Could MOE’s removal of mid-years be the change needed in Singapore’s education system? Will grades no longer be king? Only if parents and teachers are willing to let go of old habits and embrace change says former teacher in Part Two of her series
In Part One of this article, I posited that we lose a sense of security when we move away from traditional assessments like exams. However, a raft of benefits could result. In Part Two, which you are about to read, I hope to show the importance of embracing this change. Rather than have one foot stepping on two boats, as the Chinese idiom says, we’ve got to all be in the same boat to steer towards the future.
Some time ago, Sassy Mama interviewed me and the headline that was chosen got quite a lot of attention: “Why we shouldn’t be surprised if our education system is churning out robots”. I want to unpack that a bit.
Education systems can and should change
I mentioned that our current education system comes from the Industrial Revolution. Before then, most people received vocational training as apprentices in a trade. For instance, if you were a cobbler, you would likely teach your offspring how to do it and they would inherit this role. A relatively small number of elites received formal education as we now recognise it.
With the rise of factories and the need for a larger workforce with a particular set of skills, universal education became important. There were many experimental models of schools in that time, but the model that seems to have prevailed in many countries including Singapore is one that seems itself much like a factory, focused on mass-producing persons cut from the same cloth, and carrying out quality control by measuring the products with standardised tests.
It wasn’t all bad; among other advantages, universal education meant greater social mobility for the poor and for women. But the world moved on while the education system did not. Or at least, it did not move on at the same pace. Many of us parents probably felt, even from the time when we were students, that much of what we did in school was not relevant to our careers and real life outside of jobs.
I have given a very brief survey of the history of schools so that we will become more open to the idea that education systems can and should change, as they have in the past. The economy of the future will prize empathetic individuals with unique and creative minds, not drones who can be replaced by artificial intelligence. Disruptions due to rapid technological advancements and apocalyptic events like the covid pandemic seem to loom like icebergs while our children are passengers on a massive ship which is so slow to turn.
Hearteningly, the Ministry of Education has just turned hard to starboard with the announcement that all exams up to secondary school will be scrapped. One of the rationales is that they wish to develop more 21st century competencies in our young people.
Will the new MOE policy finally mean grades are no longer king?
I hope the new policy makes waves. Rather than freeing up a mere 3 weeks of curriculum time, I hope the removal of mid-years will signal to all stakeholders that grades are no longer king and there will be a cascading effect to sweep away a lot of the unproductive activities designed to help students perform well in standardised tests.
But it has been three years since exams were scrapped for Primary 1 and 2 students and mid-year exams scrapped for Primary 3, Primary 5, Secondary 1 and Secondary 3 students. Have things changed on the ground or are we still at sea? Anecdotally, some teachers and parents seem reluctant to let go of the security blanket I talked about in Part One, and they have replaced exams with other traditional assessments like tests. So, in some circles, that policy has merely made ripples.
Students have grown so brain lazy that they demand stock answers
Let us now not squander this opportunity to chart a bold new course. It is time for a massive sea change in academic culture. Sticking with the status quo is downright dangerous and damaging to our children. I’ve seen it first hand. The joy of Literature is in doing your own thinking, but I’ve had students who’ve grown so brain lazy that they demand stock answers and refuse to perform their own analyses. SparkNotes, not bright sparks.
At least they took the subject; many students who are keen on Literature are persuaded by their parents to take “safer” subjects. They are more likely to score well in subjects that are marked more objectively, as opposed to the subjective Humanities. But parents need to understand that anything a computer can do, like filling out an OAS sheet that another computer can mark, is doomed to obsolescence.
And what about the emotional cost? Playing it safe is a grey way to live. Burnt out twenty-somethings descend upon the workforce and some of us wonder why each cohort seems more hapless than the one that preceded it. The strawberry generation: slightly squished. It’s not their fault. For many, the bulk of their schooling has been a meaningless grind.
SG’s obsession with grades
How bad is the current grades obsession? Let’s look briefly at just one exam: English O Level. Four papers: Writing, Comprehension, Listening, Oral Communication. The requirements for the first two papers were so onerous that preparing for them consumed most of the curriculum time. Although listening and conversing are absolutely essential life skills, only a cursory amount of time could be afforded to them. There is even less time for lessons which are more relevant to 21st century living, such as media literacy (learning to identify fake news, among other things) and public speaking.
For the Writing paper, students had to memorise the required tone, format and conventions of at least eight different text types. For the Comprehension paper, I (and many assessment book writers) spent a significant amount of time poring through past years’ papers’ answer keys to decode the wording of each question in order to figure out exactly how the examiners wanted students to respond. I identified at least 10 different question types. Yet more time and effort had to be expended teaching students these cryptic arts. The way to answer the questions is not intuitive, so even if you have a good grasp of the English language, you may not do well in Comprehension. Students of today who master these things will, in the best case, have divined patterns that machine learning already figured out yesterday.
A call to end the over-reliance on standardised tests
Can you see how imperative it is that we move away from over-reliance on standardised testing? Prepping for exam after exam is dull and dulls the mind. But the new policy has thrown us a lifeline. We cannot be in two minds about it. If you will stick with me and this extended nautical metaphor, in Part Three I will elaborate on how alternative assessments could better prepare our kids for the future, and how fewer exams could result in other benefits besides.
You may wish to view a video version of this opinion piece on my YouTube channel here.
Part 1: No More Mid-Year Exams: Former Teacher and Mom Discusses Parents’ Fears
Part 2: No Mid-Year Exams: A Mom’s Plea “Don’t Replace Exams with More Tests!”
Part 3: Time for a Better Curriculum Now That Mid Term Exams Have Been Abolished?