Please Mind The (Curiosity) Gap

Singapore’s education system produces individuals with excellent technical competency, but curiosity may be needed if a quantum leap is to be made in an innovation economy.

AsianScientist (Jan. 5, 2018) – Children everywhere may have heard of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat”—a cautionary tale against straying too far into the unknown. Yet, it is in these same children that we seek to cultivate an appetite for learning and discovery.

Beyond conferring degrees, schools are meant to foster curiosity and equip the young with knowledge of the world around them. Benchmarks exist to gauge how well education systems achieve this, and Singapore has achieved a stellar record.

When the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings were released in December 2016, a small island nation in Southeast Asia—Singapore—edged out the global competition and came in top of the charts. The 2016 results were Singapore’s best ever performance in the rankings, where 15-year-old Singaporean students outshone the rest of the world in all four areas of assessment, not just in reading, mathematics and science, but also in a new component that tests for collaborative problem solving.

While the PISA victories reflect a strong foundation in education, how do these young students perform later on in tackling real-world problems?

Beyond book smarts

The ability to perform a task with pre-set conditions is important, but to think up new conditions, or to perform the same task in a different context, is the hallmark of innovation. This requires being curious about systems and ways of doing things beyond what is written in the books. According to Professor Charles Bailyn, an award-winning astrophysicist and the inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College, this is where the Singaporean education system trades off curiosity for competence.

“Singapore has an extraordinarily successful secondary education system,” Bailyn said in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. “Students emerge from the [GCE ‘A’ Level examination] with technical knowledge unmatched in the world, but they lack communication skills, lateral thinking, organizational strategies and independence of mind.”

Being able to ace tests is an entirely different skillset from critical thinking and solving problems at a higher level, like in research, he said.

“Students emerge who can solve any problem that is set for them, but they tend to think that research is basically the act of waiting for God to assign you a problem set.”

But changes are afoot. A clarion call for innovation was issued at a recent event by none other than the Singapore Minister for Education (Schools) himself. To a room full of school principals, Minister Ng Chee Meng said that innovation “may be the one thing that guarantees our collective future,” and called upon educators to build up students’ innovation quotient.

“Let us foster their imagination. Keep an open mind and give them space to explore, and do things differently,” he said.

Not all innovation is sexy

Looking back at the existential problems that Singapore has faced since independence, such as water and energy shortages, Mr Sin Kim Ho, divisional director of curriculum planning and development at the Singapore Ministry of Education, points out that local innovation helped to overcome many of these challenges.

“With the time and resources we have had, Singapore has developed commendable science and research capabilities that continue to solve problems in applied fields,” Sin told Asian Scientist Magazine. “Achievements like optimizing water supply and sanitation on an island do not fit the bill of a Nobel Prize, but are indispensable to us.”

Sin thinks that the seed of innovation has been there all along, and that we simply need to find ways to nurture its growth. “I think we have been making good headway; but not everybody takes to the system the same way, and it will take time,” he said.

Indeed, based on how Singapore’s universities have been rising through international rankings, with Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore sitting comfortably in the top 20 universities on the QS World University Rankings 2018, a better balance between curiosity and competence may be emerging in the education system.

Controlled chaos

The caveats of curiosity might be less obvious to those who expunge its merits. Curiosity, as it develops, may require a compromise between structured organization, which is what Singapore is comfortable with, and some degree of chaos.

“Singapore is at a very interesting crossroads. It has come about as far as it can by building up purely technical expertise, with a focus on shipping, semiconductors, finance and the like,” said Bailyn. “It now needs to pivot toward innovation, entrepreneurship and research, but those higher-level research activities involve tolerating a level of chaotic ferment that doesn’t come naturally to Singapore.”

Unnatural as it may be, Bailyn concedes that steps to cultivate this chaotic ferment are being taken in Singapore, citing Yale-NUS College and the Singapore University of Technology and Design as heralds of change. Perhaps then, by being open to multiple systems of education and modifying them to suit the local context, some sparks of innovation may fly.

“Where is the correct equilibrium between curiosity and order? That is the challenge that every advanced society faces in the 21st century, and it will be very interesting to see how it all plays out, in Singapore and around the world,” said Bailyn.

Jolene is a third year student at Yale-NUS College with an interest in physical sciences and literature. When not trapped in the laboratory analyzing spectra, she is curious about how science functions in classical literary texts, and sings Barbershop with the Yale-NUS Barbershop Chorus.

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