Friday, July 02, 2010

Lessons from China and Singapore

In a recent opinion article from The New Republic, Martha Nussbaum, a professor from the University of Chicago, makes sweeping allegations about the nature and influence of education in China and Singapore. She castigates folks like President Obama who have heaped praise on these two countries' education systems, which -- as Obama stated -- prepare students not only for university studies but also for "a career."

Nussbaum's main beef seems to be that there is far too much rote learning/learning for the test at the heart of both country's systems. She goes on to describe how such learning may produce model citizens and cogs in a national economic machine but not critically thinking individuals. In fact, her central concluding idea is that anyone who believes an education system should foster independent thinking and pluralistic, democratic ideals should not look to China and Singapore as models but to Korea (which, by the way, has one of the highest per capita rates of suicide in the world).

As I read the Nussbaum article I had my doubts not just about her central thesis but also about some of the author's supporting anecdotes. She quotes, for example, a Singapore university teacher of communications, one who has supposedly since left Singapore, saying that when the person was discussing the issue of libel and critiques of the government with students, they became stiff and fearful: "I can feel the fear in the room. …You can cut it with a knife."

This contradicts my own experience in the university classroom in Singapore, where I have heard students openly present critiques of everything from their classmates' work to the workings of the university.

Of course, I don't share the same experience as students who have gone through the Chinese or Singaporean education systems from young. So I wonder what those of you who did might think. Here is the link to the Nussbaum article. Let me know your thoughts.


Rohan Rajiv said...

Possibly the teachers interviewed never set the right environment. I can see the Singapore anecdote happening in classes that are very typically NUS - serious, withdrawn, quiet etc.

Just my $0.02

Guo Cheng said...

I think the teachers influence is important. In here, students tend to be quiet and rasise less questions. But one of my techers did very well, he raise questions for students to answer. After several tutorials, the students got used his style and become more active. Techers does play important role.

Glenn said...

I think students will only share in an environment where they feel comfortable and less threatened. From the culture in Singapore, I think it also tends to make people more passive than active.

As for the education system, I think it’s highly effective as it has proven that high quality graduates are produced. I do agree that the system in Singapore suppresses creativity and analysis. However, I believe this only applies to a small percentage of people as everyone has different learning styles and therefore applying the education system from Korea in Singapore, might not be as effective.

Yong Feng said...

Coming through 12 years of Singaporean education (6 years of Primary, 4 years of Secondary, 2 years of Junior College), I think the Singapore education system in my time emphasizes heavily on tests and exams.

Most subjects (especially the humanities like History and Geography) require students to memorize facts and regurgitate them onto the scripts, in order to score well.

However, as time changes, the education system realizes the need for change. Projects and presentations were introduced in the curriculum to allow students to be comfortable speaking in front of an audience instead of hiding behind books.

An example would be Project Work, a subject that was introduced as a mandatory subject for A Levels in 2004, and I was the first batch. The project lasted throughout the whole year, which included research work, analysis of newspaper articles, doing interviews with people, conducting surveys, and ultimately writing reports and doing a group oral presentation and Q&A. It was hectic, but I have learnt a lot from the process.

I believe there's room for improvement in terms of active learning in class, but I think Singapore is doing a relatively good job.

miao said...

I'm amazed at Mr. Obama's heaped praises for education in China which has been as the target of criticism at home and abroad for many years. Education in China has been regarded as "teaching to tests" and that's true. Without the exams and tests, I'm afraid that teachers and students in China will be at a loss and have no motivations to teach and learn. The exams and tests are so selective that the students are forced to have good mastery of the knowledge and skills taught in textbooks. The disciplined classroom teaching objectively lays solid foundations in various subjects, especially in science. That’s the major reason why some average Chinese students in primary and secondary stages of education who afford to go to Britain and U.S.A for overseas schooling are often considered as geniuses except their weakness in English. Maybe that’s the success of the education in China, which Mr. Obama has valued. Singapore is noted for quality education in the world, but I find it hard to say it is not exam-oriented. Kids and teenagers in Singapore are in the tight grip of PLES, O level and A level by which their life courses are modified and changed. In my eye, the emphasis on exams and tests is as much as that in China. U.S.A is the heaven of kids, where kids grow up without much disciplining in classrooms. It is said that their creativity and imagination and individuality are maximally inspired. Nevertheless, lots of Americans are not satisfied including the president and are pressing for educational reforms. I’m really perplexed.

Xi Xi said...

This article reminds me of something. Many top scientists who have won Nobel prizes are not Singaporeans or Chinese. The foundational science teachings in S'pore and China are definitely solid. But why this system does not produce great scientists?

I believe the "teaching to test" mentality is the root of the problem. Many students in S'pore and China ask "is it in the syllabus?" before they start to study anything. How can real learning have any syllabus? The endless tests and exams have "killed" students' interests in the subject. In fact, a lot of students swear they will never touch on any science stuff after they finish the crucial university entrance exams.

As a Chinese born and bred in China, I went to primary and secondary schools there. There are indeed some reforms going on, as mentioned in the article. However, with the supercompetitive exams still going on, teachers have no choice but keep adopting a "teaching to test" approach. Most teachers(including my parents) believe that this reform is a joke.

Furthermore, let us not forget that China's little emphasize on holistic character buildings in schools. The student leaders must have top scores before they are chosen as leaders. If one with poor grades is the class chairperson, no one will follow his/her leads. Also, it is widely assumed that one with great grades definitely have good characters. There was one incident that a top high school student raped a teenager. No one on earth believed that he did that simply because he has excellent scores.

As for Singapore, it is heartening that the system does try to have character building programmes. Education is really not about grades, but about being a better person for oneself and for the society.

benji said...

Hello Brad,

Reading Nussbaum's article first made me constantly nod my head in agreement while reading your post.

I do agree with Nussbaum when she referred to the progress of the reforms away from rote learning as "cabined by these authoritarian nations' fear of true critical freedom. In Singapore, nobody even attempts to use the new techniques when teaching about politics and contemporary problems". As a student who has never departed from the Singapore education system, it is true that most teachers in Singapore are severely restrained by the authoritarian rule of Singapore. There is a general landscape of "self-restraint" by teachers for fear of being involved in defamation and libel suits; and most teachers are hushed when discussing topics about liberal democracy and Singapore's use of capital punishment, for example. Much more can be said when using religious teachings as a teaching tool or when using the ruling party as negative examples in the classroom.

However, that's where Nussbaum's accuracy about Singapore's education landscape ends. I believe that teachers are advancing by leaps and bounds when moving away from rote learning. In many ways, analytical thinking have been highly encouraged and emphasized in class. However, there remains a culture of passive learning amongst students and breaking this bad habit takes time and perseverance on the part of the students and teachers as well.