Written by JS Sasikumar.

In recent years, Singapore has topped the rankings in many education-related global reports and surveys.  These include being ranked first in PISAs Rankings for Science, Math and Reading, and 4th in the WEFs Best School System, both in 2016. Singapore was ranked third in Pearson’s Top Education Systems in the World in 2014. Despite, these accolades, there has been a constant call for a change in Singapore’s education system.

The country’s education system is well-known for being competitive and grades-focused. Gradually, the Ministry of Education is moving away from this. Numerous changes to the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) will come in 2021, including the expansion of the DSA (Direct School Admissions) Scheme, subject-based banding in secondary schools, and new technical diplomas for ITE graduates. Despite these new plans and policies to maintain the quality of Singapore’s education system, one aspect of the nation’s education system, much like several other countries in the region, remains irksome – the exam-centric nature of the system. In this piece, I will explore why this exam-centric focus is a hindrance with specific reference to science education in Singapore.

Moving away from exam-centric education will allow students to experience the joy of learning and allow teachers to spur the thirst for knowledge in their students

Exams in Singapore are both a boon and a bane. I say this as a product of the system and as a teacher. An average student in his or her formative academic life between the age of 7 to 16, can sit at least 150 exams. At the end of the day, if you asked a student why he or she is studying, the most likely answer will be “because I want to do well in my exams” and not “because I want to learn’. Therein lies the flaw.

This is for several reasons. Firstly, it produces competitive students who cannot tell the difference between studying and learning. Secondly, teachers, pressured by ambitious parents to get their children to perform, could lose their interest in their job. Lastly, schools become factories which churn out students with a fixed thought process and when they step out into society, they learn the hard way that life is so much more. Despite the cons, the exam-centric system does have its pros. For example, Educational psychologist, Penny Van Bergen feels that ‘good assessment programs aim to provide a balanced, fair evaluation’ and that exams do enhance learning. They test your understanding of what you have been learning (or rather studying). All this makes sense, yes, but at what cost?

Let’s take the aims of Singapore’s Science education syllabus for example. The aims of lower secondary science education are more dynamic in nature compared to that of primary science education and they are built on the foundations set by the latter. Interestingly, however, at the upper secondary level (aged 15 and 16), there is no syllabus and there are no aims for science education. To understand why this was the case, I spoke to several current and ex-science teachers who have taught in schools or worked in the Ministry of Education. The consensus is that in Secondary 3 and 4 (students aged 15 and 16 respectively) there is no fixed syllabus and the students focus purely on their ‘O’ or ‘N’ Levels (national exams).

 

The aims of primary science education (aged 7 to 12) in Singapore are:

The aims of lower secondary science education (aged 13 and 14) are:
·       To provide students with experiences which build on their interest in, and stimulate their curiosity about, their environment

·       To provide students with basic scientific terms and concepts to help them understand themselves and the world around them

·       To provide students with opportunities to develop skills, habits of mind and attitudes necessary for scientific inquiry

·       To prepare students for using scientific knowledge and methods in making personal decisions

·       To help students appreciate how science influences people and the environment

·       To cultivate students’ perception of Science as a collective effort and a way of thinking rather than just a body of facts;

·       To engage students in Science-related issues that concern their lives, the society and the environment

·       To help students develop the domains that are integral to the conduct of Science Inquiry.

Aims of Singapore’s Science Education Syllabus

With regards to science curriculum development, the need for the curriculum to go beyond traditional content and exams has been acknowledged by many such as William F. McComas in his book Understanding how science works: the nature of science as the foundation for science teaching and learning. Understanding the nature of science (NOS) is in vogue in science education today. NOS education is the study of understanding how science works, its limits and its failures. This is something that the current science curriculum in Singapore does not teach its students about. NOS education is viewed as important as learning traditional science content. However, NOS is not something you can test in an examination with multiple choice or open-ended questions. It is a way of understanding Science. The British education system has already seen this shift from content to process in its science curriculum. The educational system does still have exams but it is not exam-centric. There is a difference.

Further, it is evident that fields of science are moving away from just traditional science content to incorporate the philosophy of Science. This also applies to other domains and subjects. There will come a point, if it hasn’t already, when studying whatever is in the books will not be enough. I believe that when that point comes, the exam-centric education system will not be able to match up.

Slowly but surely, Singapore is seeing major changes in its world-ranked education system. The hope is that some of these changes will be for the better. Not just to achieve better rankings in the surveys and reports but to better education. Moving away from exam-centric education will allow students to experience the joy of learning and allow teachers to spur the thirst for knowledge in their students, in the hope of a better age ~ Auspicium Melioris Aevi.

JS Sasikumar is currently pursuing his masters in science education at UCL’s Institute of Education. He graduated from the National University of Singapore. He has also previously worked as a teaching intern and science teacher in primary and secondary schools in Singapore. Image Credit: CC by Caitriana Nicholson/Flickr

 

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