In December when the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2012 study were released, journalists from several international media outlets sought my views on what accounted for Singapore's good performance.
Singapore's 15-year-olds took part in the triennial study run by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for the second time in 2012. They were placed second in mathematics and third in science and reading, improving from the 2009 rankings.
I cited various reasons to explain why Singapore's teens do well in these international tests - from the importance placed on education here, to how curriculum and teaching have changed course to emphasise application of knowledge and critical thinking.
But some journalists kept going back to the stereotype views they had of Asian schooling systems and pressed me on whether Singapore's top placing could also be explained by the fact that the students here are rote learners, well-trained to take tests.
They also asked if Asian students had an unfair advantage because of the many extra hours of private tuition they receive. Never mind that the Pisa studies so far have shown no correlation between tuition and performance on the tests.
Singapore's No. 1 placing in the Pisa problem-solving test released on Tuesday will hopefully spur some of them to re-examine their views.
As OECD education adviser Andreas Schleicher, who was in Singapore to release the test findings, said, the results prove wrong those who criticise Singapore's education system for encouraging rote learning at the expense of creative skills.
Singapore teens chalked up the highest score of 562, beating students from 43 other countries and economies in the test where they were asked to solve various practical problems, in some cases having to select, organise and integrate information and feedback to produce a solution. Sample problems included purchasing the most economical tickets for a multi-stop subway ride and finding a place for friends to meet with minimal travel distances.
As Dr Schleicher said, Singapore teens proved themselves to be quick learners, highly inquisitive, and able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts.
Likewise, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted on Facebook that the study shows that Singapore students are "thinking, open, daring, have initiative".
He added: "You can't learn this by rote study. Instead, you need a total learning environment - be it in classes, CCAs or other activities - where you can question assumptions, solve things for yourself, try different approaches."
These skills should prepare our young for the knowledge economy. Dr Schleicher put it well when he said that the world economy no longer pays you for what you know: "Google knows everything. The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know."
The jobs that are growing are those that require advanced problem-solving skills, he presented data to show. Occupations declining most steeply are those that use manual and routine skills, like clerical, sales and service work.
Dr Schleicher warned: "Today's 15-year-olds with poor problem-solving skills will become tomorrow's adults struggling to find or keep a good job."
Although much of the data is still being analysed, the Pisa 2012 study is also likely to reveal some gaps here and we need to study them.
First, although Singapore had only 8 per cent of the students classified as weak performers, a third of the OECD average, further analysis of the data is likely to show that many of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Singapore needs to press on with its efforts to help these students level up, before they become the jobless adults of the future that Pisa officials warned of.
Another worthwhile finding from Pisa is on the impact of quality pre-school on later academic achievement. The 2012 findings have yet to be analysed, but the 2009 study had shown a performance gap between students who had and did not have at least one year of pre-school.
Another thing for Singapore to focus on is whether its students are well-equipped in other 21st century competencies.
Our students may do well in the basic maths and literacy skills. They even excel in knowledge application and problem-solving. But going by what employers have noted of new entrants to the job market, they are not likely to do as well in having critical mindsets and or having skills such as the ability to communicate clearly and effectively.
They are also said to lack the derring-do of entrepreneurs who are not afraid to make mistakes.
Educators and policymakers also need to go back to the question posed by American journalist Fareed Zakaria a few years ago. He had noted Singapore's success on international maths and science tests, and asked why Singapore produced so few top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives and academics. In contrast, the United States whose ranking is middling at best, does better in producing world-beaters.
So how do we ensure that our students who excel in these tests, go on to excel in the workplace? I asked Dr Schleicher this question.
His response was that at the end of the day, Singapore needs an economy and companies that are able to extract value from its skilled and talented people.
Pisa also studies adult skills. Its findings show that some countries such as Japan are poor at doing this, while others like American companies are good at converting the skills of its people into high-value jobs.
"In the United States, the students don't do as well as in Singapore. Talent is distributed unevenly but the economy is very good at converting the talents and skills of its people into better jobs, which lead to better lives," he said.
For this to happen you also need companies that are less structured and less hierarchical and bosses who encourage divergent thinking and risk-taking.
Innovation isn't just about a great mind having a great idea. Increasingly, it is about how you can connect with other people's ideas and develop a different way of thinking. The ecosystem that supports the generation and spread of great ideas matters more than the ability of individuals to come up with them.
Skills and mindsets such as cultural literacy, and openness to other cultures, are difficult to nurture. But they will become more important.
Pisa officials too are adapting their tests to measure more relevant skills. As they caution, the world economy is changing, requiring new kinds of skills.
So, yes, Singapore students, educators and parents can all step forward to take a bow. The Pisa test serves as a useful marker for Singapore, and is a reassuring endorsement of existing efforts.
But in the next breath, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his Facebook post on Tuesday night, "it shows that we are on the right track, but I don't think we can afford to relax".
This article was published on April 3 in The Straits Times.
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