Singapore students excel in critical thinking
In 2016, a random sample of 5,000 students in Singapore topped the global PISA scores for English, Mathematics and Science. The 3 yearly PISA tests are designed by OECD. More than 60 countries around the world participate in the study. 15 year olds across the globe are tested to gauge how well they apply their knowledge to solve problems. In other words, PISA tests students on their critical thinking skills.
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is not about memorising facts. Instead, a person with critical thinking skills is able:-
- To quickly sieve through large and shifting amounts of information to solve problems
- To sieve out relevant information in order to anticipate future events
- To find true and factual information in order to form objective opinions or ideas
- To see connections (patterns) between facts and ideas when others cannot
- To form opinions independently and quickly
- To see why and how ideas are important
- To solve problems in a systematic manner
- To reflect and identify weaknesses in one’s own ideas i.e. to have the ability to think about your own thinking
- To summarise, present and communicate one’s ideas in a logical and convincing manner
Why is critical thinking important?
- It allows us to be flexible in our thinking in an age when everything, especially information and opinions change so fast
- It allows us to come up with ‘original’ ideas and solutions that are not obvious to others
- It allows us to see the big picture and to understand what the real key issues are
- It enables us to self-educate and self-help when presented with uncertain issues or problems
Why do Singaporean students top the PISA test?
What is it about Singapore’s education system or environment that has resulted in its children acing the PISA tests?
1. The Singaporean Exams
Just a quick glance at other countries’ standardised tests and at Singapore’s PSLE and O-level exam papers, and you will notice something quickly:-
#1 Singapore exams are really challenging
#2 Singaporean students are expected to do much more than memorise facts
There has been much press about rote learning and memorising in Singapore. Ironically, the Singapore education system is unique because the emphasis is on thinking and application skills rather than on memorising alone. Experienced educators know that it is much harder to find students who can think, rationalise and predict possible scenarios than to find a child who can memorise well.
(a) PRIMARY SCHOOL EDUCATION (7 to 12 years old): The PSLE
In the 1980s, the Singapore model method of Mathematics was developed. In this model drawing or ‘bar drawing’ method, students use rectangular bars to show the relationship between known and unknown quantities. Simply put, young children learn to visualise problems without resorting to algebra. In addition to this, maths word problems encourage children to apply different maths concepts to real-world problems. Today, this method of teaching Maths is considered to be so effective that some British and American schools in their home countries have adopted this method.
For English, the challenging components are (i) comprehension, (ii) cloze passages and (iii) composition. In (i) and (ii), students have to be able to infer (guess intelligently) by looking for clues. In (iii), the latest composition format requires the students to write a narrative essay by linking the given title with either 1,2 or 3 of the given photos. The ability to combine the title and pictures in a flexible and unrestricted way showcases students who are creative enough to weave a story that is interesting, original and yet still rational. Lastly, the latest addition to the PSLE format is the visual text/comprehension. This poster format is designed to teach students to read, absorb and use the given information to come to their own conclusion. It is very clear that while the English language is being tested, the PSLE English paper is also designed to assess the students’ thinking skills.
Over the years, the trend in the PSLE papers reflects the growing emphasis on the ability of students to apply science concepts to real-life examples. Students are expected to be able to infer, predict, analyse, evaluate and communicate their findings. This means that children have to be able to think critically.
In one past PSLE question, students were asked to explain how the water mist system at a coffee shop is able to cool the surrounding air. Many children were stumped by this question because they could not relate this example to concepts learnt in school. This example illustrates how students are expected to apply theory to reality. And this is an example of how students are taught to think critically.
(b) SECONDARY SCHOOL EDUCATION (13 to 15 years old): The Singapore-Cambridge GCE O-level Exam
Since 2006, the GCE O-level programme in Singapore has been managed by Singapore’s Ministry Of Education. While Cambridge University still participates in the marking of these exam papers, there is no link between the UK O-level and Singapore O-level programmes. While the UK GCSE O-levels is recognised internationally, complaints about the worrying declining standards finally prompted the British government to carry out a major overhaul of the system in 2017.
In contrast, the Singapore GCE O-level exams have been continuously upgraded and tweaked to make the programme more challenging for its teens. Many post O-level Singapore students who leave Singapore to continue their education, report that they had already learnt some of the UK A-levels or Australian HSC curriculum before they turned 16 years old. In other words, the Singapore O-levels is very rigorous.
2. The Culture
Asians all over the world place great emphasis on education. The stellar results of Asian immigrants in America and England are common place, reflecting the cultural mindset towards education. The performance of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian students at international maths competitions are also testament to this. Singaporeans whose ancestors come from China, India and Malaysia generally have the same driven mindset about education. As the society becomes more affluent and globalised, more and more parents see education as an important facet of their children’s lives.
3. The Supporting Industry: The Role Of Tuition and Enrichment
Like many other Asian countries, the tuition and enrichment industry in Singapore is vibrant. While detractors argue that their existence is the result of ‘kiasu-ism’, few would deny that professionally set up centres as well as dedicated retired teachers contribute to many students’ excellent results.
In Singapore, most children have tuition at home if they are particularly weak in a subject. This is because tuition is meant to help weaker students catch up with school work. On the other hand, enrichment is meant for students who (i) thrive better in a smaller and more focused class setting and (ii) need more stimulation beyond the standard school curriculum i.e. they learn concepts in greater depth and breadth. Many children who have a solid foundation in primary school adapt faster when they enter secondary school.
As the world progresses rapidly, students who are adept at adjusting to changing conditions and information will be the ones who will thrive. The next round of PISA test results will be published in December 2019. While such accolades are impressive, at the end of the day, the real test takes place when the students go out into the real world to work.