As students in New York transition back to school from the summer break, IEN founder Thomas Hatch shares a post that explores how Singapore works systematically to connect learning outside of school with learning inside school.
The constant emphasis on Singapore’s high performance on educational tests masks the extent to which Singapore continues to try to improve the educational system. Since the launch of the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” campaign in 1997, Singapore has pursued a series of initiatives to shift the system to provide a more holistic education that supports the development of 21st Century skills and learning throughout life. As the Education Minister (for Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung recently explained “more emphasis should be placed on teaching students critical soft skills — such as building up their resilience to be able to fail and pick themselves up — and also helping students discover what they are passionate about.”
Until my last trip to Singapore, however, I did not understand the extent to which the Singaporean government supports efforts to create new kinds of learning opportunities outside of schools in order to achieve these national education objectives. Although concerns about an overload of afterschool tutoring persist, the Singaporean government actively aligns and connects work in the “outside of school” sector with efforts to expand the focus of learning in schools.
“Co-curriculars” and camps
The Singaporean education system has a well-known academic focus that has spawned fears about the consequences of excessive testing and rote learning. Yet the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” effort also supports a series of initiatives designed to create spaces and opportunities for more holistic approaches to students’ development. In particular, Singapore has developed a set of co-curricular activities at the end of the school day designed to foster the development of a wide range of abilities. While in the US, extra-curricular activities are largely locally determined, the Ministry of Education in Singapore requires every secondary student to participate in at least one of these co-curricular activities, including clubs and societies, physical sports, uniformed groups (such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts), and visual and performing arts groups. To reinforce the importance of these activities, students are assessed on their performance in their co-curricular activities, based on a framework that emphasizes Leadership, Enrichment, Achievement, Participation, Service (LEAPS). Students can even boost their chances for placement in post-secondary institutions and get “bonus points” for assessments of ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ in their co-curriculars.
Reflecting the increasing attention to students’ holistic development, the Ministry of Education in Singapore also recently established a National Outdoor Adventure Education (NOAE) Master Plan. That plan mandates that starting in 2020 all secondary students will participate in a 5-day outdoor adventure camp. Carried out in a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Outward Bound Singapore, the program is designed to immerse students in “authentic and often challenging situations, where they need to work in teams and learn to take responsibility for decisions they make.”
On top of the co-curriculars and camps, the Ministry of Education (MOE) also created what they called “Learning Journeys” in 1998. Learning Journeys are “experiential and multi-disciplinary learning trips” that students make to learn about key national institutions and heritage sites. Learning Journeys complement curriculum in subjects like Social Studies, History and Geography, they were conceived specifically to support the goals of National Education and to help students understand and appreciate the role that these institutions and sites play in Singapore’s development. The National Education initiative first established in 1997 seeks “to develop national cohesion, the instinct for survival and confidence in the future” by helping students develop an “awareness of the facts, circumstances, and opportunities” of Singapore’s history and current realities and to help students “develop a sense of emotional belonging and commitment.”
While schools can create their own Learning Journeys, the Ministry of Education has invited a host of government agencies and other institutions to serve as Learning Journey partners. For example, the Energy Market Authority (responsible for maintaining Singapore’s energy supply) offers five different Learning Journeys including “Gas It Up” and “Clean and Green.” These Journeys take students behind the scenes to local energy facilities “to bring engineering concepts to life and interest students to seek out a career in the Power sector.”
There are now over 50 Learning Journey partners including the Maritime and Port Authority, the Singapore Stock Exchange, and the Public Utilities Board. In the process, the government both encourages these organizations to use their resources to support schools and provides schools with the funds they need to pay for these out-of-school experiences. In addition, every year the Singaporean government deposits about $200 in an Edusave account for each Singaporean child enrolled in schools funded by the Ministry of Education. Those funds can be used for a variety of educational resources and enrichment activities including Learning Journeys and educational trips overseas.
As a result of the government’s investments, a whole group of not-for-profit and for-profit organizations have gotten into the act by offering Learning Journeys and other enrichment activities. For example, the Singapore History Consultants have developed a wide range of Learning Journeys for different age groups that focus on topics like “Our Journey to Nationhood” and “The Dark Years: World War II & Singapore under Japanese Occupation.” The offerings of the History Consultants are designed both to appeal to students but also to be relatively easy for teachers and schools to implement: while teachers and schools can design their own field trips, they can also purchase packages that include, as the History Consultants put it, “worksheets, air-conditioned transport, and tour facilitators/chaperones.”
The initiatives of organizations like the National Heritage Board (NHB) also illustrate the extent of support for education outside of school in Singapore. The National Heritage Board is a statutory board established in 1993 as the “custodian of Singapore’s heritage”, which has also taken on responsibilities for the development and maintenance of many of Singapore’s museums and historical sites. (Statutory boards in Singapore are autonomous government agencies often designed to spur economic development in particular sectors). The National Heritage Board has pursued those goals by using funds allocated by the government as well as funds raised through its own institutions to foster a wide range of educational activities that help to connect work in schools with work in the institutions overseen by the NHB. For example, the NHB has helped to fund the development of education departments within museums and they have also offered grants and encouragement for smaller galleries and other organizations to create programs for students and the general public that help “tell the Singapore story” and accomplish their mission.
The NHB has also helped to fund the development of Heritage Trails, which local organizations create to highlight particular aspects of Singaporean history and culture. Among the many trails, a “Spirit of Saving Lives” Trail winds through the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital and introduces visitors to Singapore’s medical history. The Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations also offers a trail dedicated to “Walking in the footsteps of our foremothers” to highlight the contributions of women to the development of Singapore. The National Heritage Board’s efforts also include support for schools to adopt nearby heritage trails, to train their students to serve as trail guides, and to incorporate the trail’s educational opportunities directly into their school curriculum. More recently, the NHB has provided funding for schools to create their own Heritage Trails and Heritage Corners. In turn, the efforts of the National Heritage Board have helped to encourage other governmental organizations and statutory boards, like the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the National Parks Board, and neighborhood groups to get into the act and develop their own Trails.
Beyond Schools: Museums and Discovery Centers
In addition to the co-curriculars, camps, and Learning Journeys that come directly under the purview of the Ministry of Education, the Singaporean government also fuels the work of a wide range of other public and quasi-public entities that support students’ development and help to integrate educational initiatives across sectors. Government agencies, particularly the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth (MCCY), and groups like the National Arts Council provide funding for educational activities that serve the objectives of Singapore’s education system. For example, Singapore’s National Gallery also receives funding from the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth and corporate sponsors to support educational activities including field trips and workshops. Many of those programs are offered to schools for free, but schools can get grants from the National Arts Council to pay the National Gallery to provide more customized “in-school” programs. In turn, the National Gallery staff develop their programs with an eye to both the national curriculum established by the Ministry of Education and the National Gallery’s own mission, vision, and special exhibitions.
The S’pore Discovery Center (SDC) provides another example of the way that cultural and national institutions support Singapore’s educational goals. Launched initially by the Ministry of Defence as a museum to showcase the history of Singapore Armed Forces, the SDC has now evolved into a multi-faceted “Discovery Center” and “edu-tainment” complex (complete with paintball, a “4D thrill ride”, “Crisis Simulation theatre,” and a first-run movie theatre) that also plays a key role in supporting Singapore’s goals for National Education.
In addition to infusing National Education topics and goals across the school curriculum, the Ministry of Education has also fostered National Education through active participation and experiential learning in informal settings outside of school. The S’pore Discovery Centre has been a natural partner in those efforts. With a mission To “Share the Singapore Story and inspire a desire to contribute to Singapore’s future,” the S’pore Discovery Centre offers a series of interactive exhibits that give students opportunities to explore Singapore’s governance and values and current affairs as well as Singapore’s future. Permanent exhibits like Dream Lab gives visitors a chance to learn about Singapore’s future plans while Harmony Circle features a game show with questions about Singaporean culture. Those exhibitions also include a roster of changing activities linked to four commemorative events held on an annual basis to celebrate key events and values. These include Total Defence Day, International Friendship Day, Racial Harmony Day, and National Day. The Discovery Center also develops a variety of “outreach” programs, including travelling exhibitions that schools can choose to bring right into their classrooms as well as partnerships that engage students in becoming guides to the exhibitions.
Coherence and constraints inside and outside schools
Far beyond the kind of “1000 flowers bloom” philosophy often found in the US, what Pak Tee Ng and others have called the Singapore government’s “centralized-decentralization” approach seeds “ground-up” initiatives (what those in the US might call “grass-roots” efforts); but it also creates a context of support and pressure that reinforces alignment with national education and coherence across initiatives. In many cases, government agencies (or quasi-government agencies like Statutory Boards) provide some (but not all) of the funding for these activities, often in the form of seed investments or grants and awards linked to Singapore’s national goals. As a result, as investors, the government has some influence over the work, but these organizations also have to develop their own sustainable business plans and their own sources of revenue.
The government ministries, statutory boards, and institutions like the National Gallery and the S’pore Discovery Center also have advisory or governing boards with members drawn specifically from different sectors (this is similar to the governance of entities like eduLab in Singapore that I wrote about earlier). Having board members from different ministries, industries, academia, and other institutions helps support cross-sector communication and information sharing. For example, while the S’pore Discovery Centre operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence, it has a board that includes members from other government agencies including NEXUS (the Central National Education Office) and the Ministry of Education as well as from other organizations in the public and private sector.
Pressure and support also comes from Singapore’s embrace of many of the principles of Total Quality Management and performance management, particularly a focus on customer service. That embrace includes the use of a variety of customer surveys by organizations like the Discovery Centre and the National Gallery. At the same time, the Ministries of Education, Defence, and Community, Culture, and Youth, and the National Heritage Board also get feedback on the work of these organizations through nationwide surveys like the National Education Orientation Survey and the Heritage Awareness Index. As a consequence, the S’pore Discovery Centre and the National Gallery have to figure out how to fulfill their goals in ways that satisfy the government agencies with which they are associated, and they have to respond to the demands of their customers and attract children, schools and families in a competitive marketplace with a wide range of public and private vendors.
Some constraints, however, come along with the close connections between the work inside and outside the education system. In particular, despite the interest in supporting more holistic development, this work outside of school still faces the reality that the most popular programs are usually those most closely tied to the academic topics covered in high-stakes tests. This is a particular challenge for institutions like the Discovery Centre that focus on National Education, which is not a tested subject.
Nonetheless, the systemic support and pressure in Singapore means that an extensive, well-resourced, and aligned set of educational opportunities outside of schools surrounds an already focused and coherent public education system. Furthermore, that coherence is achieved even though many of those learning opportunities outside of school are not overseen directly by the Ministry of Education. That coherence and coordination benefits from the mix of government funding and competition for those educational opportunities, the many organizational and personal connections across institutions and sectors, and the focus on customer service and the embrace of feedback throughout.
— Thomas Hatch