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Singapore is strictly cutting edge

Schools in the island state (right) are being asked to challenge its authoritarian image, pushing pupils and teachers to take risks, produce their own ideas and be ready to cope with failure, writes Brendan O'Malley

A taxi can glide into town unhindered by traffic from Singapore's Changi airport because of an electronic pricing scheme that makes Ken Livingstone's congestion charge seem old-fashioned. In London, drivers face snarl-ups when the charge ends at 6.30pm. But in Singapore, strip sensors on the road clock each car so that the driver's bank account is docked automatically; the price is determined by the number of cars on the road to deter jams at busy times.

Singapore is now applying the same combination of high technology and innovative thinking to the education of its 3.2 million people. The traditional Asian preoccupation with cramming facts is giving way to radical attempts to challenge pupils to learn independently, think creatively and grow as people.

"We are not staffing schools for the past," says Chiang Chie Foo, former education permanent secretary. "We are moving from a focus on content to process, from knowing to thinking, from fitting people into jobs to equipping people to create them."

Two pupils who epitomise this dream are Lim Zhuomin, 16, and Yuen Pak Men, 15, at the Chinese high school. The teenagers present a remarkable project that they have designed and built in their own time: a virtual chemistry laboratory. "It enables you to do chemical practicals online," says Lim.

"It has an automatic marking system and it offers a cheaper means of preparing students for O-level chemistry."

Ironically, the two pupils are in the last cohort to be taking O-levels at the Chinese high school - because their principal thinks the exams are a waste of good learning time. "We have been promoting creativity for quite some time," says their mentor, maths teacher Chan Phee Wee. "We try to make them come up with their own initiatives in projects, assignments and in school daily work. We don't restrict them to taking the usual tests and exams. "

The lab that Lim and Yuen Pak have designed enables students to test the reaction of gases, solids and liquids when combined. Pupils can observe changes in colour, carry out litmus tests for acidityalkalinity, and turn on the virtual Bunsen burner and adjust the intensity of the flame, just as in real life.

"You can try as many times as you like and there's no fear of breaking apparatus," says Lim. Other virtual labs have been developed in Singapore but they aren't interactive and they are geared to post-secondary school "sixth-formers" and undergraduates.

"The difference with theirs is graphical interactivity," says Chan Phee Wee. "Users can test the chemicals themselves. What they see in animations is what they would see in real life."

He is now planning to introduce it throughout the school. It has the obvious advantage with dangerous substances such as concentrated sulphuric acid as there's no risk of spillage. "Other schools have already asked for a demo," says Chan.

Such projects are one of many ways in which the Chinese high, one of the island's top four schools, has reformed. Four years ago, the principal, Hon Chiew Weng, tore down the departmental system. The people who led them are now subject consultants, and the 2,000-pupil school is divided into four consortia, each accountable for holistic results. Year masters have become "senior affective consultants".

"They are called consultants because they are responsible for the development, structural design, testing and evaluation of the curriculum," says Mr Hon.

Each consortium has an affective consultant and in-house counsellors who monitor the emotional development of each child. Pupils' leadership capability is tracked and their engagement in learning opportunities and participation in school life is graded. It takes the British concept of local management of schools one step further: the running of each consortium is devolved to teachers, who micromanage groups of pupils in teams.

"Each consortium proposes a budget based on its forecast of programmes they are running," says the corporate services director, Yap Meen Sheng. "We are the only school where there is this empowerment of teachers. They own their own programme."

Each consortium also has its own student council. In addition to Chinese Mandarin, English, maths and sciences, the curriculum now includes logical argument, critical thinking, creative arts, leadership, community service and integrated humanities. The latter is taught in teams, reflecting the integrated way knowledge is used in the world of work.

"There are no more boundaries or compartments in humanities," says Mr Yap.

"Students are expected to cross-apply their knowledge." For example, in one project on the theme of conflict, a child can cut across history, geography, economics and English by writing a history of the Iraq war, studying the desert as a land form, assessing the impact on the economy, and writing a poem on war.

Community service can include teaching ICT to local primary pupils or senior citizens, or setting up youth clubs. While tests are taken in core subject of maths, science and language, in humanities, students write a research paper in which they must specify how they carried out their investigations, review literature on the topic, and highlight key questions.

Mr Yap says the consortium model was developed to encourage more effective ways of learning. Under the old department system, teachers tended to concern themselves only with the results in their own subject. Each department would demand maximum time from the child and little attention was paid to the child's growth as a person. The result was exam-stressed pupils.

From being a very exam-orientated school, Chinese high has now pulled out of the government league tables altogether. "Rather than concentrating on academic success, we are moving towards life success," says Mr Yap. "The critical question is whether we value what we measure or measure what we value."

The aim is to move towards assessment of the process of learning and instil intellectual curiosity. Instead of encouraging fear of failure via an exam-driven system, teachers encourage pupils to take risks and teach them how to cope with failure through resilience and perseverance.

Singapore's erstwhile reputation as an authoritarian city state may make it an unlikely setting for pioneering ways of learning. Its uniform tower blocks and pristine streets are the result of central control - you buy your flat from the state and you need a licence to chew gum.

But developments at Chinese high reflect how a once strictly centralised system is being diversified. Nearly a third of the set curriculum has been cut and it is reviewed every three years so that it never becomes static; specialist arts, sports and sciences schools are being encouraged; and teachers' salaries are being benchmarked with graduates in arts and sciences to attract new blood.

"What we are trying to imbue in future heads is that there is more than one way of doing things, and that teachers and students can generate ideas too," says Chiang Chie Foo. "There's no one formula. We must have a sense that if you have a good idea you can try it out. And we must be able to accept failures on the way, because that is the way of the world."

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