The culture of Singapore is definitely reflected in its school culture. The four major subjects in the school curriculum are math, science, English, and mother tongue. Mother tongue is a class that allows the students to further their knowledge on their first language. There are three options for mother tongue: Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. These are the three major languages (and cultures) in Singapore. Although Singapore strongly emphasizes the importance of learning how to speak standard English, Singapore also wants to retain the culture that makes Singapore unique. Singapore prides itself on the being the Southeast Asian country where one can experience three different cultures. Singapore wants to modernize without losing its culture so in order to have the students retain their mother tongue, they must take the class in school. There is much less of an emphasis on social studies in the classroom (compared to the four major subjects).
At the end of the year, there are school-wide exams on the four major subjects. These are like finals given by the school but all schools are required to prepare for these examinations although they are not a standard nationwide assessment. This may be one of the reasons that add to the stress of students. Singapore has a very high value on education and based on my conversations with other students at my university, there is a lot of pressure to do well on the exams because they determine the class students will be streamed into the following year. Streaming is a very controversial topic and it actually starts very early in Singapore. Official streaming starts from the PSLE (the exam the students take before entering secondary school). This shows the importance of assessment in the Singapore education system. After the PSLE, the students are separated into four tracks that have an effect on their academic future: Special, Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. Although I do not know specific statistics, my classmates say that the tracks definitely influence their future educational and professional lives. There are different exams that are taken and not every student is qualified for university. Students who do not qualify for university go to a polytechnic school. Normal technical students take vocational subjects. My CT had mentioned that they believe vocational learning will provide these students with a different path that is more suitable for them.
I find that many students in Singapore are very disciplined and strict on themselves. Students arrive in the main hall (which is like an auditorium without any seats). They arrive on or before 7:15 am. The sun rises at 7:00 am in Singapore so this usually means that many of these students are going to school in the dark. (I went to school in the dark too!) Announcements begin at 7:15 and if a student arrives earlier than that, they know that they should go to their assigned seats on the floor and pull out a book. Students are not supposed to be talking during this time. They should be reading. (Although chattering does happen and teachers are there to remind the students what they should be doing.) Students have a break at 10:30 am, which is pretty much like recess. They have lunch at 1:30 pm, which is also the end of the school day. However, this is rarely actually the last period of the day for most students because many students have extra classes. Students who are behind on their work have remedial classes, students who are advanced have enrichment classes (these are not mandatory), and all students have enrichment classes on some days of the week (music, drama, etc). All students are required to wear the school uniform. When I told students that most public schools in the US do not require uniforms, they were shocked and extremely jealous.
I also feel as if teachers are very well-respected in Singapore. If something is wrong with a student’s academics, it is the student’s fault, not the teachers. I thought this was a bit of a contrast with the U.S. where parents tend to put more blame on the teacher. In Singapore, parents seem to put a lot of trust onto the teachers. My CT even mentioned that some parents had called her and given her permission to hit their child if they were misbehaving in class. Just to clarify, teachers in Singapore are not allowed to hit their students but I just thought it was interesting how much trust these parents were giving my CT. Another thing to note is that only the teacher’s lounge and offices have air-conditioning while classrooms only have fans. Teachers that have been teaching for a while become specialized teachers. For example, my CT only taught English and another teacher I worked with only taught math. They may also teach other minor subjects such as pastoral care with their homeroom classes. Therefore, there are periods throughout the day when they do not have class and they may go back to the teacher’s lounge to plan lessons.
Physical education was emphasized in the school. The school hallways were decorated with trophies from competitions. Some of the morning announcements involved congratulating students that had won a competition. There is even an event called Sports Day, when classes are canceled and students go to a track field for some friendly competition within the school. Apparently, the students train for a very long time and only a selected few get to compete. However, those that do not compete are expected to cheer on their classmates. I had the opportunity to go to Sports Day and I thought the students were all enjoying themselves. It created an exciting atmosphere that gave students a break from the stress of schoolwork.
The classroom for my sixth grade class was set up in rows. The walls are pretty bare except for some calendars and Chinese New Year Decorations. I thought this was very different from the elementary schools I have seen in the US. Classrooms are typically lined with student work so that the teacher and students can be proud of themselves. However, I guess there is less to distract the students from their work. (There is nothing else to look at besides the teacher and the board!) There is much more decoration outside of the classrooms, such as the sports trophies I mentioned. There are even occasional math problems for the students to solve and the stairs are decorated with the multiplication table. There are also many decorations around the school for the “Speak Good English” campaign. This is an education campaign in Singapore that is aimed at having students use standard English instead of Singlish. Singlish involves a mixture of English and other languages, such as Malay and Hokkien. It may even just include grammar from other languages spoken in the English language (which produces incorrect English grammar). For example, one of the signs depict that the wrong way to ask to go to the bathroom is to say, “Teacher, toilet?” and the correct way to ask is to say, “May I pleased be excused to the bathroom?” I believe this is pretty much showing the two extremes in the situation but it is true that students most often use the first way. Singlish is still rampant in Singapore and having students speak standard English is a prominent part of the school culture.