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Pak Tee Ng: Students Need To Learn How To Think Independently And To Work Collaboratively

Pak Tee Ng

Pak Tee Ng is Singapore's leading educationalist. He is Head of Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group, and Associate Dean of Leadership Learning, Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning at the National Institute of Education, Singapore 


Are schools teaching the skills students need in the 21st century?

Well, we are in the 21st century already! On the one hand we could do a lot more, but on the other hand I think we are starting to help students to think more critically, to think more independently but yet to work together, to exercise their creativity and to help them relate to one another.

I think these are all the things that are necessary for the 21st century. In fact, they are actually necessary for the 20th century! It's just that now we are much more conscious and we have coined the term '21st century skills.' I think they are really necessary for any century.

What are the skills students need to be learning?

We still need to teach good mathematics, sciences and languages, however I think that it is also important as we proceed into the 21st century economy that students learn how to think independently and to work collaboratively. They also need to know how to relate to people. I think these are the skills we need to emphasise a lot more of.


What is the role of the teacher?

The teacher has always been a person who plants trees so that other people can sit under them. And maybe no one will ever remember who planted the trees in the first place. That is the role that a teacher plays in society. With respect for the student the teacher cares, the teacher leads, the teacher inspires. A teacher is not just somebody who helps the child to gain knowledge and skills, the teacher is a role model for the child.

So going forward into the age of technology a human teacher is indispensable. It’s just that the way of teaching will be different. It's no longer just the teacher having all the knowledge and dispensing it, but rather the teacher will help the child learn and acquire the knowledge. And, in the age of information explosion, to distinguish what is right, what is wrong, what is information on the internet and what is misinformation on the internet. I think it all requires a human teacher and a more skilful one than ever before.


What are views on PISA?

I think that PISA is a good reference but it's not a report card. So in Singapore we say that we went into PISA because it is a good reference - it tells us something, it's just it doesn't tell us everything. That is to say we are more focused and more concerned about the education of our children in the schools. It is not so much about our position in the league table. That is at least our position in Singapore.


What would be the most exciting learning environment?

I think it will be an evolutionary process. It's hard for one to say what it will be, but learning will be borderless. Currently I think there is still a paradigm in which learning is constrained to a classroom. Very soon learning will be in a space, and that space will be borderless.

I think it will be a space in which there will be a good balance of both the human to human interaction which is so crucial to relationship building, and teaching and learning that's enhanced by technology. Anytime, anywhere you are always connected and you could learn. You could be discussing with people who  may or may not be in the same physical locality. In which the library is no longer the library as a place, it is the library as a space. It's no longer just me who is learning, but me together with my friends who may be physically with me along with others who are in the space but not in the place. I think it's that sort of learning that will take place in the future.


What makes Singapore's education system so successful?

I think there are a few factors, one of which is that in this country we do believe that education is an investment, not an expenditure. This allows us to always have a kind of assurance of financial backing by the government to continue the good work. We feel secure to always plan for change for tomorrow because we know that the support will still be there. So education is investment, it is not expenditure. We do not cut back on education funding when times are tough. In fact when we suffer economic difficulties we actually increase the amount of funding in order that children not be denied an education. So the first thing is about education being investment, not expenditure.

Secondly, we pay a lot of attention to our teachers. Teaching is a respected profession and we pay a lot of attention to making sure that our teachers are well trained and well looked after. They work very, very hard and we hope that our teaching professionals will be encouraged not only by the developmental opportunities they are given, but also by the support that the government is giving them.

So these are some of the factors.

Personal Memory

What was your favourite moment in your own education?

When I was a student not many of our teachers had been brought up to use English to teach. A lot of my teachers were actually people who taught in Chinese or in Malay, or whatever mother tongue they were educated in a long time ago. But for the sake of country we decided that we would adopt bilingualism in which English became the medium of instruction. So this pioneer generation of teachers, my own teachers, had to use English to teach and they struggled. They struggled a lot but they still carried on despite the difficulties.

As I think back on my days as a student, it is with a sense of gratitude to the pioneer generation of teachers who bit the bullet. For those who were brought up in a language that's different from English and were then required for the sake of country to teach mathematics, science, or whatever subject in English, it was very tough for them, but they persevered. They bit the bullet for the good of the country.

It is the great spirit of that generation of teachers that we really, really need to learn from for the sake of our country Singapore.

Do you have any examples?

I can think of a certain teacher who taught my class Science, his name was Brother Paul. He was a Catholic priest, and I think he was brought up in a Chinese language education paradigm, but he taught us Science in English. He struggled, but the whole class got an A at the end. Every single student in my class got a distinction for Chemistry. He struggled a lot with the language, but he was a great guy and a great teacher because he persevered.

I remember another teacher who taught us in Chinese. She made us memorise a lot of Chinese poems and so on. We thought it was really difficult then, but now I can still remember some of them. And it helps me because the linguistic skills allow me to interact with many other people.

So I'm always very grateful to my teachers who suffered and persevered and bit the bullet for our sake. It is in gratitude that I have thought of them often.

The next 100 years

The next 100 years of Finnish education should... continue to be an education that the world admires.

The foundation of equity will not change in Finland. The foundation of that respect for teachers will not change in Finland. I think other things can change and will evolve, but if some of these basic factors are right then I believe Finnish education will continue to be great. I think you are still an education we admire, and it is regardless of the league positions on any PISA tables. That's what I think.