Students ‘must be innovators for S’pore to succeed’

Students ‘must be innovators for S’pore to succeed’
Acting Education Minister for Schools Ng Chee Meng speaks to school leaders at the 18th Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals (ACCP) at Shangri-La Hotel. Photo: Jason Quah
Ng Chee Meng also calls for a ‘need-seeking’ mindset and a strong ‘S’pore heartbeat’
Published: 5:00 PM, December 29, 2015
Updated: 12:27 AM, December 30, 2015
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SINGAPORE — After playing a critical role in the nation’s progress in the past 50 years, education is at an “inflexion point”, said Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng. And the two main challenges for schools now are to create an environment where young minds want to keep on pushing the envelope and nurture strong emotional ties to Singapore in children.

In his first major speech setting out his vision for schools today (Dec 29), Mr Ng said schools must go beyond teaching students to be good at solving problems, but help them develop the instincts and ability to be value- creators. Because as Singapore confronts potential challenges such as its shrinking population and a turbulent world economy, it will need more “innovators, inventors, path-blazers, people who can push the envelope”, in the mould of Ms Olivia Lum of water-solutions company Hyflux, and Mr Tan Min-Liang, who co-founded gaming product firm Razer.

“(We have to) encourage them to bravely persist in pushing boundaries ... Help them have the courage, to try, fail, try again, fail again, and eventually succeed,” Mr Ng said, addressing about 500 school leaders at an appointment and appreciation ceremony for principals at Shangri-La Hotel. Sixty-three principals were appointed, of whom 22 are new appointees.

He cited two positive examples his ministry and schools could emulate. 

At Google, for instance, the organisational culture is such that employees are encouraged to take risks and feel safe about making mistakes. This “psychological safety” helped the Internet giant stay open to diverse viewpoints and ideas, from which they harvested some productive ones.

Mr Ng asked: “Are students encouraged to explore, give options, right or wrong, and not feel too self-conscious? Do they feel safe to fail? Or are we, like in my generation, going to perpetuate a fail-safe operating mode in classrooms? So you are quiet and can do no wrong ... but ultimately, that’s the grossest error.”

One other way is to hone a “need-seeking mindset”, he said, wherein people can identify needs, spot gaps, and see opportunities where no one else can. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, for example, have such gifts.

Echoing a point made by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in October about the importance of giving children the space and freedom for their minds to wander, Mr Ng said students must be free to explore their passions and interests. 

“Do we encourage our students to do all that so they can build up a reservoir of disparate learning, and innate curiosity of wanting to know what is happening around them? ... How do we get our kids to be interested in many varied pursuits? They don’t need to score ‘A’ in every subject, but to have that innate curiosity,” he added.

He pointed out that Apple founder Steve Jobs enrolled in a calligraphy course when he was young, which helped him in coming up with Apple’s distinctive typography. Noting that when he sounded out some people about these ideas, they joked that education systems and teachers are traditionally conservative and risk-averse, Mr Ng laid down the gauntlet for these nay-sayers to be proven wrong.

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