Singapore’s education system has been consistently ranked within the top 3 of the PISA standards test. Our education system is often cited as a role model and many countries have been trying to replicate its success — for now. Having gone through the local system and now being an educator in Singapore, I fear that our students are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century.
The system is built primarily on rote-learning. Students are drilled through hypothetical problem sums from past-year exam papers in order to perform well in standardized tests in schools. They get better and better at spotting patterns in questions — similar to how a machine learns and extrapolates answers based on a given training set of data. Herein lies the problem. As we transition into the age of artificial intelligence, rote-learning will become obsolete. A Singaporean minister once said this,
“Singaporean students are good at solving known problems, problems that already have a solution.”
Challenges that await us in the future do not have predefined solutions. There won’t be any answer sheets for us to check and no model approach to follow. Are our students prepared for that? Will they be able to navigate this uncertainty and wrestle with the ambiguity? I am afraid not. They are taught to solve well-defined questions like:
A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
However, if they are given a question with imperfect information like:
There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?
Most students will blindly apply formulas, using all kinds of mathematical operations on the numbers given in the question in nonsensical ways. This is because they are hardwired to do so. They believe that there is a “correct” answer to every problem. By the way, it doesn’t help when the teachers’ exam strategy for students is
“Just write something, at least you get some points, it’s better than not writing anything.”
Rarely will students be brave enough to make their own postulations in order to solve the problem in a way that makes sense, for e.g. “Assuming the shepherd starts off with 2 sheep when he is 12, every year, the number of sheep doubles”. Depending on the assumptions, the answers will be different but at least when they crunch the numbers, it makes sense.
Machines and algorithms are gradually superseding humans in number crunching and processing of predictable workflows. In fact, they are much more efficient than humans in this aspect as their algorithms are designed specifically for these number patterns. To stay relevant in the future, students have to grapple with more ill-defined problems like the Shepherd question. This is the only way to value-add to society — solving problems that machines cannot. We as humans need to tap on our creativity to frame and scope the problem statement, leaving the heavy lifting to machines by giving it a well-defined input problem.
This is the gap that needs to be filled and to achieve this, Singapore’s education system has to address a few of its structural problems.
The top-down approach of curriculum planning dictates what students need to learn from age 6 up to age 18. On the surface, this seems fair, we need students to be equipped with specific skill sets after going through the system. However, how do we ensure that they are truly equipped with these skills? Simple, standardized tests!
Don’t get me wrong, I believe tests are essential to gauge a student’s grasp of the content but it is certainly not the only way. This approach is a slippery slope as schools are bound to set up a series of preparatory tests (preliminary exams, common tests and weekly quizzes) leading to the high-stakes examinations. Teachers use these tests as checklists to tick off concepts that needs to be covered at each grade level.
In order to do so, they set questions that specifically test each concept and if a student gets it right, it means he understood that concept. Hence, tests that students get in school are filled with well-defined problems that test them on concepts which they have learnt before and can definitely be solved. We all know that is not a true reflection of real-world problems. This is how solving a real-world problem would look like.
These real challenges tend to be vague and it is up to the individuals to define the actual problem to solve. Even after defining it, they might not have accumulated the necessary knowledge required to tackle the problem unlike our problem sums in school. To fill this gap, it will be more beneficial for students to have the freedom to relate and apply new concepts they have learnt to real-world problems that they are interested in. This way, students are able see the purpose of learning what they are taught and adopt a more positive behaviour towards learning and applying these skills.
Overemphasis on grades and assessment-based model is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as we move into a new era of innovation. If the key performance indicator (KPI) for principals and teachers are just grades, parents and students will naturally only focus on grades. Creativity will be viewed as something cool but secondary.
Recently, our company was invited to be on a panel for a design thinking showcase in one of the local schools. While the students presented on their design process, the teacher was preoccupied with checking off the rubric. Customer discovery done: checked. Affinity diagram done: checked. Ideation techniques applied: checked. We were speechless. Our education system is so “good” at mechanizing everything and they manage to create a standardized rubric to grade a design thinking project. They were more focused on whether the students went through certain steps of their prescribed design process taught rather than the creative quality of the design projects. This is the result of the overemphasis on assessment brought about by a top-down approach. In such an environment, creativity is devalued and students are only trained to game the assessment rubric.
Let’s do our students a favor. Relax the top-down curriculum planning and instructional approach. Embrace a constructionist learning approach built upon a healthy mix of real-world and hypothetical problems. Anything less would be doing our students a disservice.