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Not Adequate To Produce Adult Critical Thinkers Current Education System In Singapore

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Singapore’s education system is well-known for producing learners who top the world rankings in standardised examinations (PISA, 2015; TIMSS, 2015). Rote learning is used as the main mode of delivery in Singapore’s Primary schools for Mathematics. Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition and is only useful in recalling basic facts (Fata-Hartley, 2011). This rote learning technique helps Primary learners achieve a high test score in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) (Data.gov.sg, 2017).

However, I believe these scores do not produce adults who are critical thinkers. Most learners are obsessively oriented towards memorizing answers without grasping underlying key concepts. It has become common in Singapore that the learner who memorizes the most, scores the highest. Learners study with the main objective of scoring high marks and topping competitive exams, rather than for the love of learning. Rote learning is not beneficial for the learner as he/she will able to recall the information for a short term, but certainly lose it in the long run. In 1997, then Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong in his speech (Goh, 1997) signaled that changes had to be made to the existing education system.

These were necessary to prepare young Singaporeans for the new circumstances and new problems that they will face in the future. He emphasized that young Singaporeans must be able to think for themselves, so that the next and future generations can find their own solutions to whatever new problems they may encounter. However, even after these many years, I feel that not much changes have been made to Singapore’s Mathematics curriculum. The current syllabus is intense with “word problems” set above the levels of cognitive development of an average learner in that age group. The idea is to teach learners “Heuristics” or 12 different mental shortcuts, which enable them to solve complex problems without fully understanding the nature of the problem.

Many Primary learners these days are keen to join the Math Olympiad competitions. These competitions test learners on various topics and strategies which are not normally taught in classrooms. Learners want to do well in these competition because winning these competitions is an added prestige and they stand a higher chance of being offered a Direct School Admission (DSA) to one of the top and elite schools in Singapore (Ministry of Education [MOE], 2018). The DSA scheme was introduced in 2004 to broaden the admission criteria PSLE scores, allowing learners to secure a Secondary 1 place before they sit for the PSLE, based on talent in sport or arts or in academic strength.‘Model drawing’ is a method pioneered by Ministry of Education, Singapore and is used in all primary schools.

An average Singapore Primary learner can solve a word problem in under four minutes(Ng & Lee, 2005). It is not because of superior intelligence. It is simply because learners are drilled on similar types of problems using model drawing. This method cuts short the actual thinking required for questions and provides quick, effortless, solutions that can be regurgitated in examinations. What eventually happens is that the information is retained in the learner’s working memory and he/she will be able to recall it for a short period. Sometimes there is too much information to memorize.

With factors such as stress, lack of sleep and distractions involved, retaining and recalling such a large amount information from memory gets harder, until the learner finally gives up due to pressure. If the learner is faced with a situation during an examination where deeper conceptual questions are asked, he/she ends up performing poorly, as a proper understanding of the concept is lacking. This is where the education system falls short of equipping adults for critical thinking jobs in the future.Hence, I argue that rote learning has a negative impact on Primary Mathematics Education in Singapore. Rote learning prevents leaners from developing critical thinking and analytic skills.

Learners are unable to develop problem solving skills and no meaningful learning takes place. Lastly, learners lose the interest in the discipline. In the following paragraphs, I will further elaborate each of the three negative impacts in detail. I will sum up my essay with some conclusions and recommendations. Lastly, I will reflect on the tutor and peer-feedback of my oral presentation in this critical essay.Critical thinking and analytic skillsDeveloping critical thinking and analytic skills through rote learning is impossible. The key to developing critical thinking and analytic skills in the classroom is small group discussions. However, in Singapore, the student-to-teacher ratio is high, which makes it a problem for small group discussions. With increasingly limited interaction with peers, there is an increasing solitude.

In the qualitative case study carried by Tait-McCutcheon, she gathered information that engaging in dialogue with teachers and a few classmates encourages learners to be curious, consider different perspectives, and make connections with one’s life experiences and existing knowledge. The intimacy and opportunity of small groups makes them more worthwhile than whole-class discussions. Learner-centered teaching gives learners a strong knowledge foundation, the ability to apply the content and the ability to learn more independently (Blumberg, 2017).

For learners to learn basic facts with understanding, flexibility and connectedness, active construction is required while teaching. Gaining of this knowledge involves the use of a range of mental strategies to construct facts which cannot be recalled instantly (Tait, Drake & Sherley, 2011). This is not possible in rote learning. According to Iqbal & Ahmad, useful cognitive networks are formed when learners discuss and share different ways to solve problems, and this allows easier recall and better application of facts. Instant recall of basic facts enhances learner’s fluency with problem solving and higher-order processing (Westwood, 2003). The two doctors claim that research has shown that accurate recall of facts frees up short-term memory allowing learners to spend more time solving less obvious aspects of a problem. In study carried out by them, the results has shown that a prolonged period of repetitive rote memorisation may lead to improvements in verbal and episodic memory (Iqbal & Ahmad, 2015).

Also, it has been demonstrated that these benefits appear to be associated with metabolic changes in the left posterior hippocampus. These metabolic changes are the increase in repeated activation of brain structures associated with rote learning (Valenzuela et al, 2003). They argue that an active memorisation process helps to improve the silent cognitive process in reading to retain data. The benefit is the production of deeper, meaning-oriented approaches to learning.I disagree with Iqbal & Ahmad’s view because, learner’s analytic skills are based on thinking processes that are flexible, permit different approaches and adaptations to the situation. It cannot be hindered by fixation.

In rote learning, monitoring, control and correction of careless mistakes are impossible. Hence, useful cognitive networks are not formed (Lithner, 2008). Lastly, when critical thinking and analytic skills are not developed, it inhibits the formation of practical, real-life skills (Dubova, 2014). While learners are able to recite theoretical material perfectly, owing to rote learning, they are not able to use it to accomplish specific practical tasks. The predominance of reproductive instruction over productive methods like practical work, laboratory experimentation, field trips and experience, and the tendency to ignore the stage of application lead to a decline in mastery of the material. Learners will not have an opportunity to develop their own answers. The process prevents learners to integrate concepts into real world context. Eventually, it may negatively affect the attitude of learners toward self and peers in the learning process.No meaningful learning and problem solving skillsThe two important educational goals is to promote retention and promote transfer. (Mayer, 2002).

“Retention” is the ability to remember the material at a later time. “Transfer” is the ability to use prior knowledge to solve new problems. When these two goals are achieved, meaningful learning takes place. Most textbooks these days are self-contained by providing guiding examples to most exercises so that learners do not have to ask the teacher many questions (Lithner, 2008). In tests, the same question leads to a memory search for earlier situations that are experienced as similar. If the learner does not understand the components involved and has no real practice in problem solving, the only alternative may be to search for superficial familiarities. As such, retention and transfer is not achieved. Thus, no meaningful learning takes place. As an educator, instructing learners on the things they need to know must include explanations of the how’s and why’s, and not just the explicit facts, or else meaningful learning simply cannot take place.Active learning, unlike rote learning, increases the learners’ retention and comprehension of the topic covered. It builds the knowledge and cognitive processes needed for successful problem solving. (Mayer, 2002; Lithner, 2008).

Meaningful learning teaches learners important cognitive skills they will use throughout their lives. Cognitive skills are what learners use to evaluate, analyze, remember and make comparisons. In the long run, meaningful learning is the most effective way for learners to engage in learning. Learners need an understanding of why they need to learn the content, and they need to be actively engaged in their learning. Teachers should not just disseminate information. Instead, they should create an environment in which learners can learn.

The responsibility of learning shifts from the teacher to the learners. Teachers should proactively assist their learners to take responsibility for their own learning by creating situations that motivate learners to accept this responsibility. Teachers should guide their learners to acquire skills that will help them learn in the future. When learners assume responsibility for their own learning, they become self-directed, lifelong learners who are aware of their own abilities to learn. Only then meaningful learning takes place. Sitting still at a desk in school for a long time may result in hypodynamia in learners. Based on the fact that 70 percent of a child’s waking time is spent in school or doing schoolwork, one of the most severe consequences is the decline in motor activity (Dubova, 2014).

On the other hand, Mayer argues that remembering knowledge is important for meaningful learning and problem solving in more complex tasks. Two of the cognitive processes, recognizing and recalling, help to promote retention of learning (Mayer, 2002). Rote learning is a fast way of memorising material indeed. Learners practice all questions continuously till they get confidence to reproduce the answers on the paper or verbally. Rote learning has become the way of learning academic material with the aim of reproducing it, to achieve the “only correct” answer.In contrast with Mayer’s views, I would like to emphasize that rote learning does not allow meaningful learning to take place and problem solving skills are not developed. New knowledge is related to old knowledge and then assimilated. (Sonawat & Kothari, 2013). This constructivism (Bruner, 1966) strategy allows learners to create their own unique education by building on their prior knowledge. This involves the process of scaffolding. It gives the learners an opportunity to solve problems with the assistance of peer interaction and teaching. Gradually, the learners will be able to solve problems without any guidance.

Analysis of results of the study done by Sonawat & Kothari reveals a learning imbalance in fields of active, independent application of knowledge. Learners are learning how to accomplish tasks and reproducing them successfully but if a task is formulated differently or it should be applied to an actual situation, they are not able to solve the problem. Lack of interest in the disciplineIn Primary schools in Singapore, Mathematics is often taught by having learners repeat formulas or calculations like multiplication tables until they have memorized them, without any thought or analysis. When some learners are unable to memorise correctly, they become intimidated. Learners then stop trying to make sense of the problem (Westreich, 2002). Eventually, they just wait for teachers to give them the answers. (Sonawat & Kothari, 2013).

Westreich carried out an activity with her learners incorporating dance and Mathematics. Instead of giving the learners a mathematical problem to solve right away, she instructed them to discuss with their peers the meaning of the mathematical problem and construct a kinesthetic representation that demonstrates the solution to the problem. They will also have to describe the process of how they arrived at their answers and write down the mathematical solution to the problem. Learners could not avoid active participation in getting through the activities, because the activities required the learners’ use of mental and verbal reasoning, an exploration of their creativity, and their immersion in the learning process. Self-directed learning focuses on learners’ ability to self-assess their own learning needs in order to carry out activities to inquire and find out about the things they want to know (Blumberg, 2000).

In rote learning, learners cannot take charge of their own learning (Westreich, 2002).However, Fata-Hartley (2011) argues that there are certain things learners just need to know so some amount of memory work is necessary for the retention and application of knowledge. Bloom’s Taxonomy maintains that the learners must recall facts and basic concepts in their brains to combine into new knowledge. Fata-Hartley believes learners need to know that the longer an idea can be kept in short-term memory, the more chance it can be pushed into long-term memory. Therefore, effective knowledge acquisition has to come first.Recalling basic facts is indeed an important goal of mathematics education in Primary Schools (Chick, 2009).

But as mentioned before, learners must learn basic facts with understanding, flexibility and connectedness. The foundation must be laid with understanding. When they lack understanding, they become emotionally detached and ignorant (Sonawat & Kothari, 2013). Learners will find it hard to motivate themselves. This places too many expectations on each learner, which causes stress and extreme anxiety and drains the joy out of learning. This leads to the lack of continuity of the discipline between the levels of education (Dubova, 2018). A learner may have a strong desire to continue in the Science stream in Secondary school but with the lack of interest in Mathematics, he/she may not be able to pursue his/her dream at higher levels.

Conclusion

Even though Singapore has many high-achieving middle, high school and university learners, the current education system is not adequate to produce adult critical thinkers. In 2016, MOE announced that a new scoring system for PSLE that would come into effect in 2021, claiming it will reduce stress by encouraging learners to focus on their own learning rather that competition with their classmates. I’m of two minds about this claim. On the one hand, I agree that it might reduce stress and pressure on learners. On the other hand, I’m not sure if the new system will still put an excessive focus on academic results. Summarising my argument, rote learning has a negative impact on the Primary Mathematics education system in Singapore. Rote learning limits learner’s opportunities to develop into critical thinkers and gain analytic skills in the future. No meaningful learning takes place and learners do not gain problem solving skills. Learners do not have the interest to continue learning the discipline. Hence, rote learning is not effective in Primary Math Education in Singapore. The rote learning problem is severe, widespread and well-known but still far from being resolved. It seems the gravity of the problem is not fully understood by learners, teachers, textbook writers and syllabus constructers. One reason may be that they lack terminology and frameworks to communicate the insights in more specific ways. Another reason could be that some parents may also prefer the traditional approach of rote learning and testing basic facts as it holds learners to a perceived universal standard. Having experienced time tests as students, many adults believe that accurate, fast computation is the most significant part of Mathematics (Seeley, 2009).Teachers as Subject Matter Experts (SME) play a key role in the development of learning. A SME has to have in-depth knowledge in the subject being taught, however, pedagogical competence is also needed. To further engage students, relevant real-life examples, analogies or situations may be discussed. Resources are also important in captivating the learners’ and help store the skills gained in their memory.I believe that there is no limit to how much an individual can learn. Learning is to gain knowledge and skills of a new subject or to reinforce existing skills of an already known subject. The knowledge gained has to be moved up the levels of learning to attach value to it and ensure its use. Learning is an activity that involves the Central Nervous System with the brain as the main processing and control centre. It takes place in response to the stimuli received through the senses. I feel that learning is an ongoing dynamic process which goes on consciously and unconsciously. Instead of rote learning, constructivism theory (Bruner.J, 1966) can be used to allow learners to construct their own understanding and knowledge, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. As they encounter something new, they connect it with their previous ideas and experience. In this spiral approach, the learners add more details to the basics they have learnt previously. The basics can be reemphasized numerous times to help them store the information in long-term memory. Learners have different domains of intelligence and different learning styles; hence a variety of teaching methods has to be incorporated into the lesson. For learning to be meaningful, I believe teachers should connect current learning with learners’ previous knowledge and experiences. If learners do not consider an activity worthy of their time and effort, they might not engage in a satisfactory way, or even disengage in response.It is important to engage learners through active learning. Teachers must create lessons that allow learners to investigate various possibilities, even if the answers are not right (Brunn, 2010). As what Barack Obama said “We have to watch for and cultivate, encourage, those glimmers of curiosity and possibility, not suppress them, not squelch them.” Teachers can prompt learners to formulate their own questions. Learners enjoy learning more when they are actively involved, rather than passive listeners. It gives them ownership of what they learnt. This will also promote social and communication skills. This develops learners’ understanding and skills. Learners will then understand why a particular answer is right.

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