruitment of teachers
over a number of years, we will be able to post more teachers to schools in
the coming years.

We recruited 1,900 teachers last year, the best for many years. This year,
the recruitment rate looks good. We should come close to what we did last
year. If we can sustain this over a number of years, we will be better off.

The aim is to give teachers space to reflect and time to think so that they
can devote more time and energy to continually strive for professional

Of course, we will recognise teachers for their efforts. We have
restructured and improved the terms of service and promotion and
advancement prospects.

Just to give you an example, since February 1995, in four promotion
exercises, some 16,000 teachers and principals have been promoted.

A thinking school also provides novel solutions to problems they face over
a wide range of issues.

Every school is unique in its own way. It has got a slightly different
pupil profile, different inclinations and needs, a different school
culture, different strengths and weaknesses.

So, each school guided by the principal, together with all the teachers,
will have to tailor their own solutions to school problems and decide how
best to integrate new programmes into the school.

Schools also have to get together to share their experiences and hence,
this is one of the main motivating factors for introducing the school
cluster programme.

We will consider whether to put autonomous schools and independent schools
into a cluster so that they can share the experiences and ideas that they

We will give these clusters extra resources and greater freedom of action.
We will encourage them to work together, share ideas and try things that
they could not do previously on their own.

In the coming years as we get more experience with the clusters, we will
devolve more authority and freedom of action to them.

Ministry must change

The role of the Ministry of Education will also have to change. For the
Ministry to support thinking schools, the Ministry itself will have to be a
learning organisation.

At the systems level, the Ministry will do what individual teachers and
schools are doing, which is to challenge traditional principles and
practices, study the changing educational needs of the nation, chart
general directions for the service and provide guidelines to mould the
education system.

The Ministry's role is to set the overall policy, set out the educational
objectives and standards to be achieved and provide the schools, the
principals and the teachers with the resources to get the job done.

Thinking schools will generate many good ideas and the Ministry will
facilitate the sharing of ideas across schools so that the best teaching
and school management practices can be shared.

We will do things like set up web sites, so that teachers can easily talk
to each other and share their ideas.

We will also encourage the various professional associations of teachers,
for example, the science teachers or the geography teachers, so that they
can get together and share their ideas.

We want to tap the creativity and energy of all of our 23,000 education
officers to come up with new ideas, to share them, to test them, to devise
new programmes and practices and extend and apply them in all our schools
in a continuing process of learning, improvement and change.

And when this happens, thinking schools will drive our education system in
high gear into the 21st century.

As the Prime Minister has said, the future will be one of change, not
change to a known fixed state but change as an ongoing state of things.

To prepare for the next generation, education will also have to be a state
of continual improvement.

Education must stay ahead of this change. Education will mould the future
of our nation and if Singapore is to become a learning nation, we will have
to begin in our schools.

When our young enter into the workforce and take on responsibilities in
society, they will carry with them the values and skills that will enable
them, each one of them, to strive for excellence in the way they contribute
to the nation.

Our thinking schools will lay the foundations for a culture of learning in
Singapore society. Then will we be able to have a learning nation."
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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