An Education System Which Embraces Risk

By Kwan Jin Yao

“But the country, which has been lauded as a role model for education systems worldwide, has chosen not to focus on the results” (Singapore Education System Has Capacity To Take More Risks: Expert, Ng Jing Yng)

Two insightful pieces in TODAY (Apr. 10) – the first on the need for the Singapore education system to embrace risk and the second on making examinations in the country more flexible – present constructive calls for change, but comfort with the status quo implies knee-jerk resistance to these perspectives. Oftentimes when there are similar proposals, proponents point to a history of success purportedly undergirded by meritocracy (even if this political philosophy has been threatened by growing inequality and narrowing social mobility), arguing against these recommendations with evidence of high scores at the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (even if it is but one indicator for the success of an education system).

Changes within the Finnish education system – to introduce integrated learning in the classroom, as described by “Finnish Lessons” author Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Apr. 10) – may have been spurred “by the decline in its performance in international tests”, yet from another perspective the flexible willingness to review and adjust its pedagogies is encouraging. In the preceding years as the tough, rigorous Asian model came into prominence the small Nordic country continued to lead the way within the European Union. And even in the years when it topped the charts Finland encouraged national discourse on curriculum and pedagogies, especially amongst its well-qualified policymakers and educators, while preserving non-discriminatory and relaxed school environments for its eager students.

Reforms are planned for the Finnish polytechnics and universities too.

These practices are a direct contrast to the situation in Singapore, where the aversion to change or risk is pervasive. Aversion to failure too. With a startup ecosystem slowly humming into life the government – in response to such criticisms – may point to the higher number of entrepreneurs and their companies, even if they remain the exception. Just survey school-going youths or undergraduates about their ambitions and one could aggregate the desire to adhere to well-defined pathways, one qualification after the other.

These practices are a direct contrast to the situation in Singapore, where the aversion to change or risk is pervasive.

Which is perhaps why small changes to examination formats could be a good start, an instance of our education system taking some risk. “Allowing the use of the Internet and discussions during exams” (Apr. 10) may appear absurd to those who were consigned to monotonous processes of rote memorisation and regurgitation, yet they reflect the demands of new environments. Massive open online courses facilitate further dissemination of knowledge and also disrupt conventions established by universities. In the past mastery of knowledge per se was prized, and while it is no less important today digital information repositories are more ubiquitous, and success stories around the world are marked by collaborative endeavours. The acquisition of skills has not gained adequate prominence.

After all beyond blind emulation the aim would be to strengthen the system, preparing students better for the future.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 15 April 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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