****************************************************************** [Note: Our thanks to Prof. LEE PengYee (Republic of Singapore) for sharing this article with us. Prof. Lee suggests that we can find the latest news on content reduction at <www.moe.edu.sg>. 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.
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 achieve.
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 standards.
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.
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 skills.
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 happen.
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.
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 teachers.
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 improvement.
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 have.
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) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU