© 2018 Saiful Idris

 The Educational Gauntlet. 

From my childhood, growing up in a single-parent family with very limited resources and under challenging circumstances, I have always had a very strong desire to do more and better, for myself, my family and others. As I grew older, this desire translated to me having very high expectations of myself and others, and perhaps contributed to my predilection for constructive criticism, but always with a genuine appreciation for the current state of being. When I reflect on the schools that I have been a part of, and the schools that I have had the opportunity to work with during my stint in MOE HQ, as well as my perception of how education is delivered in our schools gleaned from various data and other information, I do sincerely believe that while we have achieved a lot and have much to be proud of, we can most certainly do better.  And while our education system has moved on from being, as Sir Ken Robinson broadly describes modern education, a relic of the industrial revolution, I cannot help but feel that it is perhaps still a relic of a (recent) past paradigm and therefore not quite adequately preparing our children for the 21st century, equipped with values, traits and dispositions that can be described as truly 21st century.

 

In Ng’s “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes”, he mentions four paradoxes that exist in the Singapore education system, namely that of timely change and timeless constants, control and autonomy, competition and compassion, and the approach of teaching less and learning more. These paradoxes, to him, are constructive paradoxes – extremes that have proven effective in our unique context. I agree, but in that same discourse, cannot help but extend the discussion to a larger but perhaps more critical paradox that if left unaddressed, can be quite damaging: the paradox between the purpose and practice of education in Singapore. From conversations with fellow educators, there appears to be a real disconnect between what we perceive to be the ‘ideal’ notion of education, that is, how education could and should be, and how it is enacted. An oft-mentioned example is that professional dilemma of teaching for true and deep learning and teaching for (students to achieve the best results in the national) examinations. Burdened by pervasive and overwhelming institutionalised pragmatism, they find themselves not quite able to actualise that higher purpose of education, despite genuinely believing in it. Before, I laid the responsibility for this gap square on the shoulders of the teachers, who as products of a very different educational and social paradigm, are perhaps ill-equipped to challenge the status quo. That may be true for many but I have come to realise that there are also those who are genuinely conflicted, and perhaps feel helpless in the face of that paradox.

 

I will attempt to crystallise why this fulfilment of a higher purpose of education even matters to me. In Singapore, one of the main purposes of education is to prepare students for future vocation, a largely pragmatic purpose that serves social efficiency. For all the talk of student-centricity and a future-ready education for future-ready learners, the intent of our education system appears to still be very traditional, on producing employable adults, with learner-centricity a means to that end. Further, in Singapore, where the government maintains a firm grasp over educational policies and directions vis-à-vis developments in its economic strategies and landscape, this is unlikely to change, despite the clear unpredictability of the very future that we are preparing for, a future in which work may be very different from what it is now and may no longer even be the common activity that underscores a person’s place in and value to the society. I wonder if in the context of such a future, where the traditional notions and definitions of work may no longer hold true, whether adopting a more social reconstruction ideology (Schiro, 2013) and focusing on preparing students for a higher quality of or more purposeful life would perhaps be more pertinent.  After all, some advanced societies are already exploring the notion of the universal basic income, which would allow people a certain liberty of how they would otherwise contribute meaningfully to society beyond employment (Smith, 2018; Henley, 2018). I wonder if we are in fact already moving towards a post-work world, at least in the traditional sense of the word. That forced me to re-examine my own philosophies and beliefs as to what should be to me, the true purpose of a 21st century education, especially in Singapore.

This led me to the reasons that anchor my personal sense of purpose as an educational leader. Dewey argued for perhaps the intrinsic value of education, that the school is life itself, (Dewey, 1897), and while that is debatable, we cannot deny that at the very least, education mirrors its society. And therein lies the crux of the matter for me. This is not merely an educational issue but one that extends to our society and way of life. Like our education, we can be proud of many great things about our growth as a young nation but in my opinion, there are also some things that are decidedly amiss, especially given our position as a first-world country in the 21st century. I feel this as an educator, a parent, a citizen and a member of our electorate. At the risk of over-generalising and being overly-dramatic, it seems to me that the majority of us have been conditioned to a world view that is overtly tilted towards pragmatism and a very narrow definition of success and that has shaped lives that are perhaps devoid of soul, passion and adventure. And I can’t help but feel that our current, traditionalistic enactment of an otherwise forward-thinking curriculum is doing little to change that. Strong educational leadership must therefore entail running the gauntlet of challenging a deep-rooted status quo and seeking to elevate society through an enlightened practice of education.

There are many other tensions within our educational system of course, such as the lack of coherence between what is desired of our learners (creativity, critical thinking, etc.) and how these very same qualities are perhaps little understood, under-valued and even discouraged, within our larger social, political and economic spheres. But as an educational leader, that purpose-practice paradox is perhaps of greatest concern. Because I personally do not think that the ideal is idealistic or far-fetched at all. If we truly believe in the value of true joy of learning, we must also subscribe to the notion that that kind of deep and meaningful learning will, amongst a whole range of benefits, translate to the very same outcomes we seek now - results. So I aspire to be a school leader so that I can cultivate a school whose culture and practices centre the challenging of the current pragmatism-driven norm; a school that will add even greater diversity to our educational landscape and be a symbol of positive change. And that the teachers and students in my care would eventually go on to make a difference in and reconstruct our society in a way that would make for a better Singapore for all. As idealistic as it may sound, I am determined to do this simply because I believe that as a society and nation, we can do and indeed deserve better. It has to start somewhere and if not in the school, then where else? And I look forward to the day when as a school leader and in a position of greater impact, I can inspire my community to embrace that so-called ideal as a very achievable reality.

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