Changing Malaysian education from the outside in?

This post is part of a series of reflections on my experiences studying improvement efforts in the US, Finland, Singapore and Malaysia, and most recently South Africa.

Given relatively low levels of performance on recent international tests, the Malaysian education system is rarely a focus for international comparisons. Nonetheless, on my visit last fall to Kuala Lumpur, I was struck by some of the stark differences between education in Malaysia and in neighboring Singapore, generally regarded as one of the highest performing education systems in they world. While both countries have demonstrated considerable economic development since they split apart in the late 1950’s, only Singapore coupled that economic growth with rapid development of a comprehensive education system.  In fact, although a new law in Malaysia will increase compulsory schooling to eleven years, right now Malaysian children are still only required to attend school through sixth grade.  Furthermore, according to a recent Unicef report, over 200,000 primary-school age children in Malaysia are not attending school.  These include children from several different groups – among them refugees, migrant workers in the palm oil plantations, nomadic groups living in coastal areas of East Malaysia, and homeless and street children.  Many are undocumented, and, therefore are not treated as citizens, or given access to free primary education (for more on refugee education in general see the latest post from

The growth of a host of for-profit and not-for-profit private schools in Malaysia reflects the continuing dissatisfaction with the public education system.  Beyond concerns about the quality of schools, restrictions on access and scholarships to some of the highest-performing public schools and universities for those who are not native Malaysian has also encouraged many students to seek out these alternatives.  The alternatives to government-run public schools include private schools often connected to international schools operating in the US and elsewhere, and some newer schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University.   There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  The growth of these schooling options outside the government-funded public system reflects the lifting of restrictions that had previously limited access to international schools largely to the children of expatriate; but in 2006 the Malaysian government allowed international schools to   form student populations with up to 40% of native Malaysian students, and then in 2012, the quotas were eliminated entirely, enabling Malaysian students to enroll in a school of their choice (as long as they could pay for it; as long as they received language instruction in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia; and as long as Muslim students took Islamic studies).

The level of concern with the Malaysian education system is also evident in the development of a variety of efforts to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day.  A number of these new efforts take advantage of the emergence of digital media to provide support for students learning in school and out. In particular, organizations and collaboratives like Edunation, EnglishJer, and Tandemic have sprouted to address what their members identify as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system. All three of the leaders of these organizations, Edmond Yap, Abdul Qayyum, and Kal Joffres, see tremendous potential to address social and educational problems and to create new learning opportunities in Malaysia.  My conversations with them were particularly intriguing to me because I learned both how they responded to local issues and opportunities in education Malaysia and how they struggle with some of the same challenges of developing more innovative and effective learning opportunities that those in more developed systems like the US and Singapore face.

Edunation: Free online tutoring for all

“I smile a lot, but I’m actually quite angry with what’s happening all around me,” Edmond Yap, told me as he described the levels of corruption he encountered in his previous work in Malaysia in engineering and construction.  But he locates the source of his effort to create Edunation – which has produced over 4000 hours of translations of Khan Academy videos as well as their own videos of topics central to the Malaysian curriculum – to his work with John, a 15-year old orphan he was tutoring.  When Yap met him, John was one month away from taking the national math exam at the end of ninth grade (the PMR exam, which has now been replaced).  Yap realized that even after years of schooling, John was still unclear about some of the simplest problems.  When asked to add ½ to ½, John responded, after a pause, ¼.  Yap knew, even with his help and with John’s willingness and motivation to come to school every day and go to tutoring, there was no way that John could pass the exam.  The system had failed him.  Yap realized, as he put it, “I can’t even help one kid let alone address the larger problems we have in our country.”  Deeply frustrated, Yap quit tutoring, and after some soul searching, quit his job as an engineer as well.

Seeing the Khan Academy videos for the first time in 2011, however, gave him hope again.  “This is it,” Yap said “this is the way we can make free help available to every Malaysian child.”  The Khan Academy offers access to hours and hours of video that students can use as a resource to get help on many school subjects, but none of those videos were available in Malaysian. With Khan Academy’s permission, Yap joked that he became Khan Academy’s “unofficial translator” for Malaysia as he and then a number of volunteers began translating hundreds of videos from English into Malaysian.  Initially, their goal was to provide what was essentially free tutoring (or “tuition” as it is labeled in Malaysia and many other Asian countries like Singapore) and they looked for videos from Khan Academy or elsewhere on the web that would enable students to get assistance with any of the key topics in the Malaysian national curriculum. When they started mapping the topics of the Khan Academy videos onto the Malaysian curriculum, however, resources for many key topics were missing.  In order to address the gaps, Yap and his colleagues started producing their own videos, and “Edunation was born.”

By the end of 2016, Edunation had produced over 4700 videos, including videos at the primary level in Chinese and Tamil.  But as their stockpile of videos grew so did d their ambitions.  Yap and his colleagues realized that the online content could help many children, but it still might not reach those who lack access to the internet or who might lack the support or motivation to take advantage of the online resources.  With particular concern for those students who have spent years in schools failing and may have lost all motivation to learn, Edunation expanded its goals to focus on providing free tutoring offline as well.  “How do you provide not just free tuition online to all Malaysian children, but offline tutoring as well?” Yap wondered. Their conclusion:  peer pressure.  “You create a culture and community where students help one another.  When you do that, it’s free tutoring by every Malaysian child, for every Malaysian child,” Yap explained.

Developing such a community for peer tutoring and academic support, however, has not been easy.  At first, Yap thought they would be able to create teacher learning communities – bringing teachers with different experiences together to provide tutoring after school.  After a year, however, he abandoned that plan because of the difficulty of recruiting teachers. Unable to rely on teachers, he developed a pilot program to work directly with students in two schools to establish a community in which they support one another.  As Yap describes it, the vision was like a mix between a typical tutoring center, toastmasters (a popular international public speaking and leadership program) and the Lions Club (an international service organization). Small groups of students met once a week to help one another access videos and other free resources that they could use to prepare for upcoming exams and complete other academic work.  Every two weeks, students also participated in self-directed leadership activities designed to develop skills like empathy and openness. Edunation staff and volunteers helped to get the programs running, assisted students in developing tutoring plans, and provided materials and resources.

Ultimately, however, Yap’s goal is to find ways to influence and improve the education offered during the regular school day as well. In Malaysia, that means facing the significant challenge of trying to work with the government and in government public schools and dealing with all of the red tape and constraints that come with it; or it means developing a private school, which has more flexibility, but which is then disconnected from, and less likely to influence, the public system.   There are basically walls around us,” Yap explained, “and we are trying to find a path through.” The path he has selected at this point is to work with a long-time mentor, Dr. Tee Meng Yew, from the University of Malaya, on a project separate from his work on Edunation to design a low-cost private school. They envision a school that “works for the students,” providing more opportunities for them to choose their educational path (whether that involves taking the national exams, preparing for the International Baccalaureate, or preparing for a specific career). From Yap’s point of view, they are “trying to set an example of what a school could be in a local context” and to make their design and resources freely available (like the Edunation videos) so that they might have an impact on the wider system as well.

@EnglishJer: Social media as a platform for learning

Like Yap, Abdul Qayyum never planned to work in education.  His college degree was in Law, but throughout his university studies, he also served as a digital media consultant for a number of companies and clients.  In that work, he uncovered what seemed to be a promising opportunity. “Social media is littered with the young, the opinionated, people with power,” Qayyum explained, “but there’s not much attention to education.” From his perspective, those who were using social media for education were mostly using it to publicize and promote what they were doing offline, outside of social media, rather than using social media as an educational tool.  In contrast, Qayyum has decided to take educational activities that might take place offline and try to bring them online.  In the process, he sees his role as using social media to create engaging opportunities for young Malaysians to develop their language and communication skills, to use English, and to find ways to express themselves in English. To accomplish these goals, he created a twitter account @EnglishJer, and leveraged his knowledge of social media to start twitter conversations about issues like the weak English skills of Malaysian youth, the problems with the Malaysian exam system, and general issues in the teaching and learning of English.

At first, he just saw @EnglishJer as an experiment, a way for Malaysians to connect and come together on a familiar platform to talk about the challenges and possibilities for learning English.  As Qayyam described it, “’jer’ is a colloquial form of the Malay ‘sahaja’ which means ‘just’, as in ‘it’s just English (you don’t have to worry).’”  But even Qayyum was surprised at how quickly the twitter conversations took off after the launch in January of 2015. Within three months, @EnglishJer had almost 6000 followers.  A few months after that, Malaysian educators started to take notice, and he began to get requests to come to talk to students and to provide workshops on topics like public speaking and creative writing.  At the same time, Qayyum also started getting inquiries from followers who wanted to help share the work with others. “It started as a twitter account, but I didn’t know where it was going to go from there,” Qayyum said, “So when people started asking me, ‘are you an NGO or a private company?’ I said ‘I don’t know’, but if you want to join us just tag along.”

After about 15 months, he got an offer from a local foundation to create a  “camp” to bring fifty Malaysian students together to develop leadership and communication skills. When over 200 people applied, he knew they were on to something.  Soon Qayyum and a growing group of volunteers found themselves developing more camps and holding events like poetry slams and live “quizzes.” They got requests to create curriculum modules and, at the request of a local media company, they created a series of videos.  Building on the success so far, they will be launching a nationwide tour to take the workshops, camps and other events to every state in Malaysia over the next year.

In each case, the work has been driven more by the growing demands from followers than by a particular vision. For example, the quizzes came about through an invitation to participate in a literary festival.  The organizers asked them to do a workshop, but Qayyum told them “Everyone else is doing that, so why don’t we do something different and try out a quiz show?”  That show became a model for a series of interactive events that Qayyum sees as a kind of combination of improv shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and game shows like “Jeopardy”.   The shows include teams vying to answer questions like “Can you guess which words have Greek origins?” and then participating in challenge rounds such as a water gun spelling bee. “We’re innovative in terms of method, rather than content.” Qayyum explains. “There’s still a stigma about speaking English here, so we first convince people that it’s okay to learn English, and then encourage them to use it.”

In order to make the work possible, Qayyum and his colleagues are all volunteers.  As he said, “no one works on this full-time,” and they rely to a large extent on small donations and in-kind contributions (for prizes, spaces, etc.) as well as occasional support from a private foundation. They also work with a number of partners, like Project Ihsan, which provides free tuition for students, and they draw on both the enthusiasm of their followers and the power of EnglishJer’s social media presence, which helps to attract support from celebrities and local educators and merchants alike.

While Qayyum admitted he felt like they are often “winging it,” he and his colleagues are also constantly engaged in surveying and researching the needs and interests of the youth they hope to reach. “What’s actually your problem with communicating in English? What annoys you about learning English?  Why are you still having problems with English after so many years studying it in schools?” In fact, in addition to providing workshops and helping to train locals to offer their own camps and workshops, the tour is designed to enable them to talk to followers from all regions of the country and get their input.  With all this input, Qayyum and his followers then try to identify those issues that are not addressed in Malaysian schools and that they feel their followers will respond to.  But they see another need for that information as well: Following the nationwide tour, they plan to use that knowledge in talks with policymakers and education stakeholders to improve the system.  “If we do this properly, maybe people will take notice,” Qayyum said.

Tandemic: Social Innovation as an Opportunity for Learning

Kal Joffres started Tandemic to provide consulting to help companies develop their social media strategy, but almost immediately he saw opportunities to use social media to advance social causes.  In particular, he saw the success of start-up weekend in the US and adapted it for Malaysia.  Instead of helping participants to start their own companies, however, Tandemic created a series of “make-a-thon’s” where the goal was to bring teams together to identify social challenges and design and proto-type possible solutions.  The make-a-thon’s were “less focused on the pitch at the end and on the business model,” Joffres explained. “And more on the solution, and designed to have a broader appeal.”

The make-a-thon’s took off almost immediately, and Tandemic developed a series of what they now call “Makeweekends” that they have taken to a variety of different locations, particularly local universities. Right from the beginning, Joffres felt that the participants found the freedom and encouragement to design “anything” particularly powerful. “Participants would come to our Makeweekends, and they would ask ‘you mean we can build anything we want?’ It was almost like it was a freedom that they had never had.”  As he put it, “For 13 years people have gone through a system where they have created only one kind of product – the essay/paper/report – and they finally create something tangible, and I think that light bulb goes off.”

With growing interest from participants as well as from the government and other funders, Joffres and his colleagues at Tandemic developed a wide range of Makeweekends and “hack-a-thon’s” over the next four years, primarily for 16-24 year olds in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia.  For this work, the focus was on social causes of all kinds, but the experience also gave Joffres and his colleagues ample opportunity to develop their own educational approach to design thinking.  In particular, they sought to deepen and extend the Makeweekends to encourage participants to go beyond the design stage and to try to put their ideas into practice.

Not everything Tandemic tried worked at first, however.  One change to the make-weekend design was to focus on what Joffres and his colleagues called “ideation” workshops.  In this approach, participants came to the design workshop for two weekends in a row – spending the first weekend developing their idea and the second focusing on design.  That approach foundered as they found it was hard for participants to block off the time and make a commitment to both weekends.  They even tried adding a Friday night session to give participants more time to develop their ideas, but, ultimately, they settled on a two-day (Saturday-Sunday) structure, because as Joffres explained “Each time the participants have to leave the venue and come back, there’s attrition.”

Tandemic has also worked on strengthening the impact of the makeweekends by building in more support for the participants to test out their ideas. As Joffres explained “We want participants to go out and find out ‘is this thing that we’ve created something that people really want? Or is it just something we’ve fallen in love with?’”  To that end, Tandemic has developed an approach in which they ask participants to establish “home” and “away” teams.  While the “home” team comes to the workshop, the “away” team stays in their local neighborhood to help gather information and pilot ideas as the “home” team continues to refine their ideas. For example, one “home team” wanted to help address problems of infant malnutrition back in their village in Nepal. They had already found that although food was available, many babies were being fed the wrong foods at the wrong time.

To address the problem, the home team developed a bracelet with color-coded beads that the new mothers could wear.  The bracelet served as a memory aid by linking the colored beads to different developmental periods and to the appropriate foods. The success of the bracelet, however, depended on developing effective training. Over a four-hour period, the home team stayed in touch with the away team back in Nepal as they interviewed a few young mothers and looked for potential trainers.  In the process, the teams learned that the best time for the training would be while the mothers were at appointments at the local health clinic.  However, they also learned that the group of medical professionals they expected to provide the training were only available on Saturdays, but on Saturday the health clinic was closed. In the end, the away team was able to identify a group of nursing students who were required to do volunteer work and could do the training during the week. From Joffres’ perspective, the home and away teams provide a structure to help people examine their core assumptions – “walk people back” from their initial ideas and then “walk them forward again.”  As Joffres explained, “You can’t just have ‘experts’ come in and tell people their ideas are problematic. They have to find it out for themselves.”

Joffres describes Tandemic’s work on the Unicef Youth Innovation Challenge as the culmination of all their work on using design thinking to address social problems.  The Challenge, held at the end of 2016, invited young people from all over Southeast Asia to submit applications to address a pressing social issue in their community. From 660 applications, 77 were chosen to participate in a 6 week mentorship program focused on design thinking; 43 came to a three-day “boot camp” in Kuala Lumpur; and three finalists were chosen to get continued mentorship to help them to take their ideas to the next stage, and, ideally, get funding.

Looking ahead, Joffres is seeking ways to have a more direct impact on the Malaysian education system as well.  The creation of a donor’s choose-type website for Malaysia took one step in that direction.  That initiative raised over 300,000 Malaysian Ringit in crowd-sourced donations for projects that teachers proposed.  But Joffres worried about the challenges of tracking the impact of those donations and is now changing focus to take Tandemic’s design thinking experience directly into schools by creating what he’s calling “innovation labs.” That work would involve teachers in identifying key problems that they face; Tandemic is looking for funders to support a small group of teachers who want to collaborate to try to solve those problems; and then Tandemic will provide the mentorship and structure to help those teachers to collect data, develop prototypes, and test them out. Joffres envisions this innovation lab as producing tools and resources that are relevant for many teachers and capable of spreading throughout the system with appropriate funding and support.

The challenges of influencing education systems from the “outside in”

All three of these endeavors draw on ideas and resources that cross boundaries, like digital videos, social media, and design thinking, to create new kinds of educational activities that fit the Malaysian context.   While unique to Malaysia, these initiatives also share some of the goals and concerns of “bottom-up” efforts to build on the ideas and experiences of educators (such as the iZone in the US and eduLab in Singapore); of peer-learning education models that have taken off in countries like Mexico and Columbia; and of the work on improvement science in education and health.

Furthermore, despite the differences among the three initiatives, all three have spent the bulk of their time developing their initiatives outside the public education system in Malaysia, but all three are becoming more and more concerned with exploring ways to influence the government-run school system as well. While they have to contend with a highly centralized and regulated system with relatively limited capacity, they also face some of the same basic challenges that confront those who want to create new kinds of learning experiences in the US and Singapore. Most importantly, like those who create charter schools and afterschool programs in the US outside the regular public schools, they gain some freedom from government regulations to develop their ideas, but then they also have to figure out how their work on the “outside” can find a way into the regular system to influence the day-to-day education of most Malaysian students.

At the same time, even efforts to provide educational alternatives “outside” government schools still cannot escape the system entirely. All of these organizations still have to deal with the facts that attending university and participating in many careers in Malaysia means passing national exams and meeting national curriculum requirements (even those with law degrees from other countries have to take a course and get credit in Bahasa Malaysia in order to practice law in Malaysia for example).  That means trying to “innovate” and develop alternative educational opportunities while still conforming to many of the existing constraints on conventional schools.

— Thomas Hatch

Building Hope In South African Education

I’ve only spent a week in Johannesburg, but it is hard not to be overwhelmed and inspired. Overwhelmed by the realities that many Black students in the Townships and the poorest communities still experience – strikes, violence and other disruptions that mean they may not get to school at all.  But even when many of these students are “in school” as one of my colleagues here told me, “they are getting no education.” In fact, The Economist recently declared that South Africa has “one of the world’s worst education systems”, while the BBC pointed out that roughly one out of four South African students failed their end of school exam last year.   All at the same time that many students continue to excel in long-established and high-performing private and ex-model c schools (formerly white schools).

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Inspired, however, by the efforts of so many working in and with schools and school systems here to create and expand real opportunities for learning.  Those include the “new private” or “low-fee” private schools that are designed explicitly to keep costs low.  Some of those, like LEAP Science and Math Schools have been around for several years and have already expanded.  Others are new, like Streetlight Schools, developed specifically for Jeppestown, an area where many students make former industrial buildings home.

Inspired as well by those in after school programs, summer programs, museums, and youth development programs that seek to create meaningful learning opportunities outside of schools.  Some programs, like IkamvaYouth, the Kliptown Youth Program, and Olico provide places for students to get help with homework or additional instruction, get support from peers, mentors, and teachers, and get the access to electricity, books, computers, and the internet that many can’t get at home.  Ultimately, ideally – after years of walking from school to these after school programs and then from the programs back home, keeping up their daily and weekly attendance – the hope is that all their work will pay off with access to university placements, scholarships, or jobs.

While the Kliptown Youth Program is unique to Kliptown in Soweto and Streetlight Schools is built directly into the Jeppestown neighborhood, other programs and school networks like IkamvaYouth and LEAP have expanded across provinces, and some like City Year South Africa build on programs in the US and elsewhere. But regardless of the unique aspects of the work in South Africa, I was struck by the shared challenges and the similarities in the development of these South African organizations and those I’ve been studying in New York City, Singapore and Malaysia.  All of these groups have to wrestle with the fundamentals of organizational and instructional development: they have to pull together or create the basic materials – registration forms, curricula and assessments, training manuals, and workshops; they have to find ways to attract students, recruit teachers, tutors, and other staff and volunteers; and they have to establish the relationships that create and sustain a safe and trusting environment inside their organizations while they spend time building broader networks of support among parents, community leaders, funders, and, sometimes, politicians. They have to do all of this, even when the electricity or the internet goes out; when their own equipment is stolen away (as at the branch of IkamvaYouth I visited); and when the whole political system is embroiled in controversy and conflict.  In South Africa, they have to do all of this as well amid a shift from a focus on the possibilities of post-apartheid democracy to a focus on the realities of sky high unemployment and limited, and costly, opportunities for higher education.  Coming to South Africa makes strikingly clear that the greatest crisis is a loss of hope. But experiencing the work being done by so many in Kliptown, Jeppestown and in so many other places across South Africa shows that hope is not just a dream about the future, it is built, day by day, step by step, like a ladder that allows us to reach higher than we ever have before.


Thomas Hatch


A new model for integrating technology in schools? The work of eduLab in Singapore

While we in the US often put our stock in the efforts of pioneers and entrepreneurial organizations to disrupt the conventional education system, my visit to Singapore last year made clear that Singapore takes a much more systematic approach to fostering new educational practices. Singapore’s current approach focuses on expanding learning opportunities to foster students’ 21st Century competencies and includes considerable “top-down” support – most recently from the Fourth Master Plan for Technology – that seeks to seed and scale promising developments across the system.

At the same time, reflecting its “centralized-decentralized approach”, Singapore has also invested heavily in supporting “bottom-up” initiatives in which teachers and schools develop their own new ideas and practices.   Since 2011, eduLab has served as a key vehicle for the support of bottom-up initiatives by funding a wide variety of projects proposed by teachers throughout Singapore.  Educators who receive funding work with eduLab staff, test out their ideas and develop prototypes, with all successful eduLab projects published on their website and in publications.  In addition, drawing on its current location at the Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST), Ministry of Education and eduLab staff and Master teachers from the Academy support the diffusion of eduLab supported tools and resources by facilitating workshops and supporting subject and theme-based communities of practice.

While the extent of Singapore’s central investment in development of productive uses of educational technology is unusual, eduLab shares a number of functions with organizations in other systems (like iZone in New York City for example), which also focus on finding, seeding, and spreading innovative practices that take advantage of educational technology.  Some of the parallels may reflect responses to the rapidly evolving character of educational technology in general.  In the late 1990’s and 2000’s, schools and systems in developed education systems like those in Singapore and the US were focused on building the infrastructure for educational technology in schools – establishing wired and then wireless connectivity, getting equipment, and building “platforms” to host online activities.  In that context, schools often faced multiple and competing bids from companies who could provide a “one-stop” solution with the expectation that the school, teachers, and students would adapt their activities to the chosen platform, computer system (primarily windows or mac), or technology (e.g. interactive whiteboards).  In that process, millions of dollars were spent on those computers, computer labs, other hardware and online platforms, but often without clear benefits (see for example the experiences of the New York City Department of Education in launching and then abandoning a 95 million dollar data system created originally by IBM).

Now the landscape has changed.  In 2016, students and teachers use a variety of different devices – laptops, desktops, ipads, kindles, mobile phones etc. – and access a wide range of applications developed by individuals as well as not-for-profit and commercial companies.  In some ways, these developments have flipped the technology “bidding war”—instead of schools having to decide which set of machines to buy or which platform to adopt, some teachers may be using google classroom, some may be using Moodle or Blackboard, and some may be cobbling together their own mix of tools and apps.

This shift from platform and equipment-based ICT to more application-based technology integration puts schools and educators in Singapore and the US in a different relationship with technology companies.  Where they were once consumers, listening to pitches from tech companies and having to decide which platform to pick, now schools can identify specific problems that address their students’ needs and ask tech companies to produce apps and applications in response (for one US edtech industry perspective on how to sell products to schools see “Choosing a ‘top-down’ vs. ‘bottom-up’ approach in edtech sales”). In this scenario, edtech companies have to figure out how to meet local demands and scale, rather than focus first on general issues they believe will scale most quickly, leaving it up to educators and schools to figure out how to adapt.

Today, organizations like eduLab can serve as a key link between educators and the resources and expertise in the educational technology community by helping teachers find the right partners, sorting out the qualifications of bidders, evaluating bids, facilitating the development process (with user tests and iterations of the proposed “solution”), negotiating contracts, and dealing with fundamental rights and responsibilities including issues of intellectual property. These relationships both give eduLab teachers access to the latest technologies and allow those companies access and opportunities to develop and adapt (and in some cases commercialize) products that meet the needs of teachers and schools.  In one illustration of that process, a chemistry teacher in Singapore noted a problem that many of his upper secondary school students faced:  remembering the specific nomenclature used in their beginning chemistry course. In response, the teacher developed a card game in which he found that students learned the vocabulary most effectively when they were involved in discovering the rules that governed the use of the terms. Building on that discovery, the teacher and several colleagues were given funding to pursue an eduLab project that started in 2014. Working with staff from the Ministry of Education and eduLab as part of the team, a comparative study was carried out that demonstrated the benefits of the game. Designs for an app were then developed that enhanced the game with visualizations and that allowed teachers to get data on students’ performance to inform their instruction. Finally, eduLab worked with local start-up developers to build the app, which is now commercially available (both on iTunes and through Google Play).

Reflecting the complexity of these relationships, eduLab has developed several different ways of working with vendors.  For resources and applications that educators have already developed, eduLab may simply put the project out for bid.  For example, teachers at one school in Singapore developed a tool for automatic marking of students’ papers that an industry partner commercialized and helped to make widely available. At the other end of the spectrum, in cases where solutions have not yet been developed, risks are high, and success uncertain, eduLab might help search for industry partners who will take on the development costs themselves.  In one instance, a school wanted to explore the possibilities for adaptive learning in science and sought a tool that would help tailor content and activities based on students’ performances. An industry partner took up the request and created a tool that both gives students’ feedback and helps teachers to assess each student’s development.

Of course, industry partners are most likely to respond to and invest in projects that they believe have potential commercial benefits.  As a consequence, intermediaries like eduLab also have to engage with research organizations and non-profits who might be willing to invest in issues that are crucial to students and educators but may not have as much commercial potential.

In playing this kind of intermediary role, eduLab benefits from its close ties to Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (now called the Infocomm Media Development Authority or IMDA) and the National Research Fund, managed by the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the Ministry of Education (MOE).  Those ties are formalized as members of the Ministry, NIE, and IMDA all serve on the committee overseeing eduLab.  These formal connections also facilitate a wide range of personal relationships among educators, policymakers, and researchers who participate in various aspects of eduLab’s work.

Of course, neither having educators engaged in developing eduLab projects from the beginning nor making them widely available guarantees that they will be used or used well.  To that end, eduLab is turning more attention to issues like assessment and evaluation.  Those issues include how to develop assessments that focus on competencies that are not addressed in current tests; how to evaluate projects that are designed for small groups of teachers (like those teaching introductory chemistry in high school); and how to deal with reliability and validity in uncontrollable classroom contexts and other challenges of “rapid cycle evaluation and improvement.” (In the decentralized US system, however, with few “intermediaries” like eduLab or iZone, many districts are left to their own devices and have to rely instead on the development of edtech evaluation tools like Mathematica’s EdTech Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach or leverage other private sources such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s work on improvement science.)

While there is no simple measure of what impact eduLab projects might have on Singaporean students’ educational experiences overall, eduLab’s current work presents a very different image of how technologies may influence teaching and learning.  Rather than affecting all aspects of a teachers’ practice and transforming conventional instruction, in many cases, eduLab projects develop tools and resources adapted to specific instructional “niches” – such as the teaching of vocabulary in a beginning Chemistry class.   In these instances, the novelty of the tools and products and the extent to which they support conventional teaching or more student-centered learning may be less important than the fact that organizations like eduLab provide a new means of bringing together the professional expertise and local knowledge that educators have with the technical expertise of those in the edtech community.

— Thomas Hatch


A roundup of education issues in 2016 and predictions for 2017

As the New Year turns, I’ve encountered a variety of roundups of key education issues and trends in 2016 and predictions from 2017, including The Stories That Shaped Edtech in 2016 Edsurge; Philanthropy Awards, 2016 and Philanthropy in the Age of Trump:  Six Predictions from Inside Philanthropy; CityLab salutes the best ideas of 2016 CityLab; Education issues to watch in 2017 – and predictions of what to expect EdSource; 5 Education Stories To Watch In 2017, NPR.  Predictably, these and other forecasters are focused on the possible Trump effect in education, though, if we learned anything in 2016 it was how unpredictable things (particularly politics in the US) can be.  While I don’t know what will happen in 2017, there are a number of questions, I’ll continue to ask:

What will students have a choice of…? There is no doubt that school choice will be in the news (as it already has been).  Already forgotten, however, is the fact that even if policies put choice into practice, many students will still have few schools from which to choose.  Further, those choices are likely to be limited, and those choices may not include particularly effective schools or match those students’ interests and needs.

Will the new new schools be any different than the old new schools?  Maybe efforts like the XQ Project will help to create choices that better match students’ interests and needs?  Rick Hess and others like Inside Philanthropy are wondering about questions like these as well. I look at it from the perspective of someone who worked in and studied the new school models developed as part of the New American Schools initiative in the 1990’s.  And while I expect efforts to create new schools will continue (and I hope they succeed), I don’t yet see how creating some new schools, charter or non-charter, will suddenly, finally, catalyze significant changes and improvements in schools across the country.

Will personalization actually change instruction? Michael Horn breaks down the hype on one of 2016’s most used bits of education jargon and suggests we focus on personalizing rather than on personalization.  That seems like a wise move, but it remains to be seen whether personalizing instruction really gets beyond matching students and topics or adjusting levels of difficulty.  In 2017, will we see more widespread examples in which instruction includes regular adaptation of pedagogical strategies, and different kinds of scaffolding, tools, and support for different learners?  Will personalizing education ever mean that students can choose to pursue the personally meaningful goals that go beyond those traditionally valued in schools, in colleges, and, ultimately, even in the current supply and demand economy? Should it?

How will the economy affect education? While many claim education drives the economy, over and over again the economy shapes and limits what education can achieve.  More and more that means, even as many educators commit themselves to reducing inequality, our society is becoming less equitable (as “The top charts from 2016” from EPI often demonstrate). Even as many predict that the economy could continue to grow in 2017, what new and pioneering efforts can ensure that those benefits actually address rather than exacerbate inequities?  While I don’t know the answer to that question, both universal basic income (What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money? FiveThirtyEight; Radical Idea? The New Funding Around a Basic Income Inside Philanthropy) and the block-chain “revolution” (How blockchains could change the world McKinsey & Co) could affect the economy, education and equity in 2017 and beyond may be worth watching.

                                      — Thomas Hatch

Concerns and realities of tutoring and tuition centers in Singapore

The recent releases of the PISA and TIMSS results have highlighted again the high test scores of Singaporean students. With that notoriety come questions about how Singapore manages such a feat, as well as concerns, from both inside and outside Singapore, about the problems with too much attention and focus on test performance.  Notably, these concerns are expressed by government officials, educators, researchers, and parents and focus on some of the same issues that worry those in the United States and other countries.  As an article this past week in the Straits Times pointed out, concerns focus particularly on the amount of time many students spend in tutoring arrangements after school, during weekends and over school breaks and the stress and academic pressure that can result.

What does tutoring involve in Singapore?

To date, the research on tutoring in Singapore and its effects on both academic performance and students’ well-being remains scant (though there is some surprising evidence that tutoring may be correlated with worse test performance).  However, on my recent visit there, I had a chance to talk with several people who have studied tutoring arrangements as well as participated in them as teachers and students.  In many ways, those conversations reinforced things I knew in the abstract, but had not seen played out in practice:

  • Private companies, community organizations, and individuals offer a vast array of tutoring options

Tutoring arrangements include formal programs offered by a wide range of companies and community organizations as well as arrangements that parents and students make on their own to work with individual tutors. But the number and variety of commercial tutoring programs alone is staggering. The Parkway Center, a 13-story mall and office complex in Singapore, for example, offers a slew of learning programs for students.  On just one floor, families can find:

  • Excelearn Education – Offering “programmes for Mathematics and Science for various levels”
  • Chapter One Chinese — To help children appreciate and master Chinese
  • Wordsmiths Learning Centre – Specializing in English Language and the Humanities to “prepare students to sit for their examinations with confidence”
  • Intellect Learning Hub — Providing classes in English, Chinese, maths, and science at both the primary and secondary level
  • Phi Learning – Focusing on preparation for the PSLE and O-Levels in English and Chinese

To help families navigate this vast array, media publications and websites like theAsianparent, Epigami, kinderful, and tuitionary list or review some of the many commercial options.  Many of the reviews identify Learning Lab as one of the leading (and most expensive) private tuition centers.  With several campuses, Learning Lab looks more like an elite private school than an afterschool program.

While commercial programs cater to different groups and reflect different costs, many are out of reach of families with low and moderate incomes.  As one means of making tutoring more affordable for all, the community organizations that support the three main ethnic groups in Singapore also offer their own, subsidized tuition programs spread out over a large number of locations.  These organizations include the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), SINDA serving Singapore’s Indian community, and MENDAKI (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community).

  • Tutoring is really big business

It’s no surprise that tutoring is big business in Singapore as it is in other parts of the world.  In a previous post, I noted that in Singapore tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  That number, however, may not adequately reflect the investments parents and students make in smaller and individual tutoring arrangements. Only centers with 10 or more students need to register and private tutors only need to register when their income exceeds the 1 million dollar mark (– yes, there are about 10 of these “supertutors” in Singapore).

I was also struck by the competition for students and the aggressive marketing that often focuses on test performance.  Private companies in particular advertise the successes of their students not only on the high stakes exams but also in winning scholarships and gaining admission to private universities.  Learning Lab for example points out on their website: “Since our founding in 2001, we have established a reputation among parents, students and educators for consistently producing Singapore’s top students at the PSLE. Our alumni have been admitted into NUS, NTU, SMU, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Yale in the US, and Oxford. Several have garnered prestigious private and public sector scholarships, including half a dozen being awarded the Singapore Public Service Commission’s President’s Scholarship.”

  • Tuition centers also provide a wide range of enrichment activities

Tuition centers in Singapore provide programs designed to help students in school in general (and to improve their grades for example), to help students prepare for high stakes exams such as those at the end of sixth grade and at the end of secondary school; and to help meet the needs of specific groups of students such as those studying in International Baccalaureate Schools.  At the same time, many students in Singapore participate in a wide range of other activities outside of school, and there are also many “enrichment centers” offering classes in music, art, dance, sports, science and other activities that go far beyond test prep. For example, in addition to its many tuition centers, the Parkway Center also houses Joy Music StudioMusicaland Studios, Flute and Music Academy, HI Art Education, Dance Bollywood International, Dance Trilogy,  and Lions Taekwondo Academy.

What’s it like to participate in tutoring programs?

It is hard enough to get an overall sense of what tutoring and tuition arrangements look like in Singapore, but it is even more difficult to get a sense of what the experience is like for students and teachers.  Those I talked to about their own participation in tutoring or about their studies of tuition centers point to examples of programs that match the stereotype of “drill and kill” factories and “hothouse” environments, but point to others that provide a warmer environment where students can work in smaller groups and develop closer relationships with their teachers than they can during the regular school day. While some students participate in tutoring because their parents require it or out of fear they may fall behind peers who are getting extra help, others go by choice, often in a desire to be with their friends.  Some teachers may prefer to work in tuition centers or as private tutors.  In fact, a number of tuition centers have been started by former teachers.  Incentives for providing tutoring include the possibility of high pay, but some teachers also appreciate the chances to work individually or in small groups with students in ways that are difficult to do during regular school hours. Unfortunately, the centers designed to serve those with lower incomes may not have the resources to hire experienced teachers or sustain the smallest student-teacher ratios, creating significant problems that the system has to figure out how to address.

Will anything change?

Given the high demand for tutoring and academic support among parents and the continued high stakes exams and academic pressure, even with all the concerns, it is hard to imagine drastic changes in the tutoring landscape in Singapore in the near term even if education policymakers tried to discourage it. (For that matter, it’s also hard to imagine significant changes in the heavy investments of time and money made in tutoring in other countries like Hong Kong – where reports describe “big business tutoring centers” and explain how “’celebrity tutors’ turn millionaires”.)

Nonetheless, those in the tutoring industry in Singapore will have to respond as the Ministry of Education continues to press for a shift in focus toward 21st Century skills and makes adjustments to goals and testing (including introducing more computer-based testing). OECD is also making some changes in the content and format of the PISA tests that may trickle down eventually. The explosion of online and blended learning opportunities will also likely have some effect on tutoring and tuition centers, though it is hard to see how that would address concerns about undue emphases on testing or academic stress. As a consequence, the government in Singapore faces the challenge of trying to loosen the grip of testing and tutoring, at the same time that drastically changing the tests eliminates one of the key mechanisms that supports the alignment of an education system recognized as “high-performing.”

— Thomas Hatch

Headlines Around the World PISA 2015 Edition

Following the cascade of headlines on the release of TIMSS scores last week, the results of the 2015 PISA tests were announced yesterday. There were some cautions about putting too much weight on the rankings. In fact, both Valerie Strauss in the US (“Why Americans should not panic about international test results”) and Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard in Australia (Pisa results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic) tried to stave off knee jerk reactions. Nonetheless, as usual, the headlines around the world seem to focus primarily on who’s on top of the rankings and where individual countries place on one or more of the tested subjects of math, reading, and science. Times Higher Education put it succinctly — Pisa results 2016: Singapore sweeps the board – but noted that while East Asian countries dominate the rankings, “China loses ground in tables after new provinces are included for the first time.”  While some reports about TIMSS noted declines in performance by Finnish 15 year-olds, Finland remained near the top on the PISA tests, but the high performance of neighboring Estonia was recognized as well (Finland and Estonia top of the class in EU for education, Euronews).  Other countries beyond Asia, like Canada, also received some positive headlines (Canadian students rank fourth for science performance, The Globe and Mail).

Many headlines in Australia seized on bad results from PISA 2015 that echoed declines on TIMMS (as Teacher Magazine put it, PISA 2015 brings more bad news for Australia while ABC Online highlighted Australian schools are in ‘absolute decline’ globally, says PISA report).  At the same time, in headlines and on twitter, concerns (and blame) over poor performance of Wales and Scotland were also in evidence (Full Pisa results 2016 show Wales’ schools are still adrift of the rest of the rest of the UK, Wales Online; Scottish school standards in maths and reading slump in damning PISA survey, Herald Scotland).

There was also considerable controversy in Malaysia where government officials touted what they viewed as improved results (PISA 2015: Malaysia shows significant improvement in Math, Science & reading, New Straits Times Online); however, critics pointed out that OECD did not include Malaysia in the results of PISA 2015 (PISA 2015: Malaysia shows significant improvement in Math, Science & reading, New Straits Times Online). Quotes from one source cited OECD’s concern of a response rate of sampled schools in Malaysia of roughly 50% compared to the desired 85% response rate.

Beyond the headlines, reporting sometimes noted both good news and bad news.  As (a rough translation) from Diario Perú21, put it:  “The good news is that the level of Peruvian schoolchildren improved in the last three years – the fastest… in Latin America, the bad news is that Peru still ranks in the last place on the list.”

Meanwhile, Spiegel Online noted that German students were in the “upper middle” of the rankings but also highlighted that only two other countries scored lower when students were asked whether they could envision a career in science.   In the US, however, stories headlined declines in math performance with only a mention or two that the association of between socio-economic status and student performance in science in the US has declined (American teens’ math scores fall on an international test, Los Angeles Times‎; Internationally, U.S. Students Are FallingUS News & World Report).

In a few cases, reports went beyond the basic rankings to highlight other aspects of the findings.  Schools Week for example, headlined “No improvement for a decade” but also highlighted what it called “10 other oddities” including “White working class pupils are not doing worse than ethnic minority working class pupils”and “Second-generation immigrant children do as well as pupils with parents born in England.”  Quartz also used the PISA 2015 release to headline gender issues (The origin of Silicon Valley’s gender problem).  A number of reports also picked up on several other results that OECD highlighted, including gender gaps (particularly in interest in and career aspirations in science) and countries that were high performers and showed equity in education outcomes (like Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Hong Kong and Macao).  However, those issues usually did not make it into the headlines.

(It is worth noting, however, that this exercise of scanning the headlines continues to be limited by language abilities and the vagaries of online translations, which continue to produce hard to interpret results like “Science does not go into the forest! Polish students at the forefront of PISA 2015”)

— Thomas Hatch


PISA results show further decline in Australia’s education rankingsCanberra Times 

Australia not preparing students for adult lifeSky News Australia‎

PISA 2015 brings more bad news for AustraliaTeacher Magazine 

Teenagers fall year behind internationally in mathsThe Australian

Australian schools are in ‘absolute decline’ globally, says PISA reportABC Online

PISA results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic, The Guardian


Canadian students rank fourth for science performanceThe Globe and Mail


Pisa: UK and England see performance drop in maths and reading, but climb rankings in scienceTES News 


PISA 2015: Estonia’s basic education best in EuropeThe Baltic Course


PISA: Finland only country where girls top boys in scienceYLE News


Pisa-Studie: Deutschland hält sich im oberen MittelfeldSpiegel Online


Irish students among ‘best at reading’ in developed world, In-Depth-Irish Times


Japan’s 15-year-olds perform well in PISA global academic surveyThe Japan Times


PISA results 2015: Luxembourg student test results remain below OECD averageLuxemburger Wort


Education | Macau students ‘score high’ on PISA 2015Macau Daily Times

New Zealand

NZ students’ results decline, but still above OECD average – PISA …New Zealand Herald


PISA 2015: Malaysia shows significant improvement in Math, Science & readingNew Straits Times Online


Norwegian 15 year olds climbing on the PISA rankingsAftenposten


PISA 2015: Perú mejoró sus resultados pero sigue en los últimos …Diario Perú21


Nauka nie idzie w las! Polscy uczniowie w czołówce PISA 2015TVP Info


Scottish school standards in maths and reading slump in damning PISA survey.Herald Scotland


Singapore students top in maths, science and reading in Pisa international benchmarking testThe Straits Times

United States

American teens’ math scores fall on an international test, Los Angeles Times‎

Internationally, U.S. Students Are FallingUS News & World Report


Full Pisa results 2016 show Wales’ schools are still adrift of the rest of the rest of the UK.Wales Online

Headlines Around the World TIMSS 2015 Edition

Generating a cascade of headlines, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released this week. As in the past, Asian countries dominated the rankings.  The press release noted:

“Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan continue outperforming all participating countries in mathematics at the fourth and eighth grades, maintaining a 20 year edge according to results released today from TIMSS”

For the most part, headlines highlighted whether a particular country did well or poorly, often with a particular focus on mathematics performance.  The headlines in Australia were especially gloomy, describing the country’s results as “flatlining” (Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine), “embarrassing” (Australian maths results embarrass minister, 9 News), and as a “wake-up call” (‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England Financial Review). Finland accustomed to more positive news also did not fare so well.  While google translate left much to be desired, the general tenor of the article in Helsingin Uutiset seemed clear: “the results of the boys have deteriorated, and the girls have to wedge the boys over in all the studied areas.”

Occasionally, headlines did not mention the outcomes in Asian countries and instead reported on performance related to closer neighbors (Aftenposten in Norway for example noting Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics while the BBC pointed out Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests).  In some cases, sources reported on conflicting aspects of a country’s performance. In South Africa, for example, allAfrica emphasized the positive (South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study), while News24 did not (SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science).  In the United States, the Wall Street Journal provided the positive spin (U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test); the Washington Post highlighted the negative (U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam); and the Christian Science Monitor covered both sides (US students gain a bit on math, but science scores still lag Asia).

Only in a few cases did headlines point to some of the other information available in the results (such as news on gender gaps, homework, and students’ confidence like those reported on by TES: Timss: England’s pupils do less homework and seven other things we learned from today’s study). The journal Science, however, focused on a new development in TIMSS 2015 by highlighting the overall poor performance of “advanced” high school students taking the most challenging math and science classes.  In Are the best students really that advanced? Science reported that with the exception of Russian students and some Slovenian students these “advanced” students in the nine countries “performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school.”  Notably that article also pointed out that “The East Asian students did not participate in the TIMSS Advanced (assessment) because it was seen as conflicting with the high-stakes final exam that determines university placement in those countries. So the TIMSS sheds no light on their performance across their entire school careers.” With such poor results and limited participation on the new test but a trend toward overall improvements on the more familiar tests, questions about teaching to the test are likely to be asked.  Further questions may come with the release of the results of the latest round of PISA tests on “PISA Day”, next Tuesday, December 6th (and I’ll share a scan of the PISA headlines next week both here and on

Thomas Hatch


A sampling of TIMSS results headlines:


Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine,

Aust maths results embarrass minister, 9 News

‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England
Financial Review


English pupils improve results in international maths and science exams, The Guardian


Tytöt menivät poikien ohi jo matikassakin – 4.-luokkalaisten taidot heikkenevät Suomessa, Helsingin Uutiset


French students rank last in EU for maths, study finds, France24


Study: German students’ mathematics achievement declines


Ireland ranks 15th in global league table for maths, science, Irish Times

GDP would be boosted by 2.3 per cent if universal basic skill levels were achieved


Japanese students’ average scores rise in global math, science tests, The Mainichi


Moroccan Math and Science Education Struggling, But Improving: Survey, Morocco World News

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests, BBC


Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics, Aftenposten

New Zealand

New Zealand pupils below average in maths results – TIMSS, New Zealand Herald


Singapore students top global achievement test in mathematics and science, Straits Times

South Africa

South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study, allAfrica

SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science,  News24


UAE pupils improve maths and science skills, global study shows, The National

United States

U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam, Washington Post

U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test, Students in some Asian nations excel; U.S. students improve

 Wall Street Journal

US students gain a bit on math, science scores but still lag Asia, Christian Science Monitor

The problem and possibilities of improvement and “innovation” in education (Singapore and Malaysia edition)

The first problem with innovation is that it is hard to define. It is one of those, “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things.  As a consequence, almost any “new” practice, program, resource, or idea that departs from convention may appear “innovative” to some.  Yet for others, only the most revolutionary, transformative, or disruptive practices or materials deserve to be called “innovative.”  A shift from thinking of “innovations” as a singular category –  something is either “innovative” or it’s not – to thinking about the “symptoms” of innovation provides one way to address this definitional ambiguity.  (The philosopher Nelson Goodman, one of Noam Chomsky’s teachers, took this approach when discussing the definition of “art.”)  Symptoms of innovation include the extent to which something departs from convention as well as the extent to which it changes or transforms related activities. For example, even “smart” phones still retain some of the features of the land-lines that preceded them, but their mobility and wireless connectivity are new and make possible all kinds of activities (texting, surfing the internet, using apps etc.) that have changed the ways people behave and interact.  Other symptoms might include the extent to which something is viewed as innovative within a particular context (a region or industry) or as cutting across contexts.  From this perspective, mobile phones appear to be quite innovative as they have spread and contributed to changes in behaviors and activity across international contexts.  At the same time, technologies like whiteboards that seem commonplace in classrooms in many countries nowadays may still seem innovative in parts of the world where they are just being introduced.  In either case, the extent to which these new technologies have or might change behaviors and activities remains to be debated.

In education, many different practices, programs, and school models have been hailed as “innovative” in different times.  Nonetheless, substantial departures from conventional classroom practices and activities rarely seem to take hold across schools and contexts (as Larry Cuban continues to examine when it comes to technology and computer use in the classroom). In order to explore some of these “issues of innovation” and the challenges and possibilities for improving conventional educational practices, I am working with colleagues Deirdre Faughey, Jordan Carson, and Sarah van den Berg to look at what educators consider “innovative” both inside conventional school systems as well as outside (in alternative schools, after school programs, tutoring programs, museums, online activities etc.); and I’m looking at what’s “innovative” in both developed and developing education systems (such as those in New York City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Johannesburg). Theoretically these different educational settings should create different opportunities for, and perhaps different kinds of, innovations. Ideally, looking at how innovative efforts evolve in different contexts will provide some clues about what it really takes to transform conventional learning opportunities so that all students, from all backgrounds can be successful.  (For a look at some initial descriptions of efforts to improve different aspects of education, see posts on Citizen Schools, New Visions, the iZone, the Millennium Villages Project in Africa, and the India School Leadership Institute.)

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on what I learned when I visited and talked with colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia about recent efforts to improve their educational systems and what might be “innovative” in education in each context. The education systems in Singapore and Malaysia are particularly interesting because they are geographic neighbors with some shared history and culture.  Education systems in both countries are quite centralized, and both have introduced a number of initiatives to change and improve their performance.  Nonetheless, their education systems are at very different stages of development. Singapore continues to be at the top or near the top on comparative tests like PISA and TIMMS, while Malaysia ranks below more than fifty other countries in reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, while Malaysia has substantially increased enrollment rates at every level of schooling, it is in the midst of increasing compulsory schooling from six to eleven years, and it is still working to increase enrollments in upper secondary education which stood at 82% in 2011.

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

What struck me most, however, in my visits, were the differences in where efforts to produce more innovative learning opportunities are taking place.  What I found in Malaysia, for example, reminded me in some ways of what I see in New York City: the growth of alternative schools, after school programs, and other educational opportunities created by independent groups and individuals operating outside the public school system. Those I talked to about innovation in Kuala Lumpur pointed to a number of for-profit and not-for-profit efforts to create private schools and to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day. Among private schools, the alternatives to government-run public schools include international schools often connected to or resembling those operating in the US and elsewhere and some newer international schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University. There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  Outside the school day, organizations and collaborative like Edunation, Arus Academy, Tandemic, and EnglishJer have sprouted to address what their members see as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system.

At the same time, the government in Malaysia has continued efforts to ensure all children have access to education while also launching a variety of initiatives to increase the quality of education. Recent initiatives have focused on integrating Higher Order Thinking Skills into the curriculum, establishing a technological infrastructure in all schools (including internet connectivity, computers/computer labs, and a virtual learning environment), and programs to establish “Trust Schools” (modeled after the academies in England or what those in the US would consider charter schools).  Often, the Ministry of Education, with limited resources, finds a contractor to lead these initiatives, but then these contractors have to find and develop the means themselves to roll their work out across large numbers of teachers and schools.



In contrast, when I asked about innovation in Singapore, those I talked to generally pointed to major initiatives launched by the government as part of continuing efforts to improve and change the education system. These include efforts to focus on the development of 21st Century skills amongst all students and to integrating technology productively into teaching (as part of Singapore’s Fourth Master Plan for technology integration). These efforts reflect what colleagues in Singapore have called a “centralized decentralized” approach to create opportunities for schools and teachers to develop innovative practices, which if effective, can then be scaled up across the system. This approach included the creation of a set of Future Schools in 2007 that experimented with different approaches to using technology and that could serve as models or prototypes that could inspire other schools to change their instructional practices. In addition, in 2011 the Ministry of Education established Edulab which now provides support for educators to develop new practices and resources and creates opportunities to share those practices and resources across teachers and schools.

There are numerous educational opportunities outside the regular school classroom in Singapore, but those generally connect to and complement the work going on in the government-run schools rather than serving as independent educational alternatives.  Educational programs established outside the public schools in Singapore include workshops and field trips organized by cultural institutions such as the Singapore Discovery Center and the National Gallery of Singapore.  These educational opportunities serve as “Learning Journeys” that schools are required to offer students as part of Singapore’s commitment to integrating National Education into the curriculum.  The opportunities for learning after school and on weekends are also dominated by tutoring offered by a host of individuals and “tuition centers”.  Despite the concerns of the Singaporean government and many educators and parents, tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  Tuition centers focus primarily on preparing students for the national exams that students in Singapore take at the end of primary  and upper secondary school and before admission to university; but some centers try to distinguish themselves with their own educational approaches and some aim to help students develop skills that go beyond those emphasized in the tests.

Singapore and Malaysia present very different contexts for developing new educational opportunities for students, but both have to contend with the challenges of figuring out which new practices and programs might work and what kinds of mechanisms will help educators and schools to build on any successes. In the next few weeks, I will be following up on these initial impressions with closer looks at the evolution of some of the programs and organizations that are working to improve the educational opportunities in each of these systems.

— Thomas Hatch


Recent Observations on Finnish Education from Elizabeth Green

This post can also be found on International Education News

This past week Elizabeth Green, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Chalkbeat, shared a number of tweets from a recent visit to schools and day care centers in Finland.  She made telling observations, noting students’ use of slippers and the raised tables in daycares that make it easier for teachers to “get on students’ level”, that hint at the Finnish attention to detail and design.  She also pointed to key aspects of the Finnish education system that connected to some of the experiences that I had when spending a month in Finland with my family 2 years ago.  At that time, two of my daughters spent the end of the school year in Finnish classrooms, and my wife, Karen Hammerness, and I got to talk with a number of policymakers, educators, and researchers.  As Green indicates in tweets showing a graphic of the new Finnish Core Curriculum and noting that schools were given considerable time to prepare for implementation, the Finnish approach to developing a coherent national curriculum is totally different from the development of the Common Core in the US. While Green points to teachers who generally support the new Finnish Core Curriculum, the roll-out has included controversy over the extent to which the new curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary work.  Interestingly, Green also found that some teachers also dislike an emphasis on learning to code, an emphasis which seems to be embraced in many quarters in the US. Nonetheless, Green cited a new teacher gushing about her lesson plan as one of the best moments of a visit to a school as well as a teacher who commented that even with a “core” curriculum she still felt considerable autonomy.  We found that same kind of enthusiasm and sense of autonomy among teachers again and again, perhaps reflecting the extensive preparation and support that new teachers in Finland receive.  At the same time, during my visit, it seemed that autonomy also depends on a level of interdependence and collective commitment that often goes unmentioned. Green’s comment that she “Never considered proximity to Russia, geographic and cultural, when considering Finnish educational success” struck a chord with me as well.  The pressure and urgency that might have contributed to a commitment to centralize and transform the Finnish education system in the 1970’s (as Pasi Sahlberg describes in Finnish Lessons) came through to me when a Finnish educator told me that she grew up near the border in Finland knowing that Soviet tanks could be in her front yard in twenty minutes…

— Tom Hatch




Common ground for reducing school suspensions/expulsions?

These occasional posts reflect on issues I’m encountering in my own research and teaching and in the educational experiences of my three daughters. Some of those posts come from and others come from a current research project looking at the evolution of promising improvement efforts in New York City as well as other parts of the world.

Recent debates over school discipline in the United States have centered on whether or not districts/schools should eliminate suspensions. The latest AEI Express from Rick Hess presents two different views on the subject. Max Eden, from the Manhattan Institute, argues that unilateral elimination of suspensions, while well-intentioned, may do more harm than good. Hailly Korman, from Bellweather Education Partners, makes the case that there are effective ways to reduce suspensions in general and address racial inequities in suspensions as well. All their points deserve thoughtful examination, but it is fascinating to see Eden, a self-described “conservative” side with the President of the New York City Teacher’s union, Michael Mulgrew. Mulgrew criticized Bill DeBlasio, the Mayor of New York City, for imposing a unilateral ban on suspensions in kindergarten through 2nd grade. As Eden put it: “Mulgrew wouldn’t have broken so publicly with the man he helped to elect if he didn’t have a good reason” (although couldn’t that reason include unwavering support for the teachers Mulgrew represents to make their own decisions whatever the issue?). Korman, for her part, highlights that “The vast majority of incidents leading up to suspension or expulsion are non-serious or non-violent infractions, disruptions, and misbehaviors.” Notably, the decisions about whether and when to suspend students for these minor infractions are often subjective and end up disproportionately affecting African-American, Latino and Native American students, especially boys. One can imagine that both Eden and Korman might agree (as well as others they cite including researchers like Robin Lake and school leaders like Nancy Hanks) with efforts that focus attention on eliminating suspension/expulsion for minor infractions and establishing clearer criteria that limit subjectivity and bias. As Korman puts it, we all need “a more robust toolkit to respond to disruptions and frustrations” that provides a safe and constructive learning environment for all.

Thomas Hatch