There has been much anxiety over MOE’s announcement that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will be replaced with wider scoring bands from 2021. The change hopes to reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers. The Direct Scheme Admission (DSA) will also be reviewed to realign it with its original intent, ie to recognise achievements and talents in other areas such as arts and sports instead of general academic ability.
Concerned parents now wonder how they should change their strategies to tackle the high-stakes PSLE examinations in order to secure places for kids in highly sought after secondary schools. Should they start grooming their kids at 3 years old to become the next Tiger Wood or should they continue to throw in money into the billion dollar tuition industry.
Let’s take a look at whether MOE’s past policies had been successful in achieving its desired outcome of changing behaviours.
In 2005, MOE implemented its Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) initiative to shift focus from quantity to quality, and from efficiency to choice in learning with the objective for educators to teach better, engage students and prepare them for life, rather than to teach for tests and examinations.
Ex-Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat in 2015 said that
Since the introduction of the “teach less, learn more” policy in 2005, up to 20 per cent of content has been reduced from syllabuses implemented across the primary, secondary and pre-university levels. There has also been a shift away from rote learning, as policymakers respond to concerns over the amount of content being taught in the schools and the cramming that students do before examinations.
So how has TLLM affected our children?
My elder boy is sitting for PSLE this year and his younger brother will be affected by the new PSLE banding system in 2021. He started Primary 1 this year and came home everyday with more homework than his elder brother did 5 years ago. I had to write to the teacher to find out whether it was a case where he couldn’t finish his work in class or has the syllabus been changed and the workload increased. The teacher assured me that he was coping well.
If teaching less means reducing the content in textbooks, then yes. My sons’ school no longer uses textbooks for English and Science. They plunge straight into doing worksheets. During Parent Teacher Meeting (PTM) the explanation given was that the focus now is on application of concepts.
Aren’t new concepts grasped through reading? Have their Science textbooks become irrelevant? If so, why are they still in the booklist? It appears to me that the school no longer value and encourage reading. It is easier to just teach students to answer questions because if you go through enough worksheets, you can probably score well for exams.
Is that how we teach less and learn more? Is that the desired outcome that MOE hopes to achieve or somewhere along the line, execution has failed.
Pasi Sahlberg, in his book,Finnish Lessons, What can the world learn from Educational change in Finland? wrote that the Teach Less Learn More and Test Less Learn More in the Finnish education system is a paradox. He wrote,
The Finnish experience challenges the typical logic of educational development that tries to fix lower-than-expected student performance by increasing the length of education and duration of teaching.
There appears to be very little correlation between intended instruction hours in public education and resulting student performance, as assessed by PISA study.
Finnish teachers on average teach about 4 lessons daily, which work out to be 3 hours of teaching daily (as compared to 5 hours in American schools). This leave them time to plan, learn and reflect on teaching with other teachers..
Finnish educators don’t believe that doing more homework necessarily leads to better learning especially if pupils are working on routine and intellectually unchallenging drills, as school homework assignments unfortunately often are.
It has been a decade since MOE implemented TLLM and now we are a nation of anxious parents, stressed out kids with a billion dollar tuition industry. So will scrapping PSLE T-score reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers.
To these changes, my 12 year old responded matter-of-factly that parents will still be as kiasu (competitive), students will still be as stressed out and teachers will still drill them with more worksheets. There will still be Continual Assessment (CA), Semestral Assessment (SA) and PSLE, everyone will still be studying to score well for tests and examinations. Every year, students in his school are grouped into different classes according to test and exam scores.
He has gone through the last 6 years without tuition or enrichment classes except for Chinese. He started Chinese tuition last year when he was half way through Primary 5 after missing the subject for a whole year when we were living overseas. Apart from completing his homework from school, he spends most of his free time reading and doing the things he like, not worksheets or assessment books. Even so, it was painfully clear that good scores for tests and exams are important because it determines which class he goes to and they are told often enough in school which are the best class and which are the best students. Getting good grades and doing well for PSLE is a mindset that is not just ingrained in parents and students but educators. It is what drives everyone’s behavior and creates the race-to-the-top mentality.
Ability-driven education is believed to be a key feature behind Singapore’s success in education. Students are segregated based on perceived ability or achievement. Since the 1970s we have had streaming but later replaced by subject banding that we are still using today. We have Gifted Education Programs (GEP) where different curriculum and teaching methods are used for exceptionally bright students. Our system requires students to be frequently tested so that they can be grouped and sorted according to their abilities. Tests, exams and assessments form the backbone of our education system.
But what is wrong with assessment and testing?
There are 2 main types of assessments, Formative assessment and Summative assessment.
Formative assessment, is a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment. It typically involves qualitative feedback (rather than scores) for both student and teacher that focuses on the details of content and performance.
Summative assessment refers to the assessment of participants where the focus is on the outcome of a program. This contrasts with formative assessment which summarizes the participants’ development at a particular time.
I believe what we have in Singapore are summative assessments. PSLE takes place at the end of Primary school. It assess what has been learned and how well it was learned. Grades are given and students are sorted based on their grades into different secondary schools.
In his book, Pasi Sahlberg wrote,
Testing itself is not a bad thing. Problems arise when they become higher in stakes and include sanctions to teachers or schools as a consequence of poor performance.
Teachers tend to redesign their teaching according to these tests, give higher priority to those subjects that are tested, and adjust teaching methods to drilling and memorizing information rather than understanding knowledge.
Appropriate testing helps identify areas needing improvement but high-stakes standardized examination, such as PSLE, prevent real learning and has led our teachers to focus their attention on helping students do well for test, at the expense of developing every student’s full potential.
Our ability-driven education system is achieved through tracking, sorting, streaming, or ability grouping. Initially touted as a way of tailoring instruction to the diverse needs of students, research has shown that tracking has instead limited the more beneficial opportunities to high-track students and denying these benefits to lower-tracked students. It has widened the achievement gap between the high and low achievers over the years and led to inequitable educational outcomes.
The Finnish education system has abolished streaming in the mid-a980s and made learning expectations the same for all students. This meant that all pupils, regardless of their abilities or interests, studied in the same classes. PISA survey showed that Finland had the smallest performance variations between schools in reading, mathematics, and sciences ie. smallest achievement gap between low and high achievers.
Our education system based on meritocracy has worked for us for the last 50 years. It has created a gap between the high achievers and the low achievers and a widened income gap. The wealthier families can now give their children an edge through tuition and enrichment, leading to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) no longer being ‘the level playing field’ that they once were. And this will perpetuate in a system which focuses on standardized tests and high-stakes examinations.
Our ex-Education Minister Mr Heng said that it will take some time for parents to change the mindset that certain school will help their child to succeed later. And current Education Minister Mr Ng noted that ‘there is a deeply ingrained mindset that the PSLE is a very high-stakes exam. Many perceive that a child’s PSLE T-score at the age of 12 determines his or her success and pathway in life.’
A good culture does not happen by chance. Neither will mindsets change over time.
Yes we need a mindset change, both parents and educators. More importantly we need policymakers to create structures and policies to enable the parents and educators to think and do things differently. We need them to create a system that can help to bridge the social gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Meanwhile, it is not impossible but it takes iron will and courage for parents to move away from the herd mentality, to opt out from the race and give their children the space and time to find their true passion and the kind of childhood they deserve.
Here are some thoughts on education and parenting by some mother bloggers
Lyn Lee’s The Singapore ‘Education Condition’
Michelle Choy’s No More T-Score. No what?
June Yong’s Parenting from a place of enough