Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 2, 2012

Good Teachers and the Zero-Sum Game

Cai He Middle School is an urban school in Hangzhou city, China, with a niche or sorts in Science education and in having a quality staff enrolment. It is a renowned school in Hangzhou as evidenced by the escalated property prices in its vicinity. When the Principal was asked how the school became successful in its fairly short (approximately) fifteen-year history, he recounted how Cai He chose to (1) focus intensely on making one particular domain excellent first – Science education in this case – before moving on to improve other aspects of school life, and (2) recruiting only the best teachers to their fraternity. True enough, those policies in the school’s infancy stages still ring true today. Not only is the school’s science program still their niche, many of their teachers have won accolades in teaching excellence – the latter a fact especially highlighted in the school’s corporate video shown to us in our school visit.

At this stage in my leadership development, I am convinced that having a strong teaching team is a key determinant of school success. I say this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they have the most direct impact on students for they are at the execution interface of all education policies large and small. Having a good team who can understand well the rationale for implementation and implement policy with efficacy and congruence is a tremendous asset to the system. This is an important concern for school leaders. Secondly, good teachers make good classroom teaching happen. Though good teaching could by definition be classified under the policy umbrella previously mentioned, it is where students benefit most directly, regularly and frequently. Having good teachers is an important concern for students. Thirdly, having good teachers is an alluring selling point of a school to prospective parents. A quality teaching force ranks high on a parent’s criteria in selecting a school for their child. Schools which possess teachers who have won teaching awards and/or have excellent academic credentials get higher demand and hence harvest first crop. Having good teachers is an important concern for parents. It makes good sense that Cai He’s HR policy translated into superior school outcomes.

Perhaps, then, I should do the same if and when I am Principal? I do not think so, not entirely at least. For one, recruiting good teachers generally implies that they we are removing them from some other school within the same education system. If this is indeed the case, then we stand to gain nothing as a system with this zero-sum game. What point, then, is there to this apart from fulfilling one’s self-centred goal of improving his own school? This is much like the wrong perception some educators have of wanting to improve their school’s student intake (i.e. taking better students from the PSLE or from the O-levels) year on year, so that their school will be a ‘top school’ over time – leaving the lower-performing students to some other schools – another zero-sum exercise for sure. On the one hand, I empathise with Principals who simply want to improve their school’s outcomes, but I cannot further extend my sympathy when the policy decision is parochial and is at the expense of others in the same education ecosystem. We must as co-dependents in the system be most mindful of anything that does not produce overall benefit in the wider scheme of things.

That being said, it has also crossed my mind that we are now operating in a (semi)decentralized education system in Singapore. Much like how dog-eat-dog capitalism triumphed over centrally-organized communism in the spheres of economics and governance, perhaps schools need to be more like corporate organizations which at all times aim to take the biggest bite out of the economic pie. After all, the free economy proved to bring about more benefit to human society; free schools, then, could perhaps do much more than schools which choose to look out for one another, but they in actual fact paradoxically chain one another down to slower progress. Could I be wrong in thinking that we should always keep an eye out for the greater good, and also wrong in narrowing myself to thinking that it is the only path to long-term systemic educational success? I wish I had the answer to this, but I believe that the answer is neither within my reach nor within anybody else’s in our current day and age. But as time reveals the answer as all nations progress chart their own paths in history, I will function as an individual who will do my part and care for the greater good in my own small little ways.

Posted by  Jaron Pow

Posted by: Principal/Editor | April 27, 2012

“Tsunami’ in Special Education

I have spent 22 years in the special education service, teaching students with intellectual disability and autism.  All these years special education teachers, myself included, developed diverse instructional strategies through formal, informal and incidental training to equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills to teach and manage special needs students.  Though there are researched, tried and tested approaches to teaching and learning, most of our skills developed are through personal experiences developed into tacit knowledge.  Each day is a challenge for us and more often than not, we deployed trial and error strategies in helping our students learn.  At times the efforts paid off while at other times we kept ‘hitting our heads against the wall’ while still searching for that ‘enlightenment’ to make a difference in the education lives of these students.   Nevertheless, many persevered as we believed that even if the difference that we make is negligible, it would mean a lot deal to the students and their families.

Special Schools are established and run by Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs).  As these VWOs are independent of each other, policy formulation and implementation are very much school-based or at the most, organisation-based.  Teachers, middle management as well as school leaders and school management committee collectively formulate policies for schools.  Teaching and learning is student centric and individualised.  Education policy implementation is very much received with little resistance as teachers are able to ‘see’ the rationale of its intent and the benefits it brings to the students.

Over the last few years, since the Enabling Masterplan (EM) 2007-2011 was announced and implemented in the disability sector, the climate in special schools changed drastically.  A more active role played by the Ministry of Education, with ‘influx’ of policies, processes, initiatives, prototyping being implemented.  Within a short span of 4 years, I’ve observed these initiatives being ‘piled’ onto the teachers’ shoulders.  Let me share one of the initiatives that is currently being implemented.  In 2010 the Special Education Branch (SEB) of MOE implemented a Reading Mastery (RM) programme.  RM was piloted to students aged 9-12.  Using the Direct Instruction approach, the pilot showed slow but significant improvement in the reading ability of these students.   In the following year, RM was extended to students aged 13-18.  Much to the displeasure of teachers, the programme was carried out as planned.  The programme, which was initially intended as a trial for one term, took more than 70% of the language periods in that school year.  Teachers had to drop the current language curriculum, which prepares students for national assessment, and replaced those periods with teaching RM.  As a result, students in these age category didn’t perform well in the assessment.  At the same time, no results were disclosed as to the success of the RM initiatives on these students from MOE who collated the RM data.  Teachers feedback their concerns and frustrations on the initiative which they shared didn’t benefit these teenagers.  As much as they didn’t dismiss the benefits of the initiative, they felt that the initiative and instructional strategy deployed were not age appropriate for these students.  Thus, students were not engaged and behavioural issues ‘erupted’ as students get more restless and felt that the RM is ‘belittling’ them and they were embarrassed ‘to face’ their classmates who were better readers.

Despite, the teachers’ feedback and concerns, the initiative continued again this year, taking up yet another 70% of the language periods.  At this juncture, I’m not disputing the MOE’s initiatives in trying to help special schools equipped its structure, system and processes with the intent of providing quality education for special needs students.  However, in doing so, I felt that there is a lack of understanding of how special needs students learn and even more, the lack of understanding of how instructional strategies differed between special schools and mainstream counterparts.

Though, the initiative may have shown improvement in the reading ability of students age 9-12, does it mean that it will reap similar results when implemented to students age 13-18?  A ‘one size fits all’ policy initiative may work well in the mainstream schools, but in special schools with students of diverse needs and ability levels, do we still ‘push’ the initiative regardless of it outcomes or implications?  The point that ‘disturbs’ me the most is that the policy implementers are oblivious of feedback given by teachers who had to implement the policy initiatives and still proceed to continue the initiative in the second year.

Posted by Noraini

Posted by: Principal/Editor | April 16, 2012

Education Policies and System Perspective

As a teacher who spent the last two years as a staff officer in MOE HQ, I gained two different and useful perspectives on educational policy-making and implementation.  As an MOE HQ officer, I had a big picture, top-down view of how education policies are formulated and implemented.  On the other hand, as a teacher, I experienced how policies are viewed and experienced in practice on the ground, i.e. the school.

Overall, as I see it, education policies, as formulated at the central government level, are intended to address a fundamental question that every country or society faces.  That is, how the country/ society can equip its people with the right knowledge and skills to meet the key objectives of national survival and prosperity.  Thus, every education system is designed to meet this need and how well they do so is the subject of much consternation and debate among policy-makers and academics alike.  However, there is no single answer and it is not immutable, but instead changes with the times and the local context. In Singapore’s context, this can be seen in the transition from an efficiency-driven model in the early ‘80s, intended to produce highly efficient workers for what was still a manufacturing-based economy, to an ability-driven model spearheaded by initiatives such as TSLN and TLLM, aimed at creating an intellectually vibrant and creative workforce for the new knowledge-based economy.

It is also interesting to note the extent to which a society’s cultural values and history shape its education system.  One saying comes to mind – “every country gets the education system it deserves”.  For instance, it could be said that the highly competitive nature of East Asia’s education systems – Singapore, China, South Korea etc. – stem from their cultural pre-disposition to see education in competitive terms, somewhat akin to a race to the top.  This was accentuated by the long history/ tradition of the imperial examinations in China.  On the other hand, the western European systems view education in rather different terms, say like a voyage of learning and discovery, which are in turn shaped by their cultural history of a self-organised community of intellectuals and interested amateurs that sprung up during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods.

By most international benchmarks, Singapore’s education system appears to have done well in meeting the country’s needs.  However, as resources are limited, any change would involve trade-offs, political, economic, social and structural.  As Singaporeans get more articulate and vocal in making their views known, talk of trade-offs can become increasingly unpalatable politically. Furthermore, over time inertia tends to set in, as stakeholders with vested interests in the status quo put up various barriers or resistance against new policies.  This is evinced by policy initiatives that had failed to gain significant traction on the ground, such as “holistic education” and TLLM.  Lastly, as parents become more well-educated, aspirations for their children correspondingly rise, leading to the inevitable pressure on the government to provide more resources to satisfy these aspirations.  This can be seen from the recent and on-going debate on university places.

These developments will make it more difficult for the MOE and the government as a whole to forge consensus, or at least some form of compromise, and determine the national objectives going forward and the road map to get there. However, we should not assume that the government always knows what is best for the country or the people.  Other stakeholders may have and do provide useful alternative perspectives. Effective policy-making and implementation can only be achieved by through strong two-way communication with stakeholders.  In school however, this does not always happen, as teachers may sometimes treat new policies as another layer of bureaucratic control or even interference, even if the actual intent of the policies is good and justified.  For example, when I was in MOE HQ, we tried to advise some of the more popular primary schools to control and reduce the number of parent volunteers that they took in, so as to minimise the anxiety and frustration faced by these parents if their child were eventually unsuccessful in gaining admission to the school.  However, some schools appeared rather resentful or even hostile and sent unfriendly replies to my colleague’s email.

Thus, in my opinion, some of the more specific challenges and areas for improvement for Singapore’s education system and policies are i) to forge a new framework for effective stakeholder consultation or even involvement in the policy-making process, ii) to take in the various, and often conflicting perspectives and arrive at a consensus or compromise that is acceptable to all or most parties, and iii) the communication of new policies to these stakeholders, i.e. school, parents and students, to obtain their support or at least acquiescence.

The implications, and challenges, of all these developments for school leaders and middle management, are that we have to understand how MOE’s policies fit in with the overall national objectives and imperatives, and explain this lucidly and convincingly to our teachers, parents and students whenever they are affected.  This is necessary so that we can act as effective conduits for policies to be brought to actual fruitful realisation in schools and our students.  Even at the individual school level, we should strive to forge a consensus before moving forward with new initiatives.

But this communication should not only go one-way.  We teachers are also the feelers on the ground for the policy-makers.  Where policies may go wrong, or the stakeholders may have their views or concerns, we should not hesitate to provide honest and constructive feedback through the proper channels, so that the policy can be adjusted to work better.

Posted by JJ

Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 13, 2010

Test Less Learn (Teach) More: A New TLLM?

The Teacher and High-Stakes Test situation in a Canadian province

In an informative and interesting British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF Canada) video presentation, members of the teaching force commented on how high-stakes testing has become a deterrent in students’ learning.[1] Some of the key issues raised in the video were the following:

“Teachers are being forced to teach to the test” – Due to the increasing prevalence and dependence on high-stakes test in the Canadian province, teachers felt less empowered.

“Trust teachers’ ability to pick and choose what works for them in their classroom and their particular students” – Some members of the BCTF felt that there was a need for key stakeholders in education to put more “trust” on the “teachers’ ability” to teach.

“Science should be exciting” – BCTF teachers reiterated that due to the emphasis on high-stakes testing, some felt that teaching subjects – science for example – has become less exciting. Teachers are limited by the demands of satisfying the high-stakes test and no longer have the opportunity to prepare creative and stimulating subjects for their students.

These candid and honest comments from teacher colleagues in a North American setting could be starting points for reflection for the Singaporean teacher:

1.      Do our Singapore teachers feel that they are “forced to teach to the test”?

2.      Do our Singapore teachers feel empowered and trusted by other key education stakeholders?

3.      Do our Singapore teachers have the “space” to make the teaching of their subjects come alive and make these exciting?

The Teacher and High Stakes Test situation in Singapore

High-stakes tests and the issues of authentic learning, teachers’ reactions and impact to students continue to be a hotly-debated topic in Singapore.[2] However, with the inroads that have been accomplished by the bold vision encapsulated in the Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) policy, assessments or “testing” seem to be undergoing encouraging modifications:

Evaluation of the TLLM effort has shown that teachers are now more able to customise the curriculum, apply a variety of pedagogies, and use more varied modes of assessment. By the end of this year, a total of 266 (74%) schools would have leveraged on resources and expertise offered by MOE to embark on their school-based curriculum innovations.[3]

Additionally, the latest report from McKinsey and Company has stated that Singapore’s education system is one of the most successful in the world. One of the reasons for this achievement is that Singapore manages to “attract and retain” the “top-third graduates to careers in teaching.”[4] This glowing affirmation about the high quality of Singapore’s teaching force should be suitable starting points for deep reflection:

1.      Given that Singapore’s teaching force is top quality (one of the best in the world), shouldn’t stakeholders allow teachers more empowerment and afford them greater trust in teaching, in other words giving them space to teach what they think would be best for their students?

2.      Would it be possible for teacher empowerment to exist alongside a culture of high-stakes testing?

3.      Since Singapore teachers are known worldwide as belonging to the “top third graduates” – shouldn’t we encourage them to manifest their talents and creativity?

4.      Would it be possible for Singapore teaching that strives for authentic learning to be “de-coupled” from perceived limitations brought about by high-stakes tests?

Confident that our teaching force is highly-competent, why don’t we encourage our teachers to “Test Less and Learn (“Teach) More”?

[1] BCTFvids (Oct, 2009) One test does not fit all [Electronic version] Retrieved from

[2] Gregory, K., & Clarke, M. (2003). High-Stakes Assessment in England and Singapore. Theory into Practice, 42(1), 66-74.

[3] Lateef, F. (2010). Teach Less Learn More: Response by Dr. Fatimah Lateef, MP for Marine Parade GRC. Singapore: Ministry of Education. [Electronic version]

[4] Auguste, B., Kihn, P., & Miller, M. (2010). Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching, An international and market research-based perspective (pp. 48). Sydney: McKinsey & Company., p. 5

In an interesting, provocative and experiential workshop delivered by Tim Brown, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of IDEO – a global design consultancy company, he discusses the plausible links between play and creativity.[1] He explains how allowing people “exploration through experimentation and play” allows individuals to tap into their creativity. He then cites examples of how this playful experience has contributed greatly to developments in designing and to the progress of the human race. Tim Brown frequently interjects in his presentation various ways of how some of these “playful experimentation” concepts can be adapted to specific school settings.

Prof. David Halpin echoes these ideas by explicitly critiquing how schools nowadays have been designed, as places that “prescribe and pressurize” students:

Certainly schools need to prescribe and pressurise less; and they need to become happier places in which pupils are regularly encouraged positively to ‘waste time’ on and ‘lose themselves’ in their interests and projects, and not to work mostly at what their teachers determine, which is a version of what the Government wants.[2]

Prof. David Halpin exhorts that schools need to be transformed into “happier places”.  Among the many specific suggestions he proposes is that students need to be allowed to “waste time” and in the process “lose themselves” as pathways to learning. Dr. Jude Chua reinforces this argument by proposing the use of “playful curriculum design”[3] in schools to encourage deeper learning and creativity. Dr. Chua advocates among others the notion of “goal-less design” and “playful folly” in the way that school curriculum is crafted. The approach that these practitioners and scholars are advocating is for schools (and curriculum) to be allowed an amount of flexibility and not to be overly restricted by pre-established goals that may somehow undermine the ability of our students to become creative and thus prevent them from becoming true and authentic learners.

Implications to Teachers and School Leaders

Taking into consideration the specific social context that teachers and school leaders encounter in Singapore, I propose some possible starting points for deep reflection:

1.      What are your opinions and reactions to the suggestions of Tim Brown, specifically the idea of allowing “experimentation through playing” as possible approaches to fostering creativity?

2.      What are your opinions and reactions to Prof. David Halpin’s notions of allowing our students to “waste time” and “lose themselves”?  Would these characteristics be consistent with how you see the role of teachers in Singapore schools should be?

3.      Is playful curriculum design or goal-less design in schools as espoused by Dr. Jude Chua — to be more specific in the preparation and implementation of the school curriculum – really possible? Can you identify some features of Singapore schools’ social context that could prevent these novel ideas from ever being tried and tested?

Posted by Dr. Jude Chua

[1] Brown, T. (2008). Tim Brown: The powerful link between creativity and play. [Electronic version] Retrieved from

[2] Halpin, D. (2008). In Praise of Wasting Time in Education: Some Lessons from the Romantics. Forum, 50(3), 377-381., p. 380.

[3] Chua, J. (2008). In praise of folly: Seriously playful curriculum design. Education Today, 58(44), 18-23.

High-Stakes testing is defined as the “use of large-scale achievement tests as instruments of educational policy”. These tests are used by states and educational bodies (i.e. districts and departments) “in making high-stakes decisions with important consequences for individual students.”[1] In Singapore, high-stakes testing is an essential feature of the educational system. From primary school all the way to post-secondary school levels, the performance of an individual student is determined to a great extent by the outcome from such high-stakes tests.

High-stakes testing continues as a contentious and a much debated key issue in education policy and practice. On the one hand, there are scholars and practitioners who claim that targeted high-stakes testing produces some limited rewards.[2] On the other hand, there are others who argue that high-stakes testing offers little or no rewards in terms of learning and motivation[3] and actually become sources of corruption.[4]

For experienced school teachers and school leaders, high-stakes testing is an inescapable reality faced in a Singapore context. In view of eliciting deep reflection, it would be interesting for seasoned teaching professionals to ponder upon these questions:

1.      Do high-stakes tests assist schools particularly experienced teachers and leaders in allowing to measure learning and motivation of individual students?

2.      From the perspective of experienced teachers and school leaders, do high-stakes tests promote a culture of authentic learning (where teachers and students jointly explore learning facilitated by high-stakes tests) or a culture of accountability (where teachers and students compete in order to perform well via high-stakes tests)?

For beginning teachers and novice leaders, high-stakes testing emerges as a dominant discourse that one has to continually grapple with and make sense of. In view of achieving reflection, it may be worthwhile for teaching professionals about to embark on new beginnings to ask these questions:

1.      What does high-stakes testing actually mean to me? Do I see it as an opportunity for me to learn new teaching skills in order to help my future students score well in high-stakes tests? Or do I see high-stakes tests as an unnecessary practice in schools?

2.      Given the reality that high-stakes testing is an essential feature of the Singapore educational system, how do I negotiate my practices and beliefs to accommodate this reality?

[1] Heubert, P., & Hauser, R. (Eds.). (2000). High Stakes: testing for tracking, promotion and graduation. Washington, D.C. : National Academy Press., p.1

[2] Bishop, J., Moriarty, J., & Mane, F. (1997). Diplomas for Learning, not Seat Time: The Impacts of New York Regents Examinations (Vol. Working Paper Series 97, pp. 1-29). Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies: Cornell University.

[3] Amrein, A., & Berliner, D. (2003). The Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning. Educational Leadership, 32-38.

[4] Nichols, S., & Berliner, D. (2005). The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High-Stakes Testing (pp. 187). East Lansing, MI: The Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice.

Posted by: Principal/Editor | March 3, 2010

Do schools kill creativity?

In an interesting talk given by Ken Robinson[1], he provides some very compelling arguments that could be salient starting points for reflection. He first contends that in education, “creativity is as important as literacy”?  Addressing the often asked question whether creativity is the same as doing things wrongly, he clarifies that for him if one is “not prepared to be wrong” then one can “never come up with anything original”.

In the talk, he launches into a scathing criticism of modern day education systems, specifically pointing out that in today’s schools, creativity has been stymied. Specifically, he argues that:

“We stigmatize mistakes. We are now running National education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make…the result is we are educating people out of  their creative capacities…”

He continues by saying that today’s education system is “predicated on academic ability, education systems came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”. The implication from this statement is whether or not education systems today should re-think its own dynamic. What needs do school systems intend to address? Would these needs still be that of  the age of industrialization? Or should it be for a dynamic and fast-paced information age?

A possible way forward for schools and for education systems was proposed by Robinson when he stated that:

“Creativity…process of having original ideas that have value..more often than not comes about due to the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things”

Implications to leaders in education

Could this be a clue as to how schools and education systems need to reform themselves to become relevant and to reignite creativity? Is the approach of allowing “interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things” as opposed to the highly-structured, oftentimes fragmented and subject-specific way of schooling, a possible path to pursue education for the future?

What are the implications of the arguments of Robinson to school leaders facing the challenge of producing high-performing students who are also expected to be highly-creative? Are performativity and creativity complementary? Or are they diametrically-opposed?  Is there a paradox in this leadership challenge?

[1] Robinson, K. (2007). Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? [Electronic Version], from

Thinking Schools Learning Nation (TSLN): Sites of contestation and negotiation

It has been commented quite frequently that the Singapore government takes no chances[1] in terms of promoting its policies which includes the objective of ensuring that its education system is top notch and world class.

With the demands of the 21st century, the nation embarked on the bold TSLN initiative. One of the goals of which was to engender among Singapore students critical and creative thinking.

Koh underscores that the TSLN initiative which was Singapore’s response to challenges of the new 21st century economy, may not be enough to develop “creativity and critical capacity”.[2] Koh suggests instead that teaching critical literacy pedagogy may be a step towards arriving at a framework to accomplish the goal of nurturing critical and creative minds.  He acknowledges that the culture and context of Singapore has its unique complexities, as such, introducing critical literacy pedagogy “will be a site for contestation and negotiation’. [3]

Critical Literacy Pedagogy: Approaches towards reading and teaching

In an interesting presentation made by Dr. Andreotti , explaining several key concepts of an ongoing project entitled Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry (OSDE), she shares her insights on critical literacy. [4] Among the interesting points she raises is what she refers to as six essential questions to be aware of in reading text in order to arrive at Critical Literacy:

1.             Where is this coming from?

2.             What are the implications of these thoughts?

3.             How could this be thought of otherwise?

4.             Who decides?

5.             In whose “name” is this decision made?

6.             For whose benefit?

Koh points out that critical thinking, the lynchpin of TSLN, might be “too narrow” since one of its main objectives is to foster “creative problem-solving”. What he suggests is promoting critical literacy that fundamentally encourages students to “challenge taken-for-granted meanings” [5] The six essential questions raised by Andreotti can serve as the foundation for engaging learners to think of ways not only to “problem-solve” but perhaps to challenge established premises of problems or issues.

Starting points for reflection

Let us reflect on the “conversation” consisting of the points raised by Koh, particularly the Singapore context as a site of contestation and negotiation in terms of introducing critical literacy pedagogy in schools and Andreotti’s six main questions for Critical Literacy.  For school leaders at the forefront of addressing the challenges of the 21st century, how important is critical literacy pedagogy as ways of engaging students for the 21st century?  Do you agree with the arguments of Koh who points out the limitations of “creative problem solving”?  Do you find value in adopting Critical Literacy Pedagogy in schools? Taking note of the culture and context of Singapore where voicing out critical ideas particularly in the form of political commentary as “practically impossible,” [6] are there spaces for critical literacy to be fostered in the education system? Is there a paradox between the need to nurture critical and creative citizens and where political activities do “not deserve to be encouraged”? [7]

[1] Mutalib, H. (2004). Singapore’s Quest for a National Identity: The Triumphs and Trials of Government Policies In A. Pakir & C. K. Tong (Eds.), Imagining Singapore (2nd ed.). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

[2] Koh, A. (2002). Towards a critical pedagogy: crating ‘thinking schools’ in Singapore. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 34(3), 255-264.

[3] Ibid., p. 263

[4] Andreotti, V. (2007). Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry (OSDE): Critical Literacy [Electronic Version], from

[5] Koh. A., Ibid, p. 259.

[6] Ho, K. L. (2000). Citizen Participation and Policy Making in Singapore: Conditions and Predicaments. Asian Survey, 40(3), 436-455.

[7] Vasil, R. K. (1984). Governing Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

Posted by: Principal/Editor | February 18, 2010

A Future of Uncertainty: Implications to Educational Leadership

Singapore has consistently used education pragmatically – through intentional and calculated management — as a strategic instrument to accomplish not only economic goals but social cohesion and nation-building objectives as well. [1] Moreover, the Singapore state has been transparent about its exclusive and “legitimate right to represent the whole nation”[2] and particularly its purposeful characteristic of leaving “nothing to chance”. [3] These characteristics of predictability and clear vision and determination of its trajectory epitomized by its impressive record of unwavering political will and implementation have served the nation well from its inception till the present.

However, with the dawn of the 21st century, the ideal feature of a “predictable society” subject to careful and deliberate planning seems to be a slowly vanishing reality.

One type of society and economy that would be dominant in a 21st century globalized setting is what is referred to as an Experimentally Oriented Economy (EOE). In EOEs “full penetration of state space for optimal positioning by all agents is impossible at each point in time, and (because of learning) at each future point in time”, which therefore presents a situation highlighting uncertainty and complexity as a feature of tomorrow’s society. [4] Given such a fluid state of affairs, what would be ideal are scenarios where “inconsistent (experimental) decisions” of “decentralized, individuals” are encouraged. A key implication of EOEs is the somewhat disconcerting tolerance of “constant and unpredictable change” which essentially becomes a feature that is a “necessary consequence of steady long-term growth”. In essence, nations preparing to become KBEs such as Singapore should be willing to “accommodate” the “associated change socially and politically” that would typify growing, experimenting and learning societies. [5] The need to come to grips with EOE and its “uncertain” implications becomes particularly acute in fast-paced and constantly changing sectors of the economy, just like the highly-competitive education sector.

This becomes of paramount importance especially since Singapore – not usually known as an education system open to uncertainties — methodically and strategically positions itself to become an “educational hub with not only its own enterprises providing education to foreign students but also foreign institutions setting up shop”. [6]

Taking into consideration Singapore’s undeniable strengths of careful planning and implementation, how realistic would Singapore’s aspirations of becoming a 21st century educational hub be in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable future? What are the implications of uncertainty and unpredictability to educational leadership?

[1] Low, L., Toh, M. H., & Soon, T. W. (1991). Economics of Education and Manpower Development: Issues and Policies in Singapore. Singapore: McGraw-Hill.

[2] Vasil, R. K. (1984). Governing Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

[3] Mutalib, H. (2004). Singapore’s Quest for a National Identity: The Triumphs and Trials of Government Policies In A. Pakir & C. K. Tong (Eds.), Imagining Singapore (2nd ed.). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

[4] Eliasson, G. (2001). The Role of Knowledge in Economic Growth. In J. F. Helliwell (Ed.), The Contribution of Human and Social Capital to Sustained Economic Growth and Well Being: International Symposium Report (pp. 42-64). Quebec, Canada: Human Resources Development Centre Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development., p. 47

[5] Ibid, p. 59

[6] Lee Soo Ann. (2007). Singapore From Place to Nation. Singapore: Pearson Education South Asia., p. 185

Posted by: Principal/Editor | January 29, 2010

Education Reform: Challenges to School Leaders

Singapore actively prepares itself for the challenges – real or imagined—that would be brought about by the advent of Knowledge-Based Economies (KBEs). One of the key sectors in Singapore that would be greatly affected by these challenges would undoubtedly be the education sector. Especially since education has been seen as a “strategic instrument” of the state to pursue national development goals[1].

Upon closer examination of the Singaporean education sector as it makes sense of the radical changes that it experiences, the role of school leaders comes under careful scrutiny. Scholars as well practitioners have argued how school leaders are fundamental in reform initiatives[2].    As decision-makers, implementing agents and as key personnel providing direction, vision and concrete actions in the midst of reform, school leaders are very much in the front-line of the skirmishes and the greater battles waged in the education arena.

Let’s step back a bit, reflect , and try to fathom the kinds of issues and challenges that school leaders –particularly in a Singaporean context —  confront as they make sense of radical and seemingly continuous reforms.  If we were to list down the top three issues that I, as a school leader, would carefully look out for during periods of dynamic reform what would these be? Would it be the mission of the school as typified in its shibboleths?  Or would I make sure that the welfare of my staff is properly taken care of? Or should I concern myself with the results of my students in high-stakes tests? What about my other key stakeholders: MOE, parents, the general public?

[1] L. Low, M. H. Toh and T. W. Soon, Economics of Education and Manpower Development: Issues and Policies in Singapore (Singapore, 1991).

[2] The Wallace Foundation. (2007). Education Leadership A Bridge to School Reform. Paper presented at the The Wallace Foundation’s National Conference October 22-24.  See also Singapore Teachers’ Union. (2000). Towards a World Class Education System Through Enlightened School Management/Leadership and Meaningful Educational Activities (pp. 1-75). Singapore: Singapore Teachers’ Union.

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