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Learnings from Singapore

Since 2008, we (CN & ES) have been working with a primary school in Singapore — Nan Chiau Primary School. We started out using handheld PocketPCs (remember those ancient “pre-smartphones”) in one science classroom for one science lesson, and now, six years later, with support from several organizations (e.g., Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach, Singapore’s Ministry of Education, Singapore’s National Institute of Education), we are working (and have been working for the last three years) with more than 700 students in grades 3 and 4 (science, English, math). And, sound the trumpets, this year, five other primary schools in Singapore are using the mobile-device-based grade 3 science curriculum pioneered at Nan Chiau — with more schools to follow next year!

From time to time we have mentioned our experiences in Singapore, but with this blog, we are launching the “Learnings from Singapore” series. (“Learnings from Singapore” will, however, remain under the “Being Mobile” banner since mobile computing devices underpin our Singapore experiences.) Given that Nan Chiau, at least in grades 3 and 4, has undergone a profound and, we feel, lasting transformation — from a direct-instruction, memorize-memorize-memorize pedagogy to an inquiry-oriented, ask questions-talk, pedagogy, we are feeling it is time to write a book to document that transformation. 

Writing a book, gulp, is a daunting enterprise. To help us ease into that book project, we are going to post, at least once a month, blogs about what we have learned while working in Nan Chiau — while traveling to Singapore four times per year, while flying 24 hours each way (Dallas/Detroit-Narita-Singapore-Narita-Dallas/Detroit). Talk about jet lag! Singapore is 12 hours ahead of Ann Arbor and 13 hours ahead of Dallas. Calling our respective spouses takes planning — and patience. ("Oops, sorry for waking you, I forgot that 6 p.m. here is at 6 a.m. THERE!") And, the heat and humidity is ... is ... well for ES at least, is beyond words. Singapore, after all, is only about a ½ inch above the equator! (ES is so constantly “wet” from the heat and humidity; he stays away from touching light switches!)

The common wisdom is that “we” can learn from places like Singapore and Finland. They are doing something right, since their test scores are some of the highest in the world. Well, blog-readers, we are here to tell you that yes, we can indeed learn from Singapore. But not about how to get high test scores! How to get high test scores is not really interesting. Ok, here is the formula — it’s not a secret - for achieving high test scores on standardized tests: drill-drill-drill…. Worksheet-worksheet-worksheet ... memorize, memorize, memorize. That has been, for the most part, how Singaporean schools achieved their high test scores. There are, of course, complementary factors, the Singaporean great respect for education, their strong family ties, their culture of being obedient, etc. etc.)

What we CAN learn from Singapore is how a school(s) can change to support both high test scores and developing critically important 21st century skills such as self-directed learning and collaborative learning at the same time! Yes, there are worksheets, and yes there is memorization. But those are secondary instructional techniques — with inquiry being the absolutely core, primary instructional technique.

The “lighted match” that engendered the change to inquiry was the Singapore Ministry of Education MasterPlan 3 — a policy that dictated, quite clearly and explicitly, that schools in Singapore needed to adopt an inquiry pedagogy, and focus, not just on content learning, but on developing such key 21st century skills as self-directed learning and collaborative learning.

Why the "lighted match?" Because Singapore understood that a drill-and-practice pedagogy would not develop imaginative, creative, entrepreneurial children. And, the key to Singapore’s economic survival is its people, inasmuch as it’s a tiny island with precious few natural resources. In the 21st century’s global marketplace, a country’s people are its truly valuable natural resource!  Educating its people, not training its people, is the key!  How enlightened! America, with No Child Left Behind, with our emphasis on testing, testing, testing, can certainly learn something from Singapore’s MasterPlan 3.  

Please, we are not saying that Singapore is the one right model and everything that is done there is the right thing. Heaven’s no!!! Education is local, and what works in Singapore, half-a-world away, may well not work in the United States. But, there are lessons that can — and should - survive the jet lag, e.g., government policy — be it national, state, or local can influence school/class/teacher behavior; teachers working together as a professional learning community are an effective force in a school; good curriculum (i.e., curriculum based on sound educational principles, with clear goals, developed over time with feedback from students, teachers, parents, staff) provides a guiding framework for learning, and mobile technologies, always ready-at-hand, 24/7, are perfect for supporting all-the-time, everywhere, inquiry learning. We know that these are unsurprising, general statements. Therefore in subsequent blogs we will dive deeply, and shine a critical light into general statements like the ones above.

CN and ES have been very fortunate to work for such an extended period of time in one school, with educators, IT personnel, administrators, parents, and of course, the children of Nan Chiau. We will try our best to distill and present “learnings from Singapore” that are useful, beneficial, and effective for educators, IT personnel, administrators, parents, and of course, for America’s children. 

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