Teach Less, Learn More - Have We Achieved It?

Teach Less, Learn More - Have We Achieved It?

Friday, 24 August 2012

Media Type
TODAY (Pg 4)

Outcome is a mixed bag as some children are still being pressured to do well in exams

SINGAPORE - When the call to "teach less, learn more" was first made in 2004, parents and teachers alike were excited about the prospect of a less pressurised education system.

Today, six years after the "Teach Less Learn More" policy was implemented in schools in 2006, the outcome is a mixed bag: Engagement of students and professionalism of teachers have improved, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE). However, by all accounts, children as young as primary-school age are still subjected to a pressure cooker environment, no thanks to the high-stakes exams and parents' expectations.

And with Education Minister Heng Swee Keat leading a committee of younger ministers to take a fresh look at education and social policies, some observers and experts believe the time is right to re-examine and fine-tune the policy. For instance, there is scope for the syllabus to be cut further - it also ought to be reviewed to see if the information taught and tested is appropriate for the various ages, they said.

In response to TODAY's queries, MOE said that, since 2005, the content of most subjects have been reduced by between 10 per cent and 20 per cent.

Among the more than 30 experienced primary school educators whom TODAY spoke to, opinions over whether the "Teach Less Learn More" policy achieved its objectives were split down the middle.

The benefits cited included the reduction of didactic instruction in the classroom. Students now also speak up with greater confidence.

But several educators told TODAY that the fact that pupils are still mainly assessed by written examinations meant that the imbuing of non-examinable skills such as creative thinking and self-inquiry is usually put on the back burner when exams are around the corner. As one of the teachers put it, "assessment has not changed so teachers still rely on rote learning to help students clear the examinations".

The problem is compounded by parents who expect their kids to do well in school and would resort to any help they can get, including tuition or enrichment classes for their children.

Parents TODAY spoke to blame it on the competitive Singapore society and its emphasis on academic results. One of them, Ms Noorulain Sheik Mohideen, who has a child in Primary 1, said: "Reducing weightage on examinations may reduce the pressure but in the first place, we will need to review if exams standards have become too difficult for our kids."


It was in 2004 when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the call for schools to "teach less, learn more" in his inaugural National Day Rally speech.

Adding that the school syllabus should be reduced, Mr Lee had said: "It would mean less pressure on the kids, a bit less rote learning, more space for them to explore and discover their talents and also more space for the teachers to think, to reflect, to find ways to bring out the best in their students and to deliver quality results. We've got to teach less to our students so that they will learn more."

Today, schools across the island have a variety of programmes and initiatives that put the policy into practice.

For example, at Yishun Primary, step-by-step creative writing strategies are taught so that students do not just memorise chunks of phrases for exams. At Da Qiao Primary, science teachers use cartoons to explain scientific concepts and spur discussions among students.

Teachers noted that the "Teach Less Learn More" policy encourages them to be more innovative in their teaching approaches. However, they said that, as a result, they are spending more time to prepare their lessons compared to the past.

Another flip side is that, as more initiatives are introduced to put the policy into practice, schools end up having to complete the syllabus within fewer periods allocated to traditional rote learning.

Said a school leader: "'Teach Less Learn More' but do it in less time and yet get students to ace national examinations - that becomes a real challenge for many educators."

Still, Concord Primary Principal Tonnine Chua reiterated that the policy was a "timely reminder for schools to focus less on the quantitative pilling of content teaching … (but) to inculcate an innate quest for learning in pupils through effective teaching".

She added: "Many are still of the opinion that 'Teach Less Learn More' means mere reduction of the syllabus ... we will need to be more patient and less hasty in expecting quick results."

In a 2007 study, "Is Teach Less, Learn More a quantitative or qualitative idea?", National Institute of Education (NIE) Assistant Professor Kelvin Tan pointed out that what students learn depend on what they are assessed on. Instead of exams, he recommended alternative assessments that allow more open-ended responses and testing students over a period of time to judge their holistic development.

In another study published in the same year, "Educational reform in Singapore: From quantity to quality", NIE head of policy and leadership studies Ng Pak Tee said that the "Teach Less Learn More" policy aims to get students to take charge of their learning and go beyond just helping students achieve good grades. Meeting such objectives, however, are difficult in an environment "where results still rule", he noted.

'Students and teachers have benefited': MOE

In response to TODAY's queries, an MOE spokesperson reiterated that the "Teach Less Learn More" policy "focuses on the fundamentals of effective teaching, so that our students are engaged, learn with understanding and are developed holistically, beyond preparing for tests and examinations".

She added: "To a large extent, the 'Teach Less Learn More' movement has been beneficial for students and teachers."

MOE has also provided resources and support for schools, including the setting up of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in schools as well as Centres of Excellence to "facilitate sharing of good teaching practices among teachers and schools".

The spokesperson added: "Content reduction was undertaken with care so that students remain well prepared for post-secondary education and continue to meet international standards ... The introduction of Allied Educators also helped to support the focus on quality teaching and learning."

Every two years, MOE evaluates schools' "implementation and response" to the "Teach Less Learn More" policy. The spokesperson said: "These evaluation studies have revealed increased levels of professionalism amongst our teachers."

Based on an internal index, student engagement levels have also improved over the years, "indicating that 'Teach Less Learn More' has indeed benefitted our students", she added.

Nevertheless, the spokesperson said: "In light of MOE's renewed focus on 'Student-Centric, Values-Driven' education, we are studying how we can continue to help improve teaching and learning practices."

Mountbatten Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said there is a need for policymakers to assess if schools are able to cover the syllabus adequately, without students having to go for tuition outside of school.

To manage parents' expectations, there should be more communication between parents and MOE, Mr Lim said as he reiterated the need to uphold standards in the education system to ensure the country remains competitive.

Other stakeholders also need to play a part, said Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien.

He said: "As long as employers and tertiary institutions have an unthinking bias towards students from perceived 'good' secondary schools and junior colleges, parents will continue to have a fixation on getting their children into these schools through doing well in the hyper-competitive Primary School Leaving Examination."

Source: TODAY (Pg 4), mediacorp