Our local students might have come out tops in the Pisa tests, but that’s actually bad news. It confirms that the Singapore workforce is seriously underperforming relative to its test scores.
Why is it that, despite our fantastic test scores, Singapore workers do badly in many areas, from English skills to employee engagement? Why is it that so many employers have the perception that a foreigner would be more creative and more productive than an equally-qualified Singaporean?
With the economy now in trouble, grooming Singaporeans to fill as-yet undefined knowledge-based jobs in the new economy will be crucial.
It will no longer be enough for Singaporeans to all pick safe jobs and plug away obediently doing the same thing until retirement, because fewer careers in future are going to be that straightforward. The problem is, we don’t know what jobs these will be, or how they will evolve.
Flexibility and the passion and patience to remain engaged at work and develop deep skillsets are going to be increasingly important for local employees to survive.
Interest and that dirty word, passion, are going to be increasingly important, as these are the only things that will can sustainably keep people motivated to continue learning, and to make sometimes radical changes, throughout their lives.
Our school system worked well for us in the days when Singaporeans could just follow a predictable path all the way to retirement without fear of retrenchment, and when everyone just took on the most prestigious tertiary course they could get into.
But now, judging by the number of complaints employers have of Singaporean employees, it’s no longer serving us well. Here are three educational shifts that can better prepare Singaporean younglings for the future economy.
More emphasis on the humanities
The Singapore education system has always been heavily focused on science and math. A discouraging 2013 report shed light on how fewer and fewer students are taking literature.
What’s more, students taking pure humanities often give up history at the end of Sec 2 so they can take geography, which is perceived as less memory-heavy.
Local schools also do not touch on other disciplines like psychology or philosophy, not even in an introductory manner, subjects which are offered at many high schools in the US, Australia, the UK and France.
As more students shy away from the humanities in favour of subjects they deem more “practical” or “easier to score in”, they’re robbing themselves of the chance to develop creativity (not the kind that can be gained from some creative thinking workshop), sensitivity and empathy.
Singaporeans often complain that the scholars and ministers who shape our policies are out of touch, lack empathy, are unable to come up with creative solutions to our current problems and just keep perpetuating the status quo. The qualities they lack are exactly those that are cultivated through studying the humanities.
Sure, there’s a lot of talk about how the future is in STEM careers. But not those who do not go into STEM, and even those who do, could be severely disadvantaged by poor communication skills and lack of nuanced thinking as a result of an education that focuses only on the sciences.
Organise initiatives sincerely targeted at helping children develop their academic interests
Many children in Singapore are so pragmatic they don’t seem to be children at all. I once asked a 16-year-old in the direct-to-A-level course at a reputable school what she wanted to do when she grew up. She replied confidently, Whatever will earn me the most money.
This is why we have a workforce that’s one of the world’s most disengaged, in which ¾ of workers think of their jobs only as ways to put food on the table.
Not only is that incredibly sad, it also does not bode well for the future economy. Engagement will be crucial to succeed in the face of uncertainty and a fast-changing employment landscape. You can’t just go through the motions anymore.
Schools need to start thinking of ways to genuinely engage kids so they’re able to make better higher education decisions later on in life, rather than just choosing by default based on grades. Right now, the vast majority of kids just memorise information in order to regurgitate it in exams.
Many O level and A level math and science students have very little knowledge of applied science. They have no idea how what they’re studying can be used in the real world, and why it’s meaningful or interesting. They’re just memorising a bunch of meaningless formulae and figuring out how to answer exam questions. A lot can be done to change this.
No surprise, then, that so many engineering grads have so little interest in actually becoming engineers, and that the NUS science faculty is filled with people who are there just because they couldn’t get into med school.
Mother tongue lessons are also a pain in the ass for many students, and who can blame them? Ethnic Chinese kids from English-speaking homes can go through 10 years of Chinese lessons without being able to speak the language fluently because they’ve never had to communicate with a real live person who’s fluent (regurgitating mo xie passages doesn’t count as communication). Schools could pair kids up with penpals or Skype buddies from a Chinese-medium school in Malaysia to fuel a desire to communicate in the language.
Clearly, teachers need to change their approach, from teaching students only how to pass exams, to trying to get them excited about a subject.
Scale down the syllabus and reduce emphasis on exams
It’s been said many times, but the crux of the matter is really that teachers and students are so squeezed that they have no time for anything else.
As it is, many students already resort to tuition because class time isn’t even sufficient for squeezing in everything that needs to be tested in the exams. Some teachers reportedly advise parents to hire private tutors for their kids because nothing more can be done for them at school.
The MOE needs to accept the fact that something’s got to give. To allow kids to enjoy an education that will serve them well not just in the O levels or A levels but also in the future economy, they may have to sacrifice some attainment in science and math, and their top Pisa scores.
Actually, given the fact that the Pisa test might soon be changed to include global skills and cultural awareness, it looks like Singaporeans are unlikely to bag the top spot once these changes are implemented.
More importantly, the OECD’s decision to shift Pisa’s focus from math and science to include a broader range of skills, some of which can’t be gained by testing kids to death, signals a change in what it means to be an educated person
By: Joanne Poh, 21 February 2017