Speeches/Interviews

May 31, 2016

Speech by Mr Ng Chee Meng, Acting Minister for Education (Schools), at the 8th Teachers’ Conference

Ms Denise Phua, Chairman, Government Parliamentary Committee (Education)

Mr Zainal Bin Sapari, Member, Government Parliamentary Committee (Education)

Mr Neo Kian Hong, Permanent Secretary (Education Development)

Mr Wong Siew Hoong, Director-General of Education

Distinguished guests, Principals, Teachers, Colleagues

Introduction

1. I am very happy to be here today at the 8th Teachers’ Conference, and I would like to warmly welcome every Conference participant and our international friends who are with us today. Your presence here today shows your commitment to continual professional learning and improvement. This constant professional renewal is akin to the water stops available to runners during a marathon. I am sure you will come away from the Conference recharged, refreshed and ready to make fresher imprints on the students, whose lives you touch every day. But you keep running, because teaching and learning are never-ending journeys.

2. Last year, we celebrated SG50. It was a significant milestone in our national history. We all take pride in our Singapore Story as Singaporeans, all the more so since it was quite an unexpected Story. To a large extent, the Singapore Story was only possible because of the Education Story woven together by the generations of teachers over the last 50 years. The good work of our teachers in inspiring our students to learn and to respond nimbly to educational policy shifts and improvements is our key national asset and also one of the reasons why we were able to move from the Third World to the First.

3. As we embark on the next 50 years of our journey as a nation, it is my belief that teachers will continue to play a critical role in shaping our national destiny. Like the last 50 years, our only asset will remain our people. And even more so than the last 50 years, nations will rise or fall in importance and fortune based on the quality of its human capital. This human factor will be decisive, especially for an island state with no natural resources.

4. Singapore will always be a small city-state with no strategic depth, but it is not a given that we will always have exceptional people that can keep Singapore economically vibrant and relevant, safe and secure, while creating even more inspiring SG100 stories that we can share with our grandchildren and great grandchildren in 2065. For this to happen, foremost, our education system, the quality of our teachers, and learning and teaching, must continue to be exceptional. We must all keep our eyes on education.

5. What will the next 50 years be like and what kind of future will we have to prepare our students for?

Situating Singapore in the Larger Landscape

6. In some ways, the next 50 years will be an intensification of what we are already experiencing. It will be a globalised world connected tightly by technology and economic, cultural and people exchanges. In such a world, the movement of ideas, capital and people will not only be fast, but also disruptive. To understand how disruptive such flows can be, we can take the example of Uber. An American company that leverages the connection brought about by mobile internet technology, Uber has brought about both benefits and unwelcome changes in every part of the world it now operates in. For the commuters, it has meant expanded travel options from one part of their city to another. For those who are looking for more flexible working hours and supplementary income, Uber offers the option of work. However, for the incumbent taxi companies and their taxi drivers everywhere, Uber has been a totally unforeseen source of competition for the fares of the commuters. The emergence of Uber, Air BnB and other online, cross-border transaction portals like Amazon, Taobao and Carousell, all made possible by the ubiquity of the Internet, has opened up both new opportunities and challenges to enterprises and individuals. When the rules of an entire industry change, individuals have the choice of either adjusting to those rules by taking on new mindsets, new knowledge and skills, or risk being totally side-lined by the disruptive changes. What is clear is that such highly unpredictable changes will continue into the future and happen more regularly. As a small city-state that heavily relies on our connections with the world, we should recognise these not as challenges, but opportunities for us to seize and keep Singapore at the forefront. Will there be challenges? Of course. But with challenges come opportunities.

7. Against the backdrop of a smaller, more connected world, how can Singapore be exceptional and avoid the historical fate of many once-prosperous cities and city-states in the past? One key question must be:

How do we educate our students so that they are ready not just for a lifetime of tests, but for the test of life?

8. The world we are preparing our students for is more varied and unknown. Just ten years ago, for instance, jobs such as Zumba Instructor, App designer and Social Media Manager (The Guardian) did not exist. Yet, there is now a market for such positions for those with the fundamental skills and the readiness to learn voraciously on the job.

9. While it may not be possible to predict the future, it is clear that for us to make our way in a competitive world, we will have to be more than just a value-adding economy that follows up on the good, creative ideas of others. To continue to thrive, we would also have to be a value-creating economy, where Singaporeans in many different ways can contribute to radically different and better answers to the problems that stand in the way of the Good Life, however one defines it.

10. So, beyond strong fundamental literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge, what else do we want our students to have as part of their make-up when they leave us? I believe all of us are familiar with the 21st century competencies framework that we have developed as goals and signposts for the holistic curriculum we want to have in all our schools.

11. This framework captures our current ‘best guess’ regarding what our students would need to thrive in the future. The challenge in schools and for teachers is to design learning environments and learning experiences that integrate these goals seamlessly and coherently for our students. The wonderful thing about teaching is that you have many opportunities over many days to help our students develop their creative and critical thinking inclination and capacity; their socio-emotional intelligences and cross-cultural sensitivities and competencies; and to help them discover what interests them, what piques their curiosity and what skills they will want to learn and master.

The Way We Interact with Our Students

12. As teachers with the privilege of interacting with many children and adolescents, you would know that your students are very different from those just five or ten years ago. Due to the rapid shifts in our society, what the child already knows, how the child learns, and to some extent, the expectations of parents, will have a big influence on what and how you teach.

13. In addition, within the professional domain of education, because of the regular exchanges between education systems and schools of education, new ideas about how best to teach and assess now spread quickly. Some of these ideas from, for instance, neuro-science research, will probably take a longer time to integrate into our practices. Other ideas will benefit immediately from us coming together to discuss, share evidence of what had worked well and what had not, and then having the courage to experiment the different ways of engaging our students in our classrooms.

14. This professional learning and collaboration that takes place has real and substantial impact on the quality of student learning.

  1. Master Teacher for Art, Mdm. Victoria Loy, facilitated networked learning sessions for interested art teachers from primary, secondary and junior college levels to meet regularly to deepen and extend their understanding of experimental drawing. These teachers learn from artist-practitioners, heightening confidence in their own drawing ability and more significantly, have started to try out in their classes creative teaching strategies and materials. Having gained more insight into new skills and knowledge, the peer-supported learning spurred teachers to challenge their students in more engaging drawing lessons.

    One of the teachers, Ms. Serene Lin Meizhen, Subject Head for art from Greendale Secondary School, was excited to observe the positive change in the level of engagement for art lessons in her students. Previously, they had never imagined they could draw well, and with such detail. Now, they are more skilled, and even confident enough to provide feedback to help their peers improve their drawing. Because of the support from the Networked Learning Community, Serene dared to try an unconventional but creative drawing strategy: she bought every student an ice-cream to draw. All students put in great effort and focus to drawing the ice-cream before it melted away. Their skills of observing and sketching were enhanced, and they were visibly engaged and satisfied with their art-making. There was a sense of purpose and deep satisfaction after their drawing was complete, and this is all thanks to their teacher’s creative way of engaging them in drawing.

  2. In a Science Normal Course (NA and NT) Networked Learning Community, the members embarked on a project to study how to better engage Normal Course students through experiential learning, with the guidance of Master Teacher Ms. Tan Poh Hiang. The members in this Networked Learning Community are from five schools. Together, they created a learning package, which included the use of hydroponic sets, and organised learning journeys for their students to experience first-hand application of scientific knowledge in an authentic real world scenario. Among them, Mr. Choo Shi Qian from Dunearn Secondary School not only brought the hydroponics project and other lesson ideas back to his school, but subsequently, with the endorsement of his Principal and Head of Department, some of the lesson ideas were implemented level-wide. Apart from understanding scientific concepts better, the students had many opportunities to hone their skills in communicating their learning through reflection and presentation.

Designing Our School Environment

15. Beyond these very important shifts in what we teach and how we teach, our students will also pick up important cues from their school environment regarding what is really valued and important. For our students to value their holistic development, they must perceive that their schools strike a good balance in the educational experiences designed for them. Schools ought to prioritise character development and the development of attributes that will put the students in good stead for the future. An over obsession with grades and over obsession with the outcomes, rather than the process of school programmes, will run counter to the intent of what we seek to achieve. In other words, we must find the balance between what can be measured (grades) and what can only be observed (values and character). As Einstein once said, “[n]ot everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

16. To help our students be nimble and adaptive in their thinking, we should aim to have school environments that encourage our students to experiment and to refine their ideas on what it means to be successful. In these aspects of school life, teachers play key roles in shaping the ways students think through what professionals call the ‘hidden curriculum’ of schools.

17. Very recently, Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University made news by bravely publishing his CV of failures. This included the degree programmes he did not get into, and the academic positions and academic funding which he applied for but did not get. He made public his CV so as to strike a balance between the perceived imbalance of his visible success and his invisible failures.

18. I am not suggesting that you ask your students to compile their own list of failures when you next meet them. The lesson that we can draw from this is that we need to help our students to be more positive and learn from their failures they encounter in life. As teachers, when we allow our students to stumble from time to time, encourage them to have ‘productive failures’ and in the process develop their emotional and mental resilience, we would have helped them to prepare well for the future.

The Singapore Heartbeat

19. Beyond developing the individual attributes of our students, as a fraternity, teachers play a key role in maintaining our Singapore Heartbeat. I began by referring to SG50 and the collective pride and sense of togetherness we experienced. I would not want to assume that this feeling of cohesion, so important to a small city-state like ours, will naturally be there. In fact, sustaining the Singapore heartbeat will be a more complex task, more so with the advent of social media, online entertainment and the greater diversity in our resident population. Our students, just like the general population, may be exposed to a narrow range of ideas through their participation in certain social media platforms, resulting in their views being shaped strongly by these ‘echo chambers’. The online entertainment, unlike television programmes in the past, do not provide the glue that holds many in our population, as interests and preferences are now catered in a very customised fashion, resulting in what we now call ‘narrow-casting’, instead of ‘broadcasting’. The more diverse resident population will also mean a more diverse range of cultural assumptions and backgrounds which can make it more difficult for us to stick together based on common, broad understanding.

20. As teachers, you have the special responsibility of sustaining our Singapore Heartbeat. Like in the early years of our independence, teachers will have to continue to mould our students as Singaporeans and not assume that it is an identity that is formed at birth. Through your interaction with the students, you can help them to catch what it means to be a Singaporean, either through what you teach explicitly or through what you say or do in response to the many teachable moments that happen in the community your school is in. Your genuine pride in what Singapore represents and authentic sense of attachment to Singapore will definitely help shape young minds in powerful ways. Help your students articulate what it means to be Singaporean in relation to the rest of the world too. In many different ways, Singapore will continue to thrive only if it remains a hub that is relevant and connected to our region and the wider world. The geography of our students’ minds must be far wider and far more inclusive than the geographical limits of our little red dot.

Conclusion

21. Teachers and quality teaching influence the destiny of individuals, families, communities and nation. It is a complex and important profession for which we will always try to draw those with the best aptitude and greatest commitment to join as teachers. Teaching is also the ultimate learning profession. With continual learning, teachers become a running stream of fresh water that nurtures and grows everything around them. Your professional commitment to learning is, I am glad to note, captured in the Teachers’ Pledge, whereby you agree that Teachers “will continue to learn and pass on the love of learning to our students.” Your learning disposition and your ability to apply what you have learned will make you a powerful role model of lifelong learning to your students.

22. I would like to thank the Academy of Singapore Teachers and the subject academies for the effort put in to organise the 8th Teachers’ Conference, and my appreciation to ASCD Singapore and the Academy of Principals (Singapore) for their support and partnership. I wish all a very fruitful learning experience in the next two days. Thank you.