By Fearfully Opinionated on 02 Jun 2008 11:00 PM
Haloscan Comments Closed
"Values Education" refers to any explicit attempt to impart values to students in the formal education system. In the Singapore context, this mainly takes the form of the curriculum subject "Civics and Moral Education" (CME) as well as National Education (NE) initiatives. This article attempts to discuss some challenges faced by and tensions within the system, and to provide some suggestions on how to address such issues.
Values Education and MOE
The subject syllabuses for CME can be found here. Information on NE can be found on its official website. Upon examination it is easy to see a significant overlap in both CME and NE; both are designed with the very pragmatist motivations of the nation achieving social cohesion and economic success.
CME in particular, has been criticized as "citizenship training" rather than authentic moral education. Chew (1998) writes that:
"Whether the units are on marriage, responsible parenthood, civil defence, national campaigns or responding to global issues, the thrust of the written curriculum is to impart the knowledge, skills and attitudes considered as pertinent for good citizenship in Singapore."As such, it is not a stretch to say that the primary objective of CME is to foster social cohesion much more than for students to learn and discover about elements such as morality, truth, justice, mercy.
Unlike CME, NE is not a classroom curriculum subject, but an overarching theme across the education experience for the student. As part of NE, schools celebrated important historical events such as Total Defense Day (the day Singapore fell to the Japanese), Racial Harmony Day (the 1964 racial riots) and National Day. International Friendship Day is also celebrated to commemorate the good relationship Singapore has with its neighbours. NE is also to be infused into the academic curriculum, with nation-building messages built into not just academic subjects like CME, History and Social Studies, but also in subjects such as Mathematics and the Sciences.
Tensions and Challenges
Where is the moral education?
It is possible to describe values education in Singapore as "nation-centric" (benefiting the nation as the ultimate purpose) rather than "student-centric" (benefiting the student as the ultimate purpose). Many has argued that anything other than a student-centric approach cannot be considered as education. However, it appears that such is not the view of policy makers within MOE, and it begets a larger question: is our education system as a whole even student-centric in the first place?
A closer examination will reveal that a very pragmatist philosophy permeates the whole of the education system from the top down. Education serves to drive the "knowledge economy" more than for education's sake, and in the same fashion, moral education (in the guise of CME) serves the greater good of "social cohesion" rather than for moral education's sake. This might not be an issue if it does not compromise on the content and quality of the education experience for the student, but for many (Tan & Chew, 2004), this is certainly the case for values education in Singapore.
CME and NE not taken seriously at the school level
Yet another manifestation of how the pragmatist culture permeates down to the school level is how schools and students are primarily occupied with measurable indicators of success such as school rankings and academic grades. In a highly competitive exam-orientated culture, CME and NE, being non-examinable, often take a backseat to examinable subjects in the minds of both school management and students. It is not a rare occurrence to find the CME classroom period used for revision of other academic subjects.
Teachers are found to care very little about CME. Chew (1998) notes that teachers are "disturbing non-critical" towards the contentious content of CME, and are seen as "implementers, not critics of the mandated programme". It is also suggested that teachers only pay "lip service" in teaching CME rather than taking it seriously. This is significant as teachers are mediators between the lesson and the students. If teachers cannot take the lesson seriously, it is hard to expect students, who will follow the role model of the teachers, to take them seriously as well.
MOE seems to be aware of this problem, and highlights that "NE must be instilled in the teachers and principals first" before they can impart it to students. How MOE can successfully achieve this is a challenge it will have to face, especially now that the teaching workforce is getting younger, more globalized and less inclined to buy into nationalistic messages.
Despite social cohesion being the main rationale behind NE, Tan (2008) notes that "the tension between social inequalities and social cohesion permeates the underlying framework of NE." At the post-secondary level, there are different messages for students who are at the ITEs, Polytechnics or at Junior College. ITE students are to "understand that they would be helping themselves, their families and Singapore by working hard"; Polytechnic students are to learn that "the country's continued survival and prosperity will depend on the quality of their efforts"; and JC students are to be aware that "they can shape their own future" as well appreciate "the demands and complexities of leadership" as future leaders. This division among the various post-secondary education institutions clearly reflects a stratified view of society, and it is hard to reconcile this with the message of social cohesion and that there is "a stake for everyone, opportunities for all" that NE tries to bring across.
In order to prepare students for a more globalized economy, there has been a call to introduce a greater amount of critical thinking into the education system (Tan & Gopinathan, 2000). Initiatives such as Thinking Schools Learning Nation (TSLN) have been launched to reflect this change in ideology of education. Yet, against such a backdrop NE sticks out like a sore thumb. Students are to unquestionably accept given truths in NE, and are not encouraged to discuss controversial elements (Tan & Chew, 2004). There is already a perception among both teachers and students that NE is "nothing but propaganda", and it does not help to make claims like "NE must develop thinking" while at the same time not allow students to practice critical thinking by disagreeing with certain elements of NE.
It is easy, especially for those of us who have gone through the system and been disillusioned with NE, to be critical but the truth remains that there are very good reasons for fostering social cohesion and rootedness to the country. That people are becoming increasingly materialistic and consumerist may be a global phenomenon, but being a small country with limited resources, this problem is extra serious for Singapore. If the young generation does not feel rooted to the nation, there may be severe economic repercussions in the future. The government does not have an easy job, in fighting against the trend of an increasingly individualistic global culture and trying to inculcate "values", something that seems archaic by contrast. I would like to suggest that in the 21st century where access to information has become so different for the student, values education must take a new form. Traditional methods of getting students to unquestioningly accept values from authority simply will not work anymore, however sophisticated the form.
Allow for more Critical Thinking
The push for critical thinking in education and NE need not necessarily oppose each other. Students may be encouraged to think critically about national issues and values. But this can only be fruitful if they are given sufficient space and freedom to do so. Allow students to openly question policies, and let them genuinely consider arguments for and against. Instead of protecting students from anti-establishment views on the Internet, expose them to it and let them critically evaluate them. Is there a price to pay for doing this? Perhaps a percentage of students may adopt anti-establishment views themselves. But the benefit of this is that all students have the opportunity to argue and think critically about national issues. This is not just pedagogically desirable, but by allowing them to voice their views we are subtly increasing the stake students have in their own nation. Students are less likely to be apathetic and disinterested in political issues, a common complaint by the government.
In this age of Information Technology, alternative views are easily accessible and people are more individualistic than ever. As a result, it is hard for both teachers and students to take anything resembling propaganda seriously. The key to improving this situation is not to provide extrinsic motivation by making NE examinable, or including it in school rankings and awards. This shifts the focus away from the subject matter, and only serves to make it more contrived and farcical.
NE has to be more objective and less pro-official. When presenting the history of Singapore, it is not historically or pedagogically appropriate to leave out significant but non-PAP figures such as David Marshall (Tan & Chew, 2004). It also means that it has to present controversies as controversies. Instead of purely lauding Singapore's unique democracy, issues should be presented with arguments for and against controversial aspects of our democracy such as Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) and GRCs.
When it comes to moral education, a holistic account of moral reasoning should be presented to students, and not just a pragmatist approach to it. No doubt discussion about citizenship responsibility falls within the purview of moral education, but citizenship responsibility alone does not equate moral education.
Conclusion: An apparent paradox
Under the desired outcomes of education, secondary school students should have "moral integrity" and "have care and concern for others". From MOE's approach to moral education, it appears that "moral integrity" and "care and concern for others" is not to be appreciated for it's own sake, but for its instrumental usefulness in building social cohesion. Similarly, secondary school students should "know and believe in Singapore", of which it is assumed that it would be apparent to the student that this "belief in Singapore" is of intrinsic value, i.e. it is good to know and believe in Singapore period, no questions asked. But this same "belief in Singapore" is only of extrinsic value to MOE policy makers, as it is yet another instrument for social cohesion. There are some double standards going on here. As long as such double standards continue to exist within the teaching of values education in Singapore, tensions will likely continue to be prevalent because there will always be some lack of coherence between conception and implementation.
To bridge this coherence gap, I have in essence argued for values education to take a more student-centric approach, rather than the current nation-centric focus. This is not a minor tweaking of the present system, but a major philosophical departure from the current approach. Should MOE really adopt such a radical change, it will not come without political costs. But my argument is not that values education should be student-centric because it ought to be so. While pragmatist approaches to values education may have worked in the past, they cannot work now in this new age of Information Technology where students are more individualistic, have easy access to alternative points of view, and need to develop critical thinking skills more than ever. So perhaps here is a paradox: the most pragmatic approach to values education may be to "de-pragmaticizie" it. Perhaps in this day and age, only an authentically presented values education can produce the desired results of a closer link between the hearts of students to the state of the nation.
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