Posted by: Principal/Editor | March 17, 2016

Reflections on Inquiry Learning and High-Stakes Testing

Why inquiry learning?

Students and colleagues have asked me this question on quite a number of occasions. My response has always been the same: After enumerating the dangers of standardised tests and how teachers and students end up teaching and learning disparate facts and not knowledge, I usually conclude my piece by saying my predictable refrain — that inquiry methods promote authentic learning. University classes for the year 2016 have commenced once again and I am pretty sure that students (and even some colleagues) would be asking me the same question: Why inquiry learning?

The roots of inquiry learning can be traced to Jerome Bruner’s critique of American curriculum reforms that began sprouting in the 1960s. During that time, Bruner noted a trend that saw increasing use of extrinsic rewards in teaching. He provided evidence from empirical studies conducted during his time that pointed toward the need to re-think the extrinsic rewards approach. Instead, what he proposed was the need to nurture among students the art of discovery:

“Our aim as teachers is to give our student as firm a grasp of a subject as we can, and to make him as autonomous and self-propelled a thinker as we can –one who will go along on his own after formal learning has ended.” [1]

Inquiry learning in an era of high-stakes testing

It can be convincingly argued that 21st century education has increasingly become a high-stakes testing environment.  This trend can be seen unmistakeably in Australia. Particularly with the introduction of standardised tests referred to as the National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy or NAPLAN.[2] It has also become much more prominent in America, more specifically in its public education system. [3] Notwithstanding this global trend, there are dissenting voices that have spoken out about the ills of standardisation and have proposed ways to counteract this.  Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned academic/philosopher is one of the leading authorities who have spoken out against this trend:



Sir Ken Robinson’s succinct presentation critiques the increasing incidence of a disproportionate adherence towards testing and standardised assessments in education typified by the “No Child Left Behind” policy in the United States of America. His proposal to counteract the high-stakes testing trend resonates with the ideals of inquiry learning. He identifies what he believes are three approaches that promote the flourishing of the human mind: diversity, curiosity and creativity.

From a scholarly perspective, the points enumerated by Sir Ken Robinson are supported by empirical evidence and theoretical assertions. Banks et al. in an analysis of effective educational practices within multicultural contexts have identified that recognition of diversity is a positive contributor to teaching and learning. [4] Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, acknowledged authorities of Self-Directed Theory and Motivation, have explicitly identified curiosity as an essential element for the learning development of an autonomous and self-directed child. [5]  In an influential paper written by Pasi Sahlberg analysing the efficacy of the Finnish education system, he stated how creativity is fostered and nurtured in the nation’s schools.

Initial Reflections on High-Stakes Testing and Inquiry Learning

In a 2015 article that critiqued the high-performing Singapore education system which also maintains a strict high-stakes testing regime, Gopinathan and I underscored the fact that in such contexts what happens is that “students value education merely as an instrumental tool while experiencing disconnection between so-called 21st century educational outcomes and fostering civic beliefs and practices.”[6]  An overriding question that arises then is this: Can inquiry learning function alongside high-stakes testing regimes?

A look at the most updated version of the Australian Curriculum provides some interesting points for reflection. The 2014 New South Wales, Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) Course Descriptions and Syllabus for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) which prepares upper secondary students for Australia’s most prominent high-stakes tests,  the Higher School Certificate, only mentions “inquiry or inquiry learning” four times in the 38 page document. This is in stark contrast to the earlier version known as the 2001 Studies in Society Syllabus which mentions “inquiry or inquiry learning” 19 times in the 17 page document.

In an Australian context as represented by the latest iteration of the Australian Curriculum in the area of social sciences, are we seeing the creeping prominence of high-stakes testing that will eventually displace inquiry modes of learning? A look at the BOSTES, “responsible for school curriculum, assessment, and teaching and regulatory standards in NSW schools,” [7] reveals their core mandate which is “advancing student achievement is at the heart of everything we do.”[8] Questions worth reflecting upon as one analyses the role of BOSTES and the Australian Curriculum is this: What does BOSTES mean by “advancing student achievement”? Is this achievement measured by HSC or NAPLAN results? Or is this achievement related to Bruner’s notion of fostering the act of discovery to enable students to become “autonomous and self-propelled thinkers”? Do schools and teachers in NSW and in Australia, as a whole, arrived at unanimously-agreed definition of what student achievement means?


[1] Bruner, J. (1961). “The Act of Discovery.” Harvard Educational Review 31(1): 21-32.

[2] Klenowski, V. and C. Wyatt-Smith (2012). “The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story.” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy& Practice 19(1): 65-79.

[3] Au, W. (2011). “Teaching under the new Taylorism: high-stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43(1): 25-45.

[4] Banks, J., P. Cookson, G. Gay, L. Hawley and J. Jordan (2001). “Diversity within Unity: Essential Principles for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society.” Phi Delta Kappan 83(3): 196-198.

[5] Deci, E. and R. Ryan (1984). Curiosity and self-directed learning. Current Topics in Early Childhood Education. L. Katz. Norwood, NJ, Ablex Publishing Corporation. 4: 71-86.

[6] Reyes, V. and S. Gopinathan (2015). “A Critique of Knowledge-Based Economies: A Case Study of Singapore Education Stakeholders.” International Journal of Educational Reform 24(2): 136-159.

[7] Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW. (2016). “About BOSTES.”   Retrieved 16 March, 2016, from

[8] Ibid.


Globalisation is an example of a highly-elusive concept. Various schools of thought define it in very different ways: The World Bank defines it from an economic perspective as “the growing interdependence of countries resulting from their increased economic integration via trade, foreign investment, foreign aid, and international migration of people and ideas.”[1] Dale and Robertson broaden the definition, using the lens of sociology claiming that it “represents a complex, overlapping set of forces, operating differently at different levels.”[2] Hay goes a step further claiming that globalisation is much more than a process but can actually be seen as a political undertaking typified by a “tendency to which counter-tendencies may be mobilised.” [3] Faizal Rizivi, a scholar of globalisation in education captures the prevailing difficulties of defining this concept:

This lack of agreement is partly due to the fact that globalization is a highly contested concept employed to embrace a whole range of academic and popular discourses. It is a concept that is used to describe almost any and evey aspect of contemporary life, from the complex contours of contemporary capitalism, to the declining power of the nation-state system, the rise of trnasnational organizations and corporations, the emergence of a global culture challenging local traditions, and the information and communications revolution enabling rapid circulation of ideas, money and people.”[4]

The ubiquitous nature of globalisation in modern day curriculum

Notwithstanding the clearly contested nature of globalisation, the concept itself has an ubiquitous characteristic in the curriculum of education, at least in the context of two countries namely, Australia and Singapore. An inspection of the Australian “Human Society and Its Environment Life Skills (Stage 6),” which is also referred to as the HSIE syllabus encompassing discipline areas from Aboriginal Studies, Business, History, Geography and Religion reveals the mention of “global” and “globalisation” in the document for a total of 52 times.[5] Scrutinising the Singaporean “Secondary Social Studies – Normal (Technical) Syllabus” built around what is described as 21st century competencies in social studies explicitly uses “global” and “globalisation” in the document for a total of 24 times.[6] A careful examination of both these documents do not reveal any explicit attempt to problematise, yet alone critique the highly-contested concept of globalisation.

Interestingly enough, the notions of “critique,” “critical” and “inquiry-learning” are used quite extensively in both documents. The Australian HSIE Syllabus specifically mentions “critical” only once and “inquiry” a total of seven times. While the Singaporean social science syllabus identifies “critical” 29 times and “inquiry” 81 times in the document. Can it be argued that the curriculum of humanities and social sciences, represented in this example by the Australian HSIE and the Singaporean Social Science syllabus suffers a defect? On the one hand, these two curriculum examples espouse critical thinking and inquiry learning. And on the other hand, both documents appropriate the concept of globalisation without critically questioning it and subjecting it to inquiry learning.

Problematising the concept of globalisation

The act of problematisation comes in several forms. Perhaps the most prevalent approach to problematisation emanates from philosophers and historians as they critique identity and existence. Foucault defines it as the “questioning by the philosopher of this present to which he belongs and in relation to which he has to situate himself”[7] as a way to negotiate identity and existence. Deleuze in his critical reflections of Henri Bergson defines “construction of problems”[8] as a fundamental step in man’s theoretical and practical sensing of his history. One may argue that in the Foucauldian and Deleuzian sense, problematisation can be described as a key mechanism in which reality – not as a purely abstract concept, but as something relevant to problems — is negotiated.

In the field of economics and international trade where globalisation is the current buzzword, different individuals and groups have questioned – problematised – globalisation. One example of this is Prof Herman Daly, from the School of Public Policy University of Maryland and more significantly a former senior economist in the environment department of the World Bank:

Problematisation – a fundamental practice in social sciences

The goal is to help restore social science to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying the problems, risks, and possibilities we face as humans and societies, and at contributing to social and political praxis.[9]

Flyvbjerg in his intriguing book “Making Social Sciences Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again” posits that the classical position of social science is “a practical, intellectual activity” designed to address predicaments experienced by “humans and societies.” One way in which social science can regain its classical position could be to re-visit one of its core tenets: “reflexive analysis of goals, values and interests”[10] among peoples and societies. This note argues that a key step in reflexive analysis is problematisation.

Problematisation as is employed here views the present reality of an unquestioned acceptance of “globalisation” in education curricula from a critical perspective. In particular, this note adopts the perspective of Paolo Freire who sees that in order for authentic liberating education to occur, there is a need to “confront reality critically.”[11]

Are we confronting reality critically when faced with the concept of “globalisation” in the social science curriculum documents of Australia and Singapore? Do you agree that globalisation needs to be problematised? If social sciences identifies reflexive learning, critical thinking and inquiry learning as key tools, why does it seem that the concept of “globalisation is often reified”[12] and thus remain void of any real meaning?


[1] Tatyana. Soubbotina, Beyond Economic Growth: An Introduction to Sustainable Development, Wbi Learning Resources Series (Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 2004), 83.

[2] Roger. Dale and Susan. Robertson, “The Varying Effects of Regional Organizations as Subjects of Globalization of Education,” Comparative Education Review 46, no. 1 (2002): 11.

[3] Colin. Hay, “Globalisation as a Problem of Political Analysis: Restoring Agents to a ‘Process without a Subject’ and Politics to a Logic of Economic Compulsion,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 15, no. 3 (2002): 389.

[4] Fazal. Rizvi, “Postcolonialsim and Globalization in Education,” Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies 7, no. 3 (2007): 256.

[5] NSW. Board of Studies, “Human Society and Its Environment Life Skills-Stage 6 Syllabus,” (Sydney, Australia: Board of Studies, NSW.,, 2010).

[6] Curriculum Planning and Development Division., “Secondary Social Studies – Normal (Technical) Syllabus,” (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 2014).

[7] Michel. Foucalt, “The Art of Telling the Truth,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture, ed. Lawrence. Kritzman(London: Routledge, 1988), 88.

[8] Gilles. Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans., Hugh. Tomlinson and Barbara. Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 16.

[9] Bent. Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 4.

[10] Ibid., 53.

[11] Paolo. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans., Myra Bergman. Ramos, Merltoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 52.

[12] Rizvi, “Postcolonialsim and Globalization in Education.”p. 257

How is civics and citizenship education taught in different contexts? This piece attempts to answer this question in three parts. The first part touches briefly on the 1999 seminal work of Judith Torney-Putra and her colleagues in which they attempted to map the global situation of civics and civics education. The second part shifts to the year 2010 in which Wolfram Schulz and his team continue the global mapping of the state of civics and citizenship education. The third and final part compares how civics and citizenship education is taught in two very different contexts: Singapore, a city-state where a highly-centralised exam meritocracy prevails and Australia, a vast island continent in which education is decentralised to its states and territories resulting in great variation in terms of the way education is implemented and in its outcomes.

Seminal work on Civics and Citizenship Education: the IEA Comparative Study

In 1999, the landmark study of Torney-Putra et al. identified the state of affairs of Civics and Citizenship education. Supported by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Torney-Putra et al. undertook a comprehensive and comparative study of how 14 year olds from 24 different nations viewed civics and citizenship education. Among the many findings from that seminal work, two points that have a direct impact on schooling are worth mentioning.

The first point refers to the unfortunate but very real issue of “low-status” afforded to subjects related to civic education:

Civic education is a low-status subject and curricular aim in most of these countries. Civic goals are thought of as important, but much less critical than goals in subject areas such as science, for example. For very few students is any civics-related subject part of an important exit or entrance examination.[1]

The other point reveals the hesitancy on the part of teachers to address the more meaningful issues in civics and citizenship education. This second point is also concerned with ways in which civic education can best be taught:

Teachers in many countries are concerned about tackling topics that may be objected to by members of the community, find it difficult to implement changes in pedagogy and are uncertain about their own adequacy when several disciplines are connected in a teaching program. Perhaps civics has to adopt more team teaching.[2]

Today as we march on towards the 21st century, it may be worthwhile to ask whether these two issues raised by Torney-Putra et al. in 1999 are still relevant? Is civic education still seen as a low-status subject? Do teachers still experience hesitancy in addressing the more controversial and more often meaningful issues in civic education?

Revisiting the IEA Civics Comparative Study

Schulz et al. completed another major research undertaking in 2010, and in the process re-visiting the 1999 IEA Civics Comparative Study. Reflecting on the two earlier points raised in the 1999 IEA Study and how these same issues appear a decade later reveals some interesting insights. One of the more interesting findings from the 2010 study, is related to how teachers seem to have progressed in the way that they view how to teach civics and citizenship education:

 Most teachers regarded the development of knowledge and skills as the most important aim of civic and citizenship education. For teachers, this development included “promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions,” “developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution,” “promoting knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities,” and “promoting students’ critical and independent thinking.” [3]

From the hesitancy experienced by teachers in the 1999 survey, the 2010 study sees today’s generation of teachers affirming that the most important aim of civics and citizenship education is the “development of knowledge and skills.” Do these findings resonate with our contemporary experiences in relation to how civic and citizenship education is taught today? Would it be safe to say that the hesitancy of the 1990s among teachers to teach controversial topics is a thing of the past? What about the seeming preoccupation of present-day teachers who view that civic and citizenship education is primarily the development of knowledge and skills? Is there a place for beliefs, dispositions, and actual practices as part of civics and citizenship education?

In relation to the low-status afforded to civics and citizenship education reported in the 1999 research project, the 2010 study reveals a different look in relation to how this subject is seen within the curriculum.

 Civic and citizenship education in the curriculum furthermore includes a wide range of topics. It encompasses knowledge and understanding of political institutions and concepts, such as human rights, as well as newer topics that cover social and community cohesion, diversity, the environment, communications, and global society.[4]

Civics and citizenship education seem to have gained prominence in today’s educational curriculum. The resurgence of civic education is reinforced by scholars who have cited empirical evidence hinting that greater exposure to educational experiences translate to increased notions of civicness[5] and that civic education contributes to the creation of citizens with enhanced dispositions towards learning.[6]

Given the importance of civics and citizenship education – How is the component of Values Education taught in different contexts?

Two contrasting countries that share some striking similarities will be used as the starting points to try to address this question. Australia, a huge land mass of diverse states and territories with a decentralised and highly-varied education system is compared with Singapore, referred to as the little red dot,[7] typified by a highly-centralised education system. Although very different in terms of its location and topography, both nations share a colonial British history. In terms of educational achievements of its students measured  by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), both nations share very similar results:[8]

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 4.23.03 pm

How is civics and citizenship education taught in Australia? More specifically, if one zeroes in on the idea of values education, how is this taught in Australian schools? This Australian video, provides a succinct explanation as to how this subject is taught in a vast multicultural country:

As can be gleaned from the video, teaching civics and citizenship education in Australia is built upon the foundations of inquiry learning. There is a quality of critical reflection in the way it is taught and for individual students – civics and citizenship education are seen to be powerful ways to help students and learners clarify what their personal values are. Do these ideas resonate with what you, as a beginning teacher, envision as your role in teaching components of civics and citizenship education? Do you see yourself as a teacher who would be able to facilitate your students’ need to clarify their personal values?

How is civics and civic education taught in Singapore? To be more specific, how is values education imparted in Singapore schools? This short video provides a glimpse of how values education is taught within the domain of civics and citizenship education in Singapore:

One can argue that Singapore-style of values education is somehow different from how it is taught in Australian schools. Instead of focusing on inquiry learning, it would seem that for Singapore schools, values inculcation, is the initial starting point or foundation of its civics and citizenship education. Do you believe that values inculcation is the pivotal starting point for civics and citizenship education? If you were given a choice, would you adopt the Australian approach that builds on inquiry learning? Or would you adopt the Singaporean-style of values inculcation?


[1] Torney-Putra, Judith., Schwilled, John., & Amadeo, Jo-Ann. (1999). Civic Education across Countries: Twenty-four ational Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project. The Hague, Netherlands: IEA Secretariat., p. 32

[2] Ibid., p. 34

[3] Schulz, Wolfram., Ainley, John., Fraillon, Julian., Kerr, David., & Losito, Bruno. (2010). Initial Findings from the IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).,p.11

[4] Schulz, Wolfram., Ainley, John., Fraillon, Julian., Kerr, David., & Losito, Bruno. (2010). Initial Findings from the IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).,p.31

[5] Dee, Thomas. (2004). Are there civic returns to education? Journal of Public Economics, 88(9-10), 1697-1720.

[6] Seddon, Terri. (2004). Remaking Civic Formation: towards a learning citizen. London Review of Education, 2(3), 171-186.

[7] This phrase is a disparaging remark that can be attributed to former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie who referred to Singapore as a “little red dot” in an interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal on the 4th of Aug 1998. For more information, see Henrikkson, Lars. (2013). Singapore: This ‘little red dot’ has a big plan. MoneyWeek, pp. 1-6. Retrieved from

[8] The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2014). Education GPD: The Word of Education at Your Fingertips- Analyse by Country.   Retrieved 18 March, 2015, from


Posted by: Principal/Editor | March 10, 2015

Is there a place for humanities in the 21st century digital age?

In the intriguing volume written by Beetham and Sharpe,[1] both have argued that in the 21st century digital age where “employability and economic recovery become key goals” of the educational endeavour, “some subject areas, for example STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)” will receive greater prominence and “a higher level of public subsidy” which effectively relegates “humanities and social sciences the preserve of those who can afford an education for education’s sake.”[2] It appears that in an increasingly technologically-driven society, the importance of humanities to what is understood as a holistic type of education is dissipating.

The points made by Beetham and Sharpe are echoed by the most recent and ominous developments in the “scaling back” of grants and investments to humanities and social sciences occurring in the federal funding regimes and philanthropic initiatives in the United States of America. [3] Research, particularly in the field of humanities and social sciences, has historically been the source of bold, fresh and new perspectives of viewing society and mankind. James Coleman’s path-breaking social science research in the 1960s led to the recognition of issues related to equality of educational opportunities. Gary Becker and James Mincer’s 1970s work on social science issues related to industry and manpower development led to what is now known as human capital theory. There is no doubt that current educational theories and practices trace their provenance to the works of Coleman, Becker and Mincer to name a few.

But why is it that research in social sciences and humanities itself seem to be increasingly under siege?

Politicians from America who seem to be hell-bent on displacing humanities by “abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be,”[4] and even those from Australia who have vowed to cut back on what it refers to as “increasingly ridiculous”[5] funding grants manifest the sustained attack on the social sciences. One can argue that the pervasive influence of neoliberalism on education that effectively reduces the value of learning to an economic factor of production[6] is to blame.

But is it possible to conceive of situations where 21st century digital learning approaches are used to complement teaching and learning humanities education?

In the land-scarce and tiny city-state of Singapore, perennially plagued with limited opportunities to teach humanities in outdoor environments – their knack for innovation may have led them to look for a possible way in which humanities can be integrated into technological learning. Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has spearheaded the use of technology in the humanities through the use of smartphone applications. This innovative approach can be seen in this link:

This interesting approach to the integration of technology with humanities education could very well be one of the types of scenarios that may increasingly typify 21st century pedagogy. Could such a scenario be one of the ways that can resolve current problems that humanities and social sciences subjects face in an increasingly technology-rich 21st century digital age?

[1] Beetham, Helen., & Sharpe, Rhona. (Eds.). (2007). Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing for 21st century learning. New York: Routledge.

[2] Ibid., p. 265.

[3] Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. (2013). The Heart of the Matter (pp. 1-92). Cambridge, Mass: American Academy of Arts & Sciences., p. 39

[4] Ibid., p. 10

[5] Hall, Ashley. (2013, 05 Sept). Coalition plans to cut research ‘waste’. The World Today. Retrieved from

[6] Tan, Charlene., & Reyes, Vicente. (2014). Neo-liberal Education Policy in China: Issues and Challenges in Curriculum Reform. In Shibao. Guo & Yan. Guo (Eds.), Spotlight on China: Changes in Education Under China’s Market Economy (pp. 3-18). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Posted by: Principal/Editor | September 8, 2014

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) & Critical Reasoning

New Horizon-Ng&Tan

Tan & Crawford-Theory of Knowledge

Tan-Crtitical Reasoning 2014

Tan-Reflective Thinking 2014

PCS-Tan Sep2015

Posted by: Principal/Editor | November 7, 2013

Empowered Education Systems – Finland and South Korea

What can other countries learn from the top two education systems in the world?

Finland and South Korea are two very distinct countries – in terms of demography, culture and economics but they share the same limelight when it comes to their education systems because of their continuous dominance as the best school systems in the world.

They both consistently top the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams (run by OECD – Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which evaluates students worldwide on their Reading, Math and Science abilities. Both countries feel that education is THE instrument to steer their country towards economic growth and development, and they have both overhauled their schools to an equal-opportunity system promising to educate every child regardless of their social, economic or cultural status.

This article aims to critically examine both these education systems from the point of view of their similarities and differences in order to document best practices that could work for other countries.

Similarities in funding, role of teachers and parent & community participation

Active government role in funding: As per the Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB), funding responsibilities in Finland are divided between the federal and municipal governments with the federal government assuming about 57% of the financial burden of schools and municipal authorities assuming the remaining 43%. There are very few private schools and those that exist are granted the same government funds as public schools and are required to use the same admissions standards and provide the same services as public schools [1].In South Korea school funding is very centralized, with local school systems deriving 80% of their revenue from the central Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) budget. The local systems are also funded to a much smaller degree through revenue transferred from local governing bodies, internal assets, locally issued bonds, school admission fees and tuition[2].

Focus on role of teachers: Teachers play a very important role in the success of the education system. In Finland teachers are selected from the top ten percent of university graduates and are given an opportunity to earn a master’s degree in education before they can teach and compete, as the competition for these spots is fierce. Out of 6,600 applicants, only 600 were admitted to the program in 2010 [3]. The teachers are given the autonomy to prepare their own curriculum, which includes art and music as well, and are empowered to make the right choice for their students. The scene in South Korea is also very competitive. Only 5% of hopefuls are accepted into the elementary school teacher-training program[4]. Teachers enjoy high social status, are paid very well and have great job security. This is one of the reasons why this profession is most revered in both the countries.

Parent and community participation: In Finland, parents are expected to take an active interest in their child’s performance, and teachers are held accountable to community standards and values. The level of participation of parents can range from dropping their children to school (Finnish schools do not normally have a school bus system) to volunteering at school events to sitting on the school board (each school’s board requires the participation of five parents)[5]. Like Finland, South Korea also welcomes and values the participation of the parents in their child’s education. There is a parent group, which the parents can access to liaise between parents and school. MEST has unveiled initiatives to expand parents’ role in their child’s education. These initiatives ranges from school monitoring programs, in which parents can get a clear sense of what is happening in their child’s school, to parents’ training programs and support centers.

The above three similarities between Finland and South Korea point towards a potential list of three pre-requisites that every school system must put in place in order to elevate its stature at a global level – (i) Centralized and well governed funding mechanism, (ii) Focus on quality teachers and (iii) Active community and parent participation.

But then the question arises, do these prerequisites mean that they will work in every environment, in every country for every system. To examine this, let’s look at the things that make Finland and South Korea different

Differences in funding, role of teachers and parent and community participation

Study time: The students in South Korea invest lot of their time studying both inside and outside the classroom. They are in the school from 9am to 5pm and then attend additional classes in the night. Additionally they are also given lot of homework. The only breaks Korean kids get is the 10 minutes they have to shuffle between classes[6]. In Finland, the students spend only an average of 5 hours in school. Additionally, children get a 75minute recess per day to play. They have very little or no homework, which gives the child enough time to be with family, friends and also spend time on other activities that the child is interested in[7]

Academic pressure: The students, parents and teachers are all equally under pressure to get good grades. For the South Koreans they perceive education as an important instrument to secure their future. Everything from their social status to their marriage prospects to their job depends on education. Parents spend all their savings in educating their children and this puts immense pressure on the children to get good grades. In Finland it’s a relatively easier view as the students and teachers care more about learning than grades[8]. The teachers prepare their children for life and not just to get good grades.

Testing: The students in South Korea are subjected to massive, high pressured standardized test to secure a place at each level of education be it primary secondary or college[9]. Unlike South Korea, Finland has only one standardized test in their academic career at the age of 16. They are more oriented towards learning and understanding than towards marking and evaluating. The students are evaluated through the course and a positive feedback is given to the students to promote learning.

Use of Technology: South Korea is a world leader in integrating technology in the classrooms. They topped PISA’s digital literacy test in 2009. Every school in South Korea has access to high-speed Internet. They also have digital textbooks to make learning materials more accessible, especially to lower income students. The MEST has also created a Cyber Home Learning System, an online program designed to help students with their after-school learning[10]. In Finland, students spend majority of their time in the “real” world. They often take their studies out of the classroom and into the outdoors. Technology adoption is growing but is not considered a pre-requisite for good quality education [11].

The above examples indicate marked differences in values and implementation between the two countries – and yet they have similarly successful education systems. It can hence be inferred that if the foundation for education is established properly with appropriate funding, empowerment of teachers and involvement of parents, success can be achieved in diverse societies.

What else can other countries learn from these two powerful education systems?

Having researched various sources for this article and conversed with a few friends from these countries, this is how I summarize my key takeaways about what other school systems can adopt:

•Respect teachers for their service to the community and the youths of the country at large by rewarding them with incentives to choose teaching as a profession.

•Give teachers the training and the autonomy to do the best for the child.

•Reconsider standardized testing and adopt continual assessment through positive feedback.

•Promote equal and standard education for all children irrespective of their social and economic background.

•Encourage children to take part in extra curricula activities in school and relieve them of the intense pressure subjected on them through standardized tests, additional tutoring and home works.

•Integrate technology in the classroom to promote e –learning but keep a good blend of real world learning.

•Government to paly an active role in funding the schools through subsidized programs to provide quality education for all.

The above are some peripheral takeaways, but my key argument is the need for three key pillars in establishing a sound education system – (i) appropriate funding, (ii) empowered teachers and (iii) involved parents.


[1] Center on International Education Benchmarking. “Finland system and school organization.” Available from (accessed November 5, 2009).

[2] Center on International Education Benchmarking. “South Korea system and school organization.” Available from (accesses November 5, 2009)

[3] Dalporto, Deva. “Finland’s A+ schools.” Available from (accesses November 5, 2009)

[4] Dalporto, Deva. “South Korea’s school success.” Available from (accesses November 5, 2009)

[5] Ibid, “Finland system and school organization.”

[6] Dalporto, “South Korea’s school success.”

[7] Dalporto, “Finland’s A+ schools.”

[8] Dalporto, “Finland’s A+ schools.”

[9] Dalporto, “South Korea’s school success.”

[10] Dalporto, “South Korea’s school success.”

[11] Dalporto, “Finland’s A+ schools.”

Posted by Sindhya


CCAs are an integral part of our students’ holistic, well-rounded education. They help nurture in students qualities such as resilience, tenacity, confidence and perseverance, which prepare them to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
MOE mandates that every secondary school student must have a CCA. Each student will be graded on a Leadership, Enrichment, Achievement, Participation and Service or a LEAPS system for 4-5 years Through CCA, students will be meaningfully occupied after school and they can learn new skills, knowledge and values out of their daily academic lessons.


Teachers are given tasks to handle a CCA for them to develop their students with the 21st century competencies. Other than the administrative requirements, they shoulder the responsibility of the safety and, learning of students as well as arriving at achievements relevant to the CCA. A high performing CCA may receive more funds for use in their programmes or for use in employing coaches. CCA is given on top of a teacher’s regular teaching loads. Teachers take turn to be present at their CCA sessions.

Latest Development

In 2012, the Singapore Minister of Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat announced at the Annual Workplan Seminar the removal of the highest tiered award, the School Excellence Award (SEA), and the lowest tiered Achievement Awards (AA), and Sustained Achievement Awards (SAA). This symbolises that schools should not merely chase for achievements. Instead the focus should be providing students with student-centric, values-driven education, operating under the philosophy that every school is a good school.


1) Why Compulsory?

Students have vast talents and interests and schools cannot offer everything. As such sometimes the school is unable to offer the CCAs that the students are passionate in. This results in students skipping their CCA thus leading to teachers having to chase for attendance. Some students opt to participate in external club training. However such activities will not be recognized unless it’s at a national level. Students are still required to participate in a school organized CCA. This greatly impacts on students’ pursuit of excellence and taxing them out to the maximum and affecting their enthusiasm to participate.

If students are viewed as young adults who should be able to manage themselves, the system should have faith that students would pursue their own interests after school. It could be in the form of external club training, enrichment classes or volunteering their time in various civic activities.

Recommendation: CCAs should be made available to students who wish to participate in it and not forced to. Teachers should sign up for what they are passionate in instead of being assigned to handle CCAs.. This will then create more buy-in and the respective CCAs may be developed to greater heights.

2) Are we really preparing them for the rapidly changing world?

Students are currently very Information Technology (IT) savvy yet our current CCA programmes have not moved to that level. We are still expecting the students to be passionate in drills, repeated training or practices. Have we forgotten to take into consideration what the world is like out there? Currently CCAs are spilt into Uniformed Groups, Performing Arts, Clubs & Societies and Sports and Games. We may explain that repeated drills or training help to establish resilience and perseverance. But the anecdotal feel on the ground is this policy is “forcing” the young ones to be like those young once just like how the current school system is still like. Rules like four hours of training, twice or thrice a week will just limit the creativity and flexibility of CCAs. It is time to relook at how CCAs are done and keep up to the demands of the world.
Recommendation: CCAs should go through an annual review to determine the relevance to the rapidly changing world outside. MOE Headquarters (MOE HQ) need to give more autonomy to the schools to come up with more interesting and relevant CCAs to better meet the aims of student centric and values- driven education.

3) Accountability?

CCA Teachers are held accountable for the attendance of the students. Expectations are set during meeting with their Reporting Officer. Statements like your CCA should aim to qualify for National Champions can still be heard on the ground. CCAs should be focusing on positive student experience and developing 21st centuries competencies. CCA teachers should channel their attention and effort in designing appropriate curriculum to deliver these outcomes instead of spending the time to call up students who are absent. Definitely, the extent of CCA truancy may differ from school to school. However, MOE HQ is the crucial factor in determining the direction schools are taking.

Recommendation: Student s should be held responsible for their attendance in CCA. In the event students wilfully absent themselves, it would then affect their own CCA grade. Teachers should do the due diligence in partnering with the parents. However, truancy should not be a measure for CCA teachers’ performance and brought up during the annual ranking exercise for teachers. Instead CCA teachers should be assessed on how their CCAs manage to accomplish student centric and values driven goals.

4) Why only Secondary School?

Parents have questioned why CCAs in secondary school are compulsory while they are not in Primary or Tertiary Education. Even though it is important to keep the secondary students engaged in school and away from the streets, secondary school should not be treated as an after school care provider. Some parents do not see the need for their children to be in any CCAs as they have designed their own after school curriculum for their children. This may be in the form of different enrichment courses or spending time with their children to inculcate values. Many have raised concerns that their children spend too much time in school and they do not get to spend time with their children.

Recommendation: There should be a conversation done among the key policy actors who are MOE, schools, teachers, students, parents and partners. This could be done in the format of the current Singapore Conversation. (To know more about the Singapore Conversation, visit Focus groups should revisit this compulsory CCA policy and determine the need to enforce it on secondary school students.


In conclusion, there is a need to revisit this policy just like how academic syllabus changes every five years. It is insufficient to merely change the system on how CCA points are counted. CCAs should be student centric and values-driven with the aim of providing a ballast in order to accomplish the lofty goal of Every School, A Good School.


Ministry of Education. Retrieved from

Posted by Jia Sian

Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 29, 2013

Impact of changes in key Education policies on Community organisations

In the past one year or so, we have observed the introduction of several new and revised education policies. Policies such as every school is a good school, applied and lifelong programmes in every secondary school, normal stream students can take subjects at express streams, integrated online learning spaces, holistic development programmes, expanded Direct School Admission (DSA) criteria for Secondary One admission, new Ministry of Education (MOE) Kindergarten framework, MOE run kindergartens (KGs) and most recently MOE’s stand that tuition is not necessary and the review of policy allowing teachers to give private tuition, just to name a few. National Institute of Education has also announced that it will undertake three research studies to study the impact of tuition.

These policies will also not only affect the direct stakeholders – the students, school leaders and teachers, but also parents, community partners and private education industry just to name a few. In particular, these shifts in policies or implementation of new policies will certainly have an impact on the programmes run by Community organisations, in particular the Self Help Groups (SHGs).

SHGs and community organisations run academic programmes that are targeted at underperforming students typically from low or middle income families. These programmes are highly subsidized. Three policies introduced by MOE recently will impact programmes run by SHGs and community organisations.

The first is the introduction of MOE run KGs and the new Kindergarten Framework. This is indeed great news for Community organisations whose main objectives are to help the lower income families and underperforming students. With the allocation of places for low income students in the MOE run KGs, our low income students will get a strong head start in Preschool Education. Standardizing the Kindergarten framework will also mean students attending any KG will get the right preschool education and have the necessary foundations before embarking on a Primary school education. There are many children who are already disadvantaged when they enter Primary One currently. With a strong and quality preschool education, in years to come there will be lesser students channelled to the Learning Support Programme (LSP), Learning Support Maths (LSM) and Foundation stream.

The second key policy change that will have an impact on Community organisations will be the expansion of LSP and LSM programme to Primary Six and programmes for low progress learners. Again, MOE taking the lead to help these students building strong foundations for Literacy and Numeracy is welcomed by the SHGs. With MOE and schools introducing more programmes and strengthening its focus on this cohort of pupils, again there will be an impact on the current programmes run by Community organisations.

The third change that will impact Community organisations is the review of the policy of allowing teachers to give tuition up to six hours. If the policy is revised and now does not allow teachers to give tuition, then the tuition industry will be severely affected. The community tuition programmes will also suffer. Our programmes depend on qualified current teachers to help the students who are already not doing well and require all the necessary support. Community organisations will also end up having to spend more in terms of training and resources if they are to place non trained tutors into their programme. One can argue that community tuition programmes are not necessary if the schools are able to support the low progress learners. However, there are advantages to having community-run programmes; the small class size, the use of different techniques, the different class environment, and the pastoral support from teachers are unique elements of the programmes run by community organisations which makes them so successful.

Community organisations have to make sense of these policies and to understand how it can complement these policies. Community programmes will have to be modified or discontinued to complement the new policies. Community organisations’ roles could also change. e.g. with places allocated for low income families in MOE run KGs, community organisations should engage the community actively to ensure low income families are aware of this scheme and enrol their children in these KGs. While the community organisations review its programmes, there are new areas of focus for the community organisations that are emerging as a result of the changes and new policies introduced. Instead of running its programmes, community organisations can spend their resources on engaging parents and increasing the awareness of the changes in the policies and especially how parents can play their role and take advantages of the various schemes and programmes rolled out for their children. Very often we come across parents who are not aware of the many subsidies and schemes available to them. Community organisations can also play a role in advocating for groups of families that may fall through the cracks or identify a gap that needs to be looked into.

In today’s context, Education is so interconnected with so many stakeholders and so many differing expectations that it is important to obtain the views from every stakeholder and to assess the impact to the policy. There are many avenues to gather inputs, feedback and alternative suggestions; e.g from our Singapore conversation, focus group discussions, popular social media platforms, surveys etc. It is heartening to see the review of the education policies was also due to the various feedback and inputs MOE has received in the past few years.

All these new policies announced in the past few years have implications to how students learn, how students are assessed, how teachers teach and to how school leaders provide the leadership. Thus the communication of the policies and measuring the impact of the policies are critical. There are also challenges in ensuring that policies are understood in the same manner by all. What will be interesting is to see how these policies will be measured to understand its impact and how the corrective actions will be incorporated. Stakeholders must also be patient to see the policies through. The policies will only be successful if all stakeholders; parents school leaders, teachers, community organizations understand the objective of the policies, the role they can play, and the constant communication if the policies are producing the desired outcomes.

Posted by Rosan

Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 28, 2013

Policy. Policy. Policy. Where am I now? Where are you leading me to?

Policies are developed in alignment with the organisation’s vision. Assuming all policies strive towards achievement of vision and are well thought-through, then success will be the logical series of outcomes. In the context of the Ministry of Education’s vision of ‘Thinking School, Learning Nation’ (TSLN), the policies implemented with attendant approaches are commendable but lacks clarity on the progression of students’ thinking abilities and how these abilities would be honed or sustained for future benefits to the nation.

A visible framework of policies or approaches would be ideal to enable teachers, students and parents to appreciate the big picture on honing thinking abilities which concomitantly also helps them trace or at least infer the expectations at different stages of the education journey of young people. For the purposes of discussion, I will employ the strategic framework of Ends-Ways-Means that is commonly used for analysis of centre of gravity (Lykke Jr. 1998). The analysis will also cross examine the different actors’ perspectives ranging from policy makers, teachers, students and parents. The framework will be constructed with what we know of the Ends-Ways-Means of the vision.

Assuming that the policy implemented is aligned to the vision, we will examine the problem by addressing the three questions on what is the end or desired outcome of the policy; what are the ways or ‘actions’, ‘methods’, or ‘process’ to achieve the policy; and what are the means or resources to achieve the policy. Lykke mentioned that “The ways of a strategy are the essential determinants of a critical capability, and the means that possess that critical capability constitute the centre of gravity. In other words, the ways determine the critical capability, which identifies the centre of gravity.” For this discussion, the critical capabilities refer to the approaches to cultivate student’s thinking abilities and the centre of gravity refers to the desired thinking abilities of students.

Policy background

Under ambit of National strategy, former Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong introduced Thinking School Learning Nation (TSLN) as a vision in 1997 which adopted a pragmatist method of education (Ng and Tan, 2006). In 2004, former Acting Minister for Education Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam cited that Innovation and Entreprise (IE) is a ‘strategic part of TSLN.’ IE sets up to ‘nurture mental traits’ in a ‘robust spirit of inquiry,’ ‘willingness to take untried paths,’ and ‘certain ruggedness of character.’ The emphasis to cultivate creative thinkers in schools was recently reiterated by Ms. Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Law and Ministry of Education in 2013 with yet a new vision of “Our Vision for Critical & Inventive Thinking: Every Student, A Thinking Student” (Indranee, 2013). The espoused belief is that “all students can develop good thinking;” “good thinking should be deliberately developed within the context of subject disciplines and the total curriculum;” and “schools and classroom culture must consistently support and develop students’ thinking.”

Definition of problems

The policy outcome or end is clear, which is to engender a thinking student. Several descriptors on thinking were offered like ‘inquiry,’ ‘critical thinking,’ ‘creative thinking’ or ‘inventive thinking.’ While each type of thinking skill would require specific pedagogy, it remains unclear whether the policy calls for development of one, few or all thinking skills and to what level of thinking abilities for primary and secondary school students. Also, it is unclear on what constitutes ‘good’ thinking.

While schools are accorded with autonomy to run programmes that cultivate thinking, the lack of upfront clarity on the type or types of thinking skills would create downstream problems in interpretation and implementation of policy intent by schools and respective teachers. Next, developing ‘good thinking’ skill could also connote a form of grading like ‘fair’ or ‘satisfactory’ thinking which might inadvertently stir up competition among schools or within school by students and consequently limit the learning space required to practice critical and inventive thinking.

Finally, the vision seemed to have changed from ‘Thinking School Learning Nation’ to ‘Our Vision for Critical & Inventive Thinking: Every Student, A Thinking Student.’ Certainly, the validity of current policies is in question, not to mention whether the change in vision was clearly communicated to all. The vision seems to shift focus towards student-centric learning rather than nation-centric driven by the economy. Perhaps, the latest vision is just another policy statement to augment the vision of TSLN. These uncertainties culminate to the lack of clarity on the desired end state which will have an impact on the “ways of the strategy” or the critical capabilities to strengthen the thinking abilities of students. The broad intent is obviously understood by policy makers, and the approaches might seem possible for teachers. However, given the sheer number of students and of different thinking abilities, the clarity of intent and approach might be less obvious to them and their parents.

Policy options and detailed implications

The ways and means towards the vision are numerous but leave much room for improvement. To address thinking abilities, there are numerous existing approaches. For students, there is the implementation of Creative Problem Solving (CPS) skills in lessons to elicit different thinking tracks like divergent, convergent and diagnostic. Teachers are also involved in the ‘Teacher Work Attachment Programme’ (TWAP) with schools or industries (both local and overseas) to widen exposure to the external environment and in return, to share or implement best practices. For schools, there is the Innovation Adoption Platform (IAP) that “provides support for schools to adopt projects from across clusters and zones, and a way for schools with innovative projects to coach and help other schools adopt their innovations” (Heng 2012). The means or resources to support Innovation and Enterprise are through the allocation of the ‘Coyote Fund.’ These are examples of the critical capabilities that Lykke mentioned, and are commendable progressive steps driven by the policy makers towards the vision and ‘systematically’ cultivate thinking abilities.

However, it remains unclear on progressive next steps in students’ thinking abilities and how these abilities would be honed or sustained for future benefits to the nation or at least to the student. Concurrently, we could only assume that teachers who have attended TWAP have the necessary traits to inculcate and motivate the students’ thinking abilities. Next, the existing curriculum has ‘Thinking Questions’ for assessment which certainly runs contrary to promoting students’ thinking abilities. Furthermore, the closest measurement of success is through the School Excellence Model (SEM) which is understood to look at collective school performance rather than the individual student. It remains to be seen on how we could possibly assess a student’s thinking abilities over a period of time.

To this end, it is proposed that a comprehensive framework of Ends-Ways-Means in students’ thinking abilities be developed to allow anyone to appreciate the policy expectations and planned thinking development of students. The framework is adapted from Clark T and Stanley B. (2008) on ‘Applying Ends, Ways, & Means to the Spectrum of Conflict.’ The framework is primarily concerned with painting an overview of the projected progression in students’ thinking abilities in various environments and not a scaffold of proposed learning outcomes and objectives of developing students’ thinking abilities.

To ensure sustainability of thinking abilities, student’s behaviour would have to be shaped through a culture of ‘lifelong thinking.’ On top of ‘systematic’ ways, policy makers could also explore ‘unconventional’ ways through activities that stimulate thinking like embedding regular sports activities and deliberate sleep or nap time prior to thinking development classes. There are already numerous researches that supported such hypothesis which is also testament to Google’s approach to encourage innovation in staff through creating a safe and conducive environment to innovate. Study also showed that ‘people in messy environment scored higher in creativity exercise’ (Vohs K. D. 2013). The fast changing environment like new media, economy and socio-cultural aspects have forced us to be adaptive with respect to creative thinking. Increasing curriculum time to develop thinking abilities with augmentation of unconventional modalities is necessary. Clearly, the environment plays a critical catalyst.

Next, students could also be exposed to other questioning techniques like Socratic questioning to promote higher order thinking skills. They should be motivated to spend time identifying the problem question than immediate solutioning which is the conventional wisdom. Students are not alone in learning. Teachers likewise should embrace such ‘unconventional’ ways and help students connect the dots in their thinking and learning. This could only be possible if all policy actors are conversant on the framework and internalise thinking as a culture and consequently sustain thinking abilities. The Ends-Ways-Means framework on progression of students’ thinking abilities is best summarised in Figure 1.

Ends Ways Means

Policy recommendations and justifications

The frequent emphasis by our national leaders to cultivate students’ thinking abilities is aligned to the vision. However, to sustain such abilities, there must be a comprehensive and clear framework that enables all actors to ‘sense make’ the Ends-Ways-Means towards the centre of gravity which is the desired thinking abilities for all students. The framework will enable actors to know where they are and where will they be heading in the future. In addition, critical and inventive thinking must not be seen as an academic pursuit or enhancement of schools’ performance banding, but embraced as a culture of ‘lifelong thinking’ where the learning space and environment are safe and ‘unconventionally’ conducive. The real assessment to all students’ thinking abilities is when every action begins with critical questioning and reasoning before launching into inventive thinking on the solution. These approaches must be extended to all student and even teachers, and not limited to selected few. Having all the above in place, will we generate a future generation of not just Thinking Students but Thinking Citizens for the benefit of Nation Building.


Arthur F. Lykke Jr., ed., (1998). Military Strategy: Theory and Application. Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1998.

Clark T and Stanley B, (2008). Applying Ends, Ways, & Means to the Spectrum of Conflict. Small Wars Journal LLC.

Heng, S.K. (2012). Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at MOE ExCEL Fest 2012 Awards Ceremony, at the Suntec Convention Centre, on Friday, 30 Mar 2012: pp. 3.

Indranee, R. (2013). Speech by Ms. Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Law and Ministry of Education, at The Opening Ceremony of The Fifth Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference at The National Institute of Education Sports Hall, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 3 June 2013.

Ng, P.T., Tan Charlene (2006). From School to Economy: Innovation and Enterprise in Singapore. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, Volume 11(3), article 5.

Vohs K. D. (2013). To innovate, work in a mess. The Straits Times Asia Report. 21 September 2013.

Posted by Soh Fong Jin

A decades-old policy that allows school teachers to teach tuition for no more than six hours a week has recently come under scrutiny, and become a hot topic for debate even in the parliament. As in most debates, there are often two sides of arguments: for and against the policy. I shall examine the reasons put forth on both sides and recommend an alternative solution: to tweak the policy to allow school teachers to teach tuition as a means to promote public good.

One position that has emerged strongly from the debate is that such a policy ought to be totally scrapped. Critics say this is an obsolete policy that is clearly at odds with MOE’s recent assertion that the education system in Singapore is not dependent on tuition. Rather than having teachers give tuition to students after school-hours, it is argued that MOE should invest even more in teachers to teach students better during school-hours. Simply said, if students need tuition after school to cope with their studies, shouldn’t school teachers take the extra time and effort to provide the tuition to students in school instead of leaving them to seek help from private tutors? Such a view suggests that the policy may actually help to breed demand for private tuition and even corrode the professional integrity of teachers. Therefore, allowing public school teachers to give private tuition is tantamount to a slap on MOE’s own face with regard to their stand that the educational success of students must not be dependent on tuition. Adding to this criticism, others have also raised practical concerns about teachers giving private tuition such as a potential conflict of interest, possible leakage of school teaching resources and distraction to teachers’ professional responsibility in school. Taking also into account that school teachers in Singapore are presumably overly-burdened with work in a demanding education system, and do not need supplemental income to make a decent living, it seems that doing away with the policy will have little ramifications to teachers but could send a strong signal that the Ministry only wants “committed teachers.”

But not everyone agrees with scrapping the policy totally. One objection is that stopping teachers from giving tuition completely may lead to an exodus of competent teachers to the private sector if teachers are forced to choose between teaching in public or private schools. Not only will the public and private sectors be affected, even the non-profit organizations such as community self-help groups like Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), Mendaki and Sinda that are providing tuition schemes for students will not be spared if the policy is removed. The reason is these organizations rely on many existing school teachers who are well-versed in the school curriculum to help students in need. Even within the schools, the views towards the issue are mixed. Principals and HODs are likely to explain the impossibility of policing teachers’ activities in their private time even if the policy is changed to disallow teachers to teach private tuition. They may also tell you that there are already existing MOE guidelines in place to guide teachers and address the concerns such as conflict of interest that was raised earlier. These guidelines stipulate that teachers are not allowed to: (1) give paid tuition to students from their schools or (2) work for tuition centres; (3) let any work affect or conflict with their responsibilities in school; (4) use resources and materials obtained in the course of their duties; but they are allowed (5) to volunteer for part-time teaching in community self-help groups. Teachers, who are giving tuition part-time, agree that the supplemental income may be attractive, but disagree that that they are solely driven by the monetary incentive. Many new teachers are part-time tutors before becoming teachers, and therefore they feel morally responsible to continue giving tuition to their students even after they have become school teachers. While there may be teachers who are attracted by the additional income from tuition, there are those who are giving tuition part-time out of a genuine wish to help students. Therefore, some have cautioned MOE not to take a drastic step to disallow teachers to give private tuition, but rather the recommendation is to allow teachers to exercise their professional judgment within the present guidelines, or come out with more effective measures to monitor and keep the situation in check.

Drawing from the above arguments on both sides, there are three options to consider:

(1) Disallow teachers to give private tuition completely.
(2) Allow teachers to make their own professional judgment within present guidelines.
(3) Limit teachers to give private tuition to non-profit organizations.

Underlying the three options are competing values that each option seeks to promote or protect: “equity,” “autonomy” and “social justice.” Equity refers to the societal value of ensuring equal educational opportunities for students. Concerned with the widening income gap that affords children from better-off families with an unfair head start in schools through tuition, prohibiting school teachers to give private tuition is deemed as the right thing to do. Autonomy, which means empowerment of teachers to make and take responsibility for their decisions, is a cornerstone of teachers’ professionalism. For example, doctors in public hospitals have the autonomy to work part-time as stand-in for doctors in private clinics. Also, accolades are given to doctors who do pro brono work in welfare organizations or take time from work to contribute their expertise in medical expeditions. The question is whether the same autonomy could be given to teachers without adding to the concerns over widening the disparity of learning opportunities. Promoting social justice through education is another important societal value that we seek. Education is an important avenue for social mobility of children in poor families, which is why community self-help groups have invested a lot of their resources in tuition schemes and school teachers are engaged to support as tutors for the children from needy families. Each of the option focuses on promoting or protecting one particular value, which is of consequence and no less important than the other. This presents difficulty in choosing one option over another.

Fortunately, these values namely equity of learning opportunity, teachers’ autonomy and social justice are not incompatible. That is to say, it may be possible to coordinate these competing values. Rather than choosing anyone of these three options over the other, I propose an alternative solution: tweak the policy to encourage teachers to teach tuition as a means to promote societal good.

To explain my proposed change to the policy, there is first a need to clarify what is “tuition,” a central concept in this policy which is surprisingly not discussed in the debate. Generally speaking, “tuition” refers to “instruction provided to an individual or a small group of individuals”, and it also refers to the “payment for instruction.” When the two meanings are taken together, tuition may be simply casted as education provided for a fee. But the word “tuition” originates from an old French word “tuicion,” which simply means “looking over.” This is the meaning of tuition that I seek to adopt. The usage of the word “tuition” should not be exclusive to only private tutors or private tuition centers. In schools, the learning support programs and remedial lessons that teachers provide for weaker students are in essence tuition given by schools to take care of weaker students who do not cope well in regular classes. In community self-help groups, trained teachers and experienced tutors are employed part-time to provide tuition to children from needy families who may otherwise not able to afford quality private tuition. Even for private tuition centers and tutors, the successful ones are not those who are solely driven by profits but those who can generate positive words-of- mouth among parents for the quality of their tuition. My point is tuition should be taken as a means to provide educational support to individuals or small groups of students.
Indeed, children from low-income families are not the only ones that need educational support in the form of tuition. Children with special needs who need individualized support for studies may also benefit from one-to-one tuition afforded by a school teacher who provides part-time tuition at home. This will help to ease the anxiety of parents of children with special needs who often have to make the difficult choice between enrolling their children in a special needs school or in a mainstream school. Tuition can also be a form of help to children from single-parent families or dysfunctional families where parents struggle to provide adequate family support at home. That is to say, tuition can be provided by school teachers as a means to promote public good in their private time by giving educational support to the disadvantaged ones in the society.

Therefore, I propose the current MOE guidelines can be revised into the following rules to promote teachers giving tuition as a means to promote public good:

(1) School teachers may provide tuition to children from needy families, disadvantaged families and those with special needs, including those from the same school strictly on pro bono basis.
(2) School teachers may volunteer for part-time teaching in community self-help groups and other non-profit organizations
(3) School teachers may use resources and materials obtained in the course of their duties solely for pro bono work.
(4) School teachers are allowed to do pro bono work in their private time outside school hours within the current six hours per week rule.
(5) School teachers may receive compensation for their service at stipulated rates determined by community self-help groups and non-profit associations.
(6) School teachers are not allowed to charge tuition fees to parents or be employed by another tuition center.
(7) School teachers must not let any work affect or conflict with their responsibilities in school.

For teachers who are currently giving paid tuition, they should be given ample time to make a decision to go full-time private tutor or stay as a full-time school teacher to avoid any conflict of interest and minimize disruption to the students they are helping. School teachers who are willing to do pro bono work should provide information to the Admin Office in schools. MOE may consider encouraging teachers to provide such service by providing a monthly gratuity allowance to cover their extra expenses. School leaders may also be supportive by commending teachers who identify students in need and go the extra mile for children. Parents who need such tuition support from school teachers may contact schools, MOE or non-profit associations for referrals, or engage a private tutor at their own expense from tuition centers. I believe this amendment to the current policy will also help to elevate the social standing of teachers even further, and help brandish the professional image of good teachers doing good for the public.

Posted by William W.K. Tan

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