Is Singapore a bastion of educational progressivism?

Earlier, Katharine Birbalsingh commented on Finland’s decline in performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and suggested it may be due to the adoption of progressivist educational methods (it will be very interesting to see how Finland went in 2018 when these figures are released next month). Peter Ford chipped in with an unusual take:

Ford linked to an article he had co-written in April with JL Dutaut for the Times Educational Supplement (TES). Oddly, this article is paywalled on my laptop but accessible from my phone, so you may not be able to gain access. It also contains no hyperlinks or references and so it is not possible to check the sources for the claims that are made.

Essentially, Ford and Dutaut claim that Singaporeans were unhappy with their educational performance in the 1980s and so instituted a series of progressivist-inspired reforms which began to bear fruit from the 1990s onwards. The earliest robust data I can find is from TIMSS assessments which date back to 1995, so I cannot check the claim about 1980s performance.

It is true that when Singapore started to produce its own textbooks in the 1980s, the writers based some of their ideas on the work of the psychologist Jermone Bruner. Probably the best example of this is the concrete-pictorial-abstract sequence for teaching basic arithmetic, also known as the ‘bar model’ approach after the pictorial representations it uses. Bruner also happened to be an advocate for discovery learning, a progressivist inspired teaching method. As John Dewey wrote in 1938, “There is… no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process.” However, I am not aware that discovery learning is a feature of Singaporean education. So there is an association here, but little more than that.

Where else could we look for evidence of progressivism in Singapore? PISA collect survey data alongside performance data and they specifically ask students about the kinds of teaching they are exposed to. In 2012, they asked questions to determine the extent of ‘teacher-directed instruction’ in maths lessons as well and the extent of teachers’ ‘student orientation’ in maths.

These survey questions are deeply imperfect measures, as I have explored at length in previous blog posts (e.g. here), but they roughly map on to traditional versus progressive teaching practices. PISA use the answers to the survey questions to generate an index for each teaching approach. This placed Singapore 27 out of 64 for the use of teacher-directed instruction and 37 out of 64 for student orientation.

In 2015, PISA completed a similar process for science teaching only this time, instead of the ‘student orientation’ construct, they surveyed students on the extent of ‘enquiry-based learning’ that took place in science lessons. This time, Singapore placed 11 out of 67 for teacher-directed instruction and 44 out of 67 for enquiry-based learning.

What can we conclude? As far as the evidence goes, I cannot rule-out that Singapore has become more progressivist since the early 1980s, but if it has, it is still quite biased towards a more traditional style of teaching, relative to the rest of the countries taking part in PISA and at least as far as we can believe the OECD data. Progressivism is, of course, more than a teaching style, it is a philosophy, and I cannot rule-out the possibility that this philosophy has taken hold. Singapore is the home of the concept of ‘productive failure‘, the last redoubt of constructivism, and so this must have sprung from somewhere.

Of course, it has always been a nonsense to point to a country at the top of the PISA league table and suggest that its practices must be superior to those lower down. PISA pits city states against large heterogeneous countries, wealthy states against poor and so on. Most of the time, it is unlikely to be the education system that is causing the difference. That’s why we should focus on the direction of travel and that’s why Birbalsingh’s point about Finland was valid.



6 thoughts on “Is Singapore a bastion of educational progressivism?

  1. Chester Draws says:

    Singaporean students who come to NZ don’t complain about our traditional tendencies — quite the reverse. Their parents also pick the least progressive schools. And use tutors when they think the schools aren’t drilling enough.

    Maybe the ones we get are different from the usual run of Singapore. But I doubt it.

    • And you would be right to doubt it. It is not hard to get good results in standardised testing if you stream and teach passing tests from lower primary. I have heard that Singapore are trying to change things, but education change is slow and when performance bonuses are a significant part of your income there is reason to be cautious. Lee did an amazing job to grow Singapore from where it was in the 1960s to where it is now. Remarkable social change in a relatively short time. I think maybe that is why the government that other changes can be done quickly also. That is not the case though.

  2. Pingback: Singapore and PISA: a policy warning for England

  3. CEW says:

    This is true of a lot of places, increasingly wealthy urban Australia too, but there is so much tutoring and non-school-based instruction in Singapore that if you want to analyse teaching there you’d have to look at what the afternoon and weekend cram schools and private tutors do, as well as the schools. And those schools, like Australia’s cram schools, are not in any way progressive.

    In real life Singapore’s schools are run in a highly authoritarian way, and progressive teaching methods are looked down on. The reason is partly genuine respect for education, partly cultural and social conservatism, and partly that it is a small and highly competitive society in which quantifiable results are worshipped. Singaporean parents and students (in general) support and accept this, so it’s interesting to speculate about why the MOE is trying or pretending to be progressive. Apart from the fact that a bit of progressivism might not hurt, it could be that educational bureaucrats and academics are trying to appear more credible or acceptable with the West?

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