Mobile Computing

Learnings from Singapore: Test Performance Is Not the Only Goal

Elliot Soloway & Cathleen NorrisIn this dialogue, which is the second part of their "Learnings From Singapore" series, Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway discuss how mobile learning supports inquiry pedagogy, and how test scores are not necessarily a reflection of everything a student has learned.

Elliot: With a new president of the NEA, Lily Eskelsen García, who doesn’t seem to think highly of all the testing that K-12 kids are undergoing, maybe there is an opportunity for change!

Cathie (smiling): If ever there was a cock-eyed optimist —

Elliot (grinning HUGELY): — BLUE, cock-eyed optimist, please!

Cathie: Stay with me here. The law of the land is still No Child Left Behind and if anything, testing is increasing, not decreasing.

Elliot: But we hear all the time: we need to learn from places like Singapore and Finland — they know how to educate effectively! And Singapore’s MasterPlan 3 explicitly states that pedagogy must move from direct instruction, with its focus on content testing, to inquiry-based …

Cathie: … in order to help the children develop two key 21st century skills: self-directed learning and collaborative learning. Yes, those goals are the centerpiece of Singapore’s MasterPlan 3. 

Elliot: Folks out there in newsletter-land, Cathie and I have been at work at Nan Chiau Primary School in Singapore since 2008 and we have seen that school become increasingly aligned with the goals of Masterplan 3 …

Cathie: … with the movement to inquiry pedagogy in science, English, math and social studies, and with a focus on developing self-directed learning and collaborative learning skills in the children. 

Elliot: And the bottom line is this: Their test scores on content have remained the same as when direct-instruction — drill, drill, drill — was the pedagogy.

Cathie: But, we are seeing dramatic increases in the students’ abilities to answer oral questions effectively, to answer open-ended questions effectively and to answer the questions that test creativity — creatively! 

Elliot: Interestingly, the teachers say that, for the open-ended questions and the oral questions, they have never before seen such a wide-range of answers —

Cathie: — CORRECT answers.

Elliot (smiling): Thank you Cathie, CORRECT answers. 

Cathie: Yes, before, all the children memorized the one correct answer and gave it back. 

Elliot: But now, using their smartphones, that are with them 24/7, they engage in self-directed learning, in collaborative learning, in inquiry and they develop different …

Cathie: … but CORRECT …

Elliot: … answers.

Cathie: Let’s summarize what we can learn from our experiences at Nan Chiau Primary School.

Elliot: Yes, let’s do!

Cathie: First, children can have high scores on content-oriented tests AND develop key 21st century skills… 

Elliot: … in a classroom that emphasizes inquiry pedagogy over direct-instruction pedagogy. And just to be clear, the children do have worksheets, do memorization, but the primary pedagogy is inquiry.

Cathie: Second, mobile technologies are the perfect support technology for an inquiry pedagogy!

Elliot: Learning is 24/7, ALL-the-time, everywhere — on the school bus home, on the walk home, at the mall. Mobile technologies are READY-AT-HAND, literally. They are in the palm of a student’s hand. Indeed, inquiry and smartphones go hand in hand.

Cathie (sweet smile): Good one. So, when the students are outside the classroom, and they see an interesting Banyan tree root-system, they can use their smartphone to take a picture of it, share the picture with a friend in the class, and say, “Look what I saw.” 

Elliot: And when the children are together in class collaborating, when they have a disagreement, they say: “Let’s ask the phone.” What they mean is, everyone hit Google and see what we can find out! 

Cathie: America can indeed learn from Singapore. We can have high test scores (like Singapore’s) and develop 21st century skills (like they do in Singapore)… 

Elliot (arms thrown to the sky): … all supported by 1-to-1 mobile technology! Let’s see if we can visit with the new NEA president!

Cathie (grinning): Like I said: a blue, cock-eyed optimist! 

Elliot: Piqued your interest? Read our first blog post on Learnings from Singapore or a recent article in THE Journal entitled 3 Lessons American Districts Can Learn from Foreign Schools.

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