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.

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)