Full Speech: Education for our Future Motion (July 11)

Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Education for our Future Motion.

Sir, every school is a good school, and this is a phrase we are very familiar with by now. Perhaps soon, we will also have to say that every Early Childhood Development Centre is a good Early Childhood Development Centre.

Parents are now not just worried about which Primary school their child goes to but also which Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC) their child goes to. The rat race has now begun way before our Primary schools. We now have kindergarten assessment books, tuition for pre-school children and even homework for our nursery kids. I have to be honest to say that this worries me. My wife and I found ourselves in this rat race as we searched for an ECDC to send our daughter Ella to.

The reality is that there is a wide variety of ECDCs. We tried a few, visiting them, letting Ella try it out for a day to see if she liked it and I joined her during these trials. I sat there in some of the ECDCs and I saw first-hand how much things have changed. 

 As Madam Siti Zubaidah said in a news article, “In the past, it was all play and just learning the ABCs in kindergarten. But now, by K1, you need to learn how to count and read, to be on a par with everyone else”. And Madam Siti is not alone. A survey found that four in 10 families in Singapore now send their pre-school children to tuition. The most common reason for tuition, cited by more than half of the parents with children under seven, was to keep up with others.

Sir, there is much debate about how stressed our students are and how they suffer from high levels of anxiety. According to a survey, 66% of students across all OECD countries said they were worried about poor grades at school, but among Singapore students, it was 86%. In a post by ex-Ministry of Education (MOE) policy officer, Yann Wong, in June this year, he also mentioned about how performance anxiety, shame and a need for validation through grades are problems that plague our students and our education system.

Sir, I sincerely hope that this stress, this anxiety, do not start when our children are three years old, in nursery. The early childhood years should really be about play. As O Fred Donaldson had said, “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.”

The early years are the most formative in a child’s development, character and future. Scientific research tells us that children have objective developmental stages. Below the age of seven, especially, they need large amounts of time for free play. This develops personal and social awareness, gross and fine motor skills, and a foundation for learning. It is more important to directly encounter the things in the world that words and numbers describe, than to recite those words and numbers in an academic way. Earlier is not better when it comes to academic learning as well. A New Zealand study looked at children who read at five versus those who read at seven – they had no difference in reading outcomes at age 15. 

In the German system, young children focus on social and personal awareness, only learning to read and write at age seven. This nation is also a major engineering and economic powerhouse of the world.

An education for our future needs to look at solutions that are both holistic and inclusive for our children, parents and educators. One way to do this is to shift early education away from a linear academic emphasis, to a more rounded emphasis focusing on holistic growth. There are many factors involved here but as around two-thirds of the early childhood education industry will be controlled by the Government by 2023, and with the establishment of the National Institute of Early Childhood Development, the Government can play an important role here.

First, we can strengthen and lead the move to de-emphasise academic content for early childhood education. The present emphasis on academics means that children play less, and they are also outdoors less. Studies again in this area show that a lack of play will increase the odds of depression, anxiety and other disorders.

We also need to help shift the current tuition mindset for pre-school children. As Dr Nirmala Karuppiah, an early childhood and special education lecturer at the National Institute of Education, stated in a news article, “As tuition is about sitting at a table doing pencil and paper activities as well as rote learning and acquiring academic skills, it could actually cause more harm than good for some children. For example, it goes against the way young children grow, develop and learn, which is through play and interacting with real objects, people and events in their environment.”

Following on this point is, second, we need to promote more play and exploration in pre-schools and also lower Primary schools. In the early years, children learn mainly through active exploration of the environment. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Play is the highest form of research.” In fact, our current “Nurturing Early Learners” curriculum already recognises that children are naturally curious and does outline a framework that encourages learning through play. However, I am not sure whether this is followed by all ECDCs. From what I have seen and what other parents have shared online and with me, play is not a strong focus in some of the ECDCs. We also need to look into how we can provide our early childhood educators with enough time and flexibility to allow for creative exploration and play. 

Third, we need to put care even more at the forefront to cater to the individual needs of each child. The need for young children to form responsive relationships cannot be overstated. Our policies and early learning framework should support the ability of educators and caregivers to be sensitive and responsive to a young children’s needs.

To support caregivers and educators, it is vital that student-to-teacher ratio remains small so that each child receives the attention he or she needs. To prevent disruptive relationships between caregivers and children in their care, it is also important to reduce the rate of turnover in these positions. Attractive salaries, incentives and supervision should be put in place for educators of young children. When children feel cared for in a stable and supportive relationship, stress naturally goes away, and learning takes care of itself. In fact, shifting our priority to care over academic outcomes is key in helping children thrive and reach their full potential. 

Fourth, the future of our education requires us to cater to the emotional health of students more comprehensively. I am heartened to see that schools remain vigilant in preventing further suicides in children. However, that is not adequate. We want children to thrive, not simply survive. A survey by Chapter Zero, a social enterprise working with parents, caregivers and educators in Singapore, showed that the top two qualities parents hoped to see for their child were “healthy relationships with others” and “strong emotional health”. Approximately half the parents interviewed were concerned that the educational system did not support students to develop these qualities. Seventy percent of the parents raised the need for more emphasis on social-emotional learning in pre-schools and Primary schools, particularly on mindfulness, empathy and conflict management. 

While there are existing frameworks on Southampton Emotional Literacy Scales (SELS), some surveys show that more can be done, and should be done, to meet the emotional needs of students. Studies have shown that there is correlation between the level of pro-social behaviour that a student showed in kindergarten and their education and job prospects, criminal activity, likelihood of substance abuse, and mental health in adulthood. Other studies likewise indicate that feeling socially connected as a child is more strongly associated with happiness in adulthood than academic achievement is. 

Lastly, I propose a need to review the performance-based ranking for teachers. MOE’s Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS) was instituted in 2005 and reviewed in 2014. It provides a competency-based performance management system which serves to appraise teachers’ efforts for the year. The EPMS Teaching Competency Model, among other indicators, assesses a teacher’s ability to “cultivate knowledge”. 

In an interview on incentives in education, American psychologist Barry Schwartz said, “If you start giving teachers bonuses if their students exceed some scores on these standardised tests, teachers will find a way to teach to the test. Test scores will go up, but education will not.”

Teachers join teaching to make a difference to the lives of our youths. And yet the reality of the pressure from competition created by our own performance-based ranking and reward system can skew teachers’ choices. We want teachers who teach for the love of teaching, not teachers who teach for tests. 

Perhaps, there should also be a de-emphasis of ranking and rewarding of teachers based on ranking. Ranking teachers pits them against each other and may incentivise some teachers to do what is visible or measurable – like teach to teach, to the test. Educators are pitted against each other, which could also reduce the incentive for some to share resources and ideas, or to work together. 

 Sir, an education for our future cannot just be about academic pursuits, about grades and about students who suffer from high levels of anxiety. And this definitely cannot be the case for our pre-school children. In the words of Fred Rogers, “Play is often talked about as if it were a serious relief from serious learning. But, for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Sir, I support the motion.

The Second Minister for Education (Ms Indranee Rajah):

Listening to the speeches there are some key themes that have emerged. 

The first is that parents want reassurance that their children will have a bright future and that they will not lose out. We have heard much about a future-ready education system, stress, competition, the PSLE, lifelong learning, inclusivity. All these are really different aspects of the same concern, which is, trying to ensure that our children have the best possible chance to succeed.

Second, even as we want our children to get ahead, there is also a strong sentiment that we want our children to be able to enjoy their years in school.

Mr Louis Ng, Mr Darryl David and Mr Kok Heng Leun spoke about this. We do not want the children’s years in school to be only about homework, tests, assessments, grades and examinations scores. Schooling must also be an enjoyable educational experience, built around a love of learning, of exploration, and of play. It must be holistic, teaching skills like critical thinking, to prepare them for the new world ahead, and it must have the emotional well-being of students at heart. Mr Ganesh Rajaram and Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin also spoke about the need to change our culture, that as teachers, parents, as a society, we need to give our children space to grow. We need to listen to them better in order to support them better.

Third, many of you also spoke about how this love of learning must be a lifelong one. Ms Thanaletchmi, Assoc Prof Randolph Tan and Mr Darryl David urged that our children must continue to learn after they leave school, and throughout their working lives. Employees and employers alike must be nimble and receptive to on-the-job training. 

Fourth, this debate reflects our social conscience. Many Members of Parliament, including Asst Prof Mahdev Mohan, Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin and Mr Azmoon Ahmad raised the issue of inequality – you worry that the vulnerable, the disabled and the low-income will not be able to get as much out of the education system as those who are better off, that they will get left behind and that the gap is widening. This shows that, as a people, we care about those who are disadvantaged.

A fifth common theme was that of inclusivity, integration and social mixing. Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Ms Chia Yong Yong and Mr Henry Kwek have spoken passionately about this. We are concerned that children born with special needs will go through life without being embraced or valued by society. We are concerned that the divide between rich and poor or between children from different backgrounds and communities may grow – this is important because it says something about our values and the kind of society we want, the kind of people that we are, and we want a society that is more equal, more unified. 

Lastly, a call for us to work together to achieve these goals – Ms Denise Phua spoke about the need for Government to tap on the ideas, expertise of stakeholders to develop policies and programmes together, as we shape an education system for the future.

On all these broad objectives, we are aligned. These are MOE’s objectives too. We too want every child to have a bright future and to do well. Like Members of Parliament, who have spoken, we want them to have a wonderful school experience. We are also concerned about the vulnerable, and we want integration and inclusivity to be at the heart of our education system. Where we may differ in some aspects is on the strategies or solutions, but let me reassure the House that we are very much at one in terms of the overall aims and objectives.

[…]

Now, on the Joy of Learning. Many Members spoke about this and the importance of giving students time and space to discover who they are. We share their concerns about a culture of over-drilling and over-testing. We agree. Nurturing a love for learning in our students is equally important to us.

We start early – from the pre-school years. Our Nurturing Early Learners curriculum, as Mr Louis Ng pointed out, recognises the importance of purposeful play. This framework is shared with the entire pre-school sector. The Early Childhood Development Agency’s regulations have also placed more emphasis on outdoor play and physical development.

We have taken steps to unlock curiosity and encourage the joy of learning in our teaching pedagogies, for example, our Programmes for Active Learning, and learning through “unstructured” play, where children can engage in open-ended and free play.

In Punggol Primary, teachers set up stations full of supplies for children – nets, leaves, twigs – to create their own rules and games.

At Yang Zheng Primary, students learn English through performing and dramatising stories together. Teachers also create games to teach Math.

We are facilitating sharing among educators on how to adopt innovative and engaging teaching practices so students will enjoy learning, through initiatives like the Singapore Teaching Practice, an online portal for teachers.

We acknowledge sentiments from the public, from the House, about how we can work to free our students from the never-ending worksheets and tests. For example, Keming Primary School is exploring moving away from Common Tests, which used to take up about three weeks of curriculum time, to regular checkpoint assessments instead, so that more time is freed up for other learning experiences.

MOE’s Director-General of Education, Mr Wong Siew Hoong, recently sent a note round to the fraternity. In it, he affirmed the good work of teachers. He also encouraged everyone to adopt a spirit of introspection, to reflect on whether some of our practices, despite being done out of love for the child, may have unintended consequences. For example, by giving them too many tests which may deprive them of time for other activities.

So we will do our part, but we do need the parents and other stakeholders to do their part too.

Mr Louis Ng called for a review of performance-based ranking for teachers, because he was concerned that they might teach for the test. I would like to reassure Mr Ng and Members that, actually, teacher performance is assessed holistically and is not dependent on their student’s academic performance.

Teachers are assessed on a wide range of criteria: Quality teaching and learning; Character development of students; Professional development of self and others; and Demonstrated desired personal attributes, professional values and ethics, content mastery and pedagogy of instruction.

[…]

On balance: Mr Louis Ng called on us to de-emphasise academic content and emphasise play and exploration. At the same time, Assoc Prof Randolph Tan cautioned that “the last thing we want to do is for everyone to discard the foundations currently offered by our education system” and that “having a solid foundation in the basics also prepares them for self-directed learning throughout the rest of their lifelong journey as a learner.”

So, both of them have slightly different perspectives but are on the same spectrum. The question is: where do you set the balance? And that is MOE’s task; and that is what MOE strives to do. We have already embarked on the shifts which embody much of what Members have called for. We are not removing PSLE, but the transformation is still taking place as we move more to Applied Learning. The process is on-going, and we do welcome the ideas and suggestions that have been put forward by Members today.

Ms Denise Phua called for a committee to develop an education master plan. The form that this takes is perhaps not so critical, but the key thrust of her suggestion is that achieving our education objectives is really a partnership between all stakeholders. And we will continue to engage and hear from the House, from parents, from teachers and from our youths themselves.

Another important part is mindset. I have already outlined some of the steps that we are taking to reduce stress to try and create a better and more supportive environment for our children by telling them and society that there is much more to life than just grades. But mindset is a difficult thing to change. It takes time. And we call on all partners to do this. As I was reading the newspapers today, I flipped to the Forum page and I saw a letter written by a young, 17-year-old Junior College student, Teo Chen Wei. He was talking about PSLE. He wondered whether removing the T-score might help, or whether it might actually result in other means of stress. But the most telling thing in his letter was this: he said, “The most effective way to improve the education system is for parents and children to accept that failure in exams is not failure in life”. And that is correct.

So, what are we doing? We are balancing various things. We want excellence, but excellence does not mean excellence purely in academic grades alone. There are many other paths, as I have pointed out. So, you could be excellent in aeronautics, or the culinary arts. Whatever it is, we want excellence because we want our people to do well. At the same time, does failure mean that you cannot progress? The answer is, “No”, because we have created so many different pathways and we hope that people will see a setback as something from which to learn, and to move forward.

Much of the stress is driven by the belief that there is only a narrow gateway and one path to success. But, as I have explained earlier, there are many different paths and I would really urge parents and students to explore what is available and to choose the option that is right for a particular individual.

There is a group of parents who started a campaign – “Life Beyond Grades” – to demonstrate that the path to success does not depend on grades alone. Parenting is one of the toughest but most fulfilling roles, and they all just want the best for their children. So, I hope that more people would adopt this kind of a mindset.

[End]

To search for my other PQs and speeches, do refer to my blog, Facebook page, or the Hansard.

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