Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting the city-state of Singapore, a country with a fascinating history: After being a British colony for over 100 years, the Imperial Japanese Army colonized the area in 1942 during World War II. After the emperor officially surrendered to the allied forces, Singapore was handed back over to British control, and was shortly part of the Federation of Malaya (modern-day Malaysia) before becoming an independent nation in 1965.
In many ways, Singapore is an incredible success story, largely because their leaders put innovative policies in place that transformed their country from a so-called “third-world” country to a “first-world” country in only one generation. Singapore was able to achieve this ambitious vision by effectively and efficiently enacting a series of research-based reforms that helped Singapore develop into a true international city. The founding father and first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, offered citizens of his fledging nation five core principles: democracy, justice, peace, prosperity and equality. In many ways, Singapore has lived up to these ideals, and has become a model urban utopia that celebrates cultural differences.
Today, Singapore’s education system is widely held up as one of the best in the world. During my visit to Singapore, I had the opportunity to visit three schools, attend two professional development sessions (a workshop for math teachers and a training on positive education), and speak at the annual reThinking Numeracy conference. Without trying to sound hyperbolic, the schools throughout Singapore were some of the best I have ever seen in my entire life. This video gives a fantastic overview of education in Singapore:
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has developed a school structure that is somewhat different than the United States. Across the country, public school students are broken into primary schools (grades 1-6), secondary schools (grades 7-10), and postsecondary schools (grades 11-12 at a junior college [humanities-based], polytechnic institute [STEM-based], or vocational college). During secondary school, students take a plethora of subjects, including math, science, geography, history, literature, design & technology, food & nutrition, art, music, physical education, English, and a class in their mother tongue language (Chinese, Malay, Tamil, etc.). The Ministry has “been moving in recent years towards an education system that is more flexible and diverse” in an attempt to give students a more “broad-based education to ensure their all-round or holistic development, in and out of the classroom.” Classes typically start at around 8am, and the last class ends at around 3pm, depending on the school. Once at the secondary level, students are broken down into three streams: Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical.
Unlike in the United States, teachers have multiple career pathways, too, including a teaching track (senior/mentor teacher, lead teacher, master teacher, principal master teacher, etc.) a leadership track (subject head, head of department, vice principal, principal, cluster superintendent, zonal superintendent, etc.), and a specialist track (curriculum writers, content specialists, etc.). In the United States, the only career “promotion” is through school leadership, a policy which often takes many of our most transformational teachers out of the classroom. It is also interesting to consider that all principals have a five to seven-year term, at which point they become a principal at another school or move up the school leadership career ladder.
The school facilities I visited were genuinely immaculate. Quite frankly, I have never seen a school in the entire world that could rival the facilities of the schools I visited in Singapore. All of the schools I visited were modern, open, and conducive to learning. One of the public schools I visited was in the process of converting their physical library to a more digital one to better “prepare for the future.” While their new library will still have books, the new space is designed to foster group work and collaboration. Similar to the process in Taiwan, the students stay in one homeroom all day and move classes for specific special classes, such as art. The homeroom teacher is also responsible for teaching the national character and citizenship education (civics) curriculum.
Visiting different classrooms was also very special. In every math class that I went to, I observed engaged students that were doing all the heavy lifting and working collaboratively to solve the task at hand. When walking around during one lesson, I noticed one group was particularly struggling with the assignment. I went over to their group and asked them what they thought of math class. Without hesitation, one boy said, “math class is ok, I guess, but I struggle. But that is ok, because I am just going to work harder to get better!” It was clear that public school teachers here have worked hard to implement a true growth mindset in their students.
In Singapore, the students and teachers eat lunch together, which is a great way to build community throughout the school. Teachers also eat the same lunch as the students do (which was absolutely delicious, for the record). After our meal, I had the chance to talk with a couple of teachers and students about their experiences in Singaporean schools. For the first time in my life, everyone at this public school had a positive view of the education system. One teacher was particularly inspiring and talked about how we are shifting towards phenomenon-based learning throughout the world. He said: “I think we are shifting that globally… in the United States, the students are talking less and the teachers are talking more. It is so refreshing, because we actually get to hear what the students are thinking. [By letting students work collaboratively], they also have the opportunity to learn from one another.”
In the afternoon, I had the opportunity to talk with the Math Department Head at the public school I visited. When asked about his vision for an ideal math class, he said that a lesson needs to be motivating, and start off with a strong hook. He continued on, saying that “students must be willing to make mistakes; the more mistakes they make, the better, because that means we have more to learn. Math is not about drill and kill, it is about learning for life. [Math] needs to have meaning. Math is about conversations. We need to speak, and agree or disagree, and to listen and learn from one another.” So inspiring!!
There were also a couple of specific math pedagogies that I learned during my trip to Singapore. When going over a test, the students do all of the heavy lifting, and are often given copes of answers by their peers that are not quite correct, yet. The students then go through a protocol (called UCAP) where the students need to find the mistake, and then identify whether the mistake is an understanding (blank, halfway, etc.), conceptual (wrong method/formula), arithmetic/algebra (procedural mistake), or a protocol (Units, significant figures, presentation, etc.) error. The students then need to correct the wrong answers in groups.
In Singapore, some schools use an interesting stoplight system so that teachers know how students are perceiving the lesson in real time. Each student has a red, yellow, and green card on their desk, resembling a traffic light. All of the students start the lesson with the green card showing and flip their card to yellow or red as the lesson progresses so that every student can discretely communicate with the teacher their level of understanding (Green = understands everything; Yellow = a little confused; Red = completely lost with today’s lesson). There are also protocols (RRRAW) for critiquing the reasoning of others, which includes revising (student A said…), repeating: (saying it in your own words), reasoning (why do they said that?), adding on (students add their own opinions), and wait time (every time you ask a question, you need to wait at least 3-7 seconds). While there are many other things that can be learned from observing schools throughout Singapore, these are just a sampling of the high-impact strategies that educators can implement in their classes tomorrow to increase their teaching toolbox.
I was also graciously invited to attend a professional development session designed for Singaporean teachers. The session was on modeling real life problem situations mathematically. We started the session off by describing the need for research-infused pedagogies and set learning intentions and success criteria for mathematical modeling learning experiences. The facilitator talked about why modeling tasks were so important, as our students are living in a world where disruptive technologies are transforming our global economy. Perhaps most humbling was how open the Singaporean teachers were to new ideas and to bettering their craft. At one point, the facilitator asked how many in the room think they could run a vertical marathon, and proudly proclaimed: “for those that raised your hand, you can.” In Singapore, they truly practice what they preach.
I was also legitimately blown away by the focus on civics and positive education. At every secondary school in Singapore, there is a dedicated career and education counselor that is tasked with helping students prepare for the next step in their learning journey. One Singaporean teacher told me that “all students have the opportunity to be great, but they shouldn’t compare themselves to one another. The most important thing is improving against your previous score. There is always room for improvement!” Inspired by the innate sense of a growth mindset, I attended a positive education training that was very informative. Simply put, the facilitator started the session by declaring that if we are serious about wanting our students to flourish, wemust put wellbeing at the heart of education. She defined flourishing as the combination of doing good and feeling good, and offered the following framework to transform our schools:
I fundamentally believe in this vision of positive education and need to do more reflecting and thinking about how we can systematically implement these best practices back home in the states (more information about positive education will be shared in a future blog post on democratizing our classrooms). The next day, I attended the reThinking Numeracy Conference, which was headlined by Melissa Daniels and Steve Leinwand. Melissa Daniels is currently the principal of one of the High Tech High schools, a charter network in San Diego, California that has gained national attention lately for their innovative work in putting PBL at the heart of their school model. She started by asking a provocative question: When was the last time you really learned something? After reflecting individually for a few minutes, a few people shared their thoughts, and she noted how no one said anything about sitting in a lecture. She went through the learning environment educators need to setup to create meaningful learning experiences for every child.
Steve Leinwand was also very informative. As a senior education researcher, consultant, and lead writer of NCTM’s landmark publication Principles to Action, I knew I had a unique opportunity to learn from one of the true experts in the field. Steve offered ways to make math accessible to all students, including asking alternate applications, giving the correct answer and asking why it is correct, encouraging student discourse, utilizing more multiple representations, adding relevant context to the material at hand, embedding more literacy skills throughout a lesson, and constantly asking students to ‘convince me.’ Perhaps math teachers should be more like English teachers and adapt what the text bestows by turning exercises into more opportunities for learning. He also suggested that “instead of bombarding students with the whole word problem, the entire graph or figure or table, use the power of PowerPoint to gradually release or reveal the problem, graph, figure, etc. using questions to probe understanding of prior and new content.”
It truly was an incredible week of learning in Singapore. Some teachers do not believe Singapore’s education system has a replicable model, because of how small the country is geographically. I respectfully disagree with this argument and feel that we have a lot to learn from both Singapore and Malaysia (in addition to everything we can learn from Taiwan, too). I encourage all Americans, if they have the opportunity, to visit Singapore (and travel internationally as much as possible). English is widely spoken throughout the country, and it is incredible how the government has been able to fully embrace the innate power to be found in diversity. The Vision of Singapore’s Minstry of Education is ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation,’ and in many ways, their public schools truly are molding the future of their incredible nation. Wouldn’t it be incredible if every country had the same bold vision for public education?