Can we educate future generations of Singaporeans to solve problems creatively?

By Elson Ng


In his TED Talk “How schools kill creativity” (most viewed TED Talk of all time), creativity expert and education reformer Sir Ted Robinson challenges us to rethink the fundamental principles on which our education system is based on. Rather than trying to stifle the creativity of students, Robinson believes that we should be actively trying to promote it instead.

How schools kill creativity

Our education system, Robinson asserts, is predicated on two main ideas. The first idea is that the most important subjects are the ones that are most useful in the workplace. This can be attributed to the historical origins of the public education system, which arose out of the need to fulfil the demand for labour created by industrialisation. The second idea is that academic ability equates to intelligence, and this is a result of universities constructing the education system to suit their own needs.

The consequence of this is that many highly talented and creative people go through the education system without realising their own ability, because their talents are neither recognised nor valued. And this is not a good thing. If we think carefully about it, education is meant to prepare students for the future, but do we really know enough about the future to prepare them for it? According to Robinson, this is the main problem. If we cannot even predict the future in the next few years, how can we presume that we will be able to adequately prepare children to deal with the future in the next 50 years?

“If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days, what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.”

In a future that is highly unpredictable, Robinson argues that we can no longer rely on the current outmoded model of education. Without creativity, students will not be able to adapt to the challenges of the future:

“Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

If we agree with Robinson’s assessment, that relying on the current education system which hampers creativity bodes ill for the future, then what does this mean for the Singaporean education system?

Are Singaporean schools killing creativity?

While Robinson’s criticisms of the education system centre on examples in the West, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom, the same arguments can be applied to Singapore’s context.

In an interview with the BBC, Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak argued that a company like Apple could not have emerged in a country with a structured education system like Singapore. He says:

“When you’re very structured almost like a religion… Uniforms, uniforms, uniforms… everybody is the same. Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behaviour isn’t tolerated. You are extremely punished. Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great singers? Where are the great writers? Where are the athletes? All the creative elements seem to disappear.”

Indeed, this is a problem that has been long recognised, even by Singapore’s own Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who has acknowledged that Singapore’s education system is “too structured, too pressured, too competitive.”

A quick look at the structure Singapore’s education system as shown in the infographic below reveals as much. Upon reaching schooling age, the average child would have attended between 12-13 years of formal education, sat through 3 major examinations and been “streamed” into an educational path that has been pre-determined for them based on their academic performance

Singaporean Education Journey

(“The Singapore Education Journey” by Ministry of Education)

While there are advantages of streaming students by academic ability, such reduced dropout rates, streaming reduces the alternative paths of education that a child can take and consequently limits their educational choices. If we are going to prescribe what children can learn according to their academic ability, how can they ever learn to be creative?

In addition, the high number of national examinations that the average student has to go through not only adds to the stress of learning, but also limits creativity in what students can learn, as there is added pressure to stick to the syllabus and teach to the exam so that students can do well. In fact, this is precisely the reason why the Integrated Programme, which allows students to skip the GCE ‘O’ Levels, was introduced, so that additional time would be freed up in the curriculum to “stretch pupils and provide greater breadth in the academic and non-academic curriculum”. Unfortunately, this option is only available to a minority of students.

But the main issue here is not the structure of the education system, but the structured ways in which children are educated that impedes creativity. In his talk, Robinson highlights the focus on academic ability and prioritising of subjects that contribute to the workplace as two ways in which creativity is suppressed. In Singapore, we see that these in fact happen to be the most salient features of our education system.

Singapore’s education system focuses heavily on academic excellence, and this is evident when you look at policies such as nationwide examinations and streaming that focus on maximising the academic ability of students. In addition, there is also immense pressure on students by parents to do well, because academic success is perceived to be the prerequisite for future success.

As a result, Singaporean students do exceptionally well on the international stage, ranking amongst top countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, an renowned international study of students’ academic performance worldwide. But at the end of the day, will this test-taking ability translate into skills that will help them cope with our rapidly changing world?

In the first place, what is the aim of the academic skills we are teaching students? According to the Ministry of Education syllabus for Primary School Math, numeracy skills are taught because they “are valued not only in science and technology, but also in everyday living and in the workplace. The development of a highly skilled scientifically — and technologically-based manpower requires a strong grounding in mathematics.” If the aim of teaching students skills is to succeed in today’s workplace, will they be adequately prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s workplace? After all, jobs that exist today such as app developers, social media manager and sustainability experts did not exist 10 years ago. So if we only focus on teaching the same skills we have been teaching the past 100 years, how will we ever move forward?

Development of 21st century competencies – is it enough?

Recognising the need to implement policy changes that would foster creativity in students, in 2010, the Ministry of Education announced the implementation of a new framework that would help prepare students to “thrive in a fast-changing and highly-connected world”, by enhancing the development of “21st century competencies”.

(“21st Century Competencies and Desired Student Outcomes” by Ministry of Education)

Under this framework, which is depicted above, students would be prepared for challenges of the future, such as globalisation, changing demographics and technological advancements through the development of:

  • Civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills
  • Critical and inventive thinking
  • Information and communication skills

While this appears to be a laudable move on the Ministry’s part, what this policy change actually entails is the improvement of the quality of Art, Music and Physical Education through investment in new infrastructure and increasing the amount of curriculum time devoted to these subjects.

Although Robinson argues for placing of greater importance on the teaching of the arts in schools, is this sort of structural, top-down approach really enough to promote creativity and prepare students to deal with future challenges such as globalisation?

A bottom-up approach to fostering creativity

In an opinion article written for the Straits Times, Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien  provides an alternative approach to fostering creativity in students. He suggests that more radical change needs to adopted, such as a shift in paradigm from results-oriented learning to a more process-driven and holistic form of learning. This, he says, would mean the scrapping of assessments that compare students with their peers, such as streaming examinations, which would lead to the desired outcomes in terms of promoting creativity and critical thinking in students.

But more importantly, instead of structural changes, which involve a top-down approach, Lien thinks that the “classroom of the future should bear little resemblance to the teacher-dictated, industrial-age classrooms of today”. Rather, “student-initiated and peer learning, with teachers as facilitators” should be the way forward.

 “If excellence in creativity, collaboration and compassion are regarded as more desirable qualities in Singaporeans of the future, then diversity and inclusiveness should be embraced instead of eschewed. Mixing children of different abilities is a strength, not a weakness.”

In a series of papers published by the International Academy of Education (IAE), one of the principles identified that promote creativity is collaboration, which is the key outcome of peer learning. Collaboration can develop creative thinking through the interaction and mutual exchange of ideas between students. This not only hones their ability to think independently, but also their ability to consider a multitude of perspectives and think as a group, because creative thinking is property of both groups and individuals.

So, perhaps peer teaching in schools and collaborative learning is one way in which we can adopt a bottom-up approach that promotes creativity among students. But is this just one possible approach – the IAE lists at least seven other ways to promote creative thinking which we could adopt – such as allowing for mistakes and sensible risk-taking and learning how to assess and reward creativity amongst others.

Addressing future challenges directly through futures thinking

But if the aim of fostering creativity in students is to prepare them to handle future challenges, is there a more direct way of doing this? Instead of just equipping them with creative thinking skills that enable them to solve future problems, why not get students to think directly about their future, so that they can anticipate and solve these problems even before they happen?

Futures thinking is perhaps a tool that will enable students to do precisely this. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), futures thinking is a methodology that allows one to reflect in an informed manner, the changes that will happen in the future. It is also a multidisciplinary approach that uses a variety of methods – quantitative, qualitative, normative and exploratory, to identify and understand the dynamics that shape the future.

Simply put, it is about training people to think about the future in a structured way. It is about asking questions about what possible futures will look like and why they will look like that. It is also about asking questions about how we can respond to possible futures and shape the future in ways we would want to see it.

(“Futures Thinking” by Sustainability Science Education)

In engaging in futures thinking, students will not only develop intellectually, but also gain informed insights about their future and possible future challenges. This could ostensibly lead them to take actions that would affect their future in a positive manner, which is the overarching goal of education.

How would we do this? For one, futures thinking could be an integral part of the curriculum as a subject to be taught. Unlike subjects like mathematics or even arts, futures thinking would not be taught for the sake of addressing present needs, but rather, to prepare students directly for future challenges.

Alternatively, as futures thinking utilises a multidisciplinary approach, it could easily be incorporated into various subjects. For example, if we teach biology, we could ask students to think about the implications of disruptive technologies such as cloning, and how this would affect their future as well as how they would respond to this future.

As Robinson mentions in his TED Talk, “we may not see this future, but they [our children] will. And our job is to help them make something of it”. If we rethink the way we educate children, by focusing less on helping them live in present and more on equipping them to deal with the future, perhaps we can really help them to make something out of their future.

 (Featured Image: “Priprema Za Školu” by dework is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0


Elson Ng

Elson is a thoroughly uninteresting human being, but to a degree that it is almost interesting how uninteresting he is. The same can be said for his interests and disinterests.

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