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Are American Schools Going Backward? Can We Learn from Singapore?

In our blog we usually don't toot our own horn. In fact, if memory serves, we have never written a blog that featured our research in schools. But today we break with the past to present results from a research study at Nan Chiau Primary School (NCPS) in Singapore. The goings-on at NCPS are big news and need to be trumpeted far and wide.

Starting with a one-class pilot in 2009 and culminating into a multi-grade scaling up in 2013, we have been working at NCPS for five years, helping to transform that school's culture from a direct instruction, worksheet and memorization-based pedagogy to an inquiry-oriented pedagogy with 1:1, 24/7 use of smartphones. Such a cultural transformation truly does take time!

  • In 2012 all eight P3 (Primary 3 = third grade) classes (350+ students) in science and three (100+ students) of eight classes of P3 English students were transformed in this way. (Singapore's school year runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 30; children aren't needed to work the farms; Singapore is a small island so they have no farms, just high rise apartment buildings; the crane is Singapore's national bird.) Oh and all eight P3 mother-tongue (Mandarin) classes also were transformed — but that's a story for another time.

  • In 2013 NCPS continued its scaling up process: All eight science and all eight English P3 classes, plus all eight science classes in P4 (Primary 4 = fourth grade), were transformed (700+ students). (Mandarin also scaled to P4.)

As everyone who is conscious knows, Singaporean schools are considered to be very good. Translation: The children in Singapore have high test scores. (In fact, there are other ways in which Singaporean schools are very good, e.g., while CIPPA says that schoolsin the United States need to filter Web sites, in Singapore, since they work to educate the whole child — ethically, cognitively, socially, and physically — they filter by educating students to stay away from inappropriate Web sites and moving off such sites if they are stumbled upon.)

One of the primary ways Singaporean schools achieve those high test scores is through extensive drill-and-practice, worksheet-based, direct instruction pedagogy. Indeed, in the end-of-the-year tests, typically half of the test is questions of the fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, match words to pictures, etc. sort. The Singaporean students tend to do well on those types of questions since their worksheets were made up of fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, match words to pictures, etc. questions.

Just a bit more background: There are often 40 students in a primary school classroom. Discipline issues tend not to be a problem, given the "total student" education emphasis. The 350+ students are tracked into HA (High Achievers), MA (Middle Achievers), LA (Low Achievers). Instruction is differentiated; the LA classes are treated differently than the HA classes. And yes, the children know what class they are in.

But, the Singaporean Ministry of Education (MoE) has realized that this form of education does not develop children who are entrepreneurial and imaginative. And, since the fundamental resource of Singapore is its children, and since in the global marketplace of the 21st century entrepreneurship and imagination are highly valuable resources, the MoE has developed its Masterplan 3 that says all schools in Singapore will move from direct instruction pedagogy to inquiry-oriented pedagogy, with a focus on self-directed learning (SDL) and collaborative learning (CoL) — 21st century skills needed in the global marketplace of tomorrow.

At NCPS, the principal, Mr. Tan Chun Ming, takes the MoE Masterplan 3 quite seriously and is moving his administration, his faculty, his staff, his parents, and his students away from direct instruction and memorization to inquiry pedagogy and 21st century, critical thinking skills such as SDL and CoL.

Mr. Tan is using mobile technologies as the catalyst for the change. In 2012 each of 350+ students and in 2013, each of the 700+ P3 and P4 children has been provided with a Nokia 710, Windows Phone7 device, running MyDesk, an educational suite of productivity apps developed by undergraduates at the University of Michigan under our direction. The children use the smarthphones literally 24/7 for all-the-time, everywhere learning since the devices are equipped with a cellular data plan from SingTel. (That's yet another story!) Qualcomm, under their Wireless Reach Initiative, has generously contributed to providing these devices to the students.

And the test results? Drum roll please: While the traditional, direct instruction students did better than the inquiry+smartphone using students on the language comprehension questions (multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc.), the inquiry+smarphone using students did better on the oral questions than the traditional students. This is a very nuanced, but "lovely" result. To answer the oral questions, students need content knowledge and they need to construct answers based on that content knowledge. Thus, while the inquiry+smartphone students don't exhibit their understanding on drill-and-practice style questions, they do exhibit a deep understanding of the content and a mastery of important 21st century skills (e.g., engaging in a coherent, substantive conversation).

Indeed, on written open-ended questions, where the students need to write a short answer (in full sentences, mind you!) the teachers say that they have never seen such a diversity of correct, open-ended answers; usually the students memorize and provide one correct answer. But there are a plethora of right answers when students are taught using inquiry and where they can use their smartphones, 24/7, to "ask the phone" and engage in conversations in school and outside of school.

Bottom line: You can have high test scores and learn 21st century skills using an inquiry pedagogy plus mobile devices.

NCPS has been designated a Singaporean Future School. Indeed, 10 other Singaporean primary schools are planning on adopting the NCPS's curriculum. Singaporean education is changing.

And where are U.S. schools?

Put these keywords into a search engine: Carpe Diem Schools Arizona, and look at the pictures there: 250 children in a gym-sized room, each sitting in a cubicle in front of a desktop with a headset for half to two-thirds of the day. America really does need to learn from Singapore!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at