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Why Focusing on Continuing Education Alone Won’t Save Us

Our government tends to focus on a few major initiatives at any given time, mostly because our Cabinet Ministers have to ‘pick their battles’ for the relatively short time they are in a portfolio. Our recent Education Ministers seem to have decided to focus on continuing education - building/ refreshing the skills of adult workers, to help them pivot to new jobs opening up in the economy as other job groups decline. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the rest of MOE stops working; they will continue to take steps to improve primary and secondary education. But it does mean we shouldn’t expect to see any big initiatives or revamps in those other areas.

To us at EveryChild.SG, this huge focus on continuing education does raise a conundrum:

  1. It means that yet another Education Minister will not be focusing on the long overdue overhaul that our primary education system needs; and

  2. More concerningly, if this overhaul is not undertaken soon, our schools cannot focus on nurturing our children to have 21st century skills and a growth mindset, and so we will forever be struggling with adult/ continuing education, and jeopardising our future competitiveness and productivity. 

Why are we being so alarmist? 

Because we’re worried about the same problem that our government is worried about, and its urgency! We just disagree on which solution to focus high-level ministerial attention on:

Here’s what’s going on: (a) Technological change, and (b) changes in the relative abilities and costs of workers in other countries, are leading to changes in the types of jobs available in Singapore and the skillsets required. This is not a new process; Singapore has been dealing with economic restructuring since its inception. (Singapore’s residents were mostly farmers and labourers at some point, and now are mostly office workers.)

But this process is speeding up as technological change speeds up, and we know that technological change is happening faster than it ever has before. So does that mean our government will be stuck in a vicious cycle of struggling to retrain our adult workforce, faster and faster?

Not necessarily. If our adult workers know how to continuously learn/ retrain themselves to fit the evolving needs of their professions, or gradually transition to related professions, less of the burden falls on government. Such retraining doesn’t just happen after retrenchment, or when one takes a SkillsFuture course, or makes a mid-career switch. 

Effective 21st century workers are able to keep retraining themselves on the job, by:

  1. Being adaptable; i.e. knowing how to recognise and embrace change; and

  2. Having a growth mindset, i.e. believing that intelligence, abilities and talents can be learnt and improved through effort; and embracing failure, challenge, feedback/ criticism, and the success of others, as opportunities to keep learning, rather than threats to one’s standing.

Unfortunately, developing adaptability skills and a growth mindset is not an automatic process. It has to be nurtured, and the early years of a child’s life right through their school years are when this needs to be done; tertiary or adult education is too late. To make their way through this very fast changing world, our children have to emerge from primary school with their growth mindset, curiosity, self-confidence, risk appetite, creativity, collaboration skills, love of learning, and above all, self-love, intact (we refer to these broadly as ‘21st century skills’ or “21CC”).

How do we build the necessary 21st century skills?

Primary schools have to encourage the development of 21st century skills:

  • Every single day so that it becomes a habit (not just on ‘special days’, in Primary 1 and 2, or in the few days between exams and holidays), 

  • In the classroom via every subject (not just during CCA or learning journeys), 

  • As the main purpose of education (instead of knowledge retention, or rushing to cover a fixed curriculum each year).

Top 10 Life skills recommended by WHO

Our primary school system has 2 hugely outdated features which will continue to get in the way of any attempt by educators and parents to develop children’s 21st century skills and attributes:

  • An outdated performance indicator, i.e. PSLE, which has no correlation to 21st century skills; and 

  • Under-resourcing of manpower compared to other developed countries, i.e. large class sizes, and lack of well-trained support professionals in schools (like therapists, psychologists, etc). 

The ‘future economy’ is already here

The future economy is going to be very different from what our primary school system is focusing on, and in many ways this ‘future’ is already here. It requires all workers to be engaged, innovative and collaborative, as AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning) and robots replace the rote and repetitive parts of human work. 

These trends can be seen clearly in the graph below which shows how the type of tasks performed by US workers changed between 1960 and 2009. ‘Routine cognitive’ tasks (in green), which PSLE trains our children for, are clearly on their way out. ‘Non-routine interpersonal’ (in pink) and ‘non-routine analytical’ (in purple) tasks are replacing them - that is what primary schools in other developed countries and international schools in Singapore try to train children for. (But it cannot be done with a high-stakes standardised exam like PSLE looming over children and teachers at the age of 12, and 35-40 children in a classroom.)

Graph: Changing Prevalence of Types of Tasks Required for Work Over Time

Figure 1 Changing prevalence of types of tasks required for work over time

Source: Autor and Price (2013) in Bialik and Fadel (2018[14]), p.7 

So, should we focus upstream or downstream?

To use the analogy from the quote above, we believe that the government has chosen to focus on pulling adults struggling with employment out of the river downstream, rather than focusing resources upstream on empowering our children with 21st century skills. Unfortunately, as the glaciers melt and the river in the water starts to flow faster and in more unpredictable ways, this will be a losing battle, unless the upstream issues with our primary education system are fixed.  

So where do you think the government should focus ministerial attention more urgently?


(a) Upstream - updating our primary school education system

(b) Downstream - building our continuing education system

At stake: The future of Singapore, and no easy answers.

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