Discuss the purpose of education in society. And, explore the impli...

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Socrates and Confucius both believed that education is "the lifelong pursuit of the knowledge and practice of virtue" (Tan, Wong, 2008). This defines the classical education, which is the exact foundation that our modern education is built upon. Fast-forwarding a couple of millenniums, education is now executed differently in different parts of the world, tailored to suit varying circumstances. However, the fundamental objectives, derived from classical education that countries hope to achieve remain unchanged. That is to produce knowledgeable and morally sound individuals. After all, education is "an investment in the human capital that has both direct payoffs to the educated individual as well as external benefits for the society as a whole" (Levin, Kelley, 1997). Through the use of education as a tool of social engineering, every individual's potential can be maximised such that his talents and abilities benefit his community and nation.

Education for Economic Development

Education has always been the key to economic success. "The most important economic development of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system for creating wealth, based no longer on the muscle but on the mind" (Toffler, 1990). Instead of traditional reliance on manual labour, educating knowledgeable individuals and the accumulation of knowledge of skills of these individuals are now essential to trigger sustain economic growth for the country.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Education (MOE) aims "to mould the future of the nation, by moulding the people who will determine the future of the nation" (MOE). Singapore is a country with scarce resources. Therefore, it is inevitable that the country constantly feels the threat of economic insecurity. As her only precious resource is human capitalisation, education is very closely tied to the nation's survival and wellbeing. The education system must equip the young individuals with skills and knowledge to assure them of their employability which will result in the country's economic survival and success. Thus, education is always made relevant to the changing demands of the economy.

In the early 1960s and 1970s, one of the key processes that Singapore wanted to achieve was to "diversify and accelerate economic growth through industralisation" (Law, 2008). Due to this, a labour intensive workforce had to be created. There was a massification of basic primary and secondary education and proliferation of vocational and technical institutes. Singapore then became a factor driven economy. As time progresses to the 1980s and 1990s, Singapore felt a need for change. The education plan was altered to "accelerate Singapore's transition to a more sophisticated technological base" (Goh, Gopinathan, 2008), so as to gain a competitive edge against other developing countries. Globalisation saw a shift in employment from blue collar low-skilled jobs to white collar high-skilled jobs. This created a growing demand for a skilled workforce that could react to the technological advances and the rise of knowledge based economies. Thus, there was further diversification of education and a greater emphasis on technology, research and development which in turn attracted more foreign investors. More jobs were created, sustaining economic growth. Singapore was then a capital intensive and investment driven economy.

In the current 21st century, "Singapore saw the increasing need to develop into a globalised, entrepreneurial, and diversified economy" (Goh, Gopinathan, 2008). To allow Singapore to remain economically competitive, there is a need to work towards a knowledge based globalised economy which demands for individuals who could think creatively and critically, innovate and overcome the challenges of the 21st century. To produce these individuals, the Teach Less Learn More programme was introduced under the Thinking Schools Learning Nation vision. It "focus on a holistic education", "gives students more choice in their learning so that they can shape and enjoy their learning" and "helps teachers bring quality and innovative practices into the classrooms and schools" (Shanmugaratnam, 2004). This seeks to emphasise on the teaching and learning of higher order skills, which prepares the learners for life instead of examinations.

Implications for Students and Teachers in Singapore

In the past, students were merely required to stockpile their heads with facts and regurgitate them out during examinations. The clearance of more examinations meant a more decent job with a fatter paycheck. Genuine learning and understanding were not of significance and application of knowledge to real life situations was limited. In contrast, the present 21st century demands for critical, creative thinkers who could analyse and solve problems by applying what they have learnt. There is greater emphasis on these higher order skills.

Teachers "must keep up with professional developments in their fields" and "translate education policies into practical and effective programmes to meet the learning needs of their pupils" (MOE). This means that teachers have to use new pedagogies to engage students in the process of learning for life, focus on higher order skills and inject relevance to the content. This way, teachers are teaching students to move away from the mentality of pure memorising and limited learning. To help achieve this, trainee teachers in the National Institute of Education are required to take educational modules, which help them to understand, in general, the different types of learners and their needs and how to train them using different pedagogies. These modules also expose the trainee teachers to the ever-changing education landscape, preparing them for challenges in their teaching careers. In schools such as Temasek Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic, teachers incorporate Problem-Based Learning pedagogy in their modules, teaching students "how to think and how to learn" (Priyangi, 2010). This trains students to become problem solvers who could apply their knowledge. The introduction of Project Work which incorporates Problem-Based Learning in all Junior Colleges as an examinable subject also allows teachers to assess the students' higher order skills.

To "Teach Less, Learn More" (MOE) also implies that knowledge will no longer be spoon-fed to learners. In the Ministry of Education's list of Desired Outcomes of Education, students now have to brace themselves to be "self-directed learners who take responsibility for their own learning, who question, reflect and persevere in the pursuit of learning" (MOE). The students must learn to take charge of their education, tapping on their creativity, innovation and higher order skills in the quest for knowledge. Learning beyond the classroom is highly encouraged. These implications can be shown in some learning initiatives taken by Singaporean students. For example, some Pioneer Junior College China Studies students initiated and piloted China Desk, a new co-curricular activity club which seeks to "broaden and deepen their understanding in the subject and also raise awareness among the larger student body the key developments in China today" (PJC). Students are no longer reserved about learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom or taking on activities simply for personal development.

Moral Education for Nation Building

"Education has always concerned itself with the issue of values being transmitted" (Gopinathan, 1980). Indeed, education is more than just the mere transfer of knowledge. The greater purpose of education is to impart values to create morally sound individuals. It is believed that this could result in a common vision that ensures the health of the nation.

This is especially true in Singapore where moral education is heavily depended on to foster national identity and to develop citizenship. In 1992, the Civics and Moral Education was implemented in Primary Schools to "develop a sense of belonging to Singapore and build confidence in the future of our nation" (MOE, 2007). Young citizens are exposed to the idea of national identity and the role they play in national building to inculcate loyalty. In 1997, National Education was introduced which aims "to develop national cohesion by fostering a sense of identity, pride and self-respect as Singaporeans" (MOE). To build on National Education, Social Studies was made an examinable subject in 2001 which aims to "enable students to be aware of our national history and heritage and know our nation's constraints and the strategies used to overcome these constraints and develop students into informed citizens who will be able to have a better understanding of national and world issues" (MOE). These seek to create awareness among the increasingly apathetic younger generations who are taking Singapore's peace and prosperity for granted, unaware of her vulnerabilities, constraints and challenges.

In theory, these programmes are supposed to be feasible and seem to be capable of achieving their purpose. However, in reality, Singapore's moral education for nation building has received many criticisms.

Moral education in Singapore exhibits a top-down approach, meaning its feasibility depends very much on the how receptive the learners are and how the teachers actually execute the programmes. The truth is Civics and Moral Education and National Education, being non-examinable subjects, are often portrayed as less significant than other subjects. Teachers are "disturbingly non-critical" (Chew, 1998) towards the delivery of the subject, since they themselves are not familiar with the ideas of national identity and citizenship development. Their job is merely to churn out subject content for the students; an unemotional affair. These mentalities are caught on by the students, which more often than not, result the same old apathetic younger generation who does not believe in the idea of nation building. Moreover, in the 21st century, it is almost impossible to expect the students to accept unquestioningly. Students nowadays are generally more aware and technologically savvy. They are exposed to many different ideas through the media and the internet and may thus have different views on the relationship between moral education and nation building, leading to more questions, criticisms and doubts on whether the current system actually serves its purpose.

A change is needed. Though the current system is flawed, one can never deny the importance of its aims to foster national identity and develop citizenship in a multiracial and vulnerable Singapore. Moral education is definitely one area where Singapore can bring in citizenship education. Hence, I do not believe in the abolishment of the entire moral education system and its programmes. Instead, the gap between the policies and practice must be bridged.

Implications for Students and Teachers in Singapore

It all boils down to the understanding of this statement: Values are caught, not taught.

For moral education to be effective in its delivery, teachers themselves must take the programmes seriously and not just take on the role of an implementer. They should be instilled with the values which are to be inculcated in their students. Or perhaps, teachers should get involved and play an active role to in designing the curriculum for their own schools based on guidelines and aims of the programmes such that it would be relevant to both parties. Furthermore, moral education should not be restricted to the boundaries of the classroom or the specific period where the subject is taught. There are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate moral education at anytime, anywhere, by any teacher. This means that all teachers should be somewhat involved in moral education. This way, having teachers as role models, students can then catch the values effectively, fostering national identity and developing citizenship.

Instead of being a passive receiver of moral education and waiting for the aim of nation building to happen, students should be encouraged to exhibit traits of an active and concerned citizen, by questioning, evaluating and thinking critically about national issues and values, and learning how to handle such sensitive discussions. Students must discover for themselves what it truly means to be a Singapore citizen.


The ever-changing educational landscapes depicts the efforts made to fulfil the fundamental purposes of producing knowledgeable and morally sound individuals who are relevant to the changing circumstances and in return, these individuals fulfil the greater goals of the society, such as economic development and nation building. Teachers and students in Singapore should always be flexible, vigilant and thrive to be relevant, since Singapore is especially vulnerable to the global whirlwind of change.

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