Friday, September 23, 2011

Focus on values - Heng Swee Keat

Yesterday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat gave a speech at the MOE Work Plan Seminar. In it, he gave some broad strokes of his plans for education. This is the first major announcement on education he's made since he took over the position, so I'm sure it was eagerly awaited by many in the industry.

You can read the full speech here and it's also covered in the Straits Times today. Basically, he calls for a more holistic, student-centric education system and outlines some initiatives he will be rolling out.

One of the key points of Mr Heng's speech is the focus on values. He wants values and character development to be at the core of our education system, which is something I totally agree with. But even he acknowledges that it's difficult to implement as it's not something that can (or should) be examinable or assessed. I'm sure he knows it's a mindset issue, not something you can simply institute. But for a start, he's telling principals and teachers that they should not cannibalise civics & moral education periods for remedial lessons. While this is may be a small gesture, I appreciate he's trying to signal the importance of values.

He's also stressing the importance of CCAs for character building. I'm a little skeptical. While I totally agree that CCAs can build character, these are often waylaid in the chase for medals. As I mentioned before, many schools are so obsessed with the medal tally for sports and performing arts, to the point that these override values such as sportsmanship, diligence, discipline, etc. Unless schools completely transform their world view towards CCAs, character building will continue to be an accidental outcome rather than an objective.

This whole issue of prioritising values is a thorny one because it requires a shared mindset among parents and educators. For eg, I was told an incident where a parent hired a professional consultant to help with her child and his friends' school project. Eventually, the project won an international competition. This is clearly an ethical issue and my question was, did the teachers know the kids didn't do the project themselves? And even if they did have their suspicions, would they have probed or just turned a blind eye? The parents clearly had no qualms about what I consider downright cheating. Such is the message we're sending to our kids - win or do well at all costs. I think if we say values are important, the system needs to stop consistently rewarding achievement over values.

The third initiative in the area of values is the introduction of a new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum. I don't know enough details about this to make a comment. Let's wait and see. My personal wish is that our schools will open up many more creative opportunities for the students to help others on a regular basis, the way international schools do it, so that social consciousness becomes part of their psyche. Going to the old folks' home once a year just doesn't cut it.

Yesterday, a Straits Times reporter called me to ask if I had any comments on the new homework policy Mr Heng was calling for. Basically, he says that all schools should study the needs of its students and define how much homework students should be assigned at the different levels. I told the reporter I had no issues with homework. At both my kids' schools, homework is generally manageable and not excessive. I'm quoted in today's ST page A8, by the way. It's not much of a quote, I'm surprised they included it.

My issue with stress at school is not with homework but with the single-minded focus on results and the accompanying kiasu-ism, as previously laid out in my letter to the Minister. When I met up with Sim Ann, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of MOE, following the letter for a chat, she mentioned that she felt the underlying cause of this competitiveness is the scarcity of university places. Mr Heng obviously shares her view as he has tasked his Minister of State for Education to look into this.

I'm not 100% convinced this is the root of the problem. I still think using KPIs to assess schools and teachers is a huge contributing factor and I'm a little disappointed Mr Heng didn't address this at all. I suspect having to overhaul HR is opening another super-sized can of worms and MOE has enough on its plate at the moment.

Incidentally, I found Sim Ann to be a lovely person - warm, genuine and with a great sense of humour (so important!) Not at all stuffy and pompous like some civil servants I've encountered in the past. She invited me to be part of a dialogue earlier this week which I was unfortunately unable to attend.

I think it's safe to say that Mr Heng and his team are taking parent and teacher engagement much more seriously than their predecessors. Perhaps they don't have much of a choice, considering the currently politically charged climate. Nevertheless, I'm encouraged that they have at least acknowledged and taken into account viewpoints from both parents and teachers, and not just at face value.

Is this education reform in the making? Or just a review? I want to be optimistic. As I told the ST reporter (can't believe I'm quoting myself), every little step counts.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Horrendous to hear that the kids engaged a consultant for the project!!!

Anyway, I'm hopefully optimistic. Prob won't affect my kids in their time, thats why I'm glad I send them to mission schools where results aren't everything. Holistic growth n devt is.

I think there's something wrong too with the KPIs and even the recruitment for teachers. I went thru it and man, was it all a blardi sham. Hated it. Hated how they disregard your interest and how they just want to put u in just coz there's no one keen or interested in those subject areas..... we just pray for the best....


monlim said...

Jo: Agree with you mission schools at least are guided by character building. The results at all costs philosophy unfortunately is in line with Singapore's growth at all costs philosophy. Hopefully now that the gahmen has woken up to public sentiment, this will filter down to education as well and make a difference.

Anonymous said...

To me, the biggest flaw in our education system tt results in most of s'pore kids having a less than happy childhood and in numerous private tutors laughing their way to the bank is the stupid psle. It is said by many tt kiasu-ism in psle is needed to ensure a place in elite schools. Tweak the darn sec sch allocation system then, and do away with this psle do-or-die mentality. Then all these expensive pte tuition nonsenses will die a natural death. If Finland can educate their young painlessly n healthily, surely we can too.

Anonymous said...

I guess the minister can't please everyone. But he's steering towards a better direction. I totally agree with the values and character development part. Very important as meritocracy has become double edged sword - fair system to disregard background but which leads to worsening individualistic, selfish and kiasu behavior/attitude in the young. Respect, courtesy, genuine friendship, caring behavior etc are all so lacking in the younger generations.

The other parts which I like are the change in LEAPS and urging teachers' coordination of school homework with longer deadlines using ACS Barker as example. Some school teachers can suddenly one day load the kids with homework that last till the night while on other day give not much homework.

I hope you have the chance to raise points which have been missed with Sim or Heng eg KPIs. I hope they can also raise the standards of teachers via training, reduce all class sizes to max 30 from p3 to secondary Year 4, stop primary schools from soft streaming too much and try to keep majority students intact in same classes so that they can make and keep long term friends, open up CCAs to all to join for fun and interest and not just for winning medals, stop the practice of having CCA trials for new secondary school students - just let them explore and join whatever they like etc etc ;)


monlim said...

SL: yes, I did manage to raise many issues with Sim Ann, including the KPIs and the way English is taught. I give them credit for trying to address many of the issues that were brought up by parents but I think it will take many years to see improvement. Mindset is never easy to change!

Patricia said...

Even for CCAs, there are organisations jumping on the bandwagon on being trainers and consultants for competitions. And apparently, it is a widely accepted practice that the particular CCA pays for the consultation as long as it has the fund for it, so all the more it is acceptable that parents pay private consultants to train their kids to win competitions, just that it's unspoken.

My main issue with the education system is how teachers are ranked - how much of the teaching-unrelated work they have done. Abolish the ranking system and we would probably have teachers who are focused on teaching, rather than doing projects, attending futile workshops and other businesses that do not benefit students directly or even indirectly.

Impose a sensible number of working hours for teachers to have enough rest and make sure schools observe them. Working at least 10 hours in school a day, and disallowing teachers to do the basics like marking, does not work.

You know, Monica, while many like you and your readers are talking about the MAD focus on academics, there are schools that do not even focus on academics. And they are not focusing on character-building or holistic development.

I'm skeptical that the new minister can or would do anything that translates to the well-being of teachers. The pattern has been: new minister, more work. I'm pretty sure the pattern won't change. :) Oh, and when there ever is a change, it's never a good thing when it spirals down to the teachers.

Sorry for being a party pooper. I am not being negative either. Just sharing my observation.

monlim said...

Patricia: I know we have many frustrations and there's lots of room for improvement. Instead of being pessimistic that things can't change, I'd like to give the new Minister the benefit of the doubt. I like how he stressed that he wanted to make sure his new initiatives didn't create more admin work for teachers. I can also say that I've written to the past Education minister and only received cursory "thank-you-for-your-feedback" type of non-replies from his staff, whereas with this one, I've received personal replies both from him and from Sim Ann.

In fact, Sim Ann has giving me updates, which is heartening because it signals that they're serious about listening to feedback. I definitely see the difference in attitude, so hopefully this translates into a real impact.

Call me an optimistic fool but I always like to believe that things can change for the better, and that we can be part of that change :)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...