If American Schools were to Emulate Singapore

It was a pleasure to join CoSN’s delegation of a dozen or so US education and technology leaders in Singapore recently. We spent a week visiting Singapore’s national K-12 education institutions and some local schools, engaging in dialogue with education and technology leaders, including some inspiring students. Personally, being an Australian, I appreciated the added dynamic of observing the meeting of American and Singaporean ‘edtech’ minds.

I arrived in Singapore wondering if there was a flip-side to the city nation’s outstanding PISA test record. Singapore’s education success is so renowned that Mathematics text book publishers market the country’s brand, though it was confirmed early in the trip that Singapore doesn’t do ‘Singapore Math’ any more than Australians drink Fosters! I wondered if a focus on test performance had a downside; were other aspects of a child’s education sacrificed to achieve the PISA goal? It became clear throughout the week that there was a degree of ‘the grass being greener on the other side’ when Americans and Singaporeans discussed what was most important to the education of children in the 21st Century: Singaporeans admired the success of US schools as communities that have contributed to the formation of such a creative and enterprising nation; whereas the Americans envied Singapore’s fabulous academic performance – something that was evident as we saw local school students in action.

A major take-away for US education policy-makers is that Singapore wants its students to produce more than just excellent test scores. There was a clear commitment from the top down to develop Singaporean students’ soft skills – the so-called 21st Century learner ‘C’ attributes of Creativity, Collaboration, Critical thinking, Curiosity and so on. Singapore has grappled with that challenge, and of course, so has the US – and Australia. Singapore sees technology as a tool to drive a shift to a focus on the ‘C’s’ so that students can achieve more ‘A’s’ in a wider set of domains, beyond PISA. So how are they making the shift?

Singapore has looked inside itself to draw on its strengths, but Singapore’s leaders are aware that some strengths can have a flip-side and for that reason Singapore also looks beyond itself for education and technology innovation and best practice. The scale of Singapore’s global quest for excellence is arguably more substantial, organised and deliberate than the US and touches all levels of Singapore’s education system. The American delegation was astounded by how many Singaporean school and agency leaders are regularly sent out to experience innovation abroad and report back findings. Singapore’s global exploration is programmed at system and local levels and is funded. By way of example, as a small number of large US education systems begin to look into Silicon Valley big data solutions, Singapore’s InfoComm Development Authority (IDA) – the Singapore Government’s ‘edtech’ R&D incubator and more – is already supporting Singapore Ministry of Education and local schools in an investigation of more advanced analytics solutions developed in Norway that look at a wider set of learner patterns – patterns more reflective of a focus on the ‘C’s’. I wondered whether US Government policy-makers are exploring K-12 analytics pilots that target a broader set of learning patterns? Are US Government leaders ready to establish an ‘edtech’ incubator, like the IDA, that draws upon innovation from places like Norway who also have outstanding education outcomes?

But what of Singapore drawing from its own strengths? Historical, cultural and geo-political factors have contributed to Singapore’s character as a well-planned, efficient, clean, mercantile, orderly and disciplined State. Singapore has exploited these strengths in the edtech realm and we can learn from that as too. The other CoSN delegation posts below speak to Singapore’s success in many areas. The nation’s co-ordination, or alignment, of key education and technology institutions is powerful. The Ministry of Education, National Institute of Education (NIE), where Singapore’s teachers are trained, and the IDA all pull together under the long term Master Plan framework – a framework that describes what learning across Singapore’s 360 or so schools should look like, then models, tests and deploys the technology (and teaching skills) that support that learning vision.

Here is a collection of significant quotes from the week in Singapore.  Kudos to CoSN in making the considerable commitment to look beyond to Singapore to learn and share, and to take back a challenge to the US education policy community.

Also, we had the opportunity to hear some edtech industry perspectives in Singapore. Here is a multi-media narrative that follows our session with Microsoft Education Singapore.

My thanks to CoSN and the wonderful US delegation members, and to the couple of Australian delegates who joined for a time. The trip initiated many friendships and much professional dialogue. Thanks also to the Singapore education and technology leaders who extended warm hospitality and were generous in showing us their wonderful schools and institutions, honestly sharing their challenges, successes and aspirations.

Random Thoughts from Singapore

Here are a few key points

Topic #1  Everywhere we go here in Singapore we hear about research and development as an important step in the ICT process.

Our visits in Singapore include the following places  IDA– Infocomm Development Authority, MOE–Ministry of Education, NIE–National Institute of Education, teleconference with Hong Kong and an inspiring visit to the SAS–Singapore American School and public primary and secondary schools

Primary students working together.

Primary students working together.

….over and over we hear “take time to research what others are doing, develop what will work for your educational organization and then implement.” Many of those we talk to have done visits to schools and conferences in other countries and have an international perspective that is seldom seen in the US.

Topic #2  Infrastructure is a process—not a one time deal.

Singapore has a tremendous fiber infrastructure not only to the schools, but also to homes, to a point that when asked few people even think about the infrastructure–it is “just there.”  The wireless connectivity in the schools is in every classroom and available for all.  Yet, even in Singapore, we hear that Infrastructure is an on-going process and that it has to keep pace with needs of the schools and changes available in technology.  Maintaining the investment in infrastructure to deliver the access for students seems to be a key point in the master plan and is quietly done centrally allowing educators to focus on students and the educational process.

Topic #3 Items for my Christmas List–Adding a Drone Pen,

My daughter has asked for a USB rocket launcher for the past few years on her Christmas list, and we always have treated it as light humor.  Now I am rethinking the request.  As I have learned this week —Drone manipulation is not an easy task and requires some practice. Seems that setting up a Drone Pen with netting on all sides and top is a great way to contain the drone and gain the skill without terrorizing the office or neighborhood.  We saw a Drone Pen at IDA in Singapore that students can come to, learn about drones and hone their skills.  This is just one of the opportunities that students have –from Culinary Arts to 3-D design, the integration of technology is a part of the education process.

Building a Smart Country-Teacher Preparation in Singapore

Singapore’s public education system is viewed as one of the best in the world based on its students’ continued high performance on the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) PISA test (Program for International Student Assessment). The CoSN delegation’s visit to the National Institute of Education (NIE) provided a chance for us to learn the strategy Singapore has used to push its student achievement close to the #1 spot on the international test. The NIE is charged with selecting candidates and providing preparation and ongoing support to the country’s teaching force to ensure that teacher quality is the highest possible.

Step one in this development approach is a rigorous process for selecting candidates for the teacher preparation program. Potential teachers must have scored in the top tier of the British style tests administered to secondary school students and are then subject to extensive interviews with the admissions committee to ascertain their aptitude for working with young people and their ability to demonstrate the Singapore Teacher Identity and Values of character and citizenship; professional practice and inquiry; group endeavor in service learning; and confronting biases and challenging assumptions. The NIE reports that only one in ten applicants is selected for the preparation program.

The NIE prepares teachers for work with students in grades one through twelve; pre-K and Kindergarten teachers are prepared in a two year program at the technical colleges. Key success factors of the NIE’s teacher education programs include a strong partnership model among NIE, the Singapore Ministry of Education, and the local schools. This close relationship ensures that all stakeholders understand and share the same mission and vision of developing thinking teachers. The partnership’s goals are for teacher graduates to be-

  • Creators of knowledge; not merely consumers
  • Facilitators of learning; not merely transmitters
  • Architects of learning environments; not merely implementers
  • Shaper of characters; not merely participants, and
  • Leaders of educational change; not merely followersOne of the challenges in meeting these ambitious goals is the Asian culture that values respect for elders; discipline in approach to learning; and a reluctance of students to challenge authority or question information given. In an attempt to provide strategies for encouraging more student-teacher interaction, the NIE has created classroom spaces that encourage collaborative exchanges with bright colors, round tables and moveable furniture to modify spaces to accommodate a variety of activities.To support ongoing professional development every school has a full time staff development professional and continued emphasis on leadership development that emphasizes change management. Naturally, the use of technology for teaching and learning factors into leadership development and change management and is an integral part of the teacher preparation programs and staff support. While the scale of the public education enterprise in Singapore is much smaller than public schooling in the United States, we can still learn a great deal from the impressive approach to teacher preparation and ongoing support in our own educator workforce development efforts.

Great People–New Ideas

Seeing that leadership, alignment, a committed community, and resources are critical to any successful ICT initiative.  All are important and necessary to be successful.

More to follow…

The great folks on this trip make it extra special!

IDA – The “Transformer” for Education in Singapore

LimAs the Deputy Director of the Education Sector for Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) in Singapore, Adrian Lim, believes that alignment is what makes Singapore tick. In his opinion, alignment – from local schools, policies, and the fact that ALL teachers are trained at the National Institute of Education (NIE) are the reason for this unparalled educational success and national reputation. Because Singapore is a small country, they do this more easily. Interestingly, they are concerned that they must carefully monitor the alignment so they do not inhibit creativity! Lim commented that if you focus on testing, then you sacrifice creativity…no doubt.

A key component of IDA are their labs. Essentially, the IDA labs are the aggregation point between tech industry talent, and government to innovate and experiment. They have two locations and provide equipment for tinkering and experimenting. Student groups often visit.

Singapore has progressed, in no small part, due to extensive work and implementation of master plans for technology. The country is now working on their fourth master plan. As part of this planning process, they have developed several future schools that serve as models and a catalyst for improvement. An astonishing point was made that the U.S. Common Core has created critical mass for everyone. This has allowed all companies to innovate and provide the country access to aligned materials. This national plan allows all companies to work towards that common goal.

All teachers are trained in all programs to support student and receive initial training and certification from ONE institution – the National Institute of Education (NIE). The NIE is critically important and supported by the Singapore Ministry of Education. They are THE national teacher training institute in Singapore. The staff and faculty at NIE are extremely proud, highly skilled and view their work as an integral part of the educational service.

The Singapore education system has been referred to as being one of the most successful educational systems in the world. This is not surprising to me due to the sound educational policies and research in the shaping of curriculum and management practices for schools. More importantly, I would suggest it is based on the passion and perseverance of more than 33,000 committed and dedicated teachers in force and their committed and aligned leadership. NIE has a massive commitment to the vision of being an institute of distinction and a mission of creating a world-class institute renowned for its excellence in teacher education and educational research.

In schools, the Ministry of Education provides basic internet access. It appears, this connectivity is not provided by a massively robust infrastructure and growth will be needed to provide the amount of broadband needed for full access to a variety of digital content. If schools need more internet access schools raise money to fund increased access. Schools are still struggling deciding on 1-1 implementations. A positive point is that about 15% of homes in Singapore get assistance with buying a computer and getting home internet access.

The master Singapore educational concept is alignment and is a striking concept. This small country has the opportunity and ability to scale their work and initiatives and focus in ways that are impossible for our country. However, the ability for a state to learn from Singapore and then methodologies employed by IDA are quite possible. As with all educational initiatives, all of the forces must be aligned. Political will to accomplish and manage the change required to truly align the work of all agencies focused on improving educational outcomes is significant.

“If you want people to be a smart nation…you first have to have them be smart citizens.”
Adrian Lim – Deputy Director of the Education Sector for IDA in Singapore

Smart Nation Infographic(1)

A Visit to IDA: Tech Businesses & Schools Collaborate

Stepping through the front door of Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) – http://www.ida.gov.sg/ – you get the sense of women and men on a mission. The first area we saw as we entered IDA Labs’ new Mapletree Business City location was a drone lab. Netting drops down from the ceiling to create an enclosed area for the scientists and technicians to test the drones they have designed and created.

IDA is a great model of collaboration between Singapore’s business and tech communities and the Singapore school system, through a strong partnership with Singapore’s Ministry of Education. The mission of IDA is to develop information technology and telecommunications within Singapore to serve citizens of all ages and companies of all sizes. The facility serves as a creative lab for start-ups and at the same time functions as a learning lab for students. As our group moved from the drone lab area we came upon a fabrication lab. The Fab Lab gives students access to technologies that may not be affordable in many school settings. 3-D printers provide the opportunity to design and produce multiple products, some of which were on display. In addition to giving students the tools to design and engineer prototypes and models, IDA is now also putting a priority on teaching students how to code.

Adrian Lim, Deputy Director Education Sector for IDA, welcomed the CoSN senior delegation to the IDA conference room. Adrian presented an in depth review of the history, practice and processes used by the staff, partners and school guests to leverage the opportunities IDA provides to build and support technology innovation for Singapore. At the core of the work IDA does with schools is the notion of not simply teaching technology, but using technology to learn target goals across multiple curriculum areas. IDA’s plan includes a three pronged approach: FutureSchools@Singapore; Experimentation@Schools; Infocomm@All Schools.

IDA reaches out to students by inviting them to come to the IDA facilities. In order to bring the labs to schools when students are not able to come to the IDA location, IDA recently launched the IDA Lab on Wheels, a traveling bus that houses engaging and experiential technology. The Lab on Wheels will visit schools across the island. This notion of bringing professional science and technology tools to schools is one that is beginning to be utilized in the US as well as Singapore. Klein ISD near Houston, Texas recently launch a similar mobile lab in the form of that district’s STEAM EXPRESS. (http://www.kleinisd.net/default.aspx?name=cisteam.home)

The IDA staff took the CoSN group on a tour of their new facility. Their hospitality and pride in their work was genuine and appreciated.

 

Looking Outside of our System

Having been to Singapore several times, one of the thing I am always impressed with is how the education system is both outward looking and how it constantly rotates leaders from the building level to the Ministry of Education level, as well as to the teacher college.

By outward looking I mean that nearly everyone you meet in a leadership position in Singapore education seem to constantly be looking at other education systems around the world.  With pride they know about the latest things happening in the U.S. or Europe or other places in Asia.  An expectation of principals is that every few years a principal is expected to go outside of Singapore to see other global education institutions as part of their professional development.  As one leader at IDA told me yesterday, we love going to the U.S. to see really innovative practices and solutions, and then them come back and replicate and perhaps even fabricate it, perhaps in partnership with China if it involves new devices or solutions.

And, I am also struck by how there is a regular rotation of leaders in the system so that even senior persons at the Ministry of Education (similar to our central office of a large school district), and those at the NIE university for teacher education, rotate back to leadership positions in schools every few years.  That ensures a seamless quality to how education is viewed and a common vision.  For example, the head of ICT in education at the Ministry of Education who developed the last Master Plan for ICT is now back as a principal.  Likewise, we met with the team at the Ministry who are developing the new Master Plan and nearly everyone had been working in schools within the last few years.  That breeds trust by educators that those developing policy actually know what happens at the building and school level.

In my experience, in Singapore there is none of the finger pointing that I hear in many U.S. education systems (e.g. – I often hear in US school systems that “our central office doesn’t get it”, or “our state department of education is keeping us from doing what we want” or “the feds don’t understand how education really works”).

I suppose you may be thinking, sure, this is possible in a small and affluent country, but that isn’t possible in U.S. school districts.

Yet, I wonder if innovative U.S. superintendents might be able to encourage some job swapping and site visits to other school districts…both in the U.S. and outside.  I know that time and support for travel is very limited.  But, sometimes we need to see things from the outside to get a fresh perspective of what is possible in our own organization.  I think a lesson from Singapore is that if we want continuous improvement, we need to allow time to see different systems and open our minds.