“If you built an education system based on the most pressing problems you see in the country – and you need to reverse engineer and change how people think – the system would look very, very different.” So says Kuik Shiao-Yin, nominated Member of Singapore’s Parliament.

Singapore’s education system was built around short term needs, which are important to train skills for industry, Kuik says. “But what happens when entire countries or cultures change?” For example, did the US decision to cut civic programmes cause the rise of America’s populism, she asks?

Kuik runs The Thought Collective, a social business that trains people to be more empathetic. GovInsider caught up with her to discuss Singapore’s changing education system, and how her team crafts awareness through their many workshops and living labs.

It starts with the young

Kuik worries that the Singapore’s education system places an unhealthy emphasis on grades. “I think that’s where our system is sort of stuck”, she says. Sometimes “we forget to ask what is this grade about?”

The ideal education doesn’t focus so much on the grade but real mastery of a subject, Kuik says. “What that looks like operationally, I think is where all the difficulty lies.”

Kuik believes that it’s more important to teach a student how to think, rather than how to jump through hoops. In fact, “the healthiest way” to think of grades is as a temporary feedback system, not “the dictator of where your life is going to be”, she says. “If the whole focus is the exam and the subject, then let’s not be surprised if years later, they [graduate] and they don’t think deeply about the jobs they take or the votes they make – all those you have to change at the classroom level.”

Singapore’s education system came first in the global PISA rankings last year, in all three categories: Maths, Science and Reading. Children in the country are streamed at a young age into different classes based on their academic capabilities, and are later sorted into schools according to the ranking. Families spent S$1 billion in 2014 on their kids’ private tuition to boost their offspring’s chances – double the sum spent a decade ago.

But inspiration can come from another high flier: Finland. This country has broken the conventional classroom approach to teaching. Finnish children don’t start school till they’re seven; their school hours are shorter; and they have less homework compared to their peers from other countries. More importantly, perhaps, is the shift away from standardised tests and rankings that pit children against one another. In place, teachers are awarded more flexibility to cultivate pupils’ interest to learn, as opposed to getting good grades.

From the ground up

In 2002, Kuik and her colleagues decided to start an experimental tuition centre to broaden the perspectives of students. “The medium was tuition”, but her main aim was to teach them civic consciousness. “It just happened that the subject that they specialised in – knowing society well – benefits [students] in their grades. That’s how a general paper works”, she says.

The School of Thought exposes students to real-life issues, and teaches them the context of complex global matters. While her immediate task is “to help you succeed as far as possible on the paper”, Kuik has a long-term agenda: “The kid must come out with an updated idea of where the world really is.”

Kuik wants her students to understand how different countries and institutions see the world, and how different timelines affect a country’s views. Singapore in the 1980s, for instance, saw itself differently from Singapore in 2017.

Kuik’s team also publishes a current affairs magazine, designed to support their students’ learning. “Our magazines go where a kid doesn’t necessarily have to go for an exam purpose”, she says. For example, “we talk about the fall of trust in major institutions”, publishing it with eye-catching infographics, and “we don’t dumb it down”, she says. Young people can embrace political thought – as Teen Vogue’s rise in the US seemingly demonstrates.

Let the games begin

Kuik also designs games to make education fun. In one case, they designed a “Game of Life” to help polytechnic students understand what life-long learning meant. Children were told to list their life goals, assign these different values, and achieve them to win the game. The catch however, was that “the whole game was designed purposely to bring up frustration”, Kuik says.

Students were assigned different family backgrounds, and would rotate around different phases in life – like university, hospital, or work. If they were too obsessed with earning money, for instance, game masters would assign them a life happens card, where an incident like a heart attack would throw the player into the hospital for three or four rounds. “The only way you can win the game is to suddenly came to the realisation that ‘I can change my success formula’.” The point of it was to teach them that “if life happens to you”, then “you roll with the circumstances”, Kuik explains.

Teaching adults to care

The Thought Collective also offers specialised training programmes for working professionals. They’ve worked with a major healthcare group to improve rapport among the hospital staff, and the Civil Service College to teach empathy to public servants. “Every institution, every issue, every setting you walk into, there are core narratives and core emotions that exist, that stand in the way, or allow things to happen, so you have to find out those things.”

Last year, Kuik experimented hosting writing classes for adults, with the endgame of instilling “emotional principles and awareness”. To write impactful content, people need to understand how others think, and how they make decisions, she says.

It’s idealist work to change a country’s educational culture, but Kuik is putting in the hard yards. After all, “it’s our national duty,” she says.