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If It Ain't Broke


If It Ain't Broke, Why Fix It?

by Kenneth Lyen

I was unable to convince a former Minister of Education that the Singapore educational system was in need of radical reforms. He pointed to the "Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study" of 1995 in which Singapore 14-year-olds were the world’s number one for both mathematics and science. He also pointed to the high percentage of Singaporeans gaining first class honors in universities all over the world. I could not argue with success.

Four years later, in 1999, Singapore 14-year-olds once again came top in mathematics, and second in science. In 2003 Singapore was top for both mathematics and science, way ahead of the United States.

Average Mathematics Scale Scores of 14-year-old students in 2003
1. Singapore
2. South Korea
3. Hong Kong
4. Taiwan
5. Japan
6. Belgium
7. Netherlands
8. Estonia
9. Hungary
10. Malaysia
15. United States

Average Science Scale Scores of 14-year-old students in 2003
1. Singapore
2. Taiwan
3. South Korea
4. Hong Kong
5. Estonia
6. Japan
7. Hungary
8. Netherlands
9. United States
10. Australia

In fact 200 schools in the United States have now adopted Singapore mathematics curriculum and textbooks for the teaching of mathematics. Kudos to us.

"But hey, the rest of Singapore’s educational system is not all that healthy," I yelled, but it fell on deaf ears.

What has happened is that science and mathematics have gained dominance, and has gradually expanded, to the detriment of literature, history, and the arts. "Today, Singapore children know who the Singapore Idol is, but they don’t know who the dickens wrote Great Expectations."

The major problem with our educational system is that it teaches convergent thinking, or thinking that focuses on solving problems especially those that have a single correct solution. Our students are not well versed in divergent thinking, or thinking that involves a variety of aspects, which may lead to new ideas and creativity.

Recently, and quite suddenly, the Singapore Ministry of Education started making radical changes to our educational system. It now tries not to overburden students with too much homework, and is going all out to stimulate creative thinking. Extracurricular activities are given greater emphasis. Difficulty in learning Chinese has been recognized and newer ways of teaching introduced. Yes, finally there is recognition that our educational system was indeed "broke" in places, and is in dire need of fixing.

Better late than never, I thought to myself. How ironic that we are trying to emulate the United States' more liberal and flexible education, while they are trying to adopt our more disciplined system. The optimum is probably somewhere in the middle.

However, I am still a bit apprehensive that our educational system is not quite on the right track. It still favors the early developers. The streaming system allows the early bloomers to flourish. There is a gifted program for exam smart kids. Late developers like myself are disadvantaged. I had always done badly in school exams. My consistent D grades led me to wallow in the D (bottom) class. But I knew that I was no less smart than my friends, and I had confidence that I would succeed ultimately.

I am heartened to note that recently there is a greater openness and desire to change. Unlike the former Minister of Education I had talked to, the younger generation of Ministers are listening to us. Unfortunately education, like life, is a long-distance journey. We will not know the outcome for a very long while yet.

15 December 2004