Opening Address by Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Education, at The Straits Times – Sim Forum Disruptions in Education

Published Date: 03 February 2018 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Good morning everybody and thank you for coming here on a Saturday.

1. We are here to talk about disruption. I was listening to Warren (Fernandez)’s comments and what was interesting is that the media and newsroom thrive on disruption. If there was no disruption, they wouldn’t have much news to report. For them, that is a double-edged sword – the increasing pace of disruption gives them more things to talk about, more things to report and put on their blogs, websites and Twitter, and give us challenging interviews. Unfortunately, when it comes home to their newsroom and organisation, there are some downsides and they have to respond to that. Which is one of the things I’m going to bring up today. When we talk about our wish for disruption, we must remember that it is not a simple thing to ask for, implement or experience. There are some consequences that we must be prepared to engage with. If we are asking for our education system to be disrupted or to be disruptive, we also need to prepare ourselves to be the kind of society that can not only cope but embrace some of the consequences that happen as a result, including some of the slightly less pleasant ones. So I am going to scope out a little bit of what I think that might look like. The other thing that I thought I might talk about today is what a disrupted or disruptive education system looks like from the inside. What would that look like or feel like for the students, parents and our society?

External Forces of Disruption

2. Before I do that, I thought I might say a little bit about the forces of disruption. Actually, a lot has been said already about the external forces that are driving disruption, such as the interconnection with the rest of the world. Singapore did globalisation long before it became a buzzword. We were an open economy. We brought in MNCs and the best ideas from the world. Trade, finance and now, increasingly, data flow through us. We are connected and we are exposed to everything that happens around the world. We’ve talked about the external forces that are encouraging us to think about being disruptive. We’ve talked about the competition for business, talent and opportunity compared to other cities and other jurisdictions. Again, another external force for us to be disruptive and disrupted. But I thought I might say a little bit about some of the potential internal forces – what is happening inside our classrooms, inside our schools and inside our education system.

Internal Forces of Disruption

3. Let me start with the students. The students can be a disruptive force. Anybody who is a parent of a three-year-old knows that that the three-year-old can be disruptive. The aspirations of this generation – the twenty-year-olds who have just come out of the formal education, the fifteen-year-olds who are coming to the end of their secondary education and even the primary school students who are going in at Primary One - can be a potential pressure on the types of disruption that we need to think about.

4. Why? Well, we are living in a very peaceful, prosperous and stable time in Singapore. This generation growing up has never been healthier or exposed to as much reading or engaging opportunities in the kindergarten space. They have a sense of plenty and a sense of opportunity, partly driven by some parental expectations and some behaviour around enrichment. When they come to school, they are not quite the same as the generation before them. They are often ready and raring to go. They are connected. Whether you like it or not, children are spending a lot more time on screens. One of my questions when I do my school visits is “How many of you have mobile phones and at what age did you start getting a mobile phone?” In the last couple of years and in the short time that I’ve been in education, it appears that the answer to the second question is getting younger and younger each time.

5. They are already connected and they are forming WhatsApp groups amongst themselves. My second son just started Secondary One this year and by the end of the third day or fourth day, he had a little WhatsApp chat group with all of his classmates. That connection amongst the class is quite different and that has forced a pressure on how the education system and the teachers have to respond. My son is still in contact with his primary school cohort through the same tool, not that I am advertising for WhatsApp. But what happens when four or five years later, that tight connection that he built in primary school continues to be reinforced on a daily basis where the children message back and forth? So the lived experience of these children is going to put some pressure on the education system to disrupt ourselves and be responsive to the kind of aspirations and experiences that they have.

6. Also, these children are looking out across the world and they know what’s happening in London and in Jakarta. They understand the conflicts that are out there. They understand the aspirational and inspirational movements that are happening around the world. They want to be part of these types of movements as a connected youthful society. That is going to put some pressure on the kind of skills, attitudes and knowledge that we need to provide within the education service so that they can fulfil those aspirations. So our students can and should be a potential push and force for positive disruption within the education service.

7. Their parents can also be a force for disruption. The teachers in the room would have one view about this. As a parent myself, we can also WhatsApp the teacher, though it is not always well received. The aspirations of parents today are quite different. We as the education service should respond to this, to be disruptive around those aspirations in a positive way. A fundamental basis of that anxiety, concern or involvement for a parent actually has not changed. As the technology and industries evolve and as our society changes – what does the parent want? The parent wants for their child to have the best possible opportunity through education. As they look at the economy and around the world, and see jobs changing, being lost and being created, and new industries being created, there’s an anxiety that parents have. Will my child be able to navigate through the education system and find a meaningful opportunity later on? That fundamental aspiration has not changed. We should always, as an education service, respond to that.

8. A third internal disruptive force is our teachers. A young teacher graduating from teacher training today is actually not of my generation. He or she is coming from the next generation – they are internet ready, ‘plug and play’ and wifi-enabled. They have grown up with the Internet and global connection taking off. They are bringing to bear in their classrooms that experience; they are not waiting for MOE to write the next app or persuade a vendor to deliver a service. They are simply saying - how can I use Google Docs, WhatsApp and Facebook to derive a new learning experience? So they are going ahead and innovating in their classrooms and they can be a potential force of disruption that we as the education service should respond to.

Impact of a Disrupted and Disruptive Education System

9. So what then would a disrupted and disruptive education system look like across the landscape? Let me deal with some of the downsides first. What would happen if truly we were very disruptive to ourselves and disrupted our education service? What would happen to our students as they navigate through the education space and what happens when they leave? Fundamentally, it would mean that their outcome would be a little less guaranteed. Because the pace of disruption is picking up and as the education service is responding to those disruptions and the industry is changing. If we were truly disruptive - changing our model of education, delivery of our courses and subjects, evaluation systems and tools - when the students get to the end of it, not all of them will be ideally prepared for a job. There will be some who get matched into a job or their next course of higher education nicely, but there will be some who will need to take a little bit of time to find their way, a little bit of time to work it out. For instance, “Well, I chose a really innovative pathway in school which nobody else had done before and the employer is just not yet ready to employ me. So I might take a little bit of time to find a job or I might have to go and do some retraining”. We will lose some efficiency, if you want to put it that way.

10. What will it look like for the child? The child might have to deal with more anxiety. For instance, if a university offers a particular course and it is the only university offering this course, and no one else has done this before. Is it a safe bet? Is it something that I can take a risk on? Will my parents let me do it? How do you then provide counselling from the education service to a child about a course that has never been done before? “You know you have graduated from secondary school, and you are going to this. I think you are a good fit but none of my previous students have done it before. You will be the first. You need to be brave to try it.” So there is going to be increased anxiety and inefficiency. There is not going to be a guarantee that every experiment and every disruptive innovation that we try in the education service will work perfectly the first time. So the downside is, a bit like the newsroom, we will have to think of strategies to cope with some of these inefficiencies and outcomes, and not just celebrate all the good stuff. We have to accept that it is part of that innovation and disruption.

11. Why is it worth taking those risks? Why is it worth dealing with some of those anxieties? As a parent of three boys, I’ve got to tell you that I have a lot of anxieties on a daily basis. Why is it worth doing? We need to prepare our students for a very different type of world. We need to build in them the resilience and adaptability that if it takes a little bit longer to get on exactly the right track to follow your passion, that’s okay and be a bit more resilient about it. If you need to try something and fail, then that’s okay. We need to give them different types of skills, aptitudes and attitudes. It is worth doing because if we get it right, we build the next generation and every generation thereafter to be even more future ready, even more resilient and more able to take on these opportunities in the world.

12. But what does that space in between look like? We talked about the forces and outcomes. What does a disruptive and disrupted education system look like? Well the first thing is, it cannot be the same across the whole education service. It must actually look increasingly diverse across different schools, different polys, ITE, university courses and JCs. Everything has to look a little bit more colourful because you can’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, whether you’re talking about the technology, classroom innovation or the type of subject you deliver. If someone stands up and says I can solve this problem of disruption and resilience, they may be right but they will be right at that point in time and they will be right for that problem. But how can we make sure that year on year, the education service responds and remains resilient? Well, it needs to be diverse. The second thing is, the barriers need to be broken down. The learning must not stop at the school gates. Industry must be brought into the classrooms and the classroom must be taken out towards industry because we want our education to be responsive to the needs of what is happening within society. So whether it’s at the level of community service or industry engagement, a disrupted and disruptive education service is integrated into the industry and community around them.

Disruption in Education is Already Taking Place

13. We have a number of examples of this happening already today. If you look at it, our education service is very variegated. We have many tracks and many courses. Singaporean parents, you would know that you have so many choices of which secondary school to apply for, which poly course to apply for, the different paths and different tracks. It is a very diverse landscape out there.

14. I think a far more important marker of a disrupted and disruptive space that currently exists in Singapore is what the students and teachers are already doing. I have a few examples to throw out there, just to show you what is happening already. There is an open-source Physics platform (Open Source Physics @ Singapore or OSP@SG) that many schools and JCs are coming on board. Since 2012, a 100 teachers and 10,000 students have benefitted from its use. Tracked learning also takes place through existing mobile applications such as WhatsApp, ClassDojo and Facebook. There is also real world integration around programming and coding. They are doing this not because MOE said so, but because the teachers see educational value in taking those tools and layering them into their courses.

15. What does the Ministry of Education and the Government do to push this? We provide quite a lot of funds to encourage research in teaching innovation. We have the course-based customisation that NTU is doing, called the Technology – Enhanced Learning, transforming 1,500 courses. There is also environment-based customisation that ITE is getting involved in. We are also putting quite a bit of money into tertiary education research. We have committed to 42 projects, of which 15 are looking at ICT. We have OPAL, an online learning platform, for years, which some of you familiar with the education service might already know about.

16. We have all these tools and products, so much so that you know what happens in one classroom is really quite different from an adjacent classroom in the same school, let alone different schools, across the whole landscape. Our teachers have been able to differentiate learning in the classroom across time, and an individual child has been able to find his or her way through a path which may not perfectly fit them but is appropriate to their aspirations and the overall needs of their education. That is a disruptive and disrupted education service.

17. I believe we have done quite a lot, but we can continue to do more because it is not a thing that we should ever sit back and say “We have done a great job and that is the end of it”. We have good foundations in place, where teachers and schools feel that they own this problem and that they are empowered to then innovate at the school level and classroom level.

18. We at MOE need to provide them with the tool, funding and space in order to do so, and we are doing so. One example is the Student Learning Space that we are building and rolling out by the end of 2018. We have already piloted it. It sounds very simple - it delivers all the resources online such as learning plans, lessons, curricula, content and evaluation. You as a student will be able to access these online. But more importantly, once you make something available, it’s potentially available across the whole education landscape, to every single school in Singapore. It also allows the students to talk to each other and the teachers to talk to each other, thereby bringing together that communal aspect and the data driven aspect – what works well and why doesn’t it work well – and then we can put evaluations in. It is not just about putting the money or policy there, but it is about putting the tools and products for this type of disruption to take root and continually occur over time.


19. I hope we have a disruptive education service already and I think we can do more, to learn more from the best lessons from around the world. A forum like this today is something that we should embrace. It is part of our tradition in Singapore and in our education service to continually look around and see what the best models from around the world and the best aspects are, and how we can bring them here to benefit our students and society. We should continue to do so. I think the day we say that we are already disrupted and disruptive and our education service is as good as it can get, we will lose a certain edge and I think we will only start to slow down and lose the opportunity to reengineer ourselves for the future. We must remain open to these types of new ideas and continue to update and innovate our education service. I’m looking forward to the comments and the discussion today. Thank you all very much for your time.

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