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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Beginning Experience in Singapore: A Reflection on the Education System and Culture in Singapore

Hi. My name is Lily Liang and I studied in Singapore with Maggie Li. I have completed my 4 months exchange program and am now reflecting on my practicum experience there. We both attended the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and thus, we took courses with some of the thousands of teachers-to-be. The students at NIE were either new student teachers or veteran teachers who had came back to further their education.
Maggie and I had been placed at the Pioneer Primary School. The education system in Singapore is definitely worth mentioning in this first post, because it is very different compared to the education system in the United States. Primary school is from first grade to sixth grade. Secondary school is from seventh grade to tenth grade. Junior college is from eleventh to twelfth grade. Similar to the States, students will enter University at 18. (However, usually, male citizens would tend to choose to complete their mandatory military service before entering University.) One controversial difference between the education system in the States and Singapore is the streaming process in Singapore. Streaming is the act of separating students based on their academic ability. Official streaming starts at the end of P6 (sixth grade) after they have taken their PSLE (the national exam), where they are separated into four streams: Special, Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. 10% of students stream into Special, 20% into Express, 60% into Normal Academic, and 10% into Normal Technical. Normal Technical students are usually streamed into vocational schools, where most would not attend universities, but instead start an early career. Singaporeans believe that streaming has positive aspects in that it gives all students the opportunity to become someone. Streaming has lowered the rates of students dropping out of school. It gave students motivation and belief that they can contribute back to society. Teachers work hard teaching to the academic ability level of the students.
One Singaporean (Hokkien dialect) word I learned is Kiasu. Kiasu literally means “fear of losing”. This is quite reflective of the culture in Singapore. Singaporeans are always competitive. I have talked to many Singaporean students and they feel that they are always pressured by Kiasu. Parents always want their children to be in the top level. They would push their children to study. Teachers whom I have talked to stated that children are more likely to commit suicide due to stress. An average day of a Singaporean student’s life consists of classes from 7 A.M to 4 P.M. They would then go home and eat dinner. After dinner, they would usually have tutoring sessions, where parents would hire a tutor, usually a student from NIE, for extra lessons. Their days repeat from Monday to Saturday. Parents want their children to be part of the Special Stream. Students have the ability to move to higher stream after the first year of streaming.
Students have to excel in every subject. English, Math, Social Science, Natural Science. In order for students to excel in every subject, teachers also have to be excelling in the subjects they teach. This is thus the reason why teachers specialize in subjects. Teachers usually specialize in two subjects. I have always been asked which subjects I am specialized in, however, I always explain to them that it is different in the States where teachers learn all the subjects. When a teacher specializes in one or two subjects, they would know more about that subject, and thus students would know more. This is similar to the high school concept in the States. Teachers would move around in the school, going to different classrooms to teach. Students will stay in their homeroom to learn all the subjects. Even though they stay in the own classroom, the classroom is quite bare. It is not filled with as many colors as the American elementary classrooms. The classrooms also do not have many learning resources visible. There are 40 individual blue desks that are split into 3 columns that all face the front. The classrooms are filled with a minimum of 40 students. Some students may leave to take the same subject that is more suitable for their level. There is a teacher’s desk in front that holds the computer and the visualizer, a machine that has the technology similar to a projector. There is a very lengthy white board in front, with two bulletin boards right next to it. There are small cabinets to hold some dictionaries and the students’ journals. The classroom is quite plain and gives the feeling of strict and disciplined learning, very similar to the culture in Singapore.


  1. It is very interesting to me how much the culture of a country is reflected in the schools and education system. Based on your observations it seems that Kiasu really is ingrained into the students, families and schools. There seems to be a lot of pressure on students in Singapore and you mentioned that students are more likely to commit suicide because of stress… Have you had the opportunity to ask any students about this? Do they feel very pressured and under stress because of Kiasu and the streaming process? I could imagine they would be but then again, if it is such a large part of their culture it may just be normal for them. You mentioned that teachers specialize in two subjects since the more they know, the more the students know… Given this mind set, I was also wondering if there is also lots of pressure on teachers.

    In contrast, the school where I do my pre-prac in Spain has a very relaxed atmosphere. The Spanish culture is very relaxed and it is reflected in the teachers, students and schools. And it seems to me that the U.S. schools are somewhere in between with some pressure on students and teachers but not to the degree in Singapore.

  2. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to ask the students about their stress level. I have asked before if they had a lot of homework and work to do, and many of them had said that they always had homework to do, never had a day without homework. I can even see the large amount of textbooks, homework book, and activities book overflowing out of their bags. I had talked to my CT about the students' stress level and she said that it was high. She often received phone calls from parents, asking if their child has homework, how they were doing in class, and in which subjects their child needs improvement on. She told me that parents are always pushing their child to succeed.

    The teachers are also very stressed out. My CT had to take a personal day because she was just too stressed out from the amount of work she had. Teachers are the ones who have to administer the national exams. Since NIE was a university for student teachers, you can already sense the amount of stress that they have even before they become full time teachers. I have never heard one classmate say they are not stressed, out of all the ones I talked to. They are always working so hard. When they are stressed out, I felt as though I should be stressed out as well. The other full-prac student teachers that were also there were always working, creating lesson plans, correcting homework, and attending daily meetings until 5pm.

    I also had this talk in one of my classes about stress on Singaporean students. There were a lot of veteran teachers who had witnessed at least one suicide or suicide attempt of a student in the school they were teaching at. They said it was very difficult for the teachers and students to cope and acknowledge what happened. Hearing their accounts really strengthened what my CT and other student teachers have told me. It is quite worrisome.


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