Daydreaming Education

A couple of days back whilst at friend’s (yet another teacher) place, I got asked, ‘If you were a parent, how would you like the education system to be?’ For those who know me for years, you’d think I’m an educator at heart, and also cut out to be a teacher. But more often than once, I have declared that I will never teach in the mainstream education system because there are too many things about it that I’m against. People would often tell me I should go and change it; but trust me, you don’t want to get me started. Yet with this license to day-dream, I gratefully seized it.

The first warning before I get started is that I think about systems as a collective whole so I don’t see our education system as separate from our economy, our culture and our identity. All of them work together and reinforce each other. This is why I often try to make a case for the idea that culture and education could be the cause of our productivity problems. And that brings me to the second warning that the system of my dreams will probably be ‘far-fetched’ in that what we’ve been doing in our schools is nowhere close to it. But if we can agree on a future society we are striving towards, then we can collectively make that a representation of our vision to strive toward.

Anyways during that short time I had with my friends, I shared only 3 main points which I’m going to pen here for the record. There are many more dimensions that I envision and I welcome Singaporeans from all walks of life to augment this vision and to build it out in greater details and to tweak it more. If you’re an official in the education system today, let me first encourage you not to think about the practical constraints or just dismiss these as ‘idealistic’ but to consider the difference any of these would make on to the students, on the future economy and society you’re trying to shape. Let the end goal rather than immediate challenges fill your mind and vision; because, as Watt Emerson once said:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Abolish cohort-based education (or teach for mastery, not grades)

I start with the most radical one to weed out those readers who have no commitment towards discarding flawed premises. I think cohort-based system is helpful because it is where we find a little more of our social bearings, and perhaps from a cost and administrative point of view, using a cohort is just ‘easier’. But I call for it to be abolished because we should not be forced to promote students who are poorly prepared for the next level of education. In fact, a single student should be allowed to progress for subjects he/she is strong for and held back on subjects that he/she have not gain certain benchmark of mastery. Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy once described very well what is wrong with having that kind of system that focuses on tests one year after another rather than focusing on mastery.

Now of course, the focus is actually not on cohort but once we focus on getting students to gain mastery, then we have to break up the idea of a cohort and to stop comparing across students but against the benchmark of the standards they have to get to. If you think about it, the current system promotes a student scoring 51% together with one scoring 91% on Maths exams to the next grade and then teaching them as though they are no different, only to achieve the same gap end of the year, and the weaker student is discouraged. Compounding this over a period of over 10 years, a society that prizes head above hands or heart, and you seeding mental and emotional health problems of an entire group in the society.

It’s been 5 years since Salman delivered that short speech and it’s been viewed millions of times. And the fact is that we already have the tools and technology to achieve this sort of system. But because of sunk cost fallacy and the unwillingness to disrupt the current education infrastructure, we seem only capable of making incremental changes which will not be able to get us anywhere close.

Focus on core skills before content

At younger ages (up to 10), schools and teachers should be really focused on helping students acquire language, numeracy skills, and give them chance to explore these skills in various different contexts of life. So language needs to be more than just speech and words, but getting them to practice persuasion, comforting those in need, expressing themselves, displaying empathy and so on. Numeracy needs to be expressed in monetary transactions (such as purchasing decisions at a school canteen or bookstore), as well as in the calculation of reward points, even quiz scores or even getting them to form up into the right groups of players for different sports.

Of course, it is an easy win to teach science to these kids and then when they express superficial understanding of deep concepts, we are wow-ed and misled into thinking they already got their fundamentals sorted out. This is because by the time we (during our time) learnt those scientific knowledge ourselves, we were already more advanced in our mastery of other fundamentals. The truth is that they’d have none of the core skills, nor the genuine understanding to take them to the next level in life. Better to forgo content which they can acquire later by themselves than to give them an illusion of being ‘intelligent’, even risking them having oversized egos.

Our younger brains are better suited to pick up skills and learn new ways to learn, rather than to be somehow acquiring dense amount of information and trivia. Skills for knowledge acquisition is more important than knowledge acquisition itself at this stage.

Involving the entire society in education

Currently, parents are not taking enough ownership of their children’s education; more often than not, they can practically outsource all of education to schools. This was never the intention and parents who are reading this, should recognise their role in partnership with schools and teachers to bring up their children. Not only that, the entire society is in a partnership to bring up the next generation. The fact that our young is largely educated in a taxpayer-supported system is part of that; but more than that, companies, industries should start playing a role in terms of adopting schools and being connected with them in terms of sharing with students about the company, about the role they play in the market, and the economy, as well as to provide students with some experience with work, or to catch more of a glimpse of the ‘grown-up world’.

Parents will need to work with schools especially when students are younger; by moving focus away on content, the load on parents trying to understand what is covered in school shifts towards appreciating the intentions of what the students are being taught, hence allowing them to easily try and reinforce it at home. By shifting content-heaviness towards a point when the student is more mature, they can handle the learning independently and be less reliant on adult guidance for content.

I know there’s already a lot of pressure on our educators and I’m going as far as to try and suggest that they should be responsible to help reshape the economy of the future. Perhaps the government really needs to divert some of the quick-fix kind of approach such as providing business incentives and grants towards supporting an education system that really contributes to the economy. It is no use incentivising businesses to hire Singaporeans if the education system is unable to prepare a labour force deserving of those jobs. Of course, the system cannot predict what specific sectors will be in vogue or the skills demanded. But as you can see from my vision, the skills I speak of is not programming, or STEM, or arts. There are foundational matters like core skills in language (communications), emotional intelligence (empathy), numeracy and above all, knowledge acquisition, that the education system must build up within students – these will prepare them for just about any market they graduate into.

And if job creation is really important, why not encourage entrepreneurship right from schools through a focus on asking the right questions rather than finding the right answers? During the earlier days of our nation building, we really needed our workforce to be plugged into the industries and so we just basically ‘trained’ rather than ‘educated’. Whilst we now have the ‘luxury’ to get away from this ‘training’ kind of approach, we ought to.