Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the International Conference of the 50th Anniversary of the Faculty of Education, Chinese University of Hong Kong, on Saturday, 31 January 2015, at 1.40pm

Published Date: 31 January 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mrs Marion Lai,
Permanent Secretary for Education, Hong Kong

Dr Moses Cheng,
Chairman, Education Commission, Hong Kong

Professor Hau Kit-tai,
Pro-Vice Chancellor, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Professor Alvin Leung,
Dean of Education, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Mr Andreas Scheichler,
Director for Directorate for Education and Skills, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Education - Beyond School, Beyond Grades


1.     I am delighted to join all of you at this conference. I want to thank the Secretary of Education and Chinese University of Hong Kong for this invitation and I am very honoured by the invitation.

2.     I would also like to thank our colleagues at the Hong Kong Education Bureau for facilitating my visit, and for sharing with me the education changes you are thinking about. I have learnt a lot and I am very inspired by what you are doing.

3.     We had a great session this morning starting with Secretary Eddie Ng’s opening address, followed by the three professors talking about Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and then Andreas’ very good address and Mrs Lai’s very comprehensive speech on what Hong Kong is doing more of.

4.     I want to talk about education beyond grades and beyond school. But let me first start by saying that grades and schools are important. And as we heard this morning, how we use data, how we interpret data, how we use assessment to inform policy making and inform the way we run schools is very important. Many of our education systems tend to be driven by a lot of exams, and sometimes we can get the reaction that exams are not useful or not important. What I think is most important is to go beyond and think about what these grades mean, in the context of how we can help our children to build a deep and broad foundation for life and for lifelong learning.

5.     How do we measure the success of our education system? Not in terms of how well our students score in exams in school, but how well we prepare them for life. Very few schools, in fact, very few universities actually track what happens to their graduates over a lifetime. And so, when we think about this issue, what I think matters is the need to take a broader, deeper, and longer-term perspective of education beyond grades and beyond school.

Impetus for Change

6.     Why beyond grades and beyond school? The Faculty of Education in the Chinese University of Hong Kong is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. By coincidence, Singapore is celebrating our 50th year of independence this year, so we are just as old. When I look back 50 years, in 1965, man had not yet landed on the moon; in Asia we were having the Vietnam War; China had not opened up. The Berlin Wall did not come down until 1989! And so the whole world was talking about communism versus capitalism, and of course as Andreas said, the Internet, the iPhone, the mobile phone, the smart phone were all not there. So when you look back at the last 50 years, amazingly, several changes, quite unpredictable. If we look forward in the next 50 years, all we can be sure of is that, it will be even more unpredictable.

7.     How does our education prepare our children for the next 50 years? When I said this to my parents in Singapore, they said why is this Education Minister talking about the next 50 years? My child is in school today. So I said: “Think about it, your child is now 7 years old entering elementary school. In 50 years, he or she will be 57. The next 50 years will either be the best 50 years of their life or the worst 50 years of their life. And therefore we have a very heavy responsibility, to think about how our education prepares them for the next 50 years.

Beyond Grades

8.     Let me say first why education in preparing our children for the future needs to move beyond grades. There are at least three reasons for saying this.

Beyond grades to navigational skills

9.     First, we need to move beyond grades to help children build navigation skills. There is lot of debate about tests and grades, PISA and all that. In some cities in the US, they use grades to measure the performance of teachers which created a lot of controversy. But I think most educators would agree that assessment is important for teaching and learning, especially assessment for learning. We need to know how much and how well our students have mastered the concepts.

10.     The issue is really not about grades or assessments per se but the quality of the tests, the quality of the assessments, how we use and administer, and how we use and interpret these results. Andreas mentioned the quality of the assessment being critical: “What is it we are measuring?” Professor Esther Ho also mentioned that PISA is not the usual test about curriculum content, but about literacy and competency.

11.     What we need to do is to really think about the kind of measurements that we need to put in place. And how these measurements help our students build their navigational skills to cope with a changing landscape, a landscape where there is no well-marked paths anymore, but within which they can build a creative adaptability to thrive, to overcome, to adapt to social and economic changes, to overcome problems and to seize opportunities.

12.     One set of navigational skills we need is conceptual understanding and another set is social emotional competencies. Social and emotional learning will be a critical aspect of how well our children will be able to navigate the future, and whether they are rugged, whether they are inventive, whether they communicate and collaborate with others, whether they have cross-culture sensitivities and so on.

13.     In this regard, what the OECD is doing in measuring creative problem solving in PISA 2012, and going forward in collaborative problem solving, in global competencies, social and emotional learning, etc. is going to be very important and I was very delighted to hear Professor Andreas speak about the OECD Education 2030 project. So it is not about what we measure today but what we should be measuring for the future.

Beyond grades to an inner compass of values

14.     The second reason for going beyond grades is that we have to put a stronger emphasis on values. I think the more rapid the changes are, the more important it is that our students feel a sense of anchor. That there is a way of making ethical decisions, that we give them a compass that will guide them in making their decisions.

15.     Since 2011 in Singapore, we have moved towards a student-centric, values-driven education. Why values-driven, because only by having a deep sense of values, would a child be able to make good decisions about how he would relate to others and make good ethical decisions, and to be able to have that sense of identity that would give them confidence in a world that is changing very rapidly. The more rapidly the world changes, the more important it is that this set of values help them to stay anchored.

16.     We have community involvement programmes where our students go out to do community service - they go to old folks’ homes and so on. What is more important is not the act of going to the old folks’ home, but the values involved in doing this community work. It is not to dress up your CV, it is not to just say that I have done my part, but rather, it is to help them internalise the values. So we have changed the programme from Community Involvement to Values-In-Action. The way we get our students to reflect on what it is that is involved in doing certain things. What are the values of other people that we have to respect. This is the important change for us: beyond grades to values.

Beyond grades to holistic education

17.     The third reason for talking about beyond grades is really something that is very age-old: holistic education. The Chinese phrase that education involves德智体群美crystallises it very well. This is a very old set of ideas - and you will see these in the school motto or logo of a lot of schools, especially those with a long Chinese tradition. I think that it is absolutely right because education is ultimately about bringing out the best in every child, in every domain. And every child is different. Children are not digits in the system but unique, individual human beings.

18.     The Chinese term 教育 when expanded is 教书育人: we teach the books that nurture the individual. And really 育人 is at the core of education - to nurture the whole person, to let the child find their true interest and passion, and mission in life.

19.     If this is such an age-old idea, why is it that not everybody is talking about holistic education? What happened along the way? I believe what happened along the way is that what gets measured, gets done. Parents, students, teachers all respond to incentives. When we put a very strong and sharp measure on exam results, everybody will respond to that set of incentives. When I first became Education Minister, some parents wrote to me and said that some teachers were taking away the lesson for moral education and using it to practice for the academic exams. I asked if it was true when I visited some of our schools. In some schools, it is not true, the principals were very determined that lessons for moral education was an important part of education. In some schools, they do indeed do that. That is why I then made it very clear to our principals and teachers that this is an important, integral part of our education, and you cannot do away with that. So I am glad that I hear far less of those complaints now.

20.     It is very complicated because it is not easy to say that you are going to use the time for this and not focus on what is measured. But I think it is important that we as educators, from the minister, to the principals, to the bureau chiefs, make a very clear stand about what is important because it is almost as though we are swimming against the tide, as if the measurement system skews it in a particular direction.

21.     In summary, we need to move beyond grades because the next 50 years is going to be more uncertain and unpredictable. In that uncertainty, the landscape will keep changing. The maps that we used to use, which had very clearly marked paths that we could help our students work out - well, the map is no longer there. They will have to craft their own way as Mrs Lai mentioned; you need navigational skills, you need to do things differently. Therefore in that landscape, what matters most, is really having a compass that would anchor our students in a particular direction and the navigational skills to cope with changes, cope with uncertainty, to adapt, to be creative and to find our own way forward. And at the same time, we need to ask fundamentally if education is indeed about the development of the unique human being, and if so that it has to be anchored in holistic education - the moral, the cognitive, the physical, the social and the aesthetic.

22.     So, that is the first part, why beyond grades. Let me move quickly to say why beyond school.

Beyond school

23.     In many international educational conferences, when we talk about educational reform, most of the time we talk about what we must do better from elementary school, to secondary school and even to university. I think it is important for us to think beyond school. Again, I have three reasons why we need to think beyond school - lifelong learning, labour market practices, and social norms.

Beyond school to lifelong learning

24.     I have already spoken about the pace of change today. In the past, the pace of change was slower. The job requirements were quite predictable and people do not change jobs very often. Most individuals learn all that they need to know in school.

25.     Today, the nature of jobs is going to change so rapidly. Andreas gave some wonderful examples of changes in technology. I recently cooked a wonderful dish for 70 people in 10 minutes. How did I do it? I visited a restaurant chain and they just imported a cooking robot. The robot was invented in China - Shenzhen. All I had to do was to follow the instructions and put the ingredients in. It was quite a clever cooking robot. I asked, “how many dishes can this robot cook?” They said there were two sizes, the small one can cook 400 dishes and the big one can cook 1000 dishes.

26.     Think about it. When I was first told about this, I did not believe in such a thing and had to go see it for myself. So I went to have a look and brought some of my colleagues with me, including colleagues from the technical and vocational training institutes. I said to them: “You are training our students to be chefs. We have to ask ourselves, are we training the chef that will programme the robot or are we training chefs who will be replaced by the robot. We should think about how we are going to change the curriculum for chefs. The idea that if you are a chef, you just have to have a sense of taste and touch is not enough - perhaps you have to think about teaching more math, science and programming for our chefs to do well in the future.” Just behind my office in Singapore, we are experimenting with driver-less cars. The same issue will arise for taxi drivers.

27.     What does this mean for education for school and beyond school? We need to equip our students with foundational skills in school (literacy, numeracy, problem-solving, ICT) so that they can learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their lives. More importantly, we have to do it right across the education system. When we talk about equity in education, it is not just an ideology; it is about the lives of our young people. If they are not able to access this basic knowledge when they are young, can you imagine if they go to work when they are 20, 21, how miserable is the next 50 years going to be if they do not have the basic foundation?

28.     Equitable access to education is critical. But it also means that what we do in school is going to be critical. I always ask my principals when I meet them: “What do you think is the most important outcome of education? What would you like to see most when a child leaves your school?” We have lively discussions about all this and I am glad to say that many of them will say something like this: “At the end of the day, the most important outcome when they leave our school is that we have planted in each of them a seed for lifelong learning.” This means that they have the confidence and the interest - it is not just the grade that they get in school - but that they have the confidence and interest to learn and keep learning. So I was very interested to hear about the presentation by Andreas about self-efficacy and why it is important for us to focus on that.

29.     Again, here the Chinese language has a lot of wisdom. There is this saying, 拔苗助长 - to pull the shoots in order for the plant to grow faster. In many Asian systems, we tend to hothouse our children too much. If you think about how when you 拔苗助长, it actually makes things worse - the shoot becomes stunted; it will never grow.

30.     What we teach our children at what stage, kindergarten, primary, secondary school - is a subject we must discuss and discuss intensely, and also the point about learning to learn which Mrs Lai and the other speakers have mentioned too.

31.     We have to move towards a system where we plant the seed for lifelong learning so that learning never stops, learning never ends, learning happens at every stage, every day. Again, as the Chinese say 学无止尽 学海无涯 , there is no boundary to learning.

32.     When I was in Hong Kong in the last two days, I visited a number of universities and continuing education institutes and I learnt one very interesting phrase which I will share with everyone. Our education system must not only train (接班人), those who will join the workforce to take over from existing workers who are retiring, but also train上班人 - working adults who want to continue to learn, and also 下班人- retirees or those who are to leave their job to retire. I visited one of your elder academies and thought it was fascinating how you are promoting lifelong learning. If we think of lifelong learning very narrowly in terms of what is economically valuable, we might not be able to instil a culture of lifelong learning. I saw a performance yesterday by a group of elderly and the oldest was 92 years old. They were performing in a Chinese orchestra and had just begun to learn how to play Chinese instruments and to perform together in one of your schools, Pak Kau College. It is really about the Chinese saying 活到老学到老.

33.     Think about how our children will feel when they see their grandparents learning too! Then learning is no longer about passing exams but really about the joy of learning.

Beyond school to the use of skills in the labour market

34.     The second reason why education must go beyond school is demonstrated by OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) study on adult skills and the use of the skills in the labour market. Andreas did a presentation yesterday on this. The US did not rank highly in terms of adult skills, literacy and numeracy. But when it comes to the utilisation of skills, they did significantly better. Why? In contrast, some countries had very high skill scores but they did not do so well in the use of skills. And the reason has got to do with labour market practices, how employers use skills and treat their staff and so on. There is a gap between potential and performance due to labour market practices.

35.     What this means is that we need a whole-of-government approach. We can do a wonderful job in the Ministry of Education, build all the skills, but if employers do not value those skills and if they do not have good practices that maximise the use of those skills, a lot of what we do is wasted. A lot of potential will be under-realised.

36.     Recently, we did a review in Singapore on our polytechnic and ITE education. The recommendation was to build an education and training landscape that promotes learning beyond school to support learning throughout life. The basic goal is actually a very simple one. Our schools have been very good places for learning. We have created over the last 50 years a system where our schools are safe and conducive places for learning. Our goal for the next phase is to make our workplaces great places for learning. It is not just about learning at school but learning at work.

37.     We set up a SkillsFuture Council, led by our Deputy Prime Minister, and there is a lot of work we need to do and we are not there yet, but I hope we can make some progress. We will also have full-time career guidance officer in our polytechnics and ITE, so that students can choose their pathway and find out more about their interest. We can help our students be themselves and be better at what they do. And that they are not going through a system just to meet the requirements.

Beyond school to addressing the impact of social norms and values

38.     The third reason that education has to go beyond school is that social norms and values have a very powerful impact on how parents and students choose educational pathways. In some economies, employers place a very strong emphasis on credentials and paper qualifications. Without credentials, you get turned down for particular jobs regardless of your skills. Therefore, very often, students go on a paper chase. We have some of that happening in Singapore too.

39.     In some societies, social expectations of attaining certain qualifications and judging a person by qualifications is also strong. At cocktail parties, people ask: “What school does your child go to? What qualifications do you have?” I recently met a fellow Singaporean who had gone overseas and fell in love with a lovely lady from this country and he described his awful experience of meeting the mother-in-law. The mother-in-law’s first question was: “Which college did you go to?” And the poor young man said, “I didn’t go to college.” He had a very hard time, but I was glad that he eventually got married.

40.     In this, employers’, parents’, and society’s mindset change is going to be very important. Again, there is deep wisdom in the Chinese saying of行行出状元:that in every job, you can be the best in that particular area. We have to think about how we respect every job and support every individual to grow skills beyond school and on the job. Again, there are Chinese sayings for this: 敬业乐业,精益求精.

41.     This is not easy as this is about cultural norms and social values. Do we regard a person by the qualifications they have, the college they go to the school they go to? Or do we regard them as another human being and that we help them be better than they could be and that we respect them for what they do? We need to avoid a caste-like stratification in our society that links the school that you go, to your qualifications, and to your job, because the workplace and HR practices just look at qualifications. We need to move to a system where HR practices can be more enlightened, where they look at what you can bring to the table, the skills you bring to the table, what character traits you bring to the table and whether it is a good fit for the job in that company. HR practices which encourage and recognise that we can all have more ideas and acquire skills, regardless of age, regardless of job titles. We can then have higher skills, higher productivity and therefore a more competitive economy, but also, happier individuals.

42.     In Hong Kong, I visited your continuing education colleges and I can see that you are responding very dynamically - responsive to the changes that are happening in the labour market. You are making a lot of changes which is nicely dovetailed to the New Academic Structure that you now have. It is an important change you are making.

43.     You are a very high performing education system, but at the same time you are continuing to make changes that are relevant to the future. I am very inspired by what I see.


44.     To conclude, first, assessments and data are important but what is more important is the intelligent use of this data, understanding what is the right assessment tool, what are we assessing, and are we assessing competencies for the future or are we assessing competencies of the past. How do we interpret this data into insights for policy and practice. This is the first point, a point that has also been made by all previous speakers.

45.     Second, we talked about moving beyond exam grades, to equipping every child with an inner compass and navigation skills to navigate an uncertain future, and to an emphasis on holistic education.

46.     My third major point is the need to move beyond school to think about lifelong learning, to plant the seed for lifelong learning in every child, and to go beyond school to think about how workplaces treat our students after they graduate from school, what they do with them and if our employers take the trouble to make workplaces even better than our schools as learning places. The harder issue is what kind of social norms do we have in our society. Does it recognise individuals for their individuality? Does it regard everyone as an equal member of society regardless of job title or qualifications? If we can do that, we can probably have an even higher performing system not just in the narrow sense of exam performance but in the broader societal sense. In that regard, our schools can then dovetail these changes to better prepare our students for a broad and deep foundation for life and lifelong learning.

47.     Thank you very much.

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