It's the wrong slogan, MOE

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Ministry of Education cartoon

By Zach Isaiah Chiah

Ministry of Education cartoonIf there is one noticeable trend in the civil service, it is the transition from legal to business language. The civil service engages in work plans, measures results using key performance indicators, analyses return on investment and identifies business opportunities.

Such language has also made its way into the Ministry of Education.

Most companies and now the civil service use the idea of stakeholders. Stakeholders is a very important business concept. Entry level business classes at pre-university level teach students that understanding the target-market is the first key to any business. College level classes get in more detail and describe stakeholders as key targets especially in the service sector.

The Ministry of Education also has its own stakeholders.

But not all stakeholders are created equal, all stakeholders are important but some are more important than others. Perhaps the most important stakeholders that the MOE has are neither the parents nor the ministry but the students. It is the students of today who will be the adults of tomorrow, and the are the reason for the education system.

‘Every school a good school’

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat introduced the term ‘every school, a good school’ at the start of his tenure. He has had a very tough time convincing parents of the ministry’s vision. So tough that PM Lee had to come out and support him at the National Day Rally.

“I believe we can make every school a good school and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources, we give them the good teachers, we emphasise values and we have made a lot of progress towards this goal.”

Slogans work because they capture the imagination. This slogan does not work because it does not capture, in a sound-bite, the common aspirations of all stakeholders.

From a business perspective, the fact that target market does not buy-in is itself proof that 1) the concept is not good, 2) the marketing is poor.

The government has responded on the belief that the latter option is correct. I think it’s more a problem with the concept.

When we were young our teachers would tell us that sticks and stones could break our bones but words would never kill us. As we grew up we realized how much more insidious words were. It is words that has created a society which looks down on students in ITE and brands them as ‘it’s the end’, it is also words that has created a society which envies academically successful 18 year olds as future pillars of society.

College level introductory Communications classes teach that personal identity is affected by societal impact. A slogan is important because if it catches on it can affect the way people think. A slogan can affect the way the way we look and think about things. The oft-bandied Swiss standard was a successful slogan from that standpoint.

Slogans also have a way of symbolizing ambition in an area.

It is not often that the Singapore is characterized as not ambitious enough. This time though the slogan is simply not being ambitious enough.

Speaking about a school being good is rather confusing. What makes a good school? Grades, programs, facilities, teachers? What does a good school look like? Is the ambition for every school to be an infrastructural mini-RI? Opinions will differ.

Yet, if every school is a good school then no school is a good school. The word good can only be meaningful if there is bad and everything in between. It is one of those ambiguous words that is relative, just like ‘day’ only existing because there is ‘night’. Parents competed for streaming (EM1 versus EM2 versus EM3), after it was replaced with advanced subjects there was competition for the children to be advanced in all subjects. There have to be good, better and best schools (which is code for weak, normal and top), there’s no way around it. It is almost impossible to fathom parents here buying into the idea that every school is equally good because Singapore, unlike Finland, is not egalitarian yet.

Beyond the semantics however, the slogan does not motivate students and the teachers too.

The slogan seems to focus on structures and systems rather than people.

The transformative nature of today’s education system does not come across to all stakeholders. This perhaps explains why in spite of the good work that the schools and Ministry are doing, few parents buy into it – Scholars call it the 40-year gap.

The main stakeholder here is really the child and it is the child that should be the focus.

For a small country maximizing the strength of every person is vital, if a small nation like ours cannot then no one can. We cannot arbitrarily define best through a narrow definition of academic testing and develop a select few, we did it successfully as a developing economy when scarcity became a virtue. The developed economy though demands a lot more skill sets for that we have to celebrate diversity.

We do not have the luxury that larger nations have. Firstly, we cannot command the numbers for narrow measures like academics. We do not have 10 million students every year taking one standardized test to enter the top 4/5 universities in the country (like in China, South Korea and Japan). We probably do even not have 500,000 wannabe engineers sitting for the IIT entrance exams annually. Secondly, a high stakes exams does not measure a range of other factors that could be equally important for a child.

Our nimble size is our advantage, we can focus on each child and develop him fully.

This mindset change is fundamentally important, and the impact of the right slogan cannot be overstated.

More specifically, the impact on social expectations that a slogan can have.

Pygmalion effect

The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon where the greater the expectation on a person the greater they perform. It was shown by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968 that when teachers expected performances for students, those students tended to perform to those higher expectations. When the teachers were led to believe that these students were potential late bloomers and were very ‘good children’ it created a positive expectation and affected both teacher and student behaviour. The students ended up doing better in tests.

On the contrary when teachers were told that the students were not so good, these students did indeed fare worse.

The Pygmalion effect of positive affirmative is used by business managers also to obtain the best from their students. One top user of the Pygmalion effect was the late Lim Kim San who (it was revealed by Ngiam Tong Dow) identified the talents of his people and developed those talents.

Since we are already using business lingo in education, why not go the whole eight miles and use business management strategies too.

The better slogan should be ‘every child, a good child’.

A good child can mean many things. A child may not be academically gifted but still good. Unlike a ‘good school’, a child can be good in maths and bad at arts. Most importantly, a good child is worth cultivating. The diversity of our children is what makes the slogan work.

This slogan encourages teachers to view each child as a treasure, it encourages the wide segment of parents to look at their children’s achievements broadly, it encourages administrators to work on improving customization in eduction rather than simply one size fits all, most importantly it is a societal ‘hug’ to our youth who need it the most.

When PM Lee first took over the premiership in 2004 he mentioned wanting many peaks in Singapore rather than one narrow height. This is the base from which our young can scale many different Everests. The vital psychological shift to complement what is already a tacit approval of the idea. The most inspirational teachers and reformist administrators have always believed in it, even the PM, “I brought the Rally to ITE for a serious purpose – to underscore my longstanding commitment to investing in every person, every Singaporean, to his full potential.”

This is a business slogan that is a better fit with the vision of the ministry and has potentially more buy-in ability because it is aspirational. Done right, it has the ability to bring long term change to how we educate our young and bring everyone on board.

Think about it, MOE.