Leading school change in Singapore


This post was originally published on www.internationalednews.com

How do school principals make sense of education reforms that push them into unchartered territory?   I recently spoke with Dr. Vicente Reyes, Lecturer, with the School of Education, University of New England, Australia, who argues that when schools leaders are faced with uncertainty they have an opportunity to create the future they would like to see. In 2015, Reyes published a study titled “How do school leaders navigate ICT educational reform? Policy learning narratives from a Singapore context.” In this study, Reyes (2015) examined the experiences of school leaders in Singapore as they grappled with policy reforms that aimed for ubiquitous use of information communication and technology (ICT). Reyes (2015) found that as they tried to respond to these policies, school leaders experienced “shifting identities, emerging roles and ambivalent capacities.”

The policymakers Reyes spoke with described ICT as the “external wings that would propel the economy to the next stage.” As Singapore has a small domestic market of only 4 million people, cloud technology is valued for the potential it holds to help the country reach out internationally, to China, India and beyond. Similar to the view that the cloud technology can broaden Singapore’s economic reach, Education Ministry Officials also view it as holding the potential to broaden the traditional definition of a classroom, and therefore develop the skills and competencies students will need to participate in this future economic market. However, while the direction forward has been identified, and education has been identified as the vehicle for implementing the required changes, no one knows exactly what changes need to be made or how it will play out.

As the Singaporean education context is highly structured and focused on high stakes exams, both in primary and secondary school, the ICT reforms introduced a promise of creativity and experimentation that was a stark contrast to the traditional “drill and kill” educational focus. However, the new policy introduced a predicament for school leaders who need to remain high achievers while experimenting with creativity.

Reyes shows that in order to respond to this predicament, school leaders had to adopt a pioneering spirit. Since these leaders didn’t have prior experiences or examples to learn from, they needed to go outside of their comfort zones, which can be unnerving. Reyes used the metaphor of a captain on a ship— a ship in the middle of an ocean without functioning navigation tools. As Reyes explained, “If you don’t move forward, you will find peril. If you do, you might hit an iceberg. School leaders need to make those decisions.”

In order to help school leaders navigate these difficult contrasts, as Reyes explained, Singapore’s Ministry of Education has made an effort to promote create incentives to encourage innovation and eliminate pressures that might limit risk-taking. One example is their “Coyote Funds,” or funds given to school leaders to use for experiments. MOE officials encourage school leaders to think of the goal of these projects as experimentation that leads to learning rather than to focus on whether or not they are “successful.” However, as Reyes explained, a number of the proposals for Coyote Funds were rejected for their “failure to be true failures,” or insufficiently innovative. Each proposal was scored and evaluated, which ultimately supported Singapore’s high stakes status quo. While Singapore is interested in creating an education model inspired by what they view as a meritocratic and creative U.S.A. school model, Reyes cautions that the changes may be incremental rather than fundamental or transformational.

–Deirdre Faughey

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