Rethink. Reinvent. Revolutionize: Reflections on Singapore's Leadership with 21st Century School Reformation

If Singapore could transform itself in one generation from a modest seafaring conduit to a city which leads the world in education, finance, architecture, clean water, and a host of other criteria, the U.S. can rise up and become a global educational powerhouse once again.
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I just returned from Asia where I spoke to educators at the NESA conference in Bangkok and to 1200 school leaders from 13 countries at the International Association for Scholastic Excellence (INTASE) conference in Singapore. Most of the attendees in Singapore were leaders in their schools, spanning the entire education spectrum:

18% - Primary level (7-12 years)
15% - Secondary level (13-16 years)
14% - Tertiary level (17-19 years)
29% - Ministry of Education, Singapore
23% - Others (university, colleges, private consultancies, etc)

There were many interesting and inspiring topics covered during the conference, and a few concepts that especially struck me that could improve education in America.

High Standards. While students in Singapore hold the best PISA scores, their educators realize that students also need to develop creative, innovation, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial skills to be prepared for the complexity of today's professional world. It was these topics that I was asked to address. Whether their grads are going to discover the next scientific break-through, the most cutting-edge architectural structure, the most imaginative start-up, or the next service company, academic prowess alone won't cut it. The rethink, reinvent, and revolutionize theme is at the core of the Singaporean education system and workforce. In a culture that has transformed itself in one generation to become a world-class city, these are people who never rest on their laurels no matter how great their achievements.

  • Provocative Perspectives. Singaporeans are willing to challenge the status quo. Dr. Michael Fullan and Dr. Andy Hargreaves both challenged the traditional principal's role to become "Leader Learners," showing by example what is expected from faculty and staff. Not coincidentally, students as well as staff can benefit from principals who are true agents of change who can "use the people to improve the people," model the learning conditions in which all can learn and thrive, and stimulate people and organizations forward under difficult conditions.

  • New Roles in the Unplanned Digital Revolution. Because of technology, Hargreaves maintains that exciting and innovative learning is possible for all students by creating a learning partnership between teachers and students. Students are empowered to learn in pairs, groups, and build their speaking skills as they facilitate class content to promote irresistible engagement, elegance and efficiency, ubiquitous technology, and real-life problem solving.
  • Collaboration, Creativity, and Continuous Improvement. Giving every student a device is not an effective replacement for traditional learning. Technology needs to be leveraged by skilled leadership to become a tool for motivation, differentiation, inclusion, and self-discovery. But the human elements of collaborating, creating content, synthesizing learning, making connections, sharing insights, developing questions, and engaging in personal interaction are just as important. The right mix of technology in the learning process, Hargreaves shared, is more or less 30 percent of classroom time, which can vary depending on the specifics of the school and the students.
  • Leadership at All Levels. In the United States, we talk a lot about pipeline preparation in the K-16 space right up to and into careers. One of the biggest leaks in the pipeline is the lack of communication between all the key players: students and teachers, teachers and school leaders, school leaders and employers. This leadership conference spoke to the whole education pipeline, as well as those who run NGO's, businesses, start-ups, and other organizations. The broad applicability of the messages is refreshing. As educators, we have more in common with those outside of our profession than we might know, and if we can share those connections with students, they will gain the practical, applied knowledge that employers require.
  • While many may say that Singapore can pull this off because they are a small, homogenous environment, their leadership and educational vision spans the world. As I return to the United States, my hope is that in the next few years we can tackle our academic and professional growth areas with suburban students and rural students, with those who are first generation and those who are expected to go to college, with those who are academically gifted and those who are academically challenged, with those who are "bored" and those who are engaged, with those who are traditional learners and those who are getting their GED, with those who are inclined towards a profession and those who have no idea yet about their purpose, passion and prospects in the world.

    Like Singapore and Finland, being a teacher in the United States can be one of the most sought after, respected professions when schools set the same standards as successful businesses and become a magnet for top talent. If Singapore could transform itself in one generation from a modest seafaring conduit to a city which leads the world in education, finance, architecture, clean water, and a host of other criteria, the United States can rise up and become a global educational powerhouse once again.

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