Learning the Singapore way of topping global education rankings

Learning the Singapore way of topping global education rankings

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Learning the Singapore way of topping global education rankings

By Siti Rahil
SINGAPORE, Jan. 19, Kyodo

Singapore's climb to the top of global education rankings has put the spotlight on how an education system that had been seen as somewhat too competitive, stressful and exam-oriented has evolved into one of the best in the world.

Last year, the wealthy city-state, which had already been doing well in global educational rankings, outperformed the rest of the world in the OECD's PISA survey, which tested around 540,000 15-year-old students in 72 countries and economies on science, reading, math and collaborative problem-solving.

Singapore's Education Ministry's website states that "we have been moving in recent years towards an education system that is more flexible and diverse" so as to provide students with "greater choice to meet their different interests and ways of learning."

Hence it aims to "reduce reliance on rote learning and encourage independent learning and experimentation."

Clearly Southeast Asia's most advanced economy can afford to pump huge amounts of money into boosting educational services. Teachers are carefully selected and go through rigorous training and retraining, while innovative ideas are infused into the centrally planned curriculum, which is reviewed every six years.

"Basically it's a whole host of factors," Ridzuan Abdul Rahim, lead curriculum specialist at the Education Ministry, said when asked about Singapore students' strong performance in math.

"The teachers are committed to the students' learning. The parents are also very, very interested in their children's education," he said.

"From our side, we try to make available school resources," he said. For example, resources are provided for primary school mathematics to be taught by "pictorial abstracts, learn by doing something."

"We are a small country, there is high availability of school resources...we can centrally plan our curriculum and make sure that everybody implements this curriculum," he said.

"In this country there is a strong emphasis on math, science and technology. You cannot achieve, even with the best curriculum, if the students, parents and society at large don't value math."

At the National Institute of Education, where teachers are trained, educational tools of various shapes, sizes and colors, are neatly stacked on shelves in a classroom. They are designed to make learning math fun for primary and secondary school students.

An ambitious and novel project is currently under way to help students overcome their fear of mathematics and grasp its concepts better through comics.

Toh Tin Lam, deputy head of NIE's mathematics and mathematics education academic group, said he was inspired to think about using comics to help lower secondary school students understand math after observing their weaknesses in class.

"I listened to what the kids say in class -- they were not talking about math, they were talking about their life, but their conversation itself is mathematical logic," he said.

"That makes me think that...we can use a more vivid approach to reach out to the kids, especially those less motivated ones...use jokes to get students to think."

The project was launched in 2014 and currently there is one chapter on percentage and another on statistics, and now the team is working on the subject of probability in math. His comic-based teaching and learning materials as an alternative to the usual textbooks began to be used at three secondary schools, and now eight other schools have also come on board.

"When we conceptualized this project...we targeted our lowest achieving students, those students who are not interested in math and who would not want to have anything to do with math."

However, the idea was so well received that even teachers from the "express" stream classes for the academically stronger students have expressed interest in the idea.

One of the most unique traits of Singapore's education system has been the streaming of schoolchildren at a young age for classes that offer faster or slower paces of learning that suit their abilities based on their exam performance.

Students in the express stream will take just four years to complete their secondary school before moving on to either junior college or a polytechnics, which is why the express stream is seen by parents and students as the most promising route to enter local universities. Students in the normal-academic stream will take five years to complete their secondary education.

Despite the criticism it has received in the past, proponents of streaming argue that it allows educators to teach at a pace more suited to the students and give them more attention, ensuring no one falls through the gaps of the system.

Singapore's school teachers also provide extra coaching for students who are struggling with math, especially those in the weaker streams. "Generally if you go to any school, our teachers will conduct additional lessons if the students need it," Ridzuan said.

Izz Afiq Hermansyah, 16, said, "I wasn't doing so well until I was eleven years old. My math teacher saw that I was struggling and she just approached me."

He said his teacher "put a lot of time and effort" into coaching him individually after class. "That's how I improved a lot," said Izz, who was in the express stream and recently obtained the highest score for math in his national exams at the end of secondary school.

Saiful Rizal, a 28-year-old private math coach who also provides motivational talks for students, says that one of the factors behind Singapore students' edge in math is that they start off in primary school by learning concepts more visually.

"There is a more visual way of learning for the kids. So perhaps I think this has an impact...by being more visual it is easier for them to solve."

However he says the math exams in Singapore have become more challenging in recent years.

"All the questions now require higher order thinking skills," he said. Referring to Singapore school exams, he said, "the teachers come up with so many creative ways to ask questions, especially if you come from better schools, it's like math Olympiad standard already."

Part of a booming private tuition industry estimated to be worth more than S$1 billion (US$701 million) to help students meet the high standards of the education system, he has been operating a tuition center for the last five years and has authored a bestselling book about how he has helped schoolchildren who are struggling with math improve on their math scores.

While he thinks it is good that Singapore is ranked number one in the world for math and science education, he is concerned about "the stress level on the children."

"I think it's the Singapore culture of constantly improving," he said, referring to the label of "Singapore Inc." which suggests Singapore is run efficiently like a company. "That's why we always have to be better."

Source: The Kyodo News, Copyright 2017 Kyodo News. All Rights Reserved