For several decades, the Singapore model of education worked very well. We churned out students proficient in math and science. Students were sorted by their PSLE, O level and then A level grades so only the most academically successful would be corralled into the most prestigious university courses, sorted of course according to earning potential upon graduation.
But now, that model doesn’t seem to be working anymore. With the economy more and more dependent on innovation, the government is realising that the system isn’t producing the kinds of people who can keep the economy chugging along.
Once successful professions are losing their shine
Traditionally, parents used to push their kids to enter professions that required formal qualifications such as medicine, law, dentistry and accountancy. Because these jobs paid reasonably well and entry was restricted, they were viewed as stable and safe choices. Choosing one of these as a career was a step to success.
These days, however, it is undoubtedly tech jobs that look the most promising, with a spike in the starting salaries of computing grads being just the tip of the iceberg.
This year, the number of university applicants listing computing as their first choice jumped, while the number choosing law fell. This is no doubt due to the glut of lawyers which has caused starting salaries to fall, as well as news reports shedding light on the high attrition rate of lawyers due to long, punishing hours.
Professionals such as doctors and accountants also have a reputation for working ridiculously long hours, while teachers lament the enormous volume of non-teaching work they are forced to complete.
With 3 in 4 Singapore millennials aiming to be their own boss, getting a professional degree is no longer a guarantee for success… and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Wealth and stability will no longer be the key career drivers
Singapore owes its past economic success to the many MNCs which have set up shop here. So naturally, preparing students to become employees in these corporations worked well for us.
Nowadays, however, it seems the key to further growth is to maximise our digital capabilities, innovate and be adaptable. And to do that, Singapore needs different kinds of people than the obedient office workers we used to churn out.
That’s why despite our success in achieving top PISA scores, the government has been investigating ways to tweak the education system to produce the kinds of people the future economy will need.
An unhealthy focus on grades in particular has been criticised for producing students who don’t bother to look beyond the textbook and who show no interest in their work.
How should the education system change to fit the new definition of success?
To produce students who’ll be able to thrive in the future economy and make sure the country doesn’t fall into obsolescence, striving to achieve the following goals might help.
1. Nudge students towards exploring their interests
One’s personal interests were pretty low on the priority list when choosing a uni course two decades ago. What was important was earning power.
But in future, workers will be less able to get by doing their jobs on autopilot mode for 30 years. Constant learning and developing one’s skills is necessary to stay relevant. Which is why only those students who are genuinely happy with their chosen career choices will thrive.
Instead of focusing only on boosting students’ grades, schools need to offer stronger career guidance, and the system needs to enable students to dabble and explore their interests more.
2. Emphasise true mastery of subject matter outside of the classroom
Singaporean students are notorious for asking, “Is it going to be on the exam?” when given information that looks suspiciously unnecessary. That’s because the education system is so grades-focused that anything that doesn’t affect one’s grades is deemed unimportant. Students become skilled test-takers and nothing more.
The goal of the education system should be to encourage students to develop good learning habits and a spirit of inquiry that will enable them to truly master their subjects of choice outside the classroom.
In future, a focus on building a portfolio rather than simply getting good grades might be beneficial, as students will be required to demonstrate a genuine interest in their chosen course of study and a track record of having explored it before they can be admitted into certain courses.
Education and Schools Singapore