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


  1. Policy is a principle or protocol to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. Policy is related to procedures and is useful for people to follow during their daily operations. However, policy is made by people doesn’t mean it cannot be changed. We have to review policy and identify the area for improvement.

    In this article, the author mentioned many times of ‘thinking’, ‘unconventional’ and ‘life-long learning’. In my interpretation, it is all related to ‘creativity’. Imagine a standardized methodology to be used by teachers to teach primary students, will students’ creativity be killed? The answer most likely to be ‘yes’. That’s why teaching method, course materials need to be customised and updated according to students’ levels, characteristics, and industry trend.

    I do agree with the author that unconventional learning activities will help develop students’ thinking skills. Hence, more engaging way of teacher would be advocated.

  2. I agree that there should be a visible framework to tie in all the educational policies and initiatives introduced and implemented in the recent years, so that they are not perceived as piece-meal and schools can have a coherent approach to respond to the changes. However, my idea is that the framework should be broad enough to incorporate even recent initiatives such as values education and applied learning. To me, all these initiatives and policies are pointing to the same broad direction of achieving the Desired Outcomes of Education (DOE) but a simple framework will definitely help schools, teachers, students and parents to appreciate and make more sense of this holistic national movement.

    The vision of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nations” to me, is still very relevant as it encompasses all the types of student-focused thinking and learning as mentioned by the author and many more for example ethical thinking and the learning of values. To me, however, thinking schools is not just about thinking students, but also thinking teachers and leaders which lead to a whole nation of learners, for we have to be equipped with the mind-set to think, reflect, change and learn all the time so as to meet the fast-changing demands, needs and challenges of this 21st century.

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