Thinking Slowly About Education in Singapore

By | August 1, 2015

This year I was honored to be appointed the CJ Koh Visiting Professor at Singapore’s National Institute of Education. In my research on how different nations define the competencies that young people need to thrive in the 21st century, Singapore occupies a central place because of the comprehensive and balanced nature of the goals that guide the education system, anchored in values and ethics and focused on the development of competencies for life, work and citizenship. I had previously visited Singapore and the NIE, when the cross-national research collaborative I lead, the Global Education Innovation Initiative, held one of our meetings in Singapore. The CJ Koh Professorship, however, provided me a unique and different opportunity for scholarly exchange and learning without the pressure of producing results that marks the regular meetings of my research group. This appointment was an opportunity to see Singapore with new eyes, and to think slow, rather than fast. It was not as if my good colleagues at the NIE had not planned an agenda for my visit, there were plans and plenty of meetings, conversations, colloquia, and lectures, but the pace was just right to observe, beneath the surface, and to think slow about what I was observing.

I travelled to Singapore in May of 2015. On my arrival, on a weekend, I took a long walk from my hotel to the National Museum of Singapore, where I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit celebrating the life and legacy of former Primer Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had recently passed away. Seeing the exhibit, and reflecting on the history of the young nation, was a very good way to start this visit. It helped me frame and understand how the same impetus that led Lee Kuan Yew to invest in the design of beautiful gardens, so people could be proud of living in a beautiful city, had led him and others to invest in education, as a way to help shape the character of the Singaporean people. Nations are narratives, and national identity encompasses the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are. Reflecting on the history of a young nation renders the power and intentionality of building such narratives more visible and it makes the role of the builders of such narratives also more apparent. This visit to the Museum made me reflect not just on Lee Kuan Yew, but also on other members of the generation of ‘elders’ of the country, those who were adults when Singapore was founded and who led the institutions that were created to foster the country’s development. I thought of Sing Kong Lee, former Director of the NIE, a remarkable institution founded by Dr. Ruth Wong Hie King to support the continuous improvement of the education system, or Kishore Mahbubani, the founder of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and of others like them. It’s easy to see these leaders, in retrospect, as visionary, as people who had a clear blueprint of how things were going to turn up in the end from day one… reflecting on the exhibit celebrating the life of Lee Kuan Yew, however, I concluded that it was probably more accurate to see these elders as courageous risk takers, they might have been inspired by a vision that success in building the nation was possible, but more importantly they inspired others by their example, and by the courage they demonstrated when, at different times, made difficult choices because they realized they had to invent a path, where none existed.

It was that reflection on elders and founders, of their role in building a narrative for the country and its institutions and their courage to build a path, that framed my visit to Singapore on this second trip. This allowed me to see the education system not just as the high performing system that it is today, but more importantly as the result of a long process of continuous improvement, of determined and perseverant commitment to educating all children well, of humility in learning from experience and from others, and a continuous exercise in risk taking and in building and continuously expanding a narrative of the role the 360 schools in the nation, and the teachers, contribute to the broader narrative of what is Singapore today and where it is headed. The evolution of this narrative about Singapore’s education system illustrates continuous expanding aspirations, from the early days of educating for survival, to improving the basic performance of the education system, to focusing on higher cognitive skills, to more recently focus on a multidimensional view of human talent, that places values at the core, and that emphasizes knowledge, but also skill, citizenship, global and national, character and creativity. This was the narrative and the process that I tried to understand as I carried on with conversations with some of the elders, with colleagues and students, as I tried to look deep and think slow. How does a group of leaders, and those who follow them, build a narrative about education with the capacity to inspire a long term process of continuous improvement, and of expanding aspirations? How did Singapore build a good education system, as it built beautiful gardens?

My current interpretation, until I learn more, is that factors extrinsic to the education system, as well as intrinsic factors contributed to the construction of an education system committed to continuous improvement and to ongoing rising educational aspirations. Among the extrinsic factors are the responses to some of the challenges facing the nation in the early days, recent enough to still inspire many education leaders, the commitment to rule of law and administrative efficiency and the personal experiences of the elders, those who witnessed the birth of Singapore and played leadership roles developing its institutions. Factors intrinsic to the education sector include a growing appreciation of education as a profession based on expert knowledge, a growing awareness of the importance of talent development to face adaptive challenges and a progressive understanding of the role of scientific knowledge in supporting educational improvement.

The extrinsic forces

Some of the impetus for the vision was undoubtedly set in motion in the early days of the Republic, when Singapore was ousted from Malaysia. The uncertainty about political and economic survival served as background to a narrative of the importance of merit and hard work, so clearly supportive of an education system that is valued by all in the society. The pain of the race riots of the mid 1960s probably shaped some of the education policies to foster racial inclusion and tolerance, and those memories are likely at the root of some of the current emphasis of the curriculum on the development of cross-cultural competence and global citizenship.

Some of the support for the process of continuous educational improvement may have benefited from an overarching commitment to government administrative efficiency, honest
and rule of law. Institutions flourish when people know there are clear rules of the game, rewards to talent and effort and accountability, and the National Institute of Education flourished under those rules, attracting high caliber professionals who develop long term commitments to the institution and to the improvement of the profession.

The elder leaders I have met, I think of Sing Kong Lee, strike me also for their humility. They remember where the nation came from, and remember what life was like in earlier times. These memories give them an ability to place themselves in the shoes of people from many walks of life, to not take their current privileges for granted, to genuinely care about expanding opportunities for all. They don’t seem to have the malaise of the ego that afflicts some leaders of great accomplishment and influence in societies where stratification and privilege have been passed down over centuries, where leaders may confuse who they are with their privilege and position. In Singapore, the memories of the humble beginnings of the country, of the race riots, seem to make those who remember more down to earth, more grounded, less self-assured or arrogant. I do hope, for Singapore, that the grandchildren of these elders can keep this down to earthiness, this humility, that is so helpful to building a society where people genuinely care about the most disadvantaged and downtrodden.

The intrinsic factors

One of the most striking features of Singapore’s education system is how much it invests in the professional development of teachers, not only in initial education, but in their ongoing development throughout their careers. The clear existence of various professional pathways for teachers, and the many opportunities to help each education professional reach their highest potential, place Singapore in a class of its own. This is not the standard operating theory around the world of how schools improve. More popular are theories that poorly borrow from dated industrial management models that posit that what is measured is what is managed, and that the road to improvement is to measure some goals, and hold people accountable for the achievement of those results. Sometimes that theory is accompanied by opportunities for professional development, but not always.

Singapore’s inordinate commitment to lifelong professional development for teachers suggests that a different theory is at play, one that is based in an understanding of the need for deep expertise in order for professionals to face the many challenges they will encounter in the complex work of preparing the next generation for the future. This deep expertise forms the foundation of a profession, and it is the development and cultivation of this expert knowledge that is the mission of the National Institute of Education. As part of the continuous evolution of the goals Singaporeans place on their schools, there is a clear awareness that many of the challenges of the future are still unknown, which makes the task of preparing students to meet such challenges very much an adaptive leadership challenge, rather than a technical one. The leaders of the programs of teacher and principal preparation at the National Institute of Education operate out of sophisticated theories and approaches to prepare people for adaptive leadership. The way in which future school principals are taught scenario building and complexity theory, to then map backwards an educational improvement trajectory for a school where they have no formal authority, is a uniquely refined way to prepare school leaders for influence without authority, and to lead for relevance, rather than just for technical improvement. The way in which teachers are evaluated annually with an eye to help identify areas of professional growth, and to provide opportunities for development so that each educator advances in a career towards points of maximum effectiveness and impact, is particularly telling of an underlying philosophy that all educators matter and of a growth mindset in how their talent is cultivated.

A uniquely distinctive feature of Singapore’s continuous improvement is the virtuous relationship that exists among schools, the Ministry of Education, and the National Institute of Education. The NIE is a fascinating organization, housed in a research university -and thus accountable to the standards of excellence of research institutions–it is also expected to deliver value to the 360 schools in their efforts to improve. The academics of the NIE have to the dual accountability of demonstrating that they can generate scientific knowledge, but also that the knowledge they generate matters to practitioners in schools. This creates a healthy tension, one from which other schools of education around the world could learn, about the interdependent nature of research and professional preparation in building a high quality profession and education system and of building educational theories that matter. Some of the virtuous dynamics that are going on are probably facilitated by the very manageable scale of the nation -several of the faculty at the NIE boasted that they had taught many of the staff in each of the 360 schools in the nation!–and of the NIE, with a staff of about 1000, which facilitates communication and coherence. More importantly, these dynamics are facilitated by institutional cultures that have respect for the past, short as it is, that value those who came before and their efforts and that build on those. This is the notion of continuous improvement, so different from the efforts of episodic attempts to ‘re-invent’ the system, which characterize approaches to education reform in other latitudes, and where sharp discontinuities in education policy from one administration to another feed cynicism and reform fatigue among practitioners. Under the leadership of its current Director Oon Seng Tan, for instance, the NIE recently instituted a Professorship in the name of the Institutes founder Dr. Ruth Wong Hie King, a powerful symbolic way to convey to all members of the community the importance of acknowledging the contributions of the founders, the giants on whose shoulders they now stand. A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Wong Hie King, the daughter of poor Chinese immigrants to Singapore, is remembered for her character and compassion, and for her persistent focus on examining and re-examining the goals of education.

On the road to the airport, at the end of this visit, I was grateful for the opportunity to have enjoyed thinking more slowly, for this second chance to visit this fascinating place and for meeting old and new friends, all for the first time, for the fellowship and hospitality of NIE Director Oon Seng Tan and his colleagues, and for the inspiration drawn from learning what a small nation can accomplish as those who now succeed the founders stand on their shoulders to build the next set of institutional innovations to lead this small nation and her children in continuing to invent the future!