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#PSLE2021 (Part 6): Piecemeal evolution

Posted on: July 27, 2016

Before the new PSLE scoring system was announced two weeks ago, it was described by Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng in May as “no silver bullet”.

That cliché aptly describes the changes. So do “a mixed bag” and “to have your cake and eat it too”. In my sixth and final reflection on PSLE2021, I explain why the restructuring does not go far enough.

As if to pre-empt this line of argument, Mr Ng said:

“Some things are best evolved and not revolutionalised,” he said noting that Singapore’s education system is a strong and robust one as educators have done very well over the last 50 years in building a strong system.

The PSLE2021 is an evolution, not a revolution. Again, very apt.

The most important but undersold change is the switch from norm-based testing to criterion-based testing (see Part 1 of my reflection). However, the PSLE retains its summative testing and sorting nature. These counteract the messages of the restructure being less stressful, not being a source of competition, and focusing on the learner and learning (Part 2).

Those that study change and are familiar with the literature will describe the proposed changes as piecemeal. This contrasts with systemic change.

Piecemeal change is often top-down and tacked on to an existing system. It might make incremental improvements and it does not disrupt the status quo. That is why such change is evolutionary and not revolutionary.

Systemic change is often the opposite, although its leadership and sustainability can stem from a mix of top-down, bottom-up, and middle-up-and-down. Such change takes place by first identifying key leverage points of a system.

In schooling, one critical leverage point for systemic change is assessment. Change this and everything else has to change. It is the tail that wags the dog.

If the PSLE2021 was systemic, it could start with changes in the assessment at the end of Primary 6 — if there was one at all — and cascade changes to educational policies, curriculum, teaching methods, school support, stakeholder behaviours, and more.

Piecemeal change often leads to little appreciable change or no change at all.

The changes in PSLE2021 will not include curricula (see point 10 of this article). It is also relatively easy to get used to the Achievement Levels (ALs) since we were all schooled to think that way — they are like O-Level grades!

Teachers can keep drilling in the latter stages and tutors can keep “enriching”. Enrichment tuition centres need only replace their trophy heads’ grades with AL1s instead of As or A*s. Parents can keep pushing their kids to compete and subject them to hothousing.

Consider another example. With regard to the PSLE2021 changes, a school principal said:

…this would reduce the previous “pressure points” of comparing against peers and chasing the last few marks. Instead, the focus can be on grasping and having a “mastery over content”, and striving towards one’s personal best.

The change from conventional grades to ALs will do little to stop the paper chase. The ALs are not actionable because they are products of a terminal activity (Part 2).

Trawl what leaders in education are saying online about grading and you will see something like this emerge.

Quantitative grading ends learning. Quality feedback sustains learning.

It is possible to do very well in a test or exam by drill, rote, and formulaic thinking. It matters little if you have “mastery of content” if you do not hone thinking skills.

The changes in PSLE2021 have not been accompanied by changes in curriculum to address student thinking and skills, or professional development for teachers to teach differently.

For example, the curriculum is still designed to be learning about Mathematics or Science. It is hardly about learning to be or think like a mathematician or scientist. Some teachers want critical, creative, and independent learners, but they either do not know how to model or nurture these traits, or are not willing to let go.

So I am critical of the piecemeal change. The vision for change is not met by its currently proposed implementation. Mr Ng’s vision was:

…to move this school system forward so that we reduce the competitiveness of it, and encourage creativity and collaboration of succeeding together.

How is retaining and polishing an old and increasingly outdated assessment and sorting system an attempt to “encourage creativity and collaboration of succeeding together”? Creative answers are not encouraged and not appreciated in grading rubrics. There is are names for “collaboration” and “succeeding together” in exams — they are cheating and colluding.

If we remain rooted in the domain of summative assessment, we operate by its rules and language.

Here is another cliché: Fortune favours the brave. Did Finland worry when it implemented keyboarding over handwriting? Did it wonder what others would think about:

No. It focused on what its students need today and tomorrow. It takes care of its citizens so that they take care of themselves and their country.

I am not suggesting that we adopt Finland’s strategies wholesale because our schooling contexts might be different. Our schooling system already has so-called alternatives like DSA, e-portfolios, institutional entry tests, interviews, performances, and train-through like integrated programmes. Why not empower and support these more?

I say we put our money where our collective mouth is. If we say we must value creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and collaboration, then we must implement processes that nurture and measure these things.

1 Response to "#PSLE2021 (Part 6): Piecemeal evolution"

CHAN Hsiao-yun 曾曉韻: RT @ashley: #PSLE2021 (Part 6): Piecemeal evolution #edsg via


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