The Washington Post

Singapore’s surprising ‘desired’ education outcomes (including ‘a zest for life’)

It’s hard to go a few days without hearing somebody in the education world talk about how U.S. public schools are in trouble compared with some high-flying systems in countries including Finland, South Korea and Singapore.

In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan just said it again, on Wednesday, at a forum at a Montgomery County high school about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. He said he’s been “spending more and more time looking at educational benchmarks” in those school systems.

I wonder if he came across the “The Desired Outcomes of Education” that is at the top of the Web site of Singapore’s Ministry of Education.

The lists of outcomes for primary, secondary and post-secondary schools (each level has eight) are in English but they speak a different language from that used for education debates and goals in this country.

Here, these days, K-12 outcomes are all about preparing kids for a career or for college. It says so in President Obama's blueprint for education reform: “The goal for America’s educational system is clear: Every student should graduate from high school ready for college and a career. Every student should have meaningful opportunities to choose from upon graduation from high school.”

The Education Ministry in Singapore talks about educating students to become confident, moral, analytical thinkers who are responsible and involved adult citizens of their country. And it wants kids to grow up with a “zest for life.”

Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t heard any school reformers here talk about that.

I don’t know if the following is the kind of student Singapore’s education system actually produces; we do know that its students do well on international test scores.

But it is interesting that this is what Singapore — which is tightly controlled by the national government — says it is striving to produce in its public schools:

“The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life. In sum, he is:

* a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;

* a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;

* an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and,

* a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him.

Here are the specific outcomes by level:

At the end of primary school, students should:

*be able to distinguish right from wrong

*know their strengths and areas for growth

*be able to cooperate, share and care for others

*have a lively curiosity about things

*be able to think for and express themselves confidently

*take pride in their work

*have healthy habits and an awareness of the arts

*know and love Singapore

At the end of secondary school, students should:

*have moral integrity

*believe in their abilities and be able to adapt to change

*be able to work in teams and show empathy for others

*be creative and have an inquiring mind

*be able to appreciate diverse views and communicate effectively

*take responsibility for their own learning

*enjoy physical activities and appreciate the arts

*believe in Singapore and understand what matters to Singapore

At the end of postsecondary school, students should:

*have moral courage to stand up for what is right

*be resilient in the face of adversity

*be able to collaborate across cultures and be socially responsible

*be innovative and enterprising

*be able to think critically and communicate persuasively

*be purposeful in pursuit of excellence

*pursue a healthy lifestyle and have an appreciation for aesthetics

*be proud to be Singaporeans and understand Singapore in relation to the world

Again, I don’t know if Singapore actually produces the kind of student described in these desired outcomes. “Standing up for what is right” doesn’t seem so desirable to an authoritarian government, and doesn’t have the identical political meaning in East Asia that it does in the more liberal West.

But because its school system is so often compared favorably to ours, it is fair to look at what kind of graduates the government of Singapore says it wants the public school system to produce.

I have no doubt Americans would like to see its graduates confident and innovative and moral and healthy and appreciative of the arts. We just don’t have time to talk about that because we are too busy talking about tests and bad teachers and Michelle Rhee.

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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