Singapore students pass PISA tests with flying colors, but critics say ‘so what?’

“Who says Singaporean’s are rote learners?” challenged Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over the notion of the robotic Singaporean, in a Facebook post.

At the tail end of March, the OECD released the 2012 PISA results of a worldwide study of the problem solving skills of 15 year olds from 44 education systems. The study saw 85,000 students take part. Singapore came in joint first with South Korea.

This was not the only achievement, in the same test (results released in 2013) the island-state was ranked second in math and third in science and reading among 65 entries. The Lion City was first in the computer-based assessment taken by 32 education systems.

The local media stressed the creative nature of the exam, “Singapore students top PISA problem-solving test” screamed Channel NewsAsia. Veteran Education correspondent Sandra Davie from the local broadsheet the Straits Times opened her article with the headline, “Singapore students excel in problem-solving, a global study shows”. An article in TodayOnline cited the education minister, director-general of education and special advisor to the OECD secretary general in its article praising Singapore’s direction.

Being number one should be a proud achievement.

Not in Singapore.

So what say critics?

The news was greeted with less enthusiasm outside officialdom. A post from the blog, Thoughts of a Cynical Investor was picked up by the Malaysian Insider. With a mere shrug, the post responded in a uniquely Singaporean voice, “so what?”

Another blog site, Chemical Generation Singapore, was more direct, “what happened between impressive PISA rankings and the real world?”

Perry Tan, formerly a head of learning in an MNC, wrote in reply to TodayOnline, “The real world rarely requires IQ-smart people to decipher data and reports in silos, and solve pre-designed problems based purely on logic. Our education system does well in teaching technical subjects such as Mathematics and Science, as well as developing our pupils’ hard skill sets for problem-solving. The gap is in the soft skills: Articulation, facilitation, leadership and cultural-political-organisational acumen.”

Their skepticism is not unfounded. After all, robots are very good at solving problems once they are given the rules to do so. One question that Singaporean students did particularly well in required them to create rules for a robot vacuum cleaner. Singapore topped the list with 9.6% getting it correct. In a more direct test, the results on more realistic questions such as planning the fastest route to a location saw less variation among countries. None of these tests involved empathy, soft skills or public speaking skills. A Gallup poll in 2012 concluded that Singaporeans were the least emotional people in the world. The Singaporean worker, for all his test-taking skills, is no better at taking the test of the working world.

Bertha Henson, a former Straits Times senior journalist and editor of the now defunct Breakfast Network, picked up on the theme of communication, writing in her blog, “Articulation is not the best trait in our young people… get them to do so on their feet and you will see their tongues tied and, if loosened, tripping over what they want to say.” Vocal communication is something Asians are considered bad at; hence the criticism, while valid, is not Singapore specific.

There’s more to education than training

Some critics charged that there were more important things in ‘moulding the future of the nation’, the tagline of the education ministry in Singapore. Janice Lim, writing on the PM’s Facebook page, argued that “character building should be a priority”, something the education minister (Heng Swee Keat) referred to in his Facebook post in concentrating on “inculcating values and morals” in our children.

While the minister has the intention, the implementation of the intention is a different kettle of fish. Critics have charged that the heavy burden on teachers to run co-curricular activities and non-teaching duties meant that the quality of education would suffer, while training would be passed on to tuition teachers. Private tuition is a billion-dollar industry with some trained teachers commanding SGD120 (US$96) per hour of coaching. Echoing the theme was a Finnish national residing in Singapore, Janis Kurtelis, “[it would be] nice to see the PISA results without the necessary tuition support.” Still others criticise the quality of teachers as lacking.

In any other country the criticisms of being number one might seem pedantic. Not in Singapore. Singapore has been fed a consistent message that being the top is not seen as an achievement. Singapore may be the best in problem solving, but to Singaporeans, number one is not enough.

The education minister phrased the challenge most succinctly in ending his Facebook message, “the heart of education is to bring out the best in each child.”