A less exam-centric approach to build character, creativity

Reducing 'excessive focus on exams' vital for broad-based upbringing: DPM Tharman

by Tan Qiuyi

SINGAPORE - Success in character education, as well as encouraging students to develop original thinking, will only be achieved if "real space" is created for them in the education system, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said.

And if these are the goals to be worked towards, it could, in his opinion, mean "reducing the excessive focus on examinations" early in life.

Speaking at a seminar yesterday to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the passing of education philanthropist Tan Lark Sye, who founded the former Nanyang University in Singapore, among other schools, Mr Tharman felt there is a need to re-create values such as benevolence and a reverence for standards of conduct in schools here.

"In my opinion, it's only possible to succeed in character education and encouraging students to question and think originally if we create real space for it in the education system. And this will require reducing the excessive focus on examinations early in life," said Mr Tharman.

"We have to provide more space for character building, and for encouraging our students to think for themselves, question more, to think in more original ways. You need space and time for it. There is no other way."

Mr Tharman, who was Education Minister between 2003 and 2008, suggested looking at how students are differentiated at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - which is by exact scores - as compared to the O levels, where secondary school students are graded by letters indicating bands of scores.

"As long as we carry on with the present system of extraordinarily fine differentiation at the PSLE and consequently, for posting to secondary schools, it is inevitable that parents and teachers and principals, whatever else they may say, will place great emphasis on preparing their students and children for the PSLE. And it will have to be at the expense of something else. So if you want to create real space early in life for children to have a broad-based upbringing, to interact outside the classroom, get to know each other across races, to develop that zest for learning, for life, something has to give. We can't keep everything else unchanged and try to add on more," said Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister.

He cautioned that the right trade-off has to be found. "If we do anything, it has to be done without shaking the confidence of parents in meritocracy, confidence in the fairness of the system," said Mr Tharman.

On language, Mr Tharman said it is undeniable the standard of Chinese today has dropped, compared to what was achieved in Chinese schools in the past.

The bilingual policy, however, has given Singapore a common language between the races, he added.

The country has also gained in terms of the desire of English-speaking Chinese families today, who want their children to learn Chinese well, Mr Tharman said.

"What is more difficult is not language, but values. And this is not as tangible and we don't focus on it as much. But I think there we have lost something in the values and the ethos of the Chinese-medium schools. Language policies can always be refined and if we need to strengthen in one area we can always do it. But values and ethos are not so easily turned on with a switch. They evolve gradually over time and there we have lost something, that attitude to life and society that was very much part of Chinese-medium schools," he added.

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