Tests say Singapore has done well, so why aren't there more innovators and entrepreneurs?
When the results for an international benchmarking test dubbed the "World Cup for Education" were announced on Dec 6, Singapore's 15-year-olds took gold in all three categories - reading, mathematics and science.
What was impressive was that Singapore had the highest proportion of top performers among all economies in the Programme for International Student Assessment, or Pisa, a triennial study run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The breakdown: 24 per cent for science, 18 per cent for reading and 35 per cent for mathematics.
I wrote analyses of the results, pointing out that Singapore's educators must be doing something right.
The test results showed that the deliberate curricular shifts made by the Education Ministry over the years to trim syllabuses and devote more time to higher-order thinking skills had borne fruit.
Looking at the Pisa questions, it was clear that Singapore students are competent not just in applying knowledge and skills, but also in analysing and communicating as they solve novel problems.
But surprisingly, many Singaporeans were not convinced by the results. Instead, they expressed doubt over students here emerging as world-beaters.
Many attributed it to rote learning and the many hours of tuition that Singapore students receive outside of school hours.
The Straits Times ran a sample of the questions to show that the Pisa test questions cannot be answered by memorising and regurgitating content. Students get full marks only by applying their skills and knowledge.
It is not tuition either - Pisa's data analyses have also shown no correlation between tuition and scores.
So, what accounts for Singapore's remarkable performance?
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I posed the question to "Mr Pisa" himself, Dr Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's man in charge of education and skills. He knows the Singapore system well as he had spent time here as visiting professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE).
Replying through e-mail, he put it down to three things.
He said: "Rigour, in terms of placing high expectations on all students; focus, in terms of teaching fewer things at greater depth; and coherence, in terms of pursuing meaningful learning progressions."
In past media interviews, Dr Schleicher had noted the fact that Singapore educators set clear goals, rigorous standards and high-stakes gateways, referring to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination.
"The academic standards set by Singapore are as high as anywhere in the world... Students, teachers and principals all work very hard towards important gateways," he had said earlier.
Pisa analyses show that high performing systems do have standardised exams, he noted.
However, he was quick to add that it is not because students who take many exams have extra practice and, hence, are able to do well in Pisa.
Rather, he believed it is because examinations signal the importance of education to students.
He also praised what he called Singapore's "stripped down" curriculum. He noted that Singapore's curriculum covers fewer topics but does so in far greater depth - a crucial factor in its effectiveness.
"When you look at England and the United States, their curricula are mile-wide and inch-deep," he said.
"They teach a lot of things, but at a shallow level. Mathematics in Singapore is not about knowing everything. It is about thinking like a mathematician."
Moving on to science, he cited Singapore's strong performance in the Pisa study last year, which focused on the subject.
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The results show that Singapore students are not just leading the world in scientific knowledge, but excel particularly in their capacity to think like scientists, he said.
Dr Schleicher also highlighted "coherence" in the Singapore system as a success factor.
When he spent time here visiting institutions and talking to educators, he was struck by how a new policy would be followed through after it was set.
"Whenever a policy is developed or changed, there seems to be an enormous attention paid to the details of implementation, from the Ministry of Education to the NIE, principals and teachers. The result is a remarkable fidelity of implementation," he said.
The coherence is also evident in curriculum development here, which has produced strong programmes in mathematics, science, technical education and languages, as well as teachers who are well trained to teach them.
It is also seen in how Singapore recruits and educates teachers, he said. The system actively recruits talent, and complements it with coherent training and continuous support that promote teacher growth, recognition and well-being.
I also posed the German mathematician a more niggling question on Singapore's Pisa performance.
Singapore has done well in international benchmarking tests for years. Besides Pisa, students in the Republic also took pole position in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study this year.
I asked Dr Schleicher why, despite those stellar results, Singapore has produced so few top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives and academics.
In contrast, the US 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?
Read Also: Parents ponder value of Pisa test rankings
His response: At the end of the day, besides having a high performing education system, Singapore needs an economy and companies that are able to extract value from its skilled and talented people.
Said Dr Schleicher: "The fact that the United States is doing better than Singapore in entrepreneurship and innovation is perhaps not so much a reflection of the skills of people, but the way in which skills are utilised and translated into better jobs and better lives."
Pisa also studies adult skills, and its findings show that some countries, such as the US, are good at converting the skills of their people into high-value jobs.
"Talent is distributed unevenly but the United States has a great capacity to extract value from skills, offering those with great ideas the resources and venture capital to try them out and try again if they fail."
He added that if Singapore wants to nurture innovation, then it has to encourage risk-taking and failure.
He said: "The way in which education systems, but also labour markets, tolerate risks and encourage resilience will be key to success.
"Singaporeans need to take to heart that success is not just about keeping the world in balance, but also living and thriving in an imbalanced world."
Indeed, innovation and entrepreneurship are not only about coming up with great ideas.
While the Pisa test is a reassuring endorsement of the shifts we have made in our school system, Singapore also needs an ecosystem that allows young people to try and fail, and try again.
We need to keep asking the hard questions, look at the gaps and address them to enable Singaporeans to thrive in what Dr Schleicher calls an imbalanced world.
This article was first published on December 25, 2016.
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