Exams: What we can learn from Singapore
By Andrew Kipkemboi | February 8th 2021
“Mass failure!” screamed the national dailies last week. The results of tests taken by two classes - Grade 4 and Standard 8 - that reported back after the Covid-19 pandemic, make for depressing reading. Obviously, this will call for serious soul-searching and hand-wringing in the education sector.
Ten years ago, reports that Standard 8 children could not do basic Standard 2 arithmetic or Standard 6 pupils could not string a simple sentence, caused an outrage. Then, the blame was heaped on the discredited 8-4-4 system which many dismissed as exam-obsessed and where rote-learning had taken root.
Yet from last week’s report, the poor quality and standards in the public education system go on and are in spite of rather than because of the vilified 8-4-4 system. Over the years, we have noted that poor grades are attributed to a system that has normalised the norm where beyond studying, most schools don’t train their students to think and apply. That has deprived many of the ability to acquire metacognition and critical thinking which are important for the acquisition of other skills later in life, including picking good leaders.
Yet these results ought to have reflected the dividend from the curriculum reforms of the last few years - like abandoning 8-4-4 for the 2-6-3-3-3. It did not. We could argue that virtual learning in 2020 deprived learners what proximity to instructors offers. But that is too lame.
Some of the concepts we were taught as students are still baked into our minds. Why? This was not just the mere use of pedagogic principles. It was hard to leave anyone behind because the teachers effectively deployed “cold calling” that ensured total participation in the classroom.
At face value, what the ministry officials have long touted as solutions for the massive drop in standards are a stroke of genius - the full rollout of the 2-6-3-3-3; adopting a performance appraisal system will inject professionalism and commitment to the job.
But the real issues weighing down the schooling system remain unaddressed; poor funding - and therefore demotivated teachers and instructors, lack of facilities, lack of political will and the obsession – by the political class of foreign education has done more damage to our youngsters than 8-4-4. Most June-September flight bookings are of politicians hoping off from one Western capital to another attending graduation ceremonies. Make no mistake, we can’t begrudge their off-spring the education their parents can afford. But that ought not be at the expense of the public.
As a public good, education is beneficial to society in many ways and that is why governments take it upon themselves to vigorously push the education agenda. For many poor families, education is a door-opener, a choice-giver, a class leveller.
“Go to school so that you can buy yourself a car,” our parents would exhort us. Well, the car symbolised personal advancement and progression in the social ladder that only education assured many. Yet school is not just about grades and a good job.
Singapore, one of the Asian Tigers, has demonstrated how a good education can lift societies that are less endowed with natural resources by being smart. Put it another way; good education has a multiplier effect on the economy.
In education, Singapore – a seaport city/ state - blows the rest of the world out of the water. It ranks top of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment in maths, reading and science, far ahead of the US, the UK and Europe.
Because of the deliberate and sustained investment in human capital, Singapore’s place as a trade and financial centre is unrivalled. It is also one of the most tolerant societies in the world.
How has it succeeded where the rest has failed? Singapore has devised a rigorous system where assessment goes beyond the student. For accountability, teachers and instructors are routinely assessed and trained and paid well to ensure continuous improvement. No student is left behind as teachers plough through the syllabus.
Additionally, more than imparting the pupil with knowledge, self-discipline and basic survival skills, the Singapore model plays a great deal in enlightening the masses.
Seymour Lipset, an American Sociologist, wrote in 1959 that “education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices.” He must have been talking about Singapore.
For the simple reason that for most of us, lifelong lessons start at school - hard work, reward and sanction, adventure, tolerance and discipline all start in school.
Besides the howls of moral indignation, so much needs to be shaken to align the education system with the realities of a 21st century world.
-Mr Kipkemboi is an Associate Editor at The Standard
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