Singapore’s Exam Smarts Could Come At Expense Of Innovation

While the Republic’s education system has cultivated students who are top performers in international exams, this could come at the expense of encouraging innovation. And teachers here must be less risk-averse, if Singapore wants an education system that creates innovators.

These were among the views expressed by various experts at an education conference yesterday, which was organised by the International Association for Scholastic Excellence. The conference was attended by about 1,000 delegates from all over the world, among them school leaders and educators.

Speaking to TODAY on the sidelines of the summit, Dr Tony Wagner, an expert-in-residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, described Singapore’s education system as one rooted in a long history of “testing for meritocracy” and “testing for equality of opportunity”.

“The challenge for Singapore is to realise that the current testing and grading system is not going to develop young innovators; it’s only going to develop good test-takers,” said Dr Wagner, who was one of the summit’s featured speakers. It also encourages “bad behaviour”, where parents spend large sums of money on sending tuition classes for their children, while teachers have to prepare students for major examinations at a young age, he added.

Singapore could delay major tests for admission to institutions of higher education as well as change assessment methods to one that adopts essay-based exams, simulation and interviews, he suggested. For instance, Dr Wagner shared during his speech that he uses only three grades in his classes: A, B or incomplete. If students do not meet standards, they were graded incomplete, rather than given a fail grade.

Singaporean students have fared well in international assessments, most recently in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2012, in which the 15-year-olds who sat for the test emerged tops when it came to problem-solving skills. Students here have also been ranked among the best performers in the areas of mathematics, science and reading literacy skills.

When an audience member pointed out that high-stakes tests are often used to gain admission to schools such as Harvard and Cambridge University, Dr Wagner suggested that parents forgo these options and consider schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which started inviting admission candidates to submit portfolios in place of taking tests.

Experts today also suggested that local teachers be trained differently. While educators here are among the most informed on the evidence of effective teaching and learning, they have also developed an aversion to risk-taking, said Mr Simon Breakspear, founder and chief executive officer of LearnLabs, an education consultancy.

“But the challenge in education…is to know how to make it work in our context, and this is where risk-taking is going to be required. There is a tendency here to do what’s worked before and not do anything that would be seen to be stepping out of the norm,” he said.

If educators are not regularly taking risks in designing teaching and learning, it will be difficult for Singapore to evolve into a system that creates innovators, he added.

Dr Stephen Murgatroyd, president of Murgatroyd Communications and Consulting, who also spoke at the conference, said the testing regime in Singapore has left some children behind.

“Unless you can afford the high cost of tutoring in addition to classroom work, you’re not going to make it to the university, college route… In the pursuit of meritocracy,…you’re actually losing a lot of talent,” he said.

Asked about Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative, he also said he could not understand Singapore’s preoccupation with skills, and that the education system should focus on developing talent instead.

“Kids who start primary school this year will apply for jobs that don’t yet exist, so what skills do we need for these jobs that we don’t know anything about, we haven’t a clue. What are skills and competencies for all these unknown jobs? We have no idea,” he said.



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