Revisiting The Power And Paradoxes of Education In Singapore: Lead The Change Interview With Pak Tee Ng
This week’s post features a Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Dr. Pak Tee Ng, Associate Professor, at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University. At the NIE, Dr. Ng previously served as Associate Dean Leadership Learning and Head of the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group. His main work is in educational change, policy and leadership. His latest book is “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes” (Routledge, 2017).
This is the fifth in a series of interviews inviting some of the authors of earlier Lead the Change interviews to review their previous responses and consider how they might modify/ adjust/add to what they wrote based on their experiences and insights since publication. The fully formatted interview and the original interview from 2015 can be found on the LtC website of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.
Lead the Change: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?
Pak Tee Ng: My previous interview in Lead the Change Series was published in 2015. Most of the questions then were about the key success factors and developments in the Singapore education system at that time. Since then, in 2017, I published my book called “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes”, which is part of the Routledge Leading Change series edited by Andy Hargreaves and I. In my 2015 interview, as well as my 2017 book, I pointed out a very important philosophy in the Singapore education system: “Education is an investment, not an expenditure.” We invested heavily in our public education system and professional development of our teachers. We ensured our children would receive good education even during periods of tough economic conditions. Our education system worked to shift its focus from quantity to quality. Instead of obsessing over examination results, we tried to help students appreciate what they were learning, to apply their new knowledge in real life and to experience joy in learning. The education system provided more pathways to nurture different talents and fulfill different aspirations. Those points are still valid today. Singapore’s education system is always a work in progress. There is still much room for improvement. But let me give readers an update regarding the more recent initiatives in Singapore through a few examples.
First, we changed our national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system. Instead of absolute points, students with scores within a certain range are now awarded the same grade. In doing so, we hoped to reduce the keen competition and high stress levels among students because they would no longer need to chase after every point. We also scrapped some mid-year exams at the lower primary levels. Teachers can use the time originally reserved for examinations to engage students in activities that develop them holistically. At the secondary level, we introduced subject-based banding in the place of streaming. In streaming, students in a particular stream take all their subjects at a particular pace. In subject-based banding, students can engage in subjects in which they have strengths at a faster pace than some of their peers. We hope to give students more flexibility to take various subjects based on their strengths and learning pace.
Second, we are also promoting a culture of lifelong learning in the country through the SkillsFuture initiative, a movement that encourages Singaporeans to learn and acquire deep skills continuously throughout life. This is a national effort to shift the focus from academic performance as the primary measure of success and towards mastery of deep, practical, skills relevant to industries and the future economy. For example, many Singaporeans use SkillsFuture credits (essentially financial sponsorship from the government) to learn how to better function in a digital workplace.
LTC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?
PTN: In my book, I explained the importance of a paradox in Singapore, which I called “timely change, timeless constants.” There is change, and there is continuity. Education in Singapore has to change to keep up with the times, but there are certain evergreen principles in education that we do not change. For example, in Singapore, an evergreen principle is that we see education as investment rather than an expenditure1. Keeping evergreen principles, in itself, is an important principle in the field of educational change. We need both change and continuity. To change or not to change, that is a question that needs both courage and wisdom to answer.
“We need both change and continuity. To change or not to change, that is a question that needs both courage and wisdom to answer.”
Education is highly influenced by technological advancement and changes in industries and work. New jobs appear and traditional ones disappear. Everywhere in the world, education has to change to keep itself relevant and to prepare children for the future. But because we must change continuously, we must exercise good judgement on what to change, rather than to jump on the bandwagon of any new reform. Sometimes, when everyone seems to be constantly and mindlessly changing, those who stand firm on solid fundamentals, stand out! For example, why does the release of international test rankings so often move educational systems, that were often previously unwilling to evolve, to change? Why should such tests become wake up calls? We should take education seriously, with or without international comparisons!
In my book, I also mentioned another important principle. Education reform is usually a contested process because every intervention has its benefits and consequences. Different stakeholders have different ideas about change and thus there will be tensions among these groups as they negotiate solutions. And yet, despite these tensions, for half a century, Singapore has been able to reform its education system quite systemically and systematically. These reforms include giving schools more autonomy and moving away from an examination-oriented system. Despite differences in opinions, there is generally coherence in the system and change is implemented with order and method. Therefore, the main question here is whether reform is shouting slogans superficially or fighting missions meaningfully. Slogans fade away, replaced by new ones in perpetual cycles. Missions rally people to bite the bullet of change to benefit the next generation. So, academics in the field of educational change must take care so advancement in the field does not become ammunition for slogan shouting, but rather becomes the driving force for purposeful change. Real substance, which focuses on really improving learning and teaching, lasts. Fads, which distract us from such improvement efforts, don’t.
LTC: What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going?
PTN: I think that if the field of educational change can succeed in advocating for the importance of formulating far-sighted education policies (rather than knee-jerk reactions), based on sound fundamental principles (such as equity and excellence) and implemented tenaciously over the years, that will be exciting. I have observed some jurisdictions that have flip-flopped too often in their education policies. That is difficult for stakeholders, especially the professionals on the ground, who need stability to create a conducive environment for students to learn. We need change that is meaningful and purposeful, and that is given the necessary time to bloom.
“We need change that is meaningful and purposeful, and that is given the necessary time to bloom.”
An evidence-based approach to change is important. But I am more concerned that evidence-based decision-making is sometimes actually decision-based evidence gathering. Someone has made up his or her mind about something and is just looking for ‘evidence’ to support their case. Therefore, I think other than researching for evidence, or developing more measures of performance or comparisons, it would be exciting to develop a deeper and more philosophical discourse about educational change. Many jurisdictions make changes structurally in response to performance measures and comparisons. Not that many districts currently address fundamental issues such as meaning and joy in learning, or student well-being and character education.
For many of us who work in this field (and indeed in any other field), we have benefitted from more senior academics who advised us or opened doors for us. This is not about the direction of the field per se, but I think it will be exciting if there is a systematic way of paying it forward. One way is what this SIG has done for a few years through its mentoring of students and early career faculty! The SIG provides a platform for mentors and mentees from different parts of the world to come together. I think it is great for growth, understanding, and continuity in the field. As an example, I served as a mentor last year and I had a mentee from the United States. It was great as I had an opportunity to understand her work and I brought her in contact to some others working in the same field. I hope to see such mentoring expand its scope and influence.
LTC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?
PTN: Do not change for the sake of change! Do not charge forward blindly just because the fast-pace change in the world seems to mandate change at a fast pace in education. I am not suggesting that schools and systems should look for excuses not to change, or to take a “back to basics” approach for everything. However, it is good that we sometimes examine certain fundamentals to either refute, revise, or reaffirm them. So, a discussion about improving access to education and/or student well-being is more inspiring than how one jurisdiction can outdo another in international comparisons, although the latter can appear more pressing due to political pressure or media attention. The way to stay strong under such pressure is to commit ourselves to fundamentals and proceed on a sure footing, even when progress seems slow. The main question is whether one would like to do good or just appear good. Of course, it would be great to be able to do good and appear good at the same time. But when it is a choice between one or the other, one chooses to focus on doing good, rather than appearing good.
Improving education is a long process. Change is seldom, if at all, neat and orderly. We need to be patient and adaptable. The approach to change is also important. We should increasingly draw upon the expertise of the professional teaching community. The professionals in school should feel they are engaged and empowered in the change process. They should not be made to feel that change is done to them. As a result of greater teacher input, the innovations that emerge in schools will be more organic and appropriate to the operating context and gain wider acceptance.
Most importantly, those who are interested in affecting change and improvement should embrace a very positive spirit of education. They should believe passionately that they are not merely doing a job, but they are, as an education fraternity, contributing to the future of the next generation. Education is not just about transferring knowledge and skills. It is about building lives.
LTC: What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?
PTN: During my 2015 Lead the Change interview, I pointed out that while many educational researchers bemoaned policy makers’ failure to pay attention to research, perhaps academics (including myself) also ought to examine the nature of our academic output. I think that point is still valid and perhaps even more pertinent than ever. In the area of nutrition, I am not sure how I should understand the field’s various research reports, each saying different things, for example, about the benefits or perils of consuming egg yolks or red wine. So, what does a person who is more confused than enlightened by all these reports do? Just rely on common sense and eat in moderation! In the same way, I think academics, who would like to advocate change, have to work together on a common message that is easily accessible and understood by all stakeholders.
Academics can be powerful advocates of positive educational change by highlighting areas that require attention (for example, the needs of the disadvantaged), but they also have to work well with policy makers and other stakeholders so research findings can really hit sweet spots in practice. Moreover, we have to re-examine the meaning of ‘impact’ in educational research. For tenure considerations, academics aim to publish papers in high-impact journals. That is not wrong. But often the general public does not understand the content in these journals given the esoteric way it is communicated. Therefore, academia becomes an ‘exclusive club’ in which only some have access. We would not want a defense lawyer who was good at collecting evidence to speak in lawyers’ jargon rather than plain language to a jury. In the same way, I hope that educational researchers who do good work can translate that work to a lay audience. One future research direction is to make research relevant and accessible. This is not the role of just one researcher. It should be the collective quest of all academics.
“One future research direction is to make research relevant and accessible. This is not the role of just one researcher. It should be the collective quest of all academics.”
While doing the final refinements to this interview piece, Covid-19 struck. In many parts of the world, many students learned at home through the use of internet. Over a short span of time, teachers who were not inclined to use information and communications technology (ICT) in teaching were forced to do so. Many picked up skills of using online learning tools because of necessity. Covid-19 also threw into sharp relief the divide between families who were well equipped for home-based leaning, and those who were not. Well-designed research will be critical to understand the experiences of teachers, students, parents, and school leaders as they all adapted to the change. What worked? What did not? What were the challenges? What were the lessons learned? Well-articulated findings will be very helpful to policy formulation: what has changed, what still needs to be changed, and what changes, if they were positive, need consolidation after the pandemic. A point has been made that teachers should not simply replicate their lessons in the virtual medium, but to develop new and more effective ways to help students learn. That is a good point. So, what are these new and more effective ways? Why are they more effective?
The world is shaken up by Covid-19 and policy makers are looking for guidance in making decisions regarding schooling during and after the pandemic. There is a time for quick reaction during the pandemic so that learning could continue in some form, but there is also a time for careful deliberation regarding long term change after the pandemic. Academics should step up as thought leaders. Reflect. Research. Argue. But make the discourse simple. Make it clear.
1. During the 2008-9 global financial crisis, Singapore’s economy was badly affected but the education budget increased from S$8.0 billion before the financial crisis in 2008 to S$8.7 billion during the crisis in 2009, so that Singaporeans would be ready to take up new challenges when the economy picked up [read Ng, P. T. (2017), Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes. New York: Routledge, pp. 50-51]. During the current covid-19 pandemic, the government raised the quantum of various school-related subsidies and bursaries, and topped up SkillsFuture credit for Singaporeans to pick up new skills for better job prospects. For more information about Budget 2020, please read https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2020
ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change SIG, Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung Kim, Graduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.