Singapore Students and The Blind Side of Singapore’s Education

All Learners Guide of Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment (ACTA)

Singapore students repeatedly topped world competitions / rankings in STEM, and some say English too. Our system is so good that many countries are looking up to us to implement changes in their own systems.

However, just like any other system, our system do have its unexpected downsides. I will try to cover those that had not been spoken to death by naysayers, just those subtle, but significant disadvantages that affect our lives and productivity.

Landscape view of Airport Boulevard leading up to Singapore Changi Airport, set against a grey cloudy sky.

Our Students Believe In A Single Solution

In the area of sciences, there is usually 1 answer to every problem:

1+1 must be equal to 2.

Speed of light is only c.

As all “jaded” working professionals come to understand deeply, the real world is a complex system where many factors play a part in influencing the outcome. Instead of a plain linear equation, we are supposed to be looking at variables.

Usually, my wife will bark at me, but when my friends are around, she “gives me face” by peeling my prawns for me.

Usually, we will go slightly above the speed limit on expressways, but if we see even a slight hint of a Traffic Police, we reduce our speed to 30lm/hr below the limit.

Usually, the boss will demand a proposal to be profitable; there are times when people can just breeze through, based on their credibility or some other obscure reasons.

Sad to say, our education had it ingrained in our students that there is usually 1 answer to every problem. When the solution they propose to the bosses fail, they keep harping on ironing out the kinks in their proposals, but forgot that there are factors outside of the proposals that affect the decision outcomes.

To be fair, during my Physics lessons, my teacher constantly reminded us that the solutions we were looking at were in a “closed system”. When we compute the time an object takes to fall, we factor in gravity, mass of object and resistance. However, in an open system, there’s wind, particles, and even the slight angular deviation at the time the ball is dropped.

Somehow, this “extra” knowledge was lost on our students? How is that so? Because…

Corridor walkway bathed in white hues.

Singapore Students Want To Know The Answers First

Because our students are too used to solving answers in TYS (Ten-Year Series) or assessment books.

Due to the results-oriented nature of our education system, many of us grew up trying to ace the exams by working on TYS and assessment books. What these training tools indirectly affected us was that, whenever we were done with our working, instead of checking our work first, we checked the answer at the end of the book. If we got the solution right, we move on. If we got it wrong, then we started looking at our processes.

We ended up grooming future employees who can’t work with uncertainty. This is especially stark in the field of customer service.

WSQ provides a framework that tells us how to, say, handle a request from a customer who wants to leave their passports in the hotel lobby safe. However, in reality, curve balls do get thrown. What happens when there is not enough safe? What happens if the guest is illiterate and could not fill in the form? How about when the guest is behaving strangely (perhaps he was being held hostage and was acting beyond his will) — will the service officer pick that up?

Because there are no definite answers to these situations, most of Singapore students are not able to “think on their feet” and are not confident in devising their own resolution to problems.

Skyscrapers of Singapore at Central Business District near Marina Bay Financial Centre.
Our own success is usually the reason for our failures.

Our Students Believe We Are Better Than Others

The downside of success is acquired arrogance.

Our children have been repeatedly told that they are receiving the best education in the world that they tend to take it literally.

How many times have we had secret conversations about “that scholar who came up with a system that is so perfect, it is not practical to be implemented”?

What about that degree holder who refuse to greet the cleaner every morning?

I have even heard of diploma holders sneering at ITE graduates!

While it is the fact that we are receiving world-class education, our children are not aware that we are only good in the particular system of assessments and accreditation that exists in Singapore.

This was why, when our “scholars” are being challenged on the gaps of their grand plans, they either stop short of replying, or brush off the criticisms with reasoning along the lines of, “You wouldn’t understand.” (which was infuriating, because it was inferring that the others are too “uneducated” to understand the intricacies of The Grand Plan, which in turn burned bridges for the “scholars”)

We ended up with a new generation of workers who can’t defend their own work, and when forced to, they will hide behind their degrees and certificates (and because some had been given higher ranks by virtue of their “honours” or “masters”, they even used their ranks to quell dissent), without actually arguing their case based on rational reasoning.

Workplace harmony starts to break down then.

Singapore's Gardens by the Bay Flower Dome exterior, with trusses supporting the giant glass façade.
Singaporeans grow up in the greenhouse.

Singapore Students Lack Situation Awareness

There has been talk within the HR circle that companies would rather hire people who have “failed” before, than top-scorers who had passed every exam with flying colours. Indeed, because “failures” would have had experience in getting snubbed and have more resilience.

What is more worrying, is that many of our “successful” graduates are successful by virtue of answering exam questions. They lack flexibility in finding innovative solutions, and worse, they are not proficient in subjects not covered in school.

How do you know if someone does not feel well? How do you know if your criticism is crossing someone else’s personal space?

I believe many readers would agree with me that they have come across many “highly educated” people who are not even aware of such interpersonal skills.

Obertraun, after dark, which is a 15-min shuttle bus ride away from Hallstatt, Austria. Seen here is window view from the hotel room, overlooking Lake Hallstatt and its pier.
If you dare to open the door, a beautiful world awaits outside.

Parents Hold The Key

Schools are supposed to be places where Singapore students pick up “hard” knowledge, so it is unfair to accuse our education system to be focusing on exams and technicalities.

I had observed that my secondary school classmates all had varying “innate” skills, despite all of us going through the same education system and undergoing same influence of the same teachers.

Some were very savvy in terms of money, some have deep knowledge of cars and driving, some know where to find the best food in town.

Such knowledge are actually passed down, unconsciously, by their parents (or perhaps uncles, aunts or maids), which goes to show how much influence people get from the role models of their lives in their growing up years.

Taken in Singapore, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) at Punggol, when the train was exiting from the station. The railroad curves to the right taking passengers deep into the town.
The road ahead can be divergent, or convergent. Where you end up in, depends on how you take your path.

Teaching Singapore Students How to Think

This idea has been talked about so much, it is sounding like cliche, but it seemed that our system is still slow in adopting such ideology.

In fact, in our rush to be “best in exam”, Singapore students have been told to take the tried and tested methods, rather than evaluating on their own which method works better in every situation.

It could be because we’re trying to cram too many subjects in a short space of time. Or perhaps our methods of teaching are just way too top-down.

There has been talk of flipped classroom, where learners are expected to go through the materials beforehand, and then attend the lessons with the objective of clarifying doubts or taking part in structured learning activities meant to strengthen the knowledge.

There were many times my trainers complained that because their learners did not prepare for class beforehand, they had to waste half an hour to allow them to catch up with the reading, before the actual learning activity could take place. This was especially bad, because they were training in customer service, and role-play, rather than sitting through lectures, is crucial to the learning process.

Flipped classroom is more well-adapted in the field of adult learning, mainly because most adult learners are motivated in their learning. This begs the question if the same concept can be brought into Pre-Employment Training.

Again, this brings us back to the previous point: How supportive are parents when it comes to he learning progress of their kids?

I, for one, grew up in a family where my parents could not care less. I lived day-to-day, sometimes even realising there was a test only an hour before. However, I knew I had classmates whose parents made sure that not only had they completed their homework, but also go through the next day’s work. When I went into NUS (and had matured in mentality), I tried to prepare myself beforehand, and found my time in lectures much less torturous.

My experience showed 2 things: Flipped classroom is not a new thing, and it does work.

Only when parents embrace the concept of flipped classroom, and showed support for it, before our teachers have the capacity to teach our children how to think!

Singapore downtown skyline under cloudy skies, as seen from Singapore River.

Is There A Need to Revamp Our Textbooks?

I am not trained in courseware development for pedagogy, so I can’t make comments without sounding super ignorant. Yet, I know readers will ask me this question, and I have to address it before I sound like a biased bigot.

The thing is, I myself went through the education system (along with the textbooks) that won the affirmation the world over. In fact, there was a revamp of the curriculum during my growing up years, and I remember being always the last batch to receive the “old” education. I turned out quite well, and when I looked at my juniors, I find them to be more outstanding than my batch in terms of critical thinking.

Our education system do generate good results, just that the spectrum of outcome is too wide for some to accept. But, if the system worked for some, it means it should work for your son. The key is whether you cooperate with the teacher and system to help your children tap on the best the system can provide.

To round off my rant for the day, I want to share the following video. I do not fully agree with all the points raised. However, it does urge us to reconsider our assumptions when it comes to blaming the education system for our own failures.

Disclaimer: I am a casual social commentator, who speaks because it is logical and rational, so my points are not necessarily based on established research and studies. As much as possible, I will refer to theories and knowledge I picked up through formal education. If you do agree to my ideas, please feel free to contaminate others in your social circle. If you disagree, though, it would be good to provide sources and credits, so that I can learn from my mistakes.

Singapore Flyer at Marina Bay district, seen from Gardens by the Bay. The Skyscrapers of Millenia Walk, Ritz Carlton Millenia can be seen.

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