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Big brother Brendan, check out Singapore

By Peter Ridd - posted Thursday, 28 April 2005


The results of the latest TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) international survey of school children’s abilities in maths and science were treated in some quarters as evidence that Australia’s school system is in reasonable shape. Despite a relative decline in maths, educationalists across the land have claimed that Australia’s results prove that standards of schooling are not in serious decline as dinosaurs such as me might argue. However, one small fact seems to have been forgotten. Australia was completely outclassed by the top country, Singapore, especially in mathematics.

In the TIMSS survey, Australian children in year 8 got a score of 505 points, above the international average of 467 but way behind Singapore with 605 points. Singapore was as far ahead of Australia as Australia is ahead of Tunisia, Egypt and the Palestine National Authority.

Just as worrying, the percentage of children reaching the “advanced” benchmark in Singapore was a remarkable 43 per cent compared to a miserable 7 per cent for Australia. For Queensland, where the car number plates proclaim it to be “The Smart State”, the figure is a pathetic 3 per cent.

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If mathematical ability were the equivalent of prowess in cricket, Australia would be in the second league, equal playing partners with Kenya and Bangladesh. Although this would not be acceptable in sport, it seems to be acceptable in maths. Most of our educationalists don’t even seem to be aware that we are being trounced, or perhaps they simply won’t admit it.

But why should Singapore beat us so comprehensively? What can we learn from them?

One would have thought that an analysis of what Singapore is doing right would be the subject of intense research by Australian educational researchers, but apparently not. Perhaps it is just too embarrassing for them to contemplate. So I decided to do a bit of educational research myself to see how the champions teach maths and science. A bit of web surfing and a few phone calls later and it was completely obvious that the Singaporean system is nothing like our own.

Singapore is, from the point of view of modern educational theory, completely antiquated, and differs from Australia in at least three major respects that are likely to produce better results. First, they have relatively few educational researchers. This group is the main culprit responsible for tinkering and experimenting with our children’s education. Second, their teacher education system in maths and sciences is carried out by academics with a far closer involvement with science and maths than in Australia. Third, the Singapore organisation that controls curricula does not seem to be aware of the latest educational fads with the result that Singapore syllabi are eminently sensible.

Of the two major Singapore Universities, both of which are world class, the National University of Singapore does not bother with educational research or training. That job is left to the National Institute of Education (NIE) which is part the Nanyang Technological University.

The NIE is as different from an Australian educational faculty as one could imagine. A large fraction of the academics involved with maths and science education are active maths and science researchers, and they do relatively little if any educational research, but may be highly involved with training teachers. It is notable that the research areas for the Department of Mathematics and Mathematics Education at the NIE includes pure mathematics topics such as “Iterative methods of non-linear boundary value problems”. The Department of Natural Sciences and Science Education proclaims research specialisation in plasma physics, molecular genomic technology and environmental biology. They also do educational research. Some academics list their research expertise as covering both educational research, and research into some high-powered area of science. Imagine that at an Australian University.

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Our educationalists are generally buried deep inside a social science or humanities faculty and have little exposure to, or interaction with, scientists and mathematicians. It is quite clear that Singaporean educationalists have close links with the disciplines that they are training the teachers to teach. In Australia many of the academics responsible for training teachers to teach maths and science have long lost contact with the disciplines for which they are responsible.

There are a few notable exceptions to this. For example the University of Sydney, Department of Physics has an active and productive educational research section and carries out good solid research without much of the theorising that is typical of many educational faculties.

Compared to some Australian syllabi, Singapore syllabi look like something from the educational Stone Age. They are readable and have pages of material that the teacher is supposed to teach. Assessment is clearly stated but it does not conform to what is Australia’s educational best practise because it uses marks. I am afraid that marks are out of fashion in education circles nowadays.

A comparison of a Singapore science or physics syllabus with the latest and most educationally sound new physics syllabus in Queensland is interesting. Whereas the Singapore syllabus has dozens of pages of content that must be taught, with useful detail on the depth of coverage, the Queensland syllabus has a single and completely unhelpful page. In Queensland the teachers will be able to teach more or less anything they like in as shallow or deep a fashion as they choose. In Queensland, the physics syllabus sections on equity, safety, and copyright are each longer than the section saying what is going to be taught!

With all that content detail removed, you may think that the new Queensland syllabus must be a very short document, but you would be wrong. There are 10 pages of gruesome detail on the supposedly state-of-the-art assessment system that forbids the use of marks and instead requires a complicated and dubious mechanism for combining results from different pieces of assessment to come up with the final grade. This system is the latest creation of university educational researchers and its main function seems to be to act as a make-work scheme for teachers. Teachers complain that the assessment procedure is incredibly time consuming. In educational circles, Queensland is said to be leading Australia in this sort of thing so for readers in other states, you know what to look forward to. However, I cannot imagine practical Singapore coming up with such a system.

So Brendan, you seem willing to do something about the education system in this country. You are introducing practical and sensible reforms that are horrific to the Educational Establishment - radical things like report cards that actually say where the student is in the class. But why not go and see how the experts do it? I am sure that there are many facets of the Singapore system that we would not want to adopt, but the TIMSS survey indicates that they seem to be doing something right. Ignore the howls of protest from our under-performing university education academics and book yourself a ticket to Singapore to check out their system.

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About the Author

Peter Ridd is a Reader in Physics at James Cook University specialising in Marine Physics. He is also a scientific adviser to the Australian Environment Foundation.

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