Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For a long time, education has been viewed as the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing deaths and illness, and to foster peace. It equips individuals with knowledge and skills to be self-sustaining and independent. It also develops generations of enlightened and socially conscious citizens who work towards achieving success for their nation. However, the structure of formal education has failed to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and advancements in society. This has led some to question whether education is still a crucial component for a country to thrive. Nevertheless, I believe education is still the key as it imparts important values for social cohesion, inculcates relevant skills for economic progress and empowers people to make positive social change.
Detractors may argue that the outdated education system in most countries are ineffective in equipping individuals with the right skills for success. The current education system was designed for the industrial era. Schools have a top-down culture, with a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Cohorts are age-based and students are streamed based on standardised test. The issue with this system is that students are trained to drill context, memorisation and regurgitation of large chunks of information. This can be seen through the extensive syllabus requirements for Cambridge A-levels, as well as lengthy vocabulary lists that students memorise in preparation for SATs. In this digital age, content is less important than context. With an Internet connection, there is a wealth of information right at our fingertips, one click away. It is more important to be able to respond to real life challenges through problem solving skills, analytical skills and inference skills. Little focus is placed on developing these skills and people are left to learn them through their experiences later in life, if they even pick them up. In addition, the emphasis on discipline and rote-memorisation techniques leave little room for innovation. Creativity is stifled as students only hope to attain the “right” answer. Schools in Singapore and East Asian countries are known for their rigorous curriculum and high performing students. These education systems produce students who top the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) and Trends in International Math and Science Study (Timss) rankings. However, companies from these countries are barely featured in Forbes’ annual rankings of top countries. This shows that education does not translate to better innovation and better work. The highly regimented education also stifles passion for learning in the students and become passive learners. Instead of being driven and self-directed, they need to be spoon-fed information. Students should instead be taught how to learn. This ineffectiveness of the education system limits its influence on a country’s success.
Education is also not inclusive of all abilities and social-economic status so it is no longer the key to a nation’s success. There is a global obsession with grades that not only takes a toll on the mental health of students, but also causes a social divide. In the past, the system in Singapore focused on academic credentials based on merit and allowed access to education for all. The meritocratic system enabled those who worked hard to move up the social ladder. This created social cohesion and a sense of purpose. However, Singapore is no longer that fledgling state. Highly stratified and competitive school system has pushed more advantaged families to provide additional support for their child. This includes extra lessons for English, Maths, Mother Tongue, Science, as well as enrichment classes in the fields of sport, performing arts, visual arts. Those who lack the financial means will struggle to catch up. In the US, upper class preschools exist to cater to children of the wealth and are seen to be the first step towards an Ivy-League education. Education is thus biased towards the wealthy. Nearly half of low income students are concentrated in the same schools while students from top schools mostly come from middle to high income backgrounds. Over time, the divide may continue to widen, especially if education is unable to help those students underperforming. The large student to teacher ratio renders inadequate help for social and emotional issues faced, such as dysfunctional families. Full potential of lower performing students is not reached and the income gap cannot be closed. A fragmented and ununited nation may arise as a result.
However, many changes are underway to fix the flaws in the education so that it continues to provide a quality education for all and bring success to the nation. Governments in many developed countries have acknowledged the inequality problem and are actively finding solutions. Singapore launched a new inter agency task force called Uplift, short for Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce, to help disadvantaged homes level up. 30% of places at Education ministry-run kindergartens are also being set aside for children from disadvantaged soio-economic backgrounds. Independent schools in Singapore will also lower the fees for lower income families to have greater diversity. Non-profit organisations are also pulling their weight in reducing the education inequality. The South East Community Development Council’s programme “Lift me, Ah Kor/Ah Jie” offers mentoring programme to lift students up by helping them deal with their home problems so they can better focus in schools.
Schools are also moving with the times and aligning education better with the needs of the 21st Century. Finland provides a prime example of a revolutionised, modernised education system. They have no standardised tests and a more relaxed atmosphere. Formal education is only compulsory at the age of 9 and class sizes are small. Students have the free time to pursue their own independent learning and pursue their other passions. Teachers also know their students well and can provide them with more support. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. They aim to develop a child holistically, instead of only in grades. Singapore is also making some small, but significant changes to reduce the emphasis on grades. School-based assessments have been removed for primary 1 and 2 students and reduced for upper primary students. PSLE will not have aggregate score but have a wider scoring band to reduce the stress pupils face in trying to chase that final mark, and give them time to develop their interests. Discretionary admission schemes which admit students into schools based on their aptitude in a particular field will also be expanded in the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities. The syllabus is also changing to cater to more practical skills, by introducing Science Practical Assessments and learning journeys. Students are also being taught more to apply the information they have learnt. Hence, education is changing to stay relevant and will remain key to developing individuals for the nation’s success.
In this highly globalised world, education is also all the more necessary for society to remain harmonious. Globalisation has brought about diversity since people from all over the world are able to meet, whether in real life or virtually. Being global-minded and having collaboration skills are of great importance as they determine the country’s success. Fostering of a more united community is done through community education where students are taught about different groups of people and learn to be accepting of those different from them. Overseas exchange programmes also widen a students’ perspective, enabling them to experience things outside their culture and interact with different people. More than 120 out of the 353 primary and secondary schools in Singapore currently offer such exchange programmes. There is also increasing focus on group work, where it is now a tested requirement in project work. Moral education is also a requirement and students are given conduct grades. With terrorism on the rise, often fuelled by the deep-seeded misunderstanding between various peoples within national boundaries and across international boundaries, education is crucial in fostering mutual respect and understanding between different races and cultures. This would settle differences and prevent conflicts.
The interconnected and interdependent world is also evolving at a fast rate and education is needed so that a country can stay relevant and progress economically. Many existing jobs will start to disappear as smart machines and lower cost workers take over. It has been estimated that about half of all jobs in the world are at risk of being automated within 5 years. Education upgrades skills of the people so they do not become obsolete. Singapore has launched the Lifelong Learning Institute to encourage workers to continue learning past formal education to polish their skills or pick up new ones. Vocational training in countries such as Germany and Switzerland are education targeted at the job and have led to decreased unemployment, especially for youths, since skills learnt are relevant and directly applicable to their jobs. Basic education also sets the foundation for more scientific and technological advancements to improve the welfare of society. Many cures or vaccines are being developed such as the HIV vaccine that researchers at the University of PittsburghTrusted Source Technology are developing. As Lee Kuan Yew said, “My definition of an educated man is a man who never stops learning and wants to learn”. The continuous learning mindset will be one that enables society to continue progressing and staying relevant.
Lastly, education encourages social activism and advocacy. It is through education that there has been gradual demolition of gender prejudices. Benefits to increasing education for females include improved maternal health, reduced infant mortality and fertility rates to increased prevention against HIV and AIDS. Women learn to enact a limit on procreation and learn family planning. Each extra year of a mother’s schooling reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5-10 per cent. Each additional year of schooling beyond primary also offers greater payoffs for improved opportunities, options and outcomes for girls and women. There will also be greater female labour force participation rates and more productive workforce for the country. Other social injustice still exist such as human trafficking, racial discrimination, honour killings, etc. Education plays an important role in bringing international awareness to these issues. With deeper understanding and insights on them, people in society can devise strategies to deal with them. Education can also allow one to participate in the running of a nation. In a democracy, getting to hear from everyone will benefit the nation. Literacy is necessary in giving individuals the basic right to vote, as well as rough awareness of what is going on. This empowers to oppressed and allow society to progress.
In conclusion, as HG Wells puts it, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Although there may be some flaws in education systems today, it is still imperative that nations be rid of the greatest enemy of progress- ignorance. Education is a big investment that countries are willing to make due to its continued importance in bringing success to a nation through promoting social cohesion, developing the economy and combating social issues. Education needs to be therefore be improved to keep up with the times and be inclusive.