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“Why Should I Change the Way I Teach?”

Why should I change the way I teach? Parents ask for me to be their child’s teacher because my students always score high on the PSLE.” —Third-grade science teacher at Nan Chiau Primary School, Singapore 

By way of background, the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) is a very high stakes test that determines what secondary schools are open to a student. The PSLE is the exam in a child's life — at grade 6.

It is a well-known fact that Singaporean school children score very high on standardized tests. In the 2012 PISA test, Singapore was ranked second in math and third in reading and science in the world! And Nan Chiau Primary School is a reputable primary school in Singapore that does well in national evaluations. Clearly, the core pedagogy in Singapore’s schools — and in Nan Chiau in particular — is already working very well. 

Indeed, if America’s schools had been ranked “second in math and third in reading and science in the world” instead of 36th in math, reading and science, it’s hard to believe that there would any energy behind — or even any need for — the cornucopia of educational changes now being pursued in American classrooms. So. if their students are performing well on standardized tests, why have Singapore and Nan Chiau embarked on a multiyear effort to change their core pedagogy?   

The educational policy makers in Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MoE) saw that their current educational system was not preparing children for the future, where knowledge workers are needed, but was instead preparing children for the industrial-age workplace of the past. The paragraphs below, abstracted from a MoE-produced monograph meant for Singaporean teachers, paint a clear vision of for why Singapore’s educational system — even though it is effective — needs to change!

 “The world that we live in today is a knowledge society … a knowledge society values creation and sharing of new knowledge, so that the new knowledge can be applied for the well‐being of its people and solutions to global problems such as poverty and environmental damage. The health and wealth of a nation are now dependent on what is commonly known as knowledge workers, that is, workers who are able, flexible, creative, confident, good team players and are able to solve new problems; the most efficient production workers who can only follow standard procedures do not fit the bill in today’s world.

… To develop our students as confident citizens in today’s knowledge society means that access to education, the capacity to learn, a disposition for lifelong learning, competencies in communication and collaboration in knowledge creation activities are becoming increasingly important for participation in a socially and culturally diverse world.

… the demands of globalisation necessitate the need for our students to become more conscious, controlled, independent and active in their learning. This way of learning enables our students to adapt to the ever‐changing situations in our work lives, personal lives and social lives in the knowledge society. It is therefore no longer sufficient to help our students achieve only the learning objectives specified in the national syllabi. Rather, learning needs to be broadened to develop students’ competencies in learning how to learn.

… We need to foster amongst our students an acute sense of inquiry so that they are intrinsically motivated to understand things surrounding them.”

WOW! Singapore sees that its educational system needs to change in order to nurture children who use their heads not their backs in the global marketplace; children who inquire and create knowledge rather than memorize and regurgitate information.


While this is a post ostensibly about Singapore’s educational system, kids are kids, teachers are teachers, teaching and learning is teaching and learning in Singapore City or Iowa City. So, there are clear implications for America’s educational system: Flipping the classroom simply replaces reading a text or listening to a teacher pontificate, and personalized learning (with its lovely adaptive algorithms) may well get kids to remember more stuff more effectively, but neither strategy promotes the development of inquiry and knowledge-creation skills. Put more baldly: Flipping the classroom and personalized learning may well teach kids content more effectively; but just content is no longer what kids need to learn!

So why should effective teachers change the way they teach? Coming full circle, and returning to the U.S., we end with a quote from an American educator, John Dewey, that we are sure the policy makers in Singapore's Ministry of Education would find most compatible with with the views expressed in the above paragraphs. In 1906, Dewey observed, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.

Phew…. Couldn't have said it more succinctly ourselves! 

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