Singapore Diary (I): With the Academy of Principals

On July 5th I addressed a gathering of the Academy of Principals of Singapore, a peak body and professional development organization covering all Singapore schools. What follows is a precis of my remarks.

There are many differences between school and University education, and not all are to do with curriculum or level of achievement. Regimentation must give way to a kind of freedom or space, a benign “educational vacuum” as it were, which can draw out the potential of students to fill it.

Yet it is not sufficient to provide that absence of imposed order. Students must also be given a rich set of resources, experiences and choices, the wherewithal to construct their own set of skills, interests and values. Autonomy and capacity for critical thinking are only as useful or as adequate as the context in which they are formed.

Remarkably, while there are some University programs where great emphasis is placed on an aesthetically-rich physical environment, the provision of cultural activities, sporting and social opportunities and more besides, others have none of these. The role of a University in inculcating values and pursuing a particular ethical mission is also entirely variable.

Perhaps this variation is an unavoidable element of the Higher Education reality, but there is a real tension between some versions of it, and what a group like this might actually assume education is – not just the inculcation of knowledge or even of skills, but the formation of creative, capable individuals, through a variety of processes and experiences.

My sense is that educators in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia are quite conscious of the challenge of fostering critical thinking and creativity among their students.

However there is still, both in Australia and in countries like Singapore, a sort of supposed “common sense” which sees the purpose of University education as to equip the student for success in a particular vocation or career, and hence holds that it should focus strongly on a specific set of professional skills.

Yet in a rapidly changing economic world, students need to acquire generic or “soft” skills – those of creative and critical thinking, and of effective communication. Specific vocational training may meanwhile quickly become redundant.

When we think of great Universities, we know we are not simply talking about outstanding lecturers and libraries. These are communities characterized by excellence and diversity, where there is considerable scope and responsibility given to students, but also personal attention and mentoring; where there are inspiring elements of environment as well as of curriculum, and where profound conversations take place in dining halls, as well as or perhaps even more than in lecture halls.

Leadership for that educational world means giving attention to curriculum, but also to more. In the increasingly competitive and differentiated Australian educational environment, the question of whether tertiary education is understood to include the development of the whole person, and preparation for leadership in society, will be one of the crucial tests of a genuinely outstanding educational experience.

No comments: