Friday 27 September 2013

MOE Work Plan Seminar 2013: Big push to nurture all-round students

Shift from exam focus will help them thrive in today's world: Swee Keat
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

SCHOOLS will have to go beyond equipping students for examinations and prepare them for life, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday as he spelt out new initiatives to make the shift happen.

Speaking at the Ministry of Education's (MOE) annual workplan seminar at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he took pains to explain why Singapore's education system - admired worldwide for producing top performers in maths and science - had to change course.

The reason: A globalised world and a future marked by unpredictability.

The education system, he said, needs to now produce all-round students who can work with people from different backgrounds and adapt to what companies term a "VUCA" environment - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

"To deal with the demands of a VUCA environment, good grades in school are not enough. In fact, they might not even be relevant."

To thrive in such a world, students "need to have the confidence to deal with problems that have no clear-cut solutions", he said. "And they need to be able to work effectively with others across races and nationalities."

The demands of the future are not just economic, he noted.

"For a strong social fabric... our young must care for one another and be committed to our collective future," he said, before explaining how MOE plans to achieve this.

He announced that by 2017, all secondary schools will offer two distinct schemes to stretch students beyond academics.

One is an applied learning programme to help students grasp the relevance and value of their lessons, and to develop a love for learning. He highlighted several schools such as Hai Sing Catholic and Outram Secondary which are already doing this through robotics and entrepreneurship programmes.

The second is the Learning for Life programme, which aims to get students to understand more about themselves and how they relate to others, through the arts, sports, outdoor adventures or volunteer work.

All primary and secondary schools will have teams to plan and oversee the holistic development of students at every level.

In both programmes, the idea is to have students learn beyond academics.

The MOE will leave it to schools to design their own activities, but it will help them link up with industry partners or government agencies for advice.

"When fully implemented, our student, whether his home is in Woodlands or Toa Payoh or Jurong or Tampines, will have a colourful landscape of distinctive schools to choose from," said the minister.

As for the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system and expansion of the Direct School Admission system to take into account a student's character and leadership skills, details will be released later, he said.

But the changes will support MOE's plans to move away from an exam-based system.

On concerns that the changes will move schools towards mediocrity, he disagreed, saying: "They will allow us to achieve excellence in a broader and more enduring sense."

He concluded: "Will it make Singapore a better society? I believe so, if our students grow up not just smart, but with a heart."

Ms Angela Lim, a housewife and mother of two teenagers, agreed that the all-round development of children was important.

But MOE must ensure that entry into top schools is not based on results alone. She said: "Right now, it is still very much based on exam results. Nothing will change if this doesn't change."

Changes to PSLE scoring system 'will take a few years'
Schools, pupils and parents need enough time to adjust, say Heng Swee Keat
By Ong Hwee Hwee, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

THE new scoring system for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will take at least a few years to implement, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

This is so there will be enough time to prepare schools, pupils and parents for the changes.

The PSLE T-score, which has been used to admit pupils to secondary schools for more than 30 years, has served an important function, said Mr Heng.

Changes to this will need to be "considered and communicated" carefully.

However, details on other changes to the education system, such as a broadening of Direct School Admission (DSA) to include qualities like character and leadership, will be revealed later this year.

The DSA scheme lets pupils skilled in academics, the arts or sports secure places in a secondary school even before the PSLE.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at the National Day Rally last month that the PSLE T-score would be replaced in a few years by wider grade bands similar to how students get A1 to F9 for the O levels.

The T-score, which is based on how well a child does relative to his peers, has been criticised for sorting children too finely because even a single point can make a difference.

Many had expected Mr Heng to reveal details on the new scoring system at his ministry's annual workplan seminar yesterday.

But he did not delve into the hot-button issue, although he did say: "The PSLE will not define how successful (a pupil) is, but is really an assessment which will help him decide what level of subjects will suit him at Sec 1."

He also noted that reactions from parents on the issue have been mixed.

"One parent wrote to me, asking for changes to be implemented immediately so that his son, who is in Primary 5, can benefit," he said.

"Another with a Primary 1 child asked us to wait for six years so that the changes would not affect his child."

While parents generally welcomed the move to do away with the T-score, some were worried that this would lead to a less transparent system.

Schools with a larger pool of pupils to choose from may use more subjective criteria to pick from among them.

However, Mr Heng pointed out that the scoring system must be broadened so pupils will not feel compelled to chase that last mark.

He shared with the 2,000 teachers and principals at yesterday's event what one parent told him at an Our Singapore Conversation session.

"One parent said to me, 'Each child is known by three digits - his PSLE T-score; each primary school by the PSLE T-scores of its top student; and each secondary school by its PSLE cut-off point.'

"This is, indeed, too one-dimensional," said Mr Heng.

Boost for those in Normal stream
By Ong Hwee Hwee, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

FROM next year, a dozen schools will take the lead in allowing Secondary 1 Normal stream students to take subjects they are strong in at Express level.

To qualify, these students would have to do well in these subjects at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

After the pilot at these 12 schools, the Ministry of Education will roll out the scheme at all secondary schools in phases, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

He did not give a timeline, and the schools to pilot the programme have not been picked yet.

The move to allow Normal stream students to do Express level subjects from the start of secondary education was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month.

It is intended to allow students to build on their strengths.

Currently, students who do well in certain subjects can take them at Express level only from Sec 3 onwards. They will take the O-level exam for these subjects at Sec 4, instead of a year later.

About 40 per cent of each Sec 1 cohort enter the Normal stream. On average, about 4,000, or a third of each Sec 4 Normal (Academic) cohort, take O-level subjects.

Principals have welcomed the change, saying this will boost the morale of Normal stream students, who will also get four years instead of two to prepare for the O-level exam for an Express subject.

Several schools already allow stronger students to do parts of an Express level subject from the get-go.

Tampines Secondary School, for instance, has been letting some of its Sec 1 Normal (Academic) students take several topics in Express-level maths and mother tongue for the past five years.

This is to expose them early to these subjects, said principal Balamurugan Krishnasamy.

Some schools are already running programmes for students to apply textbook concepts, and to help them learn values like perseverance. Here are two examples.

Robotics makes maths and science come alive
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

WHILE building a robot during his co-curricular activity, Isaiah Pang, 15, used physics to calculate the force needed to lift it.

Combining robotics with textbook formulas is fun, said the Hai Sing Catholic School Secondary 3 student. "It is a different way to approach the subject. In class, it is theory and calculation. In robotics, it is hands-on. I can see the formulas at work."

More students will learn maths and science this way, as the school will start an applied learning programme in robotics next year. Its Sec 2 students will have a weekly 40-minute robotics class on top of their regular curriculum.

During this time, they will learn programming skills, and test maths and science concepts. The programme will be rolled out to all levels within three years.

The use of robotics in the school is not new. Earlier this year, Sec 2 students came up with ideas for environmental solutions involving robotics. Design and technology classes have also incorporated elements of robotics, and in other classes, students learn basic programming skills.

Hai Sing principal Judina Cheong said robotics helps students to be problem-solvers and inventive thinkers, as they have to deliver practical solutions.

While the students may encounter failures when developing prototypes, they learn values such as perseverance, risk-taking and honesty when they fail, she said.

All the school's a stage at Tampines Secondary
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

MUSIC is Tampines Secondary School student Audrey Yong's newfound interest, after she learnt to play the guitar, sing a capella and dance hip-hop in school.

"I know more about music, and it made me step out of my comfort zone," said the 15-year-old, who can now read music scores and has performed on stage in front of large audiences.

At her school, Secondary 1 to 3 students pick up new performing or visual art skills each year from a range of modules, including drama, beatboxing and ukulele.

They spend about 10 hours practising, after which they have to put up a performance.

Tampines Secondary principal Balamurugan Krishnasamy said the initiative was started in 2011. It was developed because "students wanted a performing arts experience that was different from the standard CCAs we offered", he said.

The school, which has attained niche status in creative expressions, including performing and visual arts, plans to fold the initiative into its Learning for Life scheme.

"Picking up a new skill requires commitment, and performing in a group requires empathising with fellow performers," said Mr Balamurugan.

To create a constant buzz in the performing arts, students will have more areas in school to showcase their skills next year, he said. For instance, one room will be turned into an experimental theatre.

Free online lessons for all students by 2016
By Sandra Davie and Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

BY 2016, students from all schools will have access to an online learning portal provided free by the Ministry of Education.

They can use the material on the portal - produced by educators in line with the curriculum - to supplement school lessons, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday at his ministry's annual workplan seminar.

He said this would "help level up our students across schools".

This new portal builds on ongoing efforts by MOE and schools to use infocommunications technology (ICT) in education.

For example, a portal was created this year for mother tongue lessons to improve a student's oral and written skills.

MOE also developed three other portals to support the learning of English. Currently being tested in several schools, they will be rolled out to all schools next year.

Mr Heng urged teachers to continue exploring how ICT can transform their teaching.

He highlighted the example of Mr Christopher Chee, a maths teacher who gets students to learn from online material before going to class.

When he was at Christchurch Secondary, he worked with teachers to try this approach on Secondary 1 and 3 Normal (Technical) students last year.

"These students already watch YouTube videos online, so it is easier to convince them to watch lessons online," he said.

"Since they already learnt the content, we could do a lot more in class like team-based learning, and teachers can focus on those who are struggling."

Now with Spectra Secondary School, Mr Chee plans to do the same thing with Sec 1 students starting next year.

Bold plan to move focus away from exams
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2013

EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat was yesterday expected to announce changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination. Instead, he revealed a bold plan to move the focus away from exams to nurturing all-round students.

He said that to thrive in a complex and ever-changing global environment, academic grades alone will not be enough. Students will also need to be able to adapt and be self-confident.

He announced that by 2017, all secondary schools will offer an applied learning programme to help students use what they learn to solve real-life problems.

There will also be a learning-for-life programme, in which students will discover their strengths and interests by participating in arts, sports or volunteer activities, and develop soft skills which will help them connect to others.

Yet, he was also quick to point out that it will be difficult to implement all these changes. "It is not just about programmes," he said, "but about mindsets..."

Most parents still believe all that matters is aceing exams. The angst voiced during last month's Primary 1 registration, as they jostled for places in branded schools, gives proof of that.

This will again be evident in three months, when parents pick a secondary school for their 12-year-olds after the release of the Primary School Leaving Examination results.

The information booklet for this admission exercise includes details of co-curricular activities and niche programmes run by various secondary schools. Many are planned to stretch students beyond book smarts.

Outram Secondary School, for instance, has for years been running a business and entrepreneurship programme to nurture students' entrepreneurial spirit.

Hai Sing Catholic has a robotics programme, which has allowed students to experience the joy of discovery.

Mr Heng highlighted several examples in which students found unique talents because of the exposure schools gave them. He pointed to award-winning film-maker Royston Tan, who discovered his skills in Zhonghua Secondary, after his principal, Mrs Ng-Gan Lay Choo, gave him lessons on film editing to help him with his O-level art project.

That made it possible for Mr Tan to go from the Normal (Technical) stream to Temasek Polytechnic, where he took up a course in visual communication.

But principals will be the first to admit that few parents list their schools as a top choice because of niche programmes. In most cases, parents zero in on the academic cut-off point when picking a secondary school for their child.

One way to change this mindset is to make sure admission processes go beyond grades, and take into account qualities which are harder to measure but equally important, such as leadership, organisational skills and resilience.

The Ministry of Education is already taking steps in the right direction by announcing that it will tweak the Direct School Admission scheme, which admits pupils into secondary schools before the PSLE.

Currently, they get in for exceptional academic ability, or for sport or artistic skills.

MOE has said it will broaden the scheme to include pupils with special qualities such as resilience and character.

Details on these tweaks will be announced later, Mr Heng said yesterday. But MOE must ensure they are significant enough to also change the exam-first mindset of parents.

And why stop at secondary school admission? MOE should also consider making the non-academic achievements and skills of students count for more when getting into post-secondary and tertiary institutions.

There is already a discretionary admission scheme for universities, in which a student's achievements beyond A-level or polytechnic grades are recognised. But just up to 10 per cent of each intake is admitted under this scheme. MOE could expand this.

As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean once said: "Unless we change what counts, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to change the orientation and focus of our education system."

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