I figured I would take the time to write down some of my recent observations on the Singaporean education system, at least as far as I have experienced it. I had two very powerful interactions with my students this past week: first, one group of students interviewed me for their project on "Cultural Awareness" for a separate class; and second, I lead a class-ful of presentations on controversial topics in Cell Biology. Both of these gave me very interesting insights into the minds of my students, particularly with regards to how and what they're taught throughout their lives. What I found out is that they seem to be very sheltered and narrow minded, if just from my observations.
First, the interview. A group of my students approached me last week asking if they could ask me some questions for their project from another class, involving cultural awareness. I agreed, and we set up a time. Basically, the "interview" unfolded as more of a test of my knowledge of Singaporean culture, as their questions included, "Do you know five Singlish phrases?" "What are the respective colors of each of the three ethnic groups in Singapore?" "What are the aspects of Singaporean culture that are most different from America?" and "What can Singapore improve upon?"
The last two questions were the most difficult for me to answer, as Singapore is very particular about it's "freedom of speech." Criticism of the government and of the way things are run is almost non-existent in Singaporean culture, so it was important that I watch what I say. Regardless, I spoke at length with the students about one of most glaring differences I've so far encountered, which has to do with the education system.
In America, as most of the people who are reading this will know, your education is your own. You are free to choose your major or your path based on your interests, your strengths, and your desires. If someone or something tries to influence your future decisions (ie your parents, your peers, your advisers) so be it, but ultimately, you have complete control over your future. Not so much in Singapore.
When I spoke about this aspect of American culture with my students, they were shocked (and rightly so). In Singapore, the educational matrix is very highly regulated, even at the level of the individual student. Students are locked into a rigid track from an early age (about 12) based on a set of test scores, which virtually predicts their entire future. What's more, the MOE (Ministry of Education) releases a list of needed industry workers each year to the various JC's and Polytechnics (the just-before-university schools), and this list is what these schools base their entrance criteria and enrollment size upon - not upon school resources or students' capabilities, but upon the future needs of Singapore's industry.
With that in mind, Singaporean students are generally groomed into a certain field early on in their education, and there is very little flexibility to adjust one's path once they're set into a track. My students were downright shocked to hear about the flexibility available to students in America, with how they could change their major seven times (ie me) and with how much freedom they have to control their own future. I was shocked to see how shocked they were - it was a bit disconcerting to see so many hundreds of thousands of students locked into such a rigid education system.
Second, I had an even more disconcerting observation during my students' presentations on ethical controversies in Cell Biology this past week. The topics they had to present on included stem cell research, cloning, genetic testing, and artificial life forms. They were required to field questions from the rest of the class for 3-5 minutes following their presentation (of course none of the students asked any questions) so I challenged each of the groups with some thought-provoking questions. (Or at least that's what I had expected).
I tried to probe into the students' ability to grapple with dense ethical dilemmas, so for example, I asked the stem cell research group to discuss the ethical limitations on stem cell research, particularly with relevance to embryonic stem cells (which requires the destruction of an embryo in order to obtain viable cell lines for research). This is an ongoing controversial topic in the world of biology, and I was interested to see how my students had been educated on this topic, and on all of the controversial topics, and how they would be able to discuss both sides.
Unfortunately, their responses were very much pre-programmed responses. Rather than intelligently diverging into the pro's and con's of each side, and weighing the costs and benefits of a variety of arguments, each student group spewed out what seemed to me to be an engrained answer. Each student seemed to have a very narrow minded view of science, one that was completely detached from the culture and society growing around it. They all spoke of the "necessary sacrifice to destroy an embryo, because all science requires sacrifice" without comprehending the human side of the argument; or the "necessity to have genetic testing done on everyone, because the knowledge would be so beneficial" without discussing the psychological and emotional impact widespread genetic testing could have.
It was kind of disturbing to me that they almost had no comprehension of the duality of many of these issues, and it seemed that they were almost brainwashed into pursuing the religion of science without being able to assess its impact on the world around them. Through these two interactions with my students, it seems to me that one of the difficulties inherent in the Singaporean education system is that it leads to narrow minded, inflexible learning; this is not a beneficial quality to distill upon hundreds of thousands of fresh minds each year.