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Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West?

For more than a decade, Singapore, along with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland, has been at or near the top of international leagues tables that measure children’s ability in…

Stick to the textbook. Ray Chua/AP/Press Association Images

For more than a decade, Singapore, along with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland, has been at or near the top of international leagues tables that measure children’s ability in reading, maths and science. This has led to a considerable sense of achievement in Finland and East Asia and endless hand-wringing and head-scratching in the West.

What then do Singaporean teachers do in classrooms that is so special, bearing in mind that there are substantial differences in classroom practices between – as well as within – the top-performing countries? What are the particular strengths of Singapore’s instructional regime that helps it perform so well? What are its limits and constraints?

Is it the right model for countries seeking to prepare students properly for the complex demands of 21st century knowledge economies and institutional environments more generally? Is Singapore’s teaching system transferable to other countries? Or is its success so dependent on very specific institutional and cultural factors unique to Singapore that it is folly to imagine that it might be reproduced elsewhere?

Singapore’s instructional regime

In general, classroom instruction in Singapore is highly-scripted and uniform across all levels and subjects. Teaching is coherent, fit-for-purpose and pragmatic, drawing on a range of pedagogical traditions, both Eastern and Western.

As such, teaching in Singapore primarily focuses on coverage of the curriculum, the transmission of factual and procedural knowledge, and preparing students for end-of-semester and national high stakes examinations.

And because they do, teachers rely heavily on textbooks, worksheets, worked examples and lots of drill and practice. They also strongly emphasise mastery of specific procedures and the ability to represent problems clearly, especially in mathematics. Classroom talk is teacher-dominated and generally avoids extended discussion.

Intriguingly, Singaporean teachers only make limited use of “high leverage” or unusually effective teaching practices that contemporary educational research (at least in the West) regards as critical to the development of conceptual understanding and “learning how to learn”.

For example, teachers only make limited use of checking a student’s prior knowledge or communicating learning goals and achievement standards. In addition, while teachers monitor student learning and provide feedback and learning support to students, they largely do so in ways that focus on whether or not students know the right answer, rather than on their level of understanding.

So Singapore’s teaching regime is one primarily focused on the transmission of conventional curriculum knowledge and examination performance. And clearly it is highly-effective, helping to generate outstanding results in international assessments Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The logic of teaching in Singapore

Singapore’s education system is the product of a distinctive, even unique, set of historical, institutional and cultural influences. These factors go a long way to help explain why the educational system is especially effective in the current assessment environment, but it also limits how transferable it is to other countries.

Over time, Singapore has developed a powerful set of institutional arrangements that shape its instructional regime. Singapore has developed an education system which is centralised (despite significant decentralisation of authority in recent years), integrated, coherent and well-funded. It is also relatively flexible and expert-led.

In addition, Singapore’s institutional arrangements is characterised by a prescribed national curriculum. National high stakes examinations at the end of primary and secondary schooling stream students according to their exam performance and, crucially, prompt teachers to emphasise coverage of the curriculum and teaching to the test. The alignment of curriculum, assessment and instruction is exceptionally strong.

High stakes for both students and teachers. Frans & all, CC BY-NC

Beyond this, the institutional environment incorporates top-down forms of teacher accountability based on student performance (although this is changing), that reinforces curriculum coverage and teaching to the test. Major government commitments to educational research (£109m between 2003-2017) and knowledge management are designed to support evidence-based policy making. Finally, Singapore is strongly committed to capacity building at all levels of the system, especially the selection, training and professional development of principals and teachers.

Singapore’s instructional regime and institutional arrangements are also supported by a range of cultural orientations that underwrites, sanctions and reproduces the instructional regime. At the most general level, these include a broad commitment to a nation-building narrative of meritocratic achievement and social stratification, ethnic pluralism, collective values and social cohesion, a strong, activist state and economic growth.

In addition, parents, students, teachers and policy makers share a highly positive but rigorously instrumentalist view of the value of education at the individual level. Students are generally compliant and classrooms orderly.

Importantly, teachers also broadly share an authoritative vernacular or “folk pedagogy” that shapes understandings across the system regarding the nature of teaching and learning. These include that “teaching is talking and learning is listening”, authority is “hierarchical and bureaucratic”, assessment is “summative”, knowledge is “factual and procedural,” and classroom talk is teacher-dominated and “performative”.

Clearly, Singapore’s unique configuration of historical experience, instruction, institutional arrangements and cultural beliefs has produced an exceptionally effective and successful system. But its uniqueness also renders its portability limited. But there is much that other jurisdictions can learn about the limits and possibilities of their own systems from an extended interrogation of the Singapore model.

At the same time it is also important to recognise that the Singapore model is not without its limits. It generates a range of substantial opportunity costs, and it constrains (without preventing) the capacity of the system for substantial and sustainable reform. Other systems, contemplating borrowing from Singapore, would do well to keep these in mind.

Reforming the Singapore model

The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s challenged policy makers to take a long hard look at the educational system that they developed, and ever since they have been acutely aware that the pedagogical model that had propelled Singapore to the top of international leagues table is not appropriately designed to prepare young people for the complex demands of globalisation and 21st knowledge economies.

By 2004-5, Singapore’s government had more or less identified the kind of pedagogical framework it wanted to work towards, and called it Teach Less, Learn More. This framework urged teachers to focus on the “quality” of learning and the incorporation of technology into classrooms and not just the “quantity” of learning and exam preparation.

While substantial progress has been made, the government has found rolling-out and implementing these reforms something of a challenge. In particular, instructional practices proved well entrenched and difficult to change in a substantial and sustainable way.

This was in part because the institutional rules that govern classroom pedagogy were not altered in ways that would support the proposed changes to classroom teaching. As a consequence, well-established institutional rules have continued to drive teachers to teach in ways that prioritise coverage of the curriculum, knowledge transmission and teaching to the test over “the quality” of learning, or to adopt high-leverage instructional practices.

Indeed, teachers do so for good reason, since statistical modelling of the relationship between instructional practices and student learning indicates that traditional and direct instructional techniques are much better at predicting student achievement than high leverage instructional practices, given the nature of the tasks students are assessed on.

Not the least of the lessons of these findings is that teachers in Singapore are unlikely to cease teaching to the test until and unless a range of conditions are met. These include that the nature of the assessment tasks will need to change in ways that encourages teachers to teacher differently. Above all, new kinds of assessment tasks that focus on the quality of student understanding are likely to encourage teachers to design instructional tasks. These can provide rich opportunities to learn and encourage high-quality knowledge work.

The national high stakes assessment system should also incorporate a moderated, school-based component that allows teachers to design tasks that encourage deeper learning rather than just “exam learning”.

The national curriculum should allow substantial levels of teacher mediation at the school and classroom level. This needs to have clearly specified priorities and principles, backed up by substantial commitments to authentic, in-situ, forms of professional development that provide rich opportunities for modelling, mentoring and coaching.

Finally, the teacher evaluation system needs to rely far more substantially on accountability systems that acknowledge the importance of peer judgement, and a broader range of teacher capacities and valuable student outcomes than the current assessment regime currently does.

Meanwhile, teachers will continue to bear the existential burden of managing an ongoing tension between what, professionally speaking, many of them consider good teaching, and what, institutionally speaking, they recognise is responsible teaching.

One of the central challenges confronting the Ministry of Education in Singapore is to reconcile good and responsible teaching. But the ministry is clearly determined to bed-down a pedagogy capable of meeting the demands of 21st century institutional environments, particularly developing student capacity to engage in complex knowledge work within and across subject domains.

The technical, cultural, institutional and political challenges of doing so are daunting. However, given the quality of leadership across all levels of the system, and Singapore’s willingess to grant considerable pedagogical authority to teachers while providing clear guidance as to priorities, I have no doubt it will succeed. But it will do so on its own terms and in ways that achieve a sustainable balance of knowledge transmission and knowledge-building pedagogies that doesn’t seriously compromise the overall performativity of the system.

It is already clear that the government is willing to tweak once sacred cows, including the national high stakes exams and streaming systems. However, it has yet to tackle the perverse effects of streaming on classroom composition and student achievement that continues to overwhelm instructional effects in statistical modelling of student achievement.

Towards a knowledge building pedagogy

Singapore’s experience and its current efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning do have important, if ironic, implications for systems that hope to emulate its success.

This is especially true of those jurisdictions – I have in mind England and Australia especially – where conservative governments have embarked on ideologically driven crusades to demand more direct instruction of (Western) canonical knowledge, demanding more testing and high stakes assessments of students, and imposing more intensive top-down performance regimes on teachers.

In my view, this is profoundly and deeply mistaken. It is also more than a little ironic given the reform direction Singapore has mapped out for itself over the past decade. The essential challenge facing Western jurisdictions is not so much to mimic East Asian instructional regimes, but to develop a more balanced pedagogy that focuses not just on knowledge transmission and exam performance, but on teaching that requires students to engage in subject-specific knowledge building.

Knowledge building pedagogies recognise the value of established knowledge, but also insist that students need to be able to do knowledge work as well as learning about established knowledge. Above all, this means students should acquire the ability to recognise, generate, represent, communicate, deliberate, interrogate, validate and apply knowledge claims in light of established norms in key subject domains.

In the long run, this will do far more for individual and national well-being, including supporting development of a vibrant and successful knowledge economy, than a regressive quest for top billing in international assessments or indulging in witless “culture wars” against modernity and emergent, not to mention long-established, liberal democratic values.