Sunday, 5 March 2017

School’s all drill? That won’t explain how Singapore topped PISA

The Republic is at an inflexion point where content mastery is making way for more deep learning. But there's still value in drilling - deliberate practice - as we move towards future-oriented learning.
By David Hung, Published The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2017

Singapore's first Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling is known to wake up as early as 5am to begin his daily practice routines.

It is not uncommon to hear of the national swimmer training for five to six hours daily in the pool and the gym. Like top sportsmen, expert musicians, chess players, scientists and mathematicians all practise their skills regularly - and often repetitively - to be able to perform at optimal levels when needed.

If one observes Schooling practising, lap after lap, over and over again, it would appear to be less than enjoyable and clearly tonnes of hard work. If one were to remove a portion of his hours of repetitive practice in the pool and gym, however, would we still have our very first Olympic champion in our midst?

There have been recent commentaries in the news media wondering if our school pedagogies are overly focused on drilling or repetitive practice to succeed in exams, which, in turn, could lead to an overdependence on private tuition.

As parents watch their children undergo what appear to be mind-numbing experiences of problem after problem, exercise after exercise, workbook after workbook, it is understandable for them to be concerned about whether these perceived repetitive academic exercises are hindering our students from more holistic and future-oriented learning.

From the perspective of education researchers who work closely with school teachers in enhancing pedagogical practice, there is much to ponder over two key questions - first, is some drilling really that bad and, second, is our school system today really still too focused on drilling for results?


In the early years of post-independence Singapore, teacher-fronted direct instruction helped equip students with strong foundations in literacy and numeracy, and national testing allowed the school system to monitor student achievement and provide them with a curriculum that suited their pace.

Having gone through several major shifts in five short decades, our education policies are now firmly focused on a student-centric and values-driven model. Curricula and pedagogies are shifting from foundational knowledge and content mastery to deep learning and acquisition of 21st-century competencies, as well as from teacher-fronted teaching to student-centred learning.

However, systemic shifts in education will necessarily take time to be fully implemented. Our system is at an inflexion point, where traditional education, with its focus on knowledge acquisition, and new forms of education, focusing on future-readiness, are both present. On the ground, teachers are attempting to strike a fine balance between old and new pedagogies in varying degrees and contexts.

Yet, we are already seeing early results of the most recent shifts in educational direction and pedagogical practice.

A recent research study compared the primary science curriculum across Hong Kong, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.

National Institute of Education (NIE) Singapore researcher Lee Yew Jin and researchers from Japan, South Korea and Canada examined the learning objectives of the primary science curriculum in these six places for the cognitive demands in the classroom - "To Remember", "To Understand", "To Apply", "To Analyse", "To Evaluate" and "To Create".

They found that contrary to popular beliefs about drill and practice in Singapore, "To Remember" accounted for only 31.4 per cent of learning objectives.

The Singapore science curriculum showed a healthy balance of "To Understand" (32.5 per cent) and "To Apply" (31.4 per cent) - aspects that cannot be achieved through pure rote learning or drilling.

In another NIE study, researchers observed Primary 5 pupils making winged seeds from paper and throwing these from their school corridor to the ground, to observe and understand seed dispersion, thereby learning about plant reproduction through a fun-filled activity. While those pupils may have taken home worksheets to do, their parents were not privy to how their children were enjoying the process of learning science through inquiry in school.

Evidence from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 study confirmed our observations - more than eight in 10 15-year-old students in Singapore said they "had fun" when learning science topics and enjoyed acquiring new knowledge in science.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) 2015 results also showed that Singapore's Primary 4 pupils and Secondary 2 students made steady improvements in mathematics and science over time, especially in higher-order thinking skills.

Our Primary 4 pupils and Sec 2 students were better able to apply knowledge and skills as well as solve non-routine mathematics and science problems in Timss 2015 compared with the Timss 2007 cohort, evidencing the impact of our deliberate curricular shifts towards a greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills in recent years.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development director for education and skills Andreas Schleicher made the following observation following the release of the results for PISA 2012: "Singapore's education system has at times been criticised for encouraging rote learning at the expense of creative skills development. Those critics should have a second look. The PISA results show that 15-year-old Singaporeans are quick learners, highly inquisitive and able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts. Indeed, no education system outperforms Singapore on this problem-solving test."


Now, back to Schooling and the hours of hard work and practice that laid the foundations for his success on sport's biggest stage - is some "drilling" necessarily a bad thing?

In the early 1990s, Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University examined musicians to understand how they became experts. His research revealed that gifted performers become so after a minimum of 10 years - or 10,000 hours - of intense practice before they go on to win international competitions.

Crucially, it is not the amount of practice but the type of practice that makes a difference. People become experts through deliberate practice - intentional, specific, structured, considerable and sustained efforts to do something they did not initially do well in.

Deliberate practice requires the learner to consciously reflect on and understand his own weaknesses and to then think of solutions to improve or eliminate the weaknesses. It involves cultivating, developing, enhancing and refining needed skills and extending the reach and range of those skills.

What does a competitive swimmer doing laps in a pool and a performing musician practising on his instrument have to do with a primary school pupil solving word problems?

If you do a close examination of students practising on subjects like mathematics, similarities to how experts improve through practice will begin to emerge. Like the experts who attain skill mastery over time, it is not the repeated nature of practice, but the conscious and deliberate planning to develop competency and expertise that makes a difference.

Not all practices are the same, and not all practices make one perfect, but deliberate practice - both physically and mentally - can lead to mastery and excellence in application, and help one perform effectively in even the most challenging real-life situations. Furthermore, the cultivation of resilience and perseverance - important values for future-readiness - is much often overlooked in arguments against repetitive practice.

Is the Singapore student then engaged in deliberate practice? The Core Research Programme team at the NIE Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice analysed hundreds of samples of student worksheets and examined Ministry of Education-endorsed mathematics textbooks and other teaching materials.

They concluded that mathematics teachers constructively work with students in classrooms on problem-solving activities. In analysing the relationships between problems, the research team found evidence of a deliberate structure in how problems are laid out in lessons and in textbooks.

Typically, students are exposed to problems that may be repetitive in nature initially but move on to problems that are more varied in terms of the procedures required to solve them, and then progress to more conceptually complex problems that require them to apply what they have learnt in novel ways.

Therefore, what appears to be a worksheet of about 20 problems in sequence becomes, in actuality, a form of deliberate practice for students to acquire not just procedural fluency but also deep conceptual understanding.

As teachers work through the word problems in class, they provide feedback so that students know where they are in their learning journey, what their weaknesses are, and how they can improve.

In our mathematics classrooms, students experience a pedagogy focusing on problem variations that engage them in deliberate practice to improve their understanding and skills.

While not all students are expected to become expert mathematicians, an important function of schooling is to equip students with fundamental competencies and important mathematical skills - something that our Singapore curriculum and pedagogy have been recognised to do very well.

The PISA international study also showed that our students are capable of demonstrating application, inference and reasoning skills; of exhibiting conceptual understanding; and of solving problems in unfamiliar real-life situations.

Our students' strong performance in PISA cannot be simply attributed to a "drilling culture". The nature of the test items is such that students need to demonstrate application and reasoning skills, draw inferences, and explain rationales, and so on - they are not mere recall items.

With the new shift towards student-centric and values-driven curricula and pedagogies, the Singapore student is embedded in a pedagogical interplay between content mastery and 21st-century competencies.

The aim is to inculcate in them strong educational fundamentals as well as knowledge, skills and dispositions for the future.


Education is seen by many in our society to be important and crucial for one's social mobility. Parents want the best for their children, mustering whatever means and resources available to ensure that.

They want their children to get into certain schools that they believe can lead their child to a successful and secure future. Yet, an over-emphasis on examination results by all stakeholders in the system - parents, students and teachers - can unbalance the system and tilt it towards pedagogies that are overly focused on a limited range of academic outcomes.

Undoubtedly, striving for gold is a worthy goal, but the reward of learning and growing has as much to do with the journey as the outcome.

Recognising that content mastery, deep learning and 21st-century competencies are all necessary for a successful and future-oriented society, NIE research has focused on developing pedagogical and curriculum innovations to create more space in schools for students' lifelong learning and to impart in students a joy of learning.

Everyone in the system - parents, students, teachers and policymakers - has a role to play in ensuring that schools continue to provide a balanced, quality education that prepares our children to be adaptable and resilient.

Collectively, we should strive to encourage an education system that allows for fun and hard work, practice and inquiry, abstract ideas and real-world application, and passion and mastery. Only then can we safely secure the future for our children.

The writer is a professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore, and associate dean of NIE's Office of Education Research.

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