SINGAPORE – Having been through our education system as a science student, I somehow developed a cynical view of the process that students go through. “Rote-learning”, “memorizing”, “regurgitation” and “being exam-smart” were all apt description of the way we were being educated. Despite the fact that Singaporean students came up tops in Math and Sciences, the cynic in me screamed:”They probably did better in standardized tests (read exam-smartness) as opposed to being good scientists and mathematicians”. My cynicism ran so deep that I devoted an admissions essay into a particular NUS program to lambasting our education system. Well, I got into that program, but that is ancient history.
Thus, there is a perception that our students may come out tops in math and science up till high school level (junior college), but we are still in dearth of world-beaters, an observation made by Fareed Zakaria in his Newsweek interview with the former education minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The latter conceded that ours is an exam meritocracy as opposed to the US, which is a talent meritocracy. The current Thomson ISI statistics which is indicative of Singapore’s performance in the research arena provides at least a sobering wake-up call. In a 10 year ranking up to 2004, Singapore ranked 36th in the world for number of papers produced, but could only afford a 92nd ranking in terms of cites per paper, which really indicates the lack of breakthrough research done here in Singapore. However, it is the year 2009 and perhaps, we may progress in terms of our cites per paper rankings. Thus, one may ask if we are cruelly exposed for our inadequacies in our science and math education, i.e. is our education system churning out potential scientists and mathematicians or something else? Maybe such a question is not a simple one to answer. There could be other factors within the equation, such as the fostering of a vibrant research culture, presence of adequate funding, etcetera.
However, one thing is for sure is that the Ministry of Education (MOE) has reformed and rethought on its system of education. One evident reform is the preaching of the “Teach less, learn more” (TLLM) mantra. When I worked with the Curriculum Planning and Development division (CPDD) of MOE in developing a textbook and workbook, I found to my pleasant surprise the implementation of the TLLM mantra that went into the design of our textbook and workbook contents. It is really an attempt to move away from the drill and practice type of learning to focus on picking up independent learning skills that will serve the students well beyond their schooling life. The new syllabus incorporates an information technology learning component whereby students have to pick up data acquisition skills, information processing and critical thinking skills that will be useful to them as independent learners. Occasionally, students are encouraged to think creatively about a topic, such as how a scientific concept can be used in a scientific device that would be designed by them.
The CPDD staff whom we collaborated with were at least forward-looking in the educational aspect; they were open to any ideas, that could sharpen the students’ scientific skills. Thus, when we suggested having science practicals-based diagnostic questions, which basically enable teachers to detect misconceptions that students may have regarding various practical techniques, our MOE counterparts thought it was a good idea and we implemented that straightaway in the workbooks. At least, we agreed that it may be a good step to help students understand the correct concepts behind various practical techniques, so that they will be able to at least do science the correct way.
According to a current teacher who declined to be named, these reforms can be attributed to former education minister Tharman’s receptiveness to feedbacks, and the latter went on to ring changes within the education system under his watch. However, as the saying goes “Rome is not built in a day”, and the same teacher remarked that it will be a matter of 10 years down the road before such reforms will ever bear fruits. Hopefully by then, we may see more of these future world-beaters who will go on to be leading lights in the scientific world.