Education in Singapore and Finland: a comparison Part 6 (Final)

In my last post on the education systems of Singapore and Finland, I have highlighted the differences between the two with regards to the area of student ranking and streaming, and high stakes examinations or testing. I have also indicated the difference in the two systems’ approach to assessment with Finland paying more emphasis on formative assessment. In this post, I will look at the difference in teacher quality and their approach to teaching in the classrooms.

In Finland, all teachers are required to have a Masters degree while those in Singapore varies. In Singapore usually for those teaching in the secondary schools and above they are required to have a degree and are usually chosen from the top one-third of the university cohort each year. Even then there are exceptions with some new Mother Tongue teachers having only GCE AO levels. In the lower levels, there are still many with just A levels and a growing number with university degrees. At the preschool levels, in child care centers and kindergartens, a minimum GCE O levels is the norm with certification in early childhood.

In Finland as has been mentioned in an earlier post, teaching is a highly regarded profession which is given as much status as even professionals like lawyers. In Singapore, while parents still in general defer to teachers and expects their school-going children to be respectful towards teachers, teaching does not enjoy the same position as other professionals. It is for this reason the Singapore government’s approach to attracting and retaining teachers has been through a quick succession of pay increases. No doubt the Ministry of Education (MOE) has also introduced different tracks for teacher mobility and career satisfaction within the teaching service but without a doubt it is the relatively high pay that has attracted and retained most of the teachers. In contrast in Finland, the Finnish National Board of Education has consistently sought to make good working conditions as the attraction of the teaching profession.

The difference in teacher quality is also seen in the approaches to teaching that is employed in the two countries. In Singapore because of the heavy emphasis on high stakes testing or examinations, the approach used has generally been a very traditional teacher-centered one where the teacher does most of the talking while the students listen. In other words, it is very much the factory assembly line approach to teaching. This is made necessary as the high stakes examinations has always been the tail that wags the dog. The focus on examinations means that a lot is to be covered for students to do well in the examinations. There is an emphasis on width as opposed to depth. Speed becomes a necessity in the “coverage” of the examinations-centered syllabus. This in turn necessitates for the traditional teacher-centered approach generally carried out in schools as student-centered discovery and exploratory approaches will require time. A recent study on science teachers in Singapore supports this contention (see here). This is despite all official policy claims of the MOE like “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM), “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” (TSLN) and others. As a result, while Singapore teachers are highly professional with regards to fulfilling the goals of schools, which is to do well in the national examinations, they are a lot less skillful at honing the “new” skills that students need to acquire for the 21st century.

In Finland, an exploratory and student-centered approach are the fundamental approaches to teaching done in schools. The absence of high stakes examinations also means that much curriculum time is freed for deep learning rather than spent in examination preparation.What this means is that the usual stress, anxiety and demoralization that occurs in an examination-centric systems do not happen in Finland’s schools.

This approach does not seem to have negatively affected the quality of learning that is done in Finnish schools as Finnish students to do well in international educational surveys. More importantly perhaps is that the Finnish system reduces the human costs in terms of quality of life in schools for the students and teachers.

(End of series)

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  1. YH
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    After reading some of your post I have a few comments.
    1) Equality in education opportunity should be considered at primary or pre-school level? Education is like a race. Those with higher potiential will achieve higher education. Secondary school period is at the middle of the race. If there’s no streaming, we are limiting those with higher potiential. Is that equality as well?
    2) Where did you get your source from “but without a doubt it is the relatively high pay that has attracted and retained most of the teachers” ? Did anyone tells you that teachers in Singapore are rich ? If one were to choose other jobs other than being a teacher, he/she will most likely earn more.
    3) The teacher-centered teaching is outdated in Singapore. Teachers in Singapore are trained from NIE. Take a look at what they are learning. The exact opposite of what you are posting. Did you know that Singapore MOE has reduced its syallabus for ‘TLLM’?
    4) Your post is not a comparison. I see little description on the Finland’s counterparts. Like what methods they are using. In what ways are they attracting and retaining teachers. You are being bias against Singapore education system.
    5) What you state are extremes and not all of them are happening in Singapore education system. Every teacher has their own teaching pedagory be it teacher-centered or learner-centered and is learner-centered really better? Then why are the university still giving lectures which is purely teacher-centered?

    Thank you for posting.

  2. Posted January 25, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Thank you, YH for taking the time to visit my blog and writing your comments.

    1) You asked why is it that there should be equality in education even at primary or pre-primary levels? You also said “Education is like a race. Those with higher potential will achieve higher education.”

    My question to you is why must education be a race? A race to where? I know we need to stretch our students but that is different from putting them in a race. Which great research has shown that education must be a race? And who will be starting with Formula One race cars and who will be starting with bicycles? This mentality that education must be a race is strange. Or perhaps your thinking is centered on the old ideas about education. Did you know that the word “curriculum” comes from an old Latin word which means “race course” of the kind where you have chariot races? Is this what you are thinking? Is this a pedagogically correct approach?

    2) You also wrote “Where did you get your source from “but without a doubt it is the relatively high pay that has attracted and retained most of the teachers”?

    I based my observation on what is done by the government to keep its teachers happy. And guess what? They have been making teaching one of the most attractive jobs around in Singapore. And don’t deny also that pay increases and other financial remunerations is a key way for the government to attract and retain new teachers.

    If you had read my post, “Singapore and Finland: looking after teachers”, (see, where I highlighted the fact that Law Khah Gek, the Director of the Curriculum, Planning and Development Division (CPDD) of the Ministry of Education, had herself highlighted in an international conference, the performance bonuses of between one and three months that teachers can get. In contrast you find her Finnish counterpart, Timo Lankinen, the Director General of the Finnish National Board of Education of Finland, who highlighted that in Finland, they only have a “very limited” performance pay. For him what is more pressing is “how to maintain good working conditions in school” as Finland’s leaders feel that such good conditions are essential to luring talented people into the classrooms and retaining them there.

    Now compare that with Singapore’s view where the pay is highlighted (and also the career track which also implies higher pay)? In Finland, they don’t even talk about it. See the difference? Why the difference? Why does our government keep revising financial incentives for teachers which make them the envy of most the rest of the civil service of which the teaching services is a part of? Teachers are also induced to stay on with ADDITIONAL financial rewards based on years of service. Why don’t you mention this? Do other services get that?

    You also asked (perhaps a rhetorical question), “Did anyone tells you that teachers in Singapore are rich ?” This is a red herring to distract from the argument that teachers in Singapore enjoy a higher pay than most civil servants. Anyone can tell you that “high pay” or “higher pay” does not mean you become rich. But the high(er) pay certainly makes the teachers very comfortable!

    Let’s not deny that financial rewards is seen by the “pragmatic” Singapore government as the main incentive to keep teachers in the service. It must work or else they would not have done so. And why does it work?

    3) You wrote “The teacher-centered teaching is outdated in Singapore. Teachers in Singapore are trained from NIE. Take a look at what they are learning. The exact opposite of what you are posting. Did you know that Singapore MOE has reduced its syallabus for ‘TLLM’?”

    Teacher-centered is outdated in Singapore? You could have fooled me if I don’t have children and relatives and friends who are still in school. Sure not all teachers teach the old way. Sure NIE has been training teachers to use other approaches (come to think of it they had been doing it even in my time in NIE back in 1988). But do you still deny that most teachers still do “the talk” most of the time? A lot of the teaching is drilling to the exams and with the little time that teachers have in schools, the fastest way to “teach” in Singapore school is to just “talk”. I am aware of the “reduction” in syllabus but what do teachers use this reduction in time for? If you read my blog, you will find several instances where I highlighted what TLLM really is in practice in Singapore. I can for a start also refer you to a study done by an NIE (NTU) Masters student about how Science teachers teach (see

    Sure, there will be pockets of enlightenment in Singapore schools and among Singapore school teachers. And if you are one of them, then I am not referring to you and kudos to you for trying better alternative methods of instruction or at using a good mix of it. What I am against is the generally teacher-centered approach used by the beleaguered teachers of Singapore. This has not changed.

    4) You wrote, “Your post is not a comparison. I see little description on the Finland’s counterparts. Like what methods they are using. In what ways are they attracting and retaining teachers. You are being bias against Singapore education system.”

    I will answer the last part first of your assertion. I have yet to hear of a teacher or anyone in the “education” service say anything negative about the education system in public. If they do, they will not allow their names to be mentioned (something for you to think about) in public. So can I say therefore that those in the Singapore education are extremely biased FOR the Singapore school system?

    I have stated before elsewhere that enough has been said about the “positive aspects” of the Singapore system. I do not intend to do the same. I have made that clear. I feel that someone should also highlight the flipside of it.

    As for the first part about examples, watch some videos on Finnish education on YouTube for a start. There you will see good and bad examples. But there, in Finland, you do not have to teach to the test. Hardly any exams. Read my response to a Finn in this series of posts about it. Ask yourself, if there are no exams do you think you as a teacher will try alternative approaches? Mind you I am tempted to say the Finnish teachers are more knowledgeable since ALL of them must have a Masters unlike here but that would be offensive to some people here. As for attracting teachers you can refer to the same post that I have highlighted above. AND they have a world class system without exams!

    5) You wrote: “What you state are extremes and not all of them are happening in Singapore education system.”
    Are they? Look around your colleagues and see how they teach. Be honest. Most still teach the same old way despite the training at NIE, because the exams focus means there is little time and drilling is the usual way of teaching. And read that study.

    You also wrote, “Every teacher has their own teaching pedagory be it teacher-centered or learner-centered and is learner-centered really better?”
    Yes, every teacher has theirs but I am of the view generally in Singapore it is still teaching to the exams with little teaching for deep understanding of concepts. So I am saying most Singapore teachers “own teaching pedagogy” is teacher-centered.

    You also asks, “then why are the university still giving lectures which is purely teacher-centered?”

    Just because the universities are doing that, does it mean it is correct? If the lecturers in NIE (or any university) are still doing that, then they are teaching trainee teachers that the latter shouldn’t do what they have been taught (told in the lectures) but what they went through (the experience they got when they are in the lectures), that is, teacher-centered teaching! This is what Marshall McLuhan has said about the “medium being the message” (see my posts on McLuhan)! So I am not surprised that despite being “taught” to not depend on the traditional methods, the NIE trainees do generally resort to that because that is what they have been conditioned to do!

    And you shouldn’t use what is being done at the universities as your model. In the universities, they should be adopting andragogy NOT pedagogy.

    I seriously hope you will respond to the things I have raised before moving introducing other issues. Again, thank you for your comments as it gives me an opportunity to clarify my posts.

  3. YH
    Posted January 30, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your prompt reply.
    I did not mean to flare at your post or anything.
    I presume that your are a singaporean having been to NIE at 1988.
    My main point is you can’t compare education system. Can Finland education system work better if brought to Singapore? With the social and cultural differences I doubt so.
    There is no point comparing orange with apple. Thanks =D

  4. Posted January 31, 2010 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your response again. However, I do find your comment strange. Even apples and oranges have similarities, not just differences. Just because they are different does not mean that you cannot compare them. Of course after such comparisons are made you take into account the unique features of each. But then again this does not mean that each cannot learn form the other as it is implied in your statement. What is taken as sacrosanct now may not be so sacrosanct now. Even as we write now, the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board has stated that it would like to rely less on pen-and-paper examinations. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Furthermore, are you suggesting that social and cultural factors prevent any change from taking place?

    Thank you again for your response to my posting and clarification. I hope you will continue to read my blog and discuss issues about education on this platform.

  5. YH
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Orange and apple are just analogy. I don’t expect you to comment on such trival stuffs. So do you think that most of the learnable points from Finland education if brought to Singapore could work ? I took pen-and-paper examination years ago and as a student then, I already see that that wouldn’t last. There are tonnes of past year papers to practice from. It’s only a matter of time before there are too many students scoring high marks making it difficult to stream them. The reason why it wouldn’t last is not important. It may be unthinkable to you but not most of us.
    Lastly, yes I am suggesting that social and cultural factors are resisting it from taking place. Look at TLLM. It’s the society that’s giving their child tuitions and pushing schools to give more remedial lessons.It is hard for us to accept less is more. To have changes, the view of the society must change too. But I am not suggesting that there will be no changes at all. Just that it takes time.

  6. Posted February 1, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Well, I am sorry. Your exact words were “My main point is you can’t compare education system.” That is what you wrote. And you say it is just an analogy. But what is an analogy for? Isn’t an analogy also for comparison purposes? My point in commenting about your analogy is that they can and ought to be used for comparisons. That is all. MOE sends study teams all over the world to compare and learn from other systems. When I was in the ETD too, we looked at, for example, ICT implementation in other countries. Making comparisons is a valid way of learning. That is part of the thinking skills that students are expected to pick up in school. It is also normal in almost all fields of human endeavor. So this is why I find your analogy baffling. So it is not a “trivial” thing as you now put it.

    I am commenting about the current state in general in Singapore and not about pockets of more far-sighted people like you perhaps. But it is interesting that you too seem to agree that such a thing as moving away from pen-and-paper exams is not the norm. This is seen from your statement, “Lastly, yes I am suggesting that social and cultural factors are resisting it from taking place.” Even our leaders took a long while to even acknowledge that. Until today, the head of the SEAB is of the opinion that she hopes that the iPSLE (a pen-and-paper exam which is almost a carbon copy of the PSLE) will be well received by the countries in the region while saying that Singapore should give less emphasis on such exams. This shows you the mentality that still exists. Still hanging on to outmoded approaches to assessment. I think as a discussion, it is understood that we do not talk about exceptions. There will always be exceptions to the rule as in the case of your far-sightedness. But such things should not be taken as a norm just as with the pedagogical approaches that we have discussed about.

    Lastly, as for your last point about “social and cultural factors are resisting it from taking place”, while in general I agree with it, I am also of the opinion that such things can be changed if clear signals are sent by the MOE. As long as MOE retains that big emphasis on written exams, parents, teachers, school administrators and students will continue to see that message is the key message. All other non-traditional teaching and learning approaches will continue to be seen by them as only things that are unimportant.

    Again, thank you for your response to my posting.

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