Design Thinking in Singapore?


National Institute of EducationDesign Thinking for Education is a real buzz in the sector at the moment and something that we hope to learn more about if we get the chance to meet with the folks at IDEO on the USA leg of our Learning {RE}imagined tour. The central premise behind design thinking is about adopting the approach used to design successful products or services such as education or healthcare. In a sense it’s a jaw-droppingly obvious approach to improve public services. According to the British Design Council “Design is what links creativity and innovation, it shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users and customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end.”


I think the key words here are “users”, “customers” and “specific end”. Those of you who have heard me talk on this subject or seen my TEDx talk will know some of my thoughts on this matter and I think we really need to think hard about who we think the users and customers are for education and what the specific end is that we have in mind. Is the purpose of education to indoctrinate a compliant population that will maintain the status quo for a specific economy or is it to enlighten an inquisitive population of independent thought and opinion?


It’s with this in mind that I reflect on my short time in Singapore which given the nature of my visit can only be the first impressions of an informed layperson.


It occurs to me that design thinking for education is not a new concept at all rather these ideas have been deployed either consciously or unconsciously in the way we structure our societies with particular outputs in mind. I blogged about the notion of “superstructures” some time ago drawing on the thinking of Marx, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Foucault and Chomsky. 


The history of Singapore is an interesting one and after gaining its independence from Malaysia in 1965 the nascent republic had to become self-sufficient facing problems of mass unemployment, a shortage of housing and a lack of land and natural resources such as oil. It was under the leadership of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew from 1959 to 1990 that unemployment was curbed and the standard of living was greatly improved. The nations economic infrastructure was developed and racial tensions were largely eliminated. This was design thinking in terms of public services and an economy at its finest.


By most global metrics this has been a success and education has been an important part of this transformation. But it has come at a price. The question is, after achieving the goals that Lee Kuan Yew set out, what next?


WISE recently published an interview with me where I was questioning the real role of technology in education and the obstacles for it in what we constantly refer to as transformation or disruption. My suggestion is that rather than using technology to transform we use it to reinforce the status quo of predominantly 19th century practices and objectives in education.


Student Study ZoneBy the international metrics that seem to matter such as OECD’s PISA, Singapore is one of the leading nations where the majority of its student population are achieving results in high stakes standardised testing that are the envy of the world. So my interest and focus whilst in Singapore was to understand what was happening at the teacher development level. Thus I had the opportunity to meet and interview with two of the leading thinkers at Singapore’s National Institute of Education (NIE), Prof. Chee Yam San, Associate Professor in the Learning Sciences Academic Group and Prof. David Hung, Associate Dean of the Office of Educational Research. Their interviews will form part of the Learning {RE}imagined book but I will give you a short summary of my “takeaways” here.


To become a teacher in Singapore you must have meet the requisite academic performance criteria set by the Ministry of Education (MOE). On successful application future teachers are contracted by the MOE and then entered into a training and academic programme provided by the NIE during which time teachers are salaried and their training provided by the state. This provides a consistent output of teachers that are equipped to deliver the national programme of schooling for the nations children to a determined standard.


One of the issues I raised with both Professors Chee and Hung were around the compromises between having an education system that delivered the needs of the state as customer versus the needs of the student in terms of independent thought as user. It’s a thorny issue and my questions precipitate a certain level of discomfort. That said there have been research initiatives that have explored the nature and use of technology to improve or even transform the learning and teaching experience but there is a tension between the use of technology to teach versus technology to learn in a child-centred explorative manner.


Professor CheeSince 2011 Prof. Chee lead a research project into the use of video games to encourage a new kind of learning. One of these games, Statecraft X, was an attempt to allow children to explore the notions of citizenship and governance in a simulation game that like the famous SIMS game gave the child the opportunity to balance the needs of individual happiness against the needs of productivity required for economic growth. The game was designed and made in house and was delivered as an app running on iOS devices. Prof Chee tells me that the game by its nature promoted independent thought and critical thinking amongst its players leading to dialogue and questions about how society operates. Another game was designed as a multi-user chemistry experiment which required students to collaborate in creative as well as unpredictable ways.


Prof. Chee’s research findings have been interesting but it’s not clear whether such games that are effectively designed as technology to learn are valuable within the Singaporean education system at this time given that they don’t specifically add anything to the objective of student attainment in standardised tests however much they encourage challenging out of the box or even disruptive thinking amongst its users. As a result the Games Lab project within NIE is, like Scotland’s Consolarium game based learning initiative, being curtailed at the end of this month.


Challenging Prof. Hung on the same subject he explained that the issue around technology for learning really comes down to attainment levels. These levels are already very high in Singapore so the question is why change a winning formula that is delivering the desired results required by the state, i.e. the customer? Indeed, in one teacher training session that I attended the lecturer made a point of showing how the use of technology or transformation of a working system wasn’t important.


Further research is ongoing around technology that supports teaching and the existing system and Prof. Hung continues to show an interest in seeing how the gaps between how to nurture creative innovating thinking amongst the student body against the demands of government in delivering high achieving students at the standardised test level.


The challenge will come ultimately when Singapore sets a new goal for its economy and where it see’s future growth coming from. In the event that it determines that disruptive thinking and innovative ideas are the future drivers of its economy then it’s quite likely that we’ll see another radical shift that only the long term planning that Singapore has proven a master of can deliver.