Speeches

December 29, 2017

Speech by Mr Ng Chee Meng, Minister of Education (Schools), at the 20th Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals

A very good afternoon to all of you.

1. It is good for all of us to end 2017 by honouring our Principals, both retiring and serving Principals. It is also good for us to look ahead to 2018 and set the direction for our serving and incoming Principals, as you undertake the heavy responsibilities of leading your schools in the new year.

2. First, I would like to express my deep and sincere gratitude to 16 of our esteemed colleagues who are retiring today. Kelvyna, Hong Mui, Poh Meng, Dr Hon, Boon Cheng, Mee Ying, Soo Keng, Jackie, Seng Cheong, Kuerk Heng, Veronica, Eng Leng, Catherine, Wai Peng, Lay Keok and Siew Piang. Collectively, you have served as Principals for a whopping 240 years, impacting close to 40 schools, more than 4,000 teachers, and 100,000 students, of which I am one of them. Our students’ lives, and my own, have been enriched by your sacrifice and dedication. Your contributions will be valued by generations of students, and by our country - we are stronger and more cohesive. Thank you. Please stand as we applaud your lifetime of contributions.

3. Second, let me congratulate our 63 Principals receiving appointment letters today. As you take on this tour of duty, I wish you all the best in this fulfilling and exciting journey. May you lead with passion, wisdom, and by example, so that our teachers and students can see your joy, your dare, your spirit and your own journey of “lifelong learning” shine through. All of us in MOE and in the schools will be alongside to encourage and lend support to all of you.

Innovation - A Critical Pivot for a Better Future

4. For today, I want to continue the conversation about innovation. For two years now, we have been working together to develop the ideas of Joy of Learning, Entrepreneurial Dare and the Singapore Spirit within our schools. We have made good progress, and have gained common understanding. I would like now to build upon these ideas, and translate them into actions to nurture our students who can innovate – for themselves, for society, for Singapore, and for the future. Essentially, we want to harness the joy and the dare in our students and to drive innovation. These form an integral whole to bring out the best in our students, and advance Singapore as a nation in the years ahead.

5. I first spoke about how important it was for us to nurture innovators and value-creators, back in 2015. Innovation is pivotal to Singapore’s continued growth and success. Change in our globalised world is accelerating. There will be greater volatility in the world economy, society, science and, even politics. This will continue to change, and I suspect the change is accelerating. We have already seen how technology has disrupted many aspects of our lives – from social media channelling broadcast to narrowcast consumption; to Uber and Grab, Airbnb spearheading the “sharing economy”; to the Bitcoin craze, and the list goes on. The way that we live has changed and will continue to change tremendously. This wave of innovation will leave some of us floundering, but yet presents immense opportunities for those who have the skills and courage to ride the waves.

6. Singapore and Singaporeans are in a strong position to ride these waves. But, Singapore needs to innovate. And schools are the natural starting points, to sow the seeds of innovation upstream, so that our students can seize new opportunities downstream when they grow up.

7. In other words, as educators, to ready our children for the future, we need to develop their Innovation Quotient.

8. A common question I get asked is - how does innovation look like? To me, innovation is: an ongoing process of intentional exploration, that takes some risks in order to achieve a larger purpose.

9. It is certainly not a single eureka moment – this is a popular myth and we need to dispel this popular misconception that the moment of innovation just “happens” with no prior learning, no needed foundation or cultivation of ways of thinking, and that people are either “naturally creative” or they are not. This is not true.

10. We need to be intentional about the innovation process, because innovation requires certain skills and dispositions, hard work, perseverance, tenacity and dare. We need to be prepared to take risks and overcome setbacks and even failures, because innovation can be messy, and often involves some hits, and many misses.

11. My reflection thus far is that we have made good progress along this innovation journey, and we must continue to do so. We must persist in what we are doing right – and that is, in laying a strong foundation that builds critical skills, key to innovation. We must also relentlessly pursue experimentation. A key part of what we do in education must be about embracing innovation as a system, and nurturing innovation in our students. We must create for our students an environment that enables and empowers innovative mind-sets by nurturing what I call the 3Is.

The 3Is of Innovation – Imagination, Inquisitiveness, Interconnections

Imagination

12. The core DNA of Innovation lies in these 3Is – Imagination, Inquisitiveness and Interconnections. The first ‘I’ is Imagination. We need to spark a child’s imagination, because that is the wellspring of ideas and innovations.

13. With imagination, a child’s mind becomes a playground for new possibilities and alternative worlds. In this playground, young children make up stories, rehearse scenarios and envision dream worlds. This contributes to creativity, flexible thinking, and endless inspirations extending into adulthood.

14. Let me cite the example of Shigeru Miyamoto. Not many may recognise his name, but we all know his invention – “Super Mario”. Miyamoto’s video games were immensely popular and ground-breaking for his time, and he attributes his unique creativity to the long days exploring the mountains, valleys, and hills, and time spent tinkering and making his own toys since he was little. This space and experimentation incubated and inspired creative storylines, loveable characters and fantastical worlds in his games, unlike others which were merely technically good, but all too common.

15. Miyamoto’s experience is not unique. The importance of having the time and space to inspire imagination is echoed by many other creative individuals. So, how can we help a child’s imagined space to grow?

16. From the science of it, this requires time for personal reflection, for free-play and day-dreaming, through self-directed, intrinsically-motivated and personally-meaningful tasks that build interest, confidence and competence. Our job therefore is to give them a stimulating environment, the space, some exposure and skills, and simply, afford them the time to play. And by that I mean the exploration of what interests them, at their own pace, without external pressures or fixed goals and targets to meet.

17. I am glad that over the last 2 years, I see more and more schools doing that. For instance, Tanjong Katong Girls’ School sets aside ‘white space’ for students every Tuesday morning, from 7.30am to 8.50am. Students choose what they want to do – ranging from student-run rehearsals, senior/junior House meetings, collaborative academic and non-academic projects, to individual consolidations or peer conversations they would like to have. Students pursue their own interests – there are no KPIs, no set outcomes, no overriding agendas, but just a space to explore.

18. I appreciate that creating such time and space for our students is not an easy task. There will be trade-offs and adaptations required. For example, I understand the teachers at Tanjong Katong Girls’ had to resist the urge to fill up the white space with semi-structured activities, this is understandable given the many things we want to do for our students, but I urge you to remember that unstructured play is meaningful and educational, even if we do not see immediate and direct outcomes. The outcomes come indirectly, in more ways than one. Sometimes, the things we cannot see are the most valuable.

19. In our schools, I think we can free up some space to embrace some messiness and uncertainty of outcomes, as perfect structure and instructions can impede innovation. We can afford this space to let our children’s imagination grow, because imagination is the wellspring of ideas in their mental playground and will serve them richly for their journey through life.

Inquisitiveness

20. The second ‘I’ is Inquisitiveness. This is what I call a spirit of the ‘why’, and ‘why not’? This is a commonality among creative individuals - They observe the world and ask ‘why’ until they are satisfied with the answer. They challenge the status quo by asking ‘why not’. They are inquisitive enough to identify the problems worth solving, and then persistent and open-minded enough to explore their curiosities wherever it might lead them, and eventually come up with new solutions.

21. By nature, children are curious. Almost all children in their natural state ask many questions. But quite often as they grow up, their inquisitiveness fades, in part because they learn from adults that answers are more important than questions. And these are answers to questions that someone else has set for them, and may not be what they care deeply about.

22. Going forward in the age of artificial intelligence, having the mind-set to ask questions, and knowing the right questions to ask, will be ever more critical. Picasso once said, “Computers are not very interesting, all they do is provide answers”. He is not wrong in that increasingly there will be more and more of a division of labour in the future where humans ask the machines the right questions, and the machines do the analysis to find the most useful answers. Machines are getting better and better at analysing vast amounts of data to give us the right answers, but they are still not very good at asking the right questions. This is where our value can lie and we must nurture this in our children – getting to the right questions, and getting machines to help us find the right answers.

23. Therefore, let us try to move from guiding our students towards answers, to facilitating them to form good questions in their minds. Once they have interesting questions, they will be motivated to find the solutions.

24. As a system, we have taken steps in the right direction. For instance, one of the stated outcomes of the Programme for Active Learning, or PAL, is to nurture curiosity in our primary school students. As part of PAL and also beyond, some primary schools are focusing their attention on growing dispositions that nurture creativity and inquisitiveness. A more specific example is Bukit Timah Primary, which supports inquiry-based learning with the use of Thinking Routines. For example, students get to pose questions and explain their thinking in various ways, from drawing, writing to journaling. This happens in all their subjects, and is a good way of making thinking and questioning visible. One of their ex-students, Audrey Lee, who is currently taking her degree in medicine, shares: “Personally, as an introverted girl who was shy and terrified of asking questions, this way of learning helped me step out of my cycle of making mistakes. I could write to my teacher about science as openly as I wanted and learning was fun and meaningful.”

Interconnections

25. Next, I will talk about the third ‘I’ – Interconnections – helping our students to join the dots. Neuroscience tells us that the innovation draws on the whole brain. Brain scanning technology shows us that when we think divergently, explore and engage with new ideas, our brain networks fire on all cylinders to make new neural connections, and multiple parts of the brain actually ‘light up’ like a Christmas tree.

26. As educators, what can we do to encourage our students to make those interconnections, to ‘light up’ their minds like a Christmas tree and make new connections?

27. Through our curriculum, we need to intentionally encourage our students to “join the dots” and make rich, deep, and unexpected interconnections. Much innovation happens at the borders of established fields and knowledge, when unexpected skills collide, and new ways of thinking cross-fertilised. If we look at the ‘sunrise’ industries of today you will see that the growth areas are also inter-disciplinary – for example, digital media and bio-mechanics.

28. The disposition that we should encourage in our students is one of an appreciation of each subject they learn, complemented by the ability to look across different areas of learning.

29. In this regard, I am again very encouraged. Some schools have already embarked on this journey of encouraging our students to make these interconnections. At Anderson Primary School, students consider the academics with the aesthetics through their signature ANDventure programme – one hour per week is set aside for all P4 to P6 students to explore interconnections between the Arts and the Sciences. For example, students investigate how energy conversions can be realised and explained through ceramic art; students also learn about life cycles by creating a dance that depicts a life cycle of their choice.

30. Another example is Tanjong Katong Secondary School’s Da Vinci curriculum, which integrates learning from across subjects to create authentic learning opportunities for students. For example, in exploring environmental issues, students are exposed to data-handling skills in Mathematics, river exploration in Geography, research and essay-writing via English. Through this process, the usefulness and interconnected nature of the knowledge and skills is made much clearer to students.

Applied Learning – The Vehicle that Actualises Innovation

31. Having said all that, how do we create the opportunities for students to experience and exercise the 3Is of Imagination, Inquisitiveness and Interconnections?

32. I suggest we use applied learning, it is the natural vehicle to nurture innovation. Applied learning requires students to ask good questions in order to identify interesting problems, imagine possibilities that can solve the problem, and make connections between theory and the abstract in order to generate innovative solutions. It requires students to have the dare to experiment with different ideas and solutions, motivated by their own intrinsic joy of learning.

33. I have been talking about joy of learning and intrinsic motivation. One of the key reasons applied learning is critical is that it helps students to appreciate the relevance of what they are learning in the academic curriculum to the real world they see around them.

34. This helps them to see the value of what they are learning, and develops stronger motivation and purpose to acquire knowledge and skills. It also helps them to figure out their interests and future career inclinations. This would help them know what they would like to do in life, where applied learning and ECG also go hand in hand.

35. Our students today have a great need for meaning, relevance, engagement, and authenticity. Gone are the days where some of them will sit quietly in class, paying attention, trying to absorb whatever the teacher teaches them. Students today want to know why they are learning what they are learning, they want to be hands-on, they want to be given the room to explore, find out, and even create new things for themselves.

36. So let us help them to learn through getting their hands dirty. Be it gripping hand tools, tapping new applications, swiping breakthrough devices, moulding sculptures, gathering data, interviewing the community, coming up with rapid prototypes, let’s get them out of the classroom. Let’s create opportunities for students to engage with, and actively apply their learning. When they see the point of what they are learning, they will be inspired to go further than we are able to imagine.

37. Our strong academic foundations allow us to take a more expansive and immersive view of applied learning. Schools can go beyond what we understand as vocational and technical education, or the ‘applied subjects’. Applied learning should permeate more of what we do.

38. Let me give you an example of how applied learning brings together our schools, the community, industry, and the IHLs to create a truly rich and authentic learning environment for our students. Queensway Secondary School’s Applied Learning Programme is in the area of Environmental Science Education. Students get to construct a “Sea Perch” to collect water at Alexandra Canal, in their neighbourhood, as part of their Geography curriculum. They are also introduced to microcontrollers through building an Arduino-based water quality sensor that can be mounted onto the Sea Perch, to investigate the quality of water. As students construct their Sea Perches, they make interdisciplinary connections as they have to take into account Physics principles such as buoyancy, and they also learn about digital fabrication. They also have to use their imagination to make their ‘Sea Perches’ creative. For those with the passion to go further, they get to tinker around in the school’s Maker Space. Interested students attend workshops on 3D printing, microcontroller programming, and the Internet of Things (IoT) at the Singapore Poly FabLab. Queensway’s teachers then mentor these students in mini-projects to ramp up their confidence and capabilities. In partnership with Intel, students are mentored by Intel® Coaches under the Intel® Make Tomorrow Programme.

39. So you see, having the community come together makes a big difference. And through applied learning, we can seed innovation andincrease our Innovation Quotient. This is something we should do early in our schools.

Lifelong learning – The Engine that Drives Innovation

40. This brings me to my final point on lifelong learning, which is the engine that drives innovation. Prime Minister Lee, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman and many of my colleagues have all spoken about lifelong learning at various platforms. The reason is this – the increased fluidity of the economy has brought about a shortened lifespan of skills. A degree, diploma or vocational certificate is no longer sufficient for life. Learning, un-learning and re-learning must become the new norm.

41. Our students will become lifelong learners when they experience the joy of learning early in their formative years. This ties back to why we are emphasising the importance of creating an environment that builds positive dispositions towards learning. When there is intrinsic interest, a curiosity to find out more, a sense of self-belief and optimism in one’s own ability, one will be motivated to innovate. Researchers have found that this motivation to innovate is in fact a better predictor of successful future innovations than scholastic ability or IQ. This may be the one thing that guarantees our collective future.

42. I think many of us here can attest to the power of a teacher who is in love with what he or she is teaching. We may not remember the specifics of what was taught in class, but the excitement that the teacher has passed on to us about learning lingers long after the content has faded in our memories. In fact, in the new world, knowing that content and skills can become obsolete over short periods of time, the critical role that educators must play would be to transmit the love and excitement for learning and the drive for innovation to our future generations. This love for learning, unlike specific content, will never expire because the seed is planted in the heart of the student to drive lifelong learning. Hence, learning must go beyond the functional – it must be inspirational.

43. As educators, let’s role-model this love for lifelong learning for our students. I believe that many of you have committed yourselves to education because of your innate passion and motivation for a lifetime of learning. Amidst your busyness, keep this passion alive. Remain open and curious; expand your horizons and explore the world of knowledge and skills with your students; and seek not to ‘cover the syllabus’, but to ‘uncover’ the world together with your students.

Conclusion

44. I have been talking about the importance of innovation as a critical pivot that propels Singaporeans and our nation towards a better future.

45. For Singapore, our innovations and their benefits have lasted because they continue to evolve, and are nested within strong institutions. These institutions are in turn founded based on key, unchanging sound principles and values that define Singapore, our nation and our government. MOE is one such institution, with a rich history and heritage of growing our teaching professionals and schools, and moulding the future of our nation.

46. Today, we are gathered together and reminded that MOE is indeed a community of people who have committed to something that transcends a single lifetime, or generation. We feel a reverence for those who came before us, and for what we have been entrusted with. It is both an inheritance to be passed on and also a responsibility, a debt to be repaid.

47. In closing, I would like to draw on the far-sighted wisdom of our first Director General of Education Mr Wee Heng Tin, who has recently passed away, but his words echoes: “When [teachers and students] are given room to come up with new ideas, they become thinking individuals.”

48. Therefore, I urge us to build up the Innovation Quotient in all our students. Let us foster their imagination. Keep an open mind and give them space to explore, and do things differently, sometimes out of our own comfort zones. Let us be inquisitive together with them. Guide them by example, and provoke our students to ask the right questions. Let us create rich and deep interconnections together with them. Help them to find the relevance of what they learn in our schools.

49. Together, let us harness our collective bests to bring our country to new and greater heights.

50. Thank you.