In the small but highly competitive nation of Singapore, the education system has long been a source of both pride and controversy. Known for cultivating high-achieving students, Singapore’s education system ranks among the best in the world, with its students consistently earning top scores in the OECD PISA rankings.
However, it has also been criticized for fostering an atmosphere of academic pressure and an overemphasis on test scores. As edtech companies rise in prominence within the country, the question remains: are these businesses merely fueling the competitive mentality, or are they working towards carving a new path for education?
Redefining Success in Singapore’s Education System: A Battle Worth Fighting
Singapore’s education system has long been characterized by its high-stakes exam culture, with a strong emphasis on the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This national examination plays a significant role in determining a student’s academic trajectory and future opportunities. Consequently, it has fostered an environment of immense pressure and competition, often overshadowing other crucial aspects of a child’s holistic development.
A key obstacle in transforming this system is the resistance of parents, who frequently cling to conventional notions of academic success. For many, the deeply rooted belief persists that high PSLE scores and elite schools guarantee a bright future. Consequently, these parents may hesitate to adopt new and innovative educational approaches, fearing that straying from the established path could endanger their children’s prospects.
This emphasis on exam-focused learning and traditional success metrics comes at a price. Students might be ill-equipped to handle the challenges of a rapidly changing world, lacking the adaptability and resilience required to excel amidst uncertainty. By prioritizing academic achievements above all else, the current education system risks producing a generation of learners who may excel in traditional subjects but struggle to navigate the complexities of an evolving global landscape.
But people like John Tan, the founder of edtech company Doyobi, are working to change that.
On March 17, 2023, Tan shared his thoughts on a LinkedIn post that garnered plenty of attention, writing: “The education system in Singapore is too deeply entrenched. Parents cannot look beyond PSLE. Even my peers in tech who are highly educated and affluent are caught up in the high-stakes exam rat race.”
Navigating the EdTech Landscape in Singapore
The edtech landscape in Singapore has grown exponentially in recent years, with numerous companies offering a wide range of products and services. Catering to the competitive mindset prevalent in Singapore’s education system, many edtech firms provide services that help students excel academically. For example, Koobits offers adaptive learning solutions for exam preparation, Quipper provides online tutoring and resources, and Cialfo simplifies college applications and career planning.
While these companies undoubtedly support students in achieving their academic goals, they may inadvertently perpetuate the emphasis on test scores and traditional success measures. Moreover, they frequently concentrate on building abilities only to the extent required for passing an exam. However, visionaries like John Tan are working to shift the focus towards adaptability and critical thinking through innovative edtech initiatives such as Doyobi.
John Tan’s Doyobi and its Global Mission
John Tan, like many educators, is vocal about what he believes to be the right path for students.
“It’s crucial that we encourage our children to think beyond the prospect of earning a high salary after graduation. We need to inspire them to dream bigger and think much more expansively about their futures,” said Tan.
John Tan’s brainchild, Doyobi, is an edtech firm with a unique mission: to shift the focus of education from academic achievements to building foundational skills in reading, listening, speaking, writing, and critical thinking. Doyobi, a winner of the MIT Solve Octava Challenge, offers its classes within the Doyobiverse, a closed metaverse. This immersive learning environment prioritizes active participation, exploration, and collaboration among students.
For example, Doyobi offers collaborative adventures for children aged 8-13, focused on developing practical English skills for real-world scenarios. Each month, learners participate in a themed adventure that connects their learning to global issues and literacies of the future, such as artificial intelligence and Web3.
Doyobi’s objectives aim to redefine success for the next generation of learners by focusing on problem-solving skills and authentic tasks, rather than traditional educational benchmarks. As part of its global mission, Tan plans to expand Doyobi’s reach beyond Singapore to collaborate with like-minded parents and educators worldwide.
To help children discover their place in the world and understand the bigger picture, Tan contends that it is important to develop their non-technical skills. In one of his newsletters, he wrote: “Parents and schools should concentrate on nurturing human skills like communication and empathy, which cannot be replaced by AI, rather than merely pursuing high grades.”
Crucially, drawing from his experience with his daughter, Tan asserts that children should also be encouraged to make decisions to develop their critical thinking skills, as conventional education systems might not emphasize these vital life skills.
“I would opt for a project-based learning approach, where students tackle problems, making learning subjects like math or science a natural byproduct of the process,” said Tan.
The Wake-up Call: Adapting to a Changing World
Recent events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence like ChatGPT, have highlighted the urgent need for societies to adapt and evolve. These events have underscored the importance of preparing future generations for a world marked by rapid change and uncertainty. For Singapore, adapting to an evolving job market and embracing educational innovation is crucial to maintaining its status as a thriving, competitive nation.
To avoid the potential consequences of maintaining the status quo, which could lead to economic stagnation and diminished global relevance, Singapore must take decisive steps to reshape its education system. Edtech firms have a vital role to play in this transformation, offering new and innovative approaches to learning that prioritize adaptability, resilience, and critical thinking skills. By fostering a new educational paradigm, these companies can help students navigate the complexities of the modern world and excel in a diverse range of professions.
In response to what role edtech startups should play in Singapore, Tan said, “I’ve noticed that very few tech startups are focused on helping kids retain their natural curiosity and creativity, which I think are crucial.”
He further clarified that despite his desire to see more edtech companies focus on nurturing these traits, he understands why there aren’t. Either the market for this type of education is very niche, or the founders would need to generate demand themselves, as the market does not currently exist.
Encouraging parents and educators to embrace change is a critical component of this shift. By challenging traditional notions of success and promoting a more holistic approach to education, Singapore can equip its students with the skills and mindset necessary to thrive in an ever-changing global landscape.
Embracing Change: The Future of Education and the Need for Adaptability in Singapore
The debate surrounding Singapore’s education system and the role of edtech firms brings to light the challenges posed by a competitive, exam-oriented culture.
As the world changes rapidly, it’s crucial for students to develop the ability to adapt and respond to new challenges. This necessitates considering alternative educational approaches that prioritize these skills, alongside academic achievements, to equip the next generation of learners to navigate the complexities of an evolving global landscape.
There is a collective responsibility to break away from conventional educational frameworks and advocate for innovative methods that cultivate well-rounded, adaptable, and resilient individuals. The future of education in Singapore, as well as the nation’s success and the success of its students, relies on our willingness to evolve and adapt.
What constitutes a successful education system according to Tan?
“For me, a successful education system would consistently produce generations of children and young adults who approach the world with a simple mindset: what problem do I want to solve?” he said.
For Singapore’s national education system, the initial stride towards improvement begins with the recognition that there is, indeed, a problem to be solved.
You can read more about John Tan’s efforts to revolutionize education around the world in his newsletter, Education & Catastrophe.