Curriculum - Singapore heads in a bold new direction

20th September 2013 at 01:00
High-performing Asian nation shifts towards `holistic' approach

Singapore's performance in international school league tables has placed it among the world's elite and won it praise in the West for its rigorous approach to education.

But as reformers in the UK and the US emphasise the importance of core knowledge and traditional teaching methods, Singapore is sending its schools on a different trajectory. Holistic child development, student- centric lessons, a less prescriptive curriculum and flipped learning are among the radical reforms being introduced by the country.

"We go beyond academic education to work on the holistic development of the child," Lee Sing Kong, director of Singapore's National Institute of Education, told a seminar in London last week.

"We are emphasising a holistic education rather than one that just emphasises knowledge and skills," he added.

Professor Lee said the country was now aiming to give children the confidence and resilience to contribute to a "more equal and caring society". To create this "value-based and student-centric education", classrooms were being redesigned to encourage collaboration, with rows of desks replaced with circular or hexagonal tables.

"We are dealing with 21st-century digital learners who have a very different expectation of what learning is about," Professor Lee said. They prefer learning from their experiences and "like to study as a group", he added.

Singapore finished second out of more than 60 jurisdictions around the world in maths, fourth in science and fifth in reading in the most recent results of the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

England's education secretary Michael Gove originally planned to base his GCSE reforms on the country's two-tier exam system. But his curriculum changes are going in a different direction to Singapore, with a focus on prescribing core academic knowledge. In the US, influential academics including ED Hirsch and Daniel Willingham have argued for the need for schools to focus on core knowledge.

But John Bangs, a consultant for global teaching union confederation Education International, said that Singapore's shift in emphasis could result in other countries changing their approach. "Where Singapore leads, others follow," he said. "This shows a country with a highly responsive and flexible system, and is a harbinger of the things that are going to be argued for in the most successful countries elsewhere."

Professor Lee's National Institute of Education is one corner of a "triangle" that determines how education is run in Singapore. The education ministry sets policy after consulting schools and the institute to develop an educational "vision". Schools then implement policy using teachers trained by the institute.

Didactic teaching and an emphasis on basic numeracy and literacy will survive the latest developments, but they are accompanied by a drive for "21st-century skills" such as teamwork and by flipped learning, where students use classes to apply knowledge gained from watching online lessons at home.

"It is estimated that knowledge will double every two and a half years," Professor Lee said. "Employers are telling us that they cannot predict what kind of jobs will be available in five years' time."

Singapore no longer judges its schools on exam results. According to Professor Lee, "the philosophy of holistic education (means we) must move away from just academically centred parameters of measurement". The country also had a redesigned curriculum that was "broader-brush" and left "more white space", he said.

In England, the government is introducing more school-based initial teacher training, but in Singapore, Professor Lee said that although trainees spend a third of their time in schools, it was essential that they learned theory away from the classroom. "A good teacher must be a reflective teacher," he said. "They must not only know the how of teaching, they must also know the why."

Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser at Pearson, who works alongside Professor Lee on the company's panel of "world-class" education experts, has been impressed by the desire of Singapore's ministers to keep up with reforms in other parts of the globe. "Whenever they come here (to the UK), they visit schools," he said.

Changing ways

Singapore from 1965 to 1970s

Survival-driven education focused on basic literacy to ensure people were employable. The importance of learning English was emphasised

1970s to 1980s

Efficiency-driven education focused on the skills and knowledge needed by industry. A streaming system reduced the drop-out rate from 15 to 2 per cent

1990s to 2000s

Ability-driven education aided the switch to a knowledge-based economy, and emphasised creativity and entrepreneurship


Value-based and student-centric education will allow students to cope with growth in knowledge and a rapidly changing jobs market.

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