Thinking Schools, Learning Nation

The “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” (TSLN) vision was launched by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in June 1997.1 It aims to encourage young Singaporeans to perceive education as a life-long processas well as to develop creative thinking skills and a lifelong passion for learning.3 TSLN complements economic restructuring efforts such as the drive towards a knowledge-based economy that would create a thinking and inquiring workforce.4

To meet the challenges of the future economy, TSLN was intended to create an education system geared towards the needs of a competitive 21st century involving all sectors of the community: students, parents, companies, community organisations and the government.5 Then Minister of Education Teo Chee Hean was of the opinion that young Singaporeans entering the workforce had to be equipped with critical thinking skills in order to navigate and succeed in the new economic landscape.6 Through TSLN, the Ministry of Education (MOE) undertook a fundamental review of its curriculum and assessment system to better develop thinking and creative skills required for the future.7

Curriculum review
During the 7th International Conference on Thinking held in June 1997, Goh initiated a review of the curriculum in local schools. A Curriculum Review Committee was set up to review the learning styles of students, teaching methodologies and approaches to curriculum assessment from primary to junior college levels. One of the review processes included reducing time devoted to content knowledge and rote learning routines, with greater focus on developing learning and thinking skills.8

In view of the approaches in classroom teaching and learning, one of the first recommendations of the review committee was to establish the Integrated Project Work (IPW) programme. The objectives of IPW include: making teaching and learning communicative, encouraging innovative and interactive approaches, and introducing inter-disciplinary project work that involves subjects such as science, mathematics and English language.9 One of the primary goals of IPW is to cultivate social responsibility in pupils and establish the importance of collaboration with their peers.10

Thinking schools
The concept of thinking schools was based on the idea that the development of thinking and committed citizens would be crucial in ensuring that future challenges would be confidently dealt with, ensuring the continued success of Singapore.11 Learning was promoted as a national culture by encouraging creativity at every level of society.12 The role of teachers was also redefined, so that each school would be perceived as a model learning organisation.13 Schools were organised into clusters, hence reducing control and decision-making by the MOE headquarters.14 More autonomy was conferred on schools in the areas of programme development and finance, increasing the opportunity for teachers and principals to devise creative and effective teaching methods.15

Schools were encouraged to constantly challenge assumptions and seek better ways of performing tasks through participation, creativity and innovation.16 This spirit of life-long learning was meant to accompany students into adulthood.17

Learning nation
The “Learning Nation” component, aimed to encourage a supportive social and cultural environment, enabled Singaporeans to embark on a continuous learning journey for both professional development and personal enrichment.18 This could be achieved through the reorientation of the education system with the goal of developing and nurturing the development of one’s moral, cognitive, physical and social abilities.19 The vision also supported the pre-existing education system inclined towards a total learning environment, such as the Masterplan for Information Technology (IT) in Education launched two months before TSLN20 in April 1997, which was a blueprint for the use of IT-rich learning and teaching in schools. The blueprint played a critical role in cultivating the TSLN vision.21

Mechanisms were also put in place to continually retrain Singaporeans in a bid to encourage every individual to engage in learning and self-improvement. The schemes include the funding of training services such as the Skills Development Fund and Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund.22

Developments under TSLN
A number of education policies and initiatives were launched under TSLN. It has driven school policies in four broad areas: infrastructure of the education system; curricula and assessment; training and development; and school environments.23

A diverse set of school programmes was also introduced, enabling schools to develop unique niche areas of excellence and distinctive modes of learning. Implemented in 2000, the School Excellence Model (SEM) emphasises leadership, staff management and strategic planning on how schools are appraised differently.24 The SEM helps schools provide holistic and quality education as well as ensures continuous good performance.25

An effort to teach critical thinking skills can be seen in the revised junior college curriculum, which aims to develop thinking skills and nurture values required for Singaporeans to thrive in a globalised, innovation-driven future. Hence, the General Certification of Education A (Advanced)-Level subject, Knowledge and Inquiry, was introduced in 2006.26

Other initiatives rolled out under TSLN include Ability-driven Education, Innovation and Enterprise, Integrated Programme, and Teach Less, Learn More, among others.27

Nadirah Norruddin