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Singapore’s top educationalist: ‘We are reducing homework. Play is part of learning’

Mathematician Pak Tee Ng believes that valuing teachers as the architects of a nation is fundamental. Singapore was the top-performing country in the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, which evaluates education systems worldwide

Pak Teee Ng
Mathematician Pak Teee Ng at Singapore’s National Institute of Education.WESLEY LOH

When Singapore-born mathematician Pak Tee Ng, an expert in educational leadership and policy, is congratulated on his country’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, he laughs and downplays the fact: “PISA is a good reference, but it is not our report card,” he says. A city state of 5.4 million, Singapore came first this year in all three competencies — mathematics, science and reading.

Associate professor at the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University, which centralizes all teacher training in the country, Pak Tee is the most visible face of the success of Singapore’s education system thanks to his videos on the web, his global lectures and his book Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes. EL PAÍS interviewed Pak Tee at WISE, an educational conference held by the Qatar Foundation in Doha a week before the PISA results were released.

Question. I would like to write about the Singapore miracle, which has turned the country from being poverty-stricken to an educational powerhouse.

Answer. Oh, thank you for saying that!

Q. Why are Singapore students so successful regarding PISA?

A. We care a lot about the education of our children, but not about PISA itself. We take part in the test to know how we rank in the world, but not to compete. It helps us to understand where we are, and we learn from the process. Of course, it’s nice to be at the top of the rankings, but it’s not our report card. Our story starts in 1965, when we gained independence. Our history is very short. It was beneficial that we were so poor then. Many people thought: I can’t have a good life, but I will work very hard to send my children to school so that they have the chance of a better life. That was what many parents aimed for. We had nothing else: no oil, no agriculture, no timber, no rubber. We only had human resources, and education is the great building block of our national development.

Q. You take great care when it comes to faculty selection.

A. We do. We are able to recruit from the top third of each cohort of university graduates. For every teaching position, we have at least ten applicants. They want to be professors because we have worked hard to make teaching a respectable profession. They are the architects of our nation, the ones who help build our country. Some say that teachers are people who plant trees for others to sit under yet no one knows who planted them. We need to make sure that people respect them and then we can get a better education system.

Q. Are they well paid?

A. Yes. They work very hard, and their salary is on a par with many other professions. Most go into teaching not for the money, but because they want to be good teachers. But even if people are motivated to teach, the country has to pay them well. As a teacher, you are not going to get rich, but you are going to live comfortably. When you go to a high school reunion and say you are a lawyer or a doctor, it sounds good, but in some parts of the world people don’t have the same high regard for teachers. It is as though you’ve been left with no better option. But if that same reunion takes place in Singapore, you can proudly say, “I’m a teacher.” And people say, “wow.” You know, they are considered architects, nation builders.

Q. Is there a lot of rotation?

A. National policy doesn’t dictate that you have to change schools, but we encourage some movement. Not everyone has to change, that would be too unstable. But taking experience to another school is helpful. It is very common for a teacher to be promoted to head of department, but in another school. And then to another one as assistant principal and the next one as principal.

Q. Do your students get as much homework as students in China?

A. In Singapore, there is quite a lot of homework, but we are reducing it. We want to create spaces for the students to learn new things, and play is part of learning. Our thinking is: is it absolutely necessary for them to practice a certain thing to such an extent? Of course, you need to practice a bit, otherwise you quickly forget, but there can be an excess of practice to the detriment of other areas of development, which we also care about.

Q. Are you concerned with emotional development?

A. Yes, mental well-being. We want them to receive a well-rounded, wholesome education; to grow up to be good, productive citizens and good people. That’s why education regarding character and citizenship are so important.

Q. Aren’t the students stressed by the tests they are subjected to when they finish elementary school at 11 and 12?

A. Yes, things like that can be stressful, but an appropriate amount of stress can be helpful. We just changed the way we do our final primary exam. Instead of every point counting, we use grade bands. What we tell them is: exams are important, but not the only important thing in life, don’t stress chasing every point, but learn and do well.

Q. But to get into college they need high grades.

A. We want young people to be able to find a path that suits them according to their different personalities, strengths and attitudes. If they can find that path, we argue that they will be happier, and more motivated. People have the idea that we only look at math and science, but now we have many different kinds of schools including art and performance schools, and more problems than solutions. That’s why we go around the world trying to learn from everybody and not the other way around.

Q. Your educational success is reflected in the Shanghai ranking, with two universities in the top 100.

A. Again, that should not be our goal. If we only aim to improve in the rankings, we could lose sight of some of the most important things for young people and the country and become more narrow-minded. We have to ask ourselves: are our children growing up healthy? We must ask ourselves whether our education is holistic throughout — good in every way, rather than just chasing the rankings.

Q. How would you advise other countries to improve its PISA results?

A. I cannot advise others. I am from Singapore and we have our own particular set of circumstances. Every country is different. In Singapore, education is an investment. Even in tough times, you don’t cut back on education, so there is consistency, and principals and teachers know they can keep going. Children need education in both good times and bad. We don’t spend large amounts ­— we are among the OECD average. It is very important to us to invest in the professional development of our principals and teachers. And you have to make sure that the funding and the effort is consistent. We attract good people who are really interested in teaching. We train them well, and we have a very good education system. It is very hard work and can be exhausting not for the mind, but for the heart.

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