A mission to change a nation's attitude towards learning

A mission to change a nation's attitude towards learning
Ms Denise Phua.

The Education Minister spoke calmly but the challenge he laid before the House during scrutiny of his ministry's budget yesterday, was nothing short of staggering.

It is to overhaul this country's entrenched approach to school, studies and success - an approach that has not only worked for plenty of people here but also won praise internationally.

It involves overturning decades of received wisdom about the surest route to a good life, a formula Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) summed up thus:

"Many Singaporeans hold dear the mental model that for a good life, you will need good academic results to get into good schools so that you can get into a good university which is the passport to a good job, good salary, good spouse, hopefully good children and the cycle repeats. This is a mental model that cannot be talked away. People can only be convinced if they see and encounter sufficient evidence and personal experiences to replace it."

Well, replacing it is what Education Minister Heng Swee Keat would have people do.

In its place, he held up a new education paradigm comprising three shifts in attitudes:

  • go beyond learning for grades to learning for mastery;
  • learn not just in schools but throughout life; and
  • learn not for work but for life.

It is a bold transformation which will need the "collective will and action of employers, teachers, parents and students", he said. What's more, "this is a path that no society has charted out fully yet. I've been looking at education systems around the world. Charting this new territory will require us to once again be pioneers".

Of the 21 MPs who spoke on the budget estimates for the Education Ministry, most said they, too, want change. Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) criticised the reliance on tuition, calling it a "crutch" that could cost students the skill of self-directed learning.

Ms Phua and Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) spoke about an unhealthy obsession among parents with getting their children into top schools and among employers with hiring graduates from these schools. Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) questioned the approach schools take to develop character. Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong called for a broader understanding of giftedness, beyond that used in the Gifted Education Programme.

One worrying fact that emerged from their speeches is that grades may be the only benchmark many have for quality. After decades of living in what a former education minister once described as an "exam meritocracy", many employers, parents and students may not know how to judge the worth of a school, and indeed, the worth of a person, apart from grades and paper qualifications. They need help to make a paradigm shift to valuing mastery and lifelong learning.

The good news is that the seeds of how to do so were also present in yesterday's debate, in the stories Mr Heng told, and in the passion with which some members spoke about the learning that mattered to them.

On a recent visit to the Rolls- Royce factory in Seletar, Mr Heng met Siti, an Institute of Technical Education student who is studying aerospace technology. She became interested in aeroplanes when she worked at a bookshop in Changi Airport and wondered how planes fly. Today, she is a Rolls-Royce-ITE scholarship holder and thrilled to have the chance as an intern to work on the Trent 1000 engine, a complex piece of machinery.

And that is what SkillsFuture is about at a personal level. It is about each person paying attention to what sparks an interest in him or her, daring to pursue that interest, and investing time and effort to master the skills needed to turn that interest into a career.

Nominated MP Rita Soh did that. In primary school, she loved art class. She shared with the House her joy in making art using different media, from potato cuttings to plasticine. Later, when she took classes in technical studies and woodwork, she "fell in love" with making things with her hands and decided to pursue a career that let her keep doing so. Today, she is an architect for whom success springs from having the passion to master a craft.

Of course, stories alone cannot nudge a society to change but the economic reality is such that even those who do not want to change may have change forced upon them. Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) spoke of middle-aged, middle managers displaced from manufacturing sector jobs as a result of economic restructuring. He tried to help several find jobs but most could not cope with a transition to the services sector.

That too is part of the new paradigm, and explains why lifelong learning will have to become a way of life for workers of all ages.

As Singapore navigates this change, resistance may well be futile, for the plan is to bring everyone along.

For as Mr Heng put it: "What is special about our mission is that we are not thinking about the future of education in just one school or one university. We are thinking about the future of education for our whole nation."

That is a bold undertaking, one befitting a surprisingly successful small nation as it turns 50.


This article was first published on Mar 7, 2015.
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