How Singapore will target mental health in schools

By Yun Xuan Poon

Exclusive interview with Ong Ye Kung, Minister of Education, Singapore.

Schools in Singapore often top the global rankings, but is there a downside to this success?

In February this year, nominated Member of Parliament Lim Sun Sun highlighted that Singapore’s students have a prominent fear of failure and experience a lot of stress in their younger years.

Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Minister of Education, acknowledges that “a fear of failure does exist”. Singaporean society takes education very seriously, but without checks and balances, this risks causing mental distress for students as they develop.

GovInsider spoke with Ong to find out how schools are adapting to prioritise mental health; how classrooms are coping with the Coronavirus; and what Singapore is learning from other nations.

Teaching mental health

Singapore announced changes to its grading system in 2018 intended to ease academic pressure, Ong says. “Through the ‘Learn for Life’ movement, we are helping our students develop a healthy perspective towards academic performance, and a growth mindset towards failure or setbacks.” It reduced the number of examinations in primary and secondary schools and changed how grades are represented to “discourage excessive peer comparisons”.

Now it is making changes to place greater emphasis on wellbeing. Mental health education will be “featured more explicitly” from 2021. Students will learn about common mental health problems; how to recognise signs of distress; and where to find help. These lessons will encourage students to “develop empathy and care towards people with mental illness”, the Minister says.

Not all support is Ministry-directed. Schools will put in place a peer-support programme by 2022, to help students “learn how they can better support one another emotionally and socially”. Teachers will be trained to “pick up signs of distress” and provide support to students.

Coronavirus syllabus

Alongside mental health challenges, Singapore’s education system must face up to the realities of a pandemic. On 8th April, all schools shifted lessons online to minimise physical contact.

This outbreak presents a “valuable teachable moment”, Ong says. Teachers are using curriculum time to help students understand the changes they are facing. Schools have introduced lessons to teach students about viruses and how they spread. They also teach good hygiene habits, such as staying home when they feel unwell and maintaining personal cleanliness.

Before schools went fully online, teachers explained why social distancing is crucial in controlling the virus in class, and held discussions about social responsibility. “These discussions help students make connections between what is taught in class and what is happening in the world around them,” Ong says.

The Minister adds that this approach will guide how schools teach character and citizenship lessons. Teachers will continue to “facilitate the discussion of contemporary issues so that students can broaden their perspectives and identify ways in which they can contribute to their community and nation”.

AI in the classroom

Last year, Singapore announced that it will trial the use of AI in schools in its National AI Strategy. Ong shares three ways Singapore will use AI to improve the classroom experience.

First, AI can personalise each student’s learning. From their responses, it designs a pathway that suits their learning pace. It also tracks students’ progress to help teachers “better intervene to bridge students’ learning gaps”, says Ong.

Second, AI will automatically grade short-answer questions and essays. This helps teachers save time on “routine assessment tasks”, and has allowed them to spend more time directly coaching students.

Third, students will have the help of an AI learning companion as they complete their lessons online. When students are stuck on a challenging task, a bot may pop up on the screen with an encouraging message to keep them engaged.

These will be integrated with Singapore’s national e-learning platform - the main medium of education, now that all lessons are conducted online during the pandemic.

Learning from others

Singapore’s education system often tops global rankings, but the nation is also studying successes from elsewhere.

Ong shares what he witnessed in the ‘future classrooms’ of one primary school in Shanghai. “I was expecting to see students with something high-tech – like headgear which monitored their eye movements and brainwaves,” he says. “Instead, the principal told me that technology is only a small part of the future classrooms.”

This school designs its syllabus around specific themes. “Teachers of different disciplines, such as science, art, and language, then get together to develop lessons around the theme,” Ong explains.

For instance, the school may choose ‘frost’ as a theme in early winter. Students will learn how frost forms in science class; they will create artworks based on frost patterns on persimmons in art lessons; and their language teacher will share frost-themed poems. “By doing all this, the lessons become more experiential and holistic; they cater to the diverse needs of students, and lessons truly come alive,” Ong notes.

The Minister is also intrigued by higher learning colleges in the US. “We are watching interesting new university models such as the Minerva Schools at KGI”, which emphasise learning real-world skills through practice and application. The six-year-old university runs all of its courses online, and students will travel across seven countries in the course of their education.

Singapore is learning from Switzerland’s method of preparing students for the workplace. “We continue to admire the Swiss system of vocational learning, where 80 per cent of young people go into apprenticeship,” Ong shares.

On top of academic content, schools in Singapore are increasingly teaching students to make sense of the world around them. The country has adapted quickly to the outbreak by introducing coronavirus lessons, and will soon teach students to deal with mental distress. Neither are easy to teach, but the lessons will be crucial in learning to cope.