Monday, 18 March 2013

Let kids play, give teachers trust

Singaporean parents will support a focus on play in pre-school if convinced it will benefit their children later
By Trisha Craig, Published TODAY, 15 Mar 2013

Wednesday’s announcement by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat that the Ministry of Education (MOE) will, for the first time, become directly involved in establishing and running kindergartens is a welcome and auspicious development. It signals the seriousness the Government attaches to early childhood education and its commitment to raising standards and providing broad access to high quality pre-school.

The programme for now is a pilot one, where models will be tested and best practices sought in 15 demonstration sites. As the MOE embarks on this remarkable endeavour, are there any models of excellence from which it can learn?


Internationally, the gold standard is often considered Finland. Does Finland, a small, wealthy open economy near the Arctic Circle, offer any lessons for Singapore, a small, wealthy open economy near the equator, when it comes to early childhood education?

At first glance, it would seem so. After all, in addition to some financial measures, the two countries are so similar, and top the global charts, on all kinds of international measures of institutional (lack of corruption), economic (global competitiveness), and scholastic performance (maths and science scores at secondary school).

Thus, when they diverge, as they do on pre-school quality — the national angst caused by the revelation that Singapore only ranks 29th internationally is certainly part of the backstory to the improvements outlined in the MOE’s announcement — Finland is a natural place to look at when it comes to lessons on how to improve the system.

It is not just that Finland does so well, as the excellent two-part series (watch videos below) published in this paper last week shows, it’s that they do so seemingly without breaking a sweat. No tuition classes, no constant testing, coffee and nap breaks during exams, a clear division between home and school — just as some languages in the tropics have no word for snow, Finnish seems not to have a word for kiasu. The appeal is obvious.

Yet, one must be cautious when attempting to import policies from other countries, as the Minister himself cautions. Policy learning is an important way that reforms can happen, but when trying to graft ideas from one place with a different social and institutional context, those ideas may not flourish but wither on the vine.

For all their similarities, Finland is profoundly different from Singapore in some significant ways in terms of institutions and social structure. Yet, the shift by the MOE suggests some possibilities how the system might be adaptable to best practices from even a place like Finland.


One dissimilarity between the two countries is trust. As the series on Finnish education makes clear, trust is the bedrock upon which the system is built: Parents, principals, administrators and policymakers completely trust that pre-school teachers know what they are doing. No one seeks to monitor them constantly or force standardised curricula on them.

On one hand, this is surely a function of the fact that Finnish pre-school and kindergarten teachers are highly trained and well-compensated professionals. But it also likely has to do with trust per se.

Social scientists look at trust as a form of social glue or capital; where it is abundant, social interactions are less costly in the sense that fewer mechanisms of oversight and monitoring are needed.

As the political economist Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, Singapore (like some of its East Asian counterparts) is a low-trust society while Finland and its Nordic neighbours rank high on social trust.

To be sure, these categories are never iron cages, but they do suggest that to move to a system that puts full trust in teachers may not come naturally in Singapore.

Still, a virtuous cycle can and must be created: Increase the professionalism of pre-school teachers by rigorous selection, increase training requirements and offer higher salaries.

By announcing its leadership role in ensuring better quality training and professional development, the MOE opens the way for enhanced professionalism in the pre-school industry.

As quality of teachers and level of training increase, so should the autonomy and trust given to them. Over time, though not overnight, parents and administrators may relax, secure in the knowledge that excellent outcomes can be achieved by letting professionals do their jobs.


Another area where the systems differ is on the role of play in the curriculum. Finnish pre-schools focus on it in part because of the belief that at young ages, this is simply a more effective way for children to learn than rote memorisation and creates a base for wanting to learn. Parents also demand it.

How is it that Finnish parents seem so preternaturally laid-back, wanting their young children to play at school and not be burdened with extra lessons and homework? How can Singaporean parents become more like that?

The answer is: They probably can’t. Not, I would argue, because there is something in the Finnish genome that makes them so relaxed but because of the social system. Not only do the Finns put a premium on social equality but among the developed countries, they also have one of the lowest degrees of income inequality and highest degrees of social mobility in the world.

Contrast this with Singapore, where the opposite holds and where, we are warned, social mobility will be harder to achieve. Singaporean parents are more anxious and competitive, presumably because both the stakes and the cost of failure are higher.

The MOE itself acknowledges and is attentive to the demands of parents that their children not be left behind.

In Singapore, the goal perhaps ought to be to convince parents of the importance of play, not simply for its own sake, but based on empirical evidence that it actually is more effective of getting them to the outcomes they want — better learning, better preparedness, better reading — than worksheets and a rigid curriculum.

Many Singaporean parents will support a focus on play in their children’s early education only when they are convinced that it will benefit them later in their studies. The existence of new pilot schools is a superb opportunity to gather such evidence.


Finally, Mr Heng spoke of the importance and public support for character and citizenship education. Here too, there may be some lessons that can be adapted from the Finnish experience.

In Finland, play in early childhood is viewed as a crucial part of becoming a citizen since it is through directed play that children learn how to live together, listen to each other’s ideas, and come to respect different points of view.

In addition to bringing back the Good Citizen textbooks, the MOE and the Ministry of Social and Family Development should work to ensure that children have the space to enact though play the values, traditions and norms associated with being good citizens and good Singaporeans.

With the move to be actively involved in providing kindergarten services and testing different models to see what works, the MOE is demonstrating its commitment to improve the sector. While it may borrow lessons from high performing countries like Finland, it is clearly charting its own path with the fundamental features of Singaporean life and society in mind.

Trisha Craig is a social scientist, the Executive Director of Wheelock College Singapore and a former Director of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

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