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Singapore: aims to have the most organized and innovative education system in the world

A tiny Asian island state of just 728 square kilometres with 5.7m inhabitants cannot be ignored when discussing educational transformation and the role of assessment.

Singapore is an educational super-power. Near the top of all international comparisons, 97% of students continue education after 18.

The positive impact of technology can be seen in almost every portion of life today, and modern education is no exception. In some ways, technology has expanded access to education in Singapore and also changed the delivery of modern curricula.

This has been achieved through a structured, centralized approach, a prescribed national curriculum and relatively uniform classroom teaching and practice. Traditionally Singapore has emphasized rote learning, memorization, and hard work with high stakes examination. Not to forget, Singapore embraces an English-based bilingual education system. Students are taught subject-matter curriculum in English, while the official mother tongue of each student - Mandarin Chinese for Chinese, Malay for Malays and Tamil for South Indians – is taught as a second language.

Here are a few ways in which Singapore has leveraged new technologies in the classroom to transform the individual learning experiences and stay ahead as one of the best education systems in the world.

Hard Copy Materials are being Replaced

Gone are the days of hard copy educational materials in the traditional four-walled classrooms, where the teacher is the primary source of information and lectures are dished out from a podium in front of the classroom. Today, a plethora of educational resources and materials are now available in soft forms, such as eBooks, PDFs, Kindle, audio, images, and videos, instead of conventional books to improve student learning outcomes.

Students have an easy access to these educational resources and materials via Internet and can read them from their mobile devices, tablets, or laptops. Schools provide online portals, such as learning management systems and e-libraries for students to read and/or download vast learning resources and materials, submit assignments, and write their tests and exams.

People no longer have to travel to centers of formal learning to attend classes as hard copy materials have been replaced. Online classes and resources enable students to learn at their own pace, an example of such self-directed learning can be seen in the various online degree programs available today. Access to opportunities for formal learning, including higher education, is unprecedented in scope, thanks to education technology.

Mode of Instruction

While the classrooms haven’t been completely eradicated as a learning space in Singapore, it now looks much more different than what it used to be. Technological advances have brought in several modes of instruction and educational opportunities with Projectors, Visualizers, Digital boards and 3D goggles replacing the chalk and whiteboards of the past century.

Some learning environments and educational institutions have also adopted the flipped learning model. Teachers provide online lectures and instructional materials or resources, often a video or visual educational content, to students either before the class so that they can have in-depth discussions with students during the lesson or after the class so that students can watch, read, and interact with the material. Some schools have gone a step ahead with blended learning, where a face-to-face class learning integrates with a web-based learning.

Students can now apply what they have learnt through activities while their teacher acts as a guide or coach. Also, through quiz software like Kahoot, educational games, and so on, learning becomes more interactive and this may appeal to students of different learning styles, honing their skills in critical thinking.

Switching from only face-to-face consultations, technology has brought better engagement and more interaction between students and their teachers. Students can now consult teachers via emails, social platforms, and online video conferencing. Teachers can also connect with their students via video conferencing technologies so that teaching and learning can be continued uninterrupted. This personalized guidance and the ability to access learning spaces via many digital devices will hopefully serve to help students stay motivated and engaged during their learning experience.

How Learners Collaborate

Another aspect where technology has changed education in Singapore is in the area of collaborative learning. Technology has improved student collaboration and teamwork skills. The classroom walls are no longer a barrier as technology has paved new ways for students to easily learn, communicate, share ideas, and work collaboratively.

Traditionally, students collaborate using notes, discussions during class time, and more. However, with technology, students can now create digital collections of their ideas, thoughts, work, and research and share what they have learnt or what they are currently learning with other students no matter the location. Students can easily collaborate on group assignments or projects and write together via online collaboration tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and so on, anytime, anywhere.

Aside from students, technology has also made it easier for teachers in Singapore to collaborate with their students as well as other teachers via online collaboration tools. Teachers can talk to their colleagues, share the latest teaching ideas and tools, and ensure the most effective classroom teaching processes.

Is Technology Always Good for Education?

The role and importance of technology cannot be overemphasized in education, especially in Singapore. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre revealed that about 92 per cent of educators claimed that technology improved access to educational materials and resources that could help both teachers and students in the classroom.

Technology is good for education because it:

  • Provides a better online interactive experience during the learning and teaching process

  • Increases collaboration and communication

  • Provides access to an unlimited amount of the latest educational materials and resources from several different sources

  • Enhances digital literacy

  • Reduces the cost of education

  • Allows for a quick assessment so teachers can get better insight into learners’ formative performance

  • Gives learners an opportunity to either choose between learning at their own pace or real-time learning

  • Improves teachers’ productivity and efficiency

However, technology does come with some disadvantages, not limited to the following:

  • Reduction of direct peer interaction

  • Distractions both inside and outside of the training room

  • Reduced number of skilled educators due to an increasing automation and reduced salaries

Depending on how it is used, technology can possibly reduce cognitive development and problem-solving skills as students can easily look for answers and shortcuts online

Nevertheless, considering both the advantages and disadvantages of technological advancement in education, we can say that technology has the potential to make education easier and more equitable in various ways in Singapore. It can complement traditional methods of learning in the Singapore education system while having the capacity to transform education and the learning process.

A Powerful Tool

Technology has become a powerful tool to help everyone to learn and is changing education and workplaces in many ways. Other than making it easy for both educators and learners to gather relevant information, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are changing the ways that students learn and enabling a more immersive learning experience, something that was not achievable in previous decades. Invictus International School leverages the latest technology tools for learning purposes so that students get personalized help, learn at their own pace and get to utilize their preferred learning styles.

The Singapore Story

When Singapore became independent in 1965 it was a relatively poor nation with GDP per person like Mozambique or Pakistan. Literacy rates were low. Secondary education was limited to the privileged.

Today Singapore’s GDP per person is twice that of the UK. The city state has fast-growing banking, technology and digital economy and the World Bank ranks Singapore top in its human capital index.

Human Capital is essential to Singapore. The nation has been determined to create competitive advantage through the educational development of its population.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s ‘founding father’ and Prime Minister from 1959 until 1990 emphasized educational progress as the key to the country’s development.

Our priority must be to develop Singapore’s only natural resource, its people. LEE KUAN YEW, Former Prime Minister of Singapore

Education strategy has evolved in lockstep with the development of the Singaporean nation and its economy. It has reflected the nation’s needs, aspirations, and emerging global position.

Highly Structured Foundations

Early focus was on the creation of neighborhood schools to provide sufficient places, embedding a tightly specified curriculum, recruiting more, better teachers and closely controlling standards. The explicit aim was to improve the education of all children and elevate educational outcomes.

Assessment structures were embedded into the system with high stakes exams at the end of primary and secondary streaming students. Formative testing was added early with teachers well-trained in its application. This raised student achievement levels in exams even if the impact on levels of understanding is less certain.

Teaching practices have been carefully guided across subjects and levels. The approach has been pragmatic, using both Eastern and Western teaching techniques, testing their impact and applying them to maximize outcome as measured by tests and exams. More power has been delegated to schools as the quality of teachers has increased.

In class, teaching techniques are changing but textbooks, worksheets, drill and practice remain important and the emphasis on exams means that teachers must cover the curriculum and often ‘teach to the test’.

These process-driven approaches gave the Ministry of Education the levers to push achievement levels upwards. The Ministry’s central role and strong implementation mean that curriculum, teaching and assessment have been developed together and remained closely aligned.

Another enduring priority has been recruiting and training high quality teachers, building the capacity and flexibility of the system. Supported by 50 years of effort, building the profile of education and the teaching profession, teachers have a high status in Singaporean society. High performing teachers are promoted without particular emphasis on tenure.

Teachers, parents and educationalists have been supportive of the government approach. The distinctive Singaporean experience means that education has steadily become of more central importance in society.

A Strategy of Continuous Evolution

Singaporean educational policy and practice have continuously evolved without dramatic reform.

The Ministry of Education makes a research, spots trends early and is good at implementing evolutionary change. ICT and cross-curricular skills were introduced early. New pedagogical concepts and teaching practices from home and abroad have been developed, tested, and adopted if found to be positive in their impact. Teaching practices have been evolved to encourage independent learning and develop critical thinking.

Across schools there is a move from control to empowerment. Classroom innovation has become an integral part of the professional development of Singaporean teachers. Schools and teachers are being given greater autonomy, supported by new forms of professional development, mentoring, and the sharing of ideas between schools at the local level.

Since 2010 the focus has taken significant steps towards building new competencies and applied learning into education.

Singapore clearly believes the educational model that has been successful needs to evolve to prepare students for the very different demands of the globalized and digitized 21st century knowledge economy where Singapore aims to succeed in the highest value sectors.

The curriculum has been slimmed, testing reduced, particularly in the younger years, and there is more focus on competencies and softer skills such as creativity, problem solving, decision making and communication.

Singapore's Framework of 21st Century Competencies and Student Outcomes

This change of focus is felt tangibly through the introduction of Applied Learning Programs in primary, which have been spread throughout the school system.

Vocational learning has also been transformed. The routes that were considered second-rate a generation ago are now attractive and respected with strong, up-to-date curricula, high quality teaching in modern, cutting-edge facilities and clear pathways to a high value employment.

Institute of Technical Education Central - one of Singapore's 3 main locations for vocational education.

The direction is clear. Singaporean policy makers have decided that the traditional focus on core subjects, and use of rote learning, heavy curricula and assessment are not well-suited for the 21st century. So they are evolving the system piece by piece.

Themes and Conclusions

Like all nations, Singapore’s educational system is a product of its unique history and experience.

But are there practices that we can learn from?

  • The clarity and continuity of Singapore’s vision for education has been central to success. The evolving vision has won general support from teachers, educationalists, and parents. Through clear communication the population’s commitment to education has been growing over the past 50 years.

  • Educational strategy has been implemented with careful coordination of three pillars: curriculum, teaching and assessment that evolved together and remained closely aligned.

  • The strength and depth of the teaching and school management has been built through improving recruitment, training and development. The balance of power and decision-making has been delegated, creating a more robust and flexible system.

  • Singaporean students may be over-assessed in the eyes of many commentators but Singapore’s teachers are well-trained in assessment and use it positively as a formative tool to focus student support and interventions. This helps to prevent students being left behind.

  • In recent decades vocational education has received focus and investment to become a respected route to high value employment. This has drawn more young Singaporeans into further and higher education.

  • Educational policy continuously evolves from evidence, research and long-term planning linked to wider political and economic priorities.

Singapore’s traditional teaching practices, tight curriculum, focus on assessment and exam achievement have achieved exceptional results by international standards.

Now the focus is evolving to include far greater focus on skills, competencies and many of the things that the OECD and educational thinkers believe will be critical in the 21st century.

Given Singapore’s history of educational foresight, it would be foolish to ignore their direction to success. Inspiring story in only 57 years.

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