Hwa Chong Institution, Singapore (image from Wikimedia Commons)
There has been a lot of talk recently in the American media about education standards in the US, and many times, Singapore has been cited as an example in the debate on the future of US education. You may not even have noticed that Singapore was mentioned, but I paid special attention to it, because I'm Singaporean and have lived in Singapore my entire life till I came to Brown half a year ago. Because Singapore's so small and could have been so potentially insignificant, I'm still not used to the world paying any attention to it, and my heart skips a beat whenever I spot my country's name in publications like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
So what did the US media have to say about the education system in Singapore?
Thomas L. Friedman, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, had high praise for it recently in his column on the New York Times. And according to a front-page article in the same newspaper last October, over 1,500 schools in the US have bought Singaporean mathematics textbooks for classroom use. Finally, President Obama suggested in a speech in 2009 that there is much to learn from the Singaporean education system, stating that “Singapore's middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one”.
I don't think I'm qualified to wade into the debate about education in the US, or compare between the American and Singaporean education systems, because I've only stepped into one high school in this country so far – the Met School in downtown Providence where I used to volunteer. But what I'm going to do is to talk about my high school experience, provide you with a glimpse of my country's education system, and hopefully, bring a different perspective to the debate about education.
My high school, Hwa Chong Institution, also a public school, is consistently ranked as one of the top high schools in the country. (Note that almost no child in Singapore goes to private schools except for the children of expatriates, and public schools are more or less free. Corporate and income taxes in Singapore are also among the lowest in the world.)
Also note that my high school is not representative of all the high schools in Singapore; it is one of the top feeder schools for students to medical and law schools (these are undergraduate programs in Singapore) and to Cambridge and Oxford in the UK. It is almost impossible to keep count of the number of students who go to Oxbridge, LSE or top-ranked US colleges every year. (There's another public high school in Singapore which is apparently ranked #1 outside the US by the Wall Street Journal for Ivy League admissions, but that's a story for another time.) Like what you would expect from top schools, my school had a lot of resources, but I have visited other public high schools in Singapore and the disparity in resources and standards is not as large as you'd expect.
First, the facilities: in addition to a full range of sports facilities including a 400m outdoor track, tennis courts, several street soccer courts, a swimming pool, soccer court, rugby field and acrobatic gymnasium, my high school also had a drama theater, dance studios, a 1000-seater auditorium, several large lecture halls, general science and computer laboratories, a moot parliamentary chamber, a 3-story library and biotechnology, microbiology and robotics laboratories. Apparently there's even a satellite school in Beijing now.
The school in Singapore is 72 acres in size, about half the total size of Brown, and it has a student-teacher ratio of 13:1 (Brown's student-faculty ratio is 9:1). It was founded in 1919, and its centerpiece is a historic clock tower that is classified as a national monument. It houses 4000 students from grades 7 to 12, with a homeroom system from grades 7 to 10 and a 'junior college' system in grades 11 and 12.
This 'junior college' system consisted of twice-weekly lectures in huge halls and twice-weekly tutorials in class sizes of 22 to 26. It was very much like college, actually, which helped my transition into university. You were free to enter the staff-room and look for teachers outside class time whenever you needed help, and for the most part, I've found teachers to be extremely accessible and willing to schedule additional appointments to help me with any problems I've faced.
It is true that Grades 11 and 12 consist mainly of intense academic preparation for the upcoming Singapore-Cambridge GCE 'A' level national examinations. There was a lot of rote learning and memorizing of 'model answers', especially in the Science track, to which I belonged. The teachers are so good at preparing kids for exams that my high school does extremely well in the national examinations every year. In the 2009 examinations, it produced 92 perfect scorers, and the rates of students scoring 'A's in Biology, Physics, Art, Mathematics and Chemistry were 90%, 80%, 80%, 80% and 70% respectively, even though the national average of 'A's is only 30-40% for each subject. The pressure to get an A is so great that local tabloids reported seeing students cry just because they got a single B in a long list of As.
Those were the results for the national examination. You would be surprised to know that in internal high school examinations, the results were less glowing. And this is perhaps why students do so well in the national examinations. The school's standards are so high that in every common test (there are about 3 each year per subject), less than 10% of students score As. Most end up with grades of S or U, in a scale that runs from A to E, and then S for Subpass (40-44%) and U for Ungraded (39% and below; explanation: U sounds better than F). Internal high school examinations always occur right after term breaks, and there's immense pressure to do well in them simply because the grading curve is so skewed.
But that's not all - you've also got to add extracurricular activities to the mix. The reality of university admissions and scholarship applications nowadays is that grades alone won't suffice. Because of this, extracurriculars are almost mandatory, and sometimes no longer seem as fun as they were intended to be. Many of my classmates and I would spend dawn to dusk at school, participating in extracurricular activities after class and usually only reaching our homes at 7pm. I was so tired each time I returned home that I had to take a 1-hour nap before getting up again to work on homework and projects till midnight.
I'm sorry to contribute to the stereotypes of Asian education systems, but yes, it was all true. There was a great deal of pressure, so much so that sometimes there wasn't even enough room to breathe. But did I enjoy it? Boy, did I. Would I do it all over again? Yes, I would, in an instant. Although it seemed like everyday was fully packed, I admit that we sometimes also spent a lot of time hanging out in school, participating in fun activities organized by various clubs and societies, and going for three-hour lunches in neighboring restaurants and eateries (yes, you didn't have to eat in the school cafeteria if you didn't want to, and because it was almost like a college system, the schedule was flexible enough for you to go for those lunches). And the school spirit was just electrifying. It was overall a great experience.
I also learned a lot in my time at school, and it wasn't just from the textbook. Even in Grades 11 and 12, with the spectre of examinations looming, I was still able to pick up skills that were practical for the real world. Besides leadership and organizational skills that I gained from being heavily involved in extracurricular activities, I also learned from my classroom experience how to create effective powerpoint presentations, speak confidently in public, utilize technological equipment, conduct scientifically-sound surveys and analyze their results. Projects during class time were common, and in Grade 11, I even had the opportunity to engage in a biomedical research project under the mentorship of a university professor for extra credit, investigating the association of mitochondrial haplogroups with the risk of childhood leukemia, with the entire experience culminating in a painful yet fruitful research paper.
But projects were even more common in Grades 7 to 10, when the national examinations still seemed like a distant nightmare. Every year, we were required to participate in a school-wide projects competition, proposing and working on a project of our choice either individually or with teammates. In Grade 7, I created a website about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; in Grade 8, I did a project on the Cold War, and in Grade 9, I created an educational resource on juvenile delinquency for the Juvenile Court of Singapore. Other classmates engaged in similarly rewarding experiences, in categories ranging from experimental research to resource development and the creative arts. In Grade 10, my team won first prize after several rounds of judging, with our experimental chemistry project titled “Investigating the Adsorption of Heavy Metal Ions by Plant Fiber”. We went through four rounds: the preliminary, semi-finals, finals and grand finals; with the grand finals being by far the toughest. In front of an audience of 500 of our classmates, teachers and parents, we had to present our project in a 'creative and effective manner' and answer scrutinizing questions from judges comprising teachers and representatives from industry and government. It was both nerve-wrecking and exhilarating at the same time, and an immensely rewarding experience.
From Grades 8 and 10, all students were also required to propose and work on an individual humanities research paper, integrating two or more disciplines. In Grade 8, I worked with a friend on the reasons for the split of Czechoslovakia after the Cold War. In Grade 9, I wrote a paper on the future of regional and international organizations in today's world. And in Grade 10, I looked at rural-urban migration in 1920s USA. To write those papers, I had to study literary texts, historical sources, popular media and period art. I worked with a teacher-mentor, repeatedly turning in and revising proposals, literature reviews and research papers. This process contributed tremendously to my academic and personal growth, helping to develop my skills in critical thinking, writing and analysis. It also made my transition to university a lot easier.
There was a wide range of programs students could get involved in. Some of my friends participated in the Bicultural Studies Program, and went to China for an exchange program. Others were part of the humanities program, and delved deep into philosophical, historical and literary sources. There was also the Science Talent Program, of which I was part, with opportunities to get involved in scientific research and attend special talks and lectures. Even if you did not want to be part of any program, you could also benefit from the wide range of overseas study trips, industrial attachments and internships. Every year, there was some sort of camping trip heavily subsidized by the school; and in Grade 10, we all went abroad to participate in volunteer work, to countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, China or Mongolia. Also, every year, for one week before the holidays, just for the sake of it, classes were canceled and students were free to participate in “sabbaticals”, week-long courses in things completely unrelated to academics: uni-cycling, graffiti art, ice-skating or baking, to list a few.
Looking back at my time in Hwa Chong Institution, I guess it felt like my high school experience was on steroids. There was so much to do that everyday was jam-packed. I definitely could have had more sleep, but if you were to ask me if I would do it again, I would respond with a resounding yes. I am grateful for the wealth of opportunities available at my high school, and it was the most incredible and transformative educational experience ever. I learned so much, and grew so much as an individual that I would not trade it for anything else.
What was your high school like? Share your experience on the Global Conversation.