How to prepare students for an uncertain future

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Panellists discussed the changing face of education at the recent PopUp Skills Summit presented by GovInsider and Prudential Singapore.

“Allow your children to have imagination.” Geetha Creffield, Head of Arts at Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC), shared her one key piece of advice for parents on a panel at The PopUp Skills Summit on Tuesday.

Despite the associations that society makes with careers in the arts, there are certain intangible skills and qualities that drama and theatre can bring out in a child, she said - skills and qualities which can last a lifetime. “In theatre, you make decisions all the time, so you are problem-solving. And in a fictive world, you can do many things,” said Creffield. “You are literally an inventor and creator.”

Creffield was speaking on a panel with fellow educators, who gathered to discuss how the very definition of education is shifting and expanding today. More and more, there is less focus on grades and rote learning, and greater emphasis on holistic development as children find their place in the world.

Beyond meritocracy

In a society that sees places greater value in pragmatism, there is a “deep-set prejudice” against people who aspire to be in the arts, said panel moderator Kuik Shiao-Yin, Co-Founder of The Thought Collective and former Nominated Member of Parliament.

This becomes painfully obvious as she shared a personal anecdote: “When I turned 18, one of my first thoughts was, I wanted to study fine arts. My mother looked at me and said, 'This is all my fault. I sent you for art classes when you're young'.”

The flipside is that there is an “educational arms race” in Singapore, noted panellist Samuel Chan, Programme Director at ReadAble, a social initiative that teaches children from disadvantaged backgrounds how to read and write. It seems that the children whose parents can afford to pay for tuition and enrichment classes are the ones that have an advantage, he noted.

“There used to be a perception that meritocracy is our path, where the brightest, most capable and hardworking will come out on top. But we know that's not the case,” Chan said. “Some people are starting 100 metres out; some are close to the finish line.”

While he supports ‘streaming’, where students are divided into streams in school depending on their grades and learning pace, he believes there is still much to do to develop a “positive learning environment” in whichever tertiary institute they end up in. “I believe that it's very useful to learn in polytechnic and ITE (Institute of Technical Education), but their experiences are, ‘I came here because I failed’,” Chan said.

His one piece of advice was that parents should encourage an “openness to experience” in their children, he added.

Soft skills and future careers

Panellist Derek Ong, Co-Founder of the Life Beyond Grades movement, hopes that parents remember that “hard skills have an expiry date, but soft skills are forever”. The Life Beyond Grades campaign went viral on social media, with its message that ‘grades do not define a person’ - and certainly do not have much effect on their success later on in life.
“Hard skills have an expiry date, but soft skills are forever.”
The Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLEs) in Singapore, which 12-year-olds sit for, can be a turning point for many young people. There have been increasing rates of depression and suicide due to the immense pressure put on these students to excel, with their academic future riding on a single three-digit point score, Ong noted. “There is a humanistic side to grades - it’s to deal with this over-emphasis on grades and that impact it has on kids,” he said.

What’s more, grades definitely do not reflect a person’s ability to adapt to changing economic tides once they enter the working world. The social media campaign featured people who had succeeded in the careers they had chosen, despite mediocre PSLE scores. “Once you're out of school, that's actually when your journey starts,” said Ong, who runs a creative agency. “I hire young people, the ones that possess an ability to learn outside of what you learn in school.”

International lessons

When it comes to education reform, Singapore could look to Finland, which consistently tops PISA rankings. Panellist Anna Korpi, Counsellor for Education and Science at the Finnish Embassy, shares how “our approach has been quite individualised to the extreme”.

“We often say that, in a class of 20 students in primary schools, the teacher is the facilitator of 20 different learning patterns,” Korpi explained. Those children with learning difficulties may have easier tests than their fellow classmates, she said.

Vocational education is also highly regarded in Finland where, for instance, “a plumber is probably paid much more than other fields”, she continued. And from a young age, “ we try to encourage more children to keep the joy of learning throughout their lives”, with more relaxed methods of teaching, she explained.

Crucially, teaching is a very competitive field in Finland, she added. “It’s harder to get into teacher education programmes than it is to get into medical school.”

Teacher education programmes look out specifically for individuals with a capacity for change, Korpi said, and candidates sit for psychological tests and entrance exams that are geared towards “measuring skills and aptitude for learning”. “They realised that if they only look at high-performing in terms of grades or academic skills, they will get the wrong people,” Korpi noted.

She added that her one key skill for parents to focus on in their children is empathy, which is “still one of the biggest things that we need in future, and today, to understand problems even if we haven't experienced them ourselves”.

At the end of the day, it is the students themselves that will shape the course of their futures. For ACJC’s Creffield, “the joy of learning comes from choice”. Her junior college has an open syllabus and “shopping weeks” where students can try out different subjects and see what sticks. “What we try to do is get people to do things they like and love, rather than things their parents said they ought to do,” she said.

It is important that each child feels like they are “seen and heard in the classroom”, she concluded. “It’s giving students back agency, and showing them that they are important.”