In order to comprehend how and when Singapore started with its teacher education reform, we first need to understand the local and global landscapes that shaped Singapore’s agenda. This section will explore international conversations surrounding 21st century skills and teacher education, and conduct a comparative analysis between these conversations and Singapore’s phases of education.
3.3.1 21st Century Skills
Approaching the turn of the millennium in the late 1990s, the world witnessed an unprecedented rapid increase in technological changes and innovation. Due to the quickly-evolving technological landscape, Bransford (2007) notes that innovation cycles start and end within a short frame, and that education systems are often unable to adapt to meet the demands of a field. Hence, the training provided at educational institutions may be nugatory by the time students enter the workforce. These changes were foreseen by some visionaries even in the 1970s and they gradually laid the foundations for conversations surrounding 21st century teaching and learning to take place. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was instrumental in leading the discussion surrounding the future of education. The organization published two foundational reports on adaptive and lifelong learning, Learning to Be headed by Edgar Faure in 1972 and Learning: The Treasure Within headed by Jacques Delors in 1996 (see Chap. 1 for more details). While there is a lack of evidence to support Singapore’s references of these specific UNESCO reports to inform its curriculum and teacher preparation programs, Prof. Tan Oon Seng, the immediate past Director of NIE Singapore and Prof. Low Ee-Ling, Dean of Teacher Education at NIE Singapore recognize that “the publications from world bodies and think tanks have always been part of [their] literature review and global environment scan, whether they be from international academic colleagues or global organizations, such as UNESCO, OECD” (Low & Tan, 2020). The comparison of the timelines of these two formative UNESCO reports to that of the Singaporean education system is illuminating because it demonstrates how quickly Singapore, which only gained independence in 1965 with no natural resources to fuel the economy, was able to mobilize its talents to be among the best within a short time. In 1972, Singapore was still in its post-independence survival-driven phase when The Faure Report argued for progressive lifelong education in the world. Remarkably, in 1996, Singapore was wrapping up with its efficiency-driven phase and preparing to move on to an ability-driven phase that will respond to economic, social, and technological change in the country and globally—all of which align with pillars of education found in The Delors Report.
By the end of the millennium, governments, education scholars, and organizations were forced to confront the nimbleness of the global innovative space and to find a common ground for the future of education. Singapore was no exception—the increasing income gap approaching the 1997 Asian financial crisis meant that wealthier families could afford private tuition to assist their children achieve excellent grades while the rest of the students were struggling to even pass (Lee & Low, 2014). A country that largely relies on its human capital cannot afford such a disparity in its educational outcomes, especially when the world is rapidly innovating. Shortly before the Asian financial crisis beset Southeast Asians nations in July 1997, Singapore’s Prime Minister at the time, Goh Chok Tong, announced the government’s new vision for the Ministry of Education (MOE) “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” (TSLN) in June 1997. This vision, which launched two decades of major structural overhaul in four broad areas—namely, infrastructure of the education system, curricula and assessment, training and development, and school environments—was initiated to prepare citizens who are committed and capable of meeting future challenges using 21st century skills (Ministry of Education, 2019).
At the start of the 21st century, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also led two initiatives for its member nations to define and assess 21st century competencies: The Definition and Selection of Competencies (DeSeCo) project and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for mathematical, scientific, and reading literacies. DeSeCo and PISA go hand-in-hand because the former, which was published in 2003, provides a framework for the latter that also began in 2003. DeSeCo’s framework is grounded in three broad competencies for individuals, which are abilities to use tools interactively, to interact in heterogeneous groups, and to act autonomously (Rychen & Salganik, 2003). No representatives from Singapore were involved in the conception of DeSeCo or PISA, and yet, within the last two decades, Singapore, an OECD member, has been consistently ranked among the top five in the 70-nation PISA test. What these numbers mean relative to other participating countries is astounding: “90 percent of Singaporean students scored above the international average in mathematics and science, and Singapore’s fifteen-year-olds outperformed those of every country in reading, mathematics, and science” (National Center on Education and The Economy: Empower Educators, 2017, p. 1). These consistent results speak volumes about Singapore’s ability as a nation to reach its educational potential as defined by the DeSeCo Project and PISA through its successful implementation of 21st century competencies in its education system.
Within the two decades of the 21st century, several scholars and organizations have proposed their definitions of 21st century skills. While many reports to date that propose 21st century skills have been the product of evaluations based on the economic demands and skill gaps of the global landscape, an influential report that incorporated scientific evidence from the social sciences is the National Research Council report (2012), Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st century, commonly known as the Hilton and Pellegrino report. The authors not only included proposals for the development of human capital as supported by psychological research, but they also posed evidence-based consequences for individuals in the short- and long-run based on the development of their competencies. By synthesizing scientific research in the field of human development, Hilton and Pellegrino propose a 21st century framework that covers cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies in detail. Singapore, in actuality, had developed a 21st Century Competencies (21CC) framework for its national curriculum in 2010, shortly before the Hilton and Pellegrino report was released. Singapore’s 21CC framework has a set of core values that are self-oriented, and broader sets of values that signify socio-emotional and global competencies. While Singapore developed its framework using locally-generated evidence-based educational review and research, the contrasting of Singapore’s 21CC framework to the Hilton and Pellegrino report reveals striking similarities. In a very recent comparison done between the two frameworks, Reimers and Chung (2019) finds that Singapore’s competencies fit well into the three broad categories proposed by Hilton and Pellegrino; hence, it demonstrates that Singapore’s 21CC framework is grounded in a universal psychological framework for the 21st century despite being based on locally-sourced evidence.
3.3.2 21st Century Teacher Education
Teacher education programs have been around since the nineteenth century, but how and why teacher education impacts students is not self-evident to many; therefore, teacher education is often the subject of criticism for being ineffective despite being a prerequisite to teach. In fact, even in developed education systems, changes to the teacher education system happen much later or less rigorously. To dispel the myth that anyone can be a teacher and that teacher education systems are unnecessary and ineffective, Darling-Hammond (2000) published an article discussing evidence supporting the claim that teacher education results in teacher effectiveness, which in turn improves student outcomes. This article—aptly produced at the turn of the millennium—found that “teaching for problem solving, invention, and application of knowledge requires teachers with deep and flexible knowledge of subject matter who understand how to represent ideas in powerful ways and organize a productive learning process for students who start with different levels and kinds of prior knowledge, assess how and what students are learning, and adapt instruction to different learning approaches” (Darling-Hammond, 2000, p. 166–7). The idea that teachers require “deep and flexible knowledge” from Darling-Hammond is central to teaching and learning in the 21st century if students are expected to possess the 21st century skills discussed in the previous section. A similar logic is found to be the impetus for Singapore’s teacher education reform. TE21 is the product of a prevalent notion when TSLN was introduced, which is the realization that ‘21st century learners call for 21st century teachers’ (NIE, 2009).
Over the following years, several articles and books were published proposing the incorporation of 21st century competencies into teacher education programs, and these writings collectively carved the definition of 21st century teacher education. Darling-Hammond and Bransford (2007) published a formative report commissioned by the National Academy for Education titled Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able To Do, which provides common elements that should be part of a teacher education curriculum. The authors propose a framework that recommends new teachers in the 21st century to have a basic understanding of learning sciences, language acquisition, diversity in learning, classroom management, innovative assessments, the use of technology in classrooms—all of these in addition to deep and flexible subject matter knowledge (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2007). With Darling-Hammond and Bransford (2007) providing a framework for teacher education curriculum, Korthagen, Loughran and Russell (2006) attempted to identify common fundamental principles that should be inculcated in teacher education programs to produce teachers who are responsive in a dynamic manner for the 21st century. The authors provide seven simple yet thought-provoking principles about learning that shifts the mindset of teachers to continuously strive for their students’ successes while embodying 21st century skills themselves. The principles are: learning about teaching involves continuously conflicting and competing demands, requires a view of knowledge as a subject to be created rather than as a created subject, requires a shift in focus from the curriculum to the learner, is enhanced through student-teacher research, requires an emphasis on those learning to teach working closely with their peers, requires meaningful relationship between schools, universities and student teachers, and is enhanced when the teaching and learning approaches advocated in the program are modelled by the teacher educators in their own practice (Korthagen et al., 2006). Parallels in the types of innovative student assessment methods can be drawn between Darling-Hammond and Bransford (2007), (Korthagen et al., 2006) and the teacher education reform in Singapore, specifically on how to teach the differences between formative and summative assessments that are viable options for the 21st century. A combination of the different types of assessments bode well with the goal of building students’ unique characters in the values-driven, student-centric phase because students will be forced to reflect on their progress and the final outcome simultaneously. In an education system that has singularly focused on final examinations as the only method of assessment, innovative formative components, such as wholesome learner’s portfolios, can shift the culture in schools and instil new values.
Further adding to the repertoire of teacher education models is Hoban (2007)‘s book, The Missing Links in Teacher Education Design: Developing a Multi-linked Conceptual Framework. This book focuses on the common gaps across teacher education programs, specifically in university curriculum, the theory-practice links between schools and university, the diversity in teacher education programs, and the personal narratives of teachers and teacher educators that shape their identities. The content of each chapter zooms into a particular teacher education program and the link that they were trying to make between stakeholders in their context. The authors for each case also briefly discuss the challenges they face, which include issues with securing buy-ins from various organizations and teaching bodies to realize the program. In Singapore’s teacher education reform, it is evident that the challenges within these different contexts were thoroughly studied as a unique tripartite relationship was proposed to bring the equal weight of the MOE, the NIE and schools together in order to minimize friction between different entities while strengthening the theory-practice link within the local context (NIE, 2009).
While the surveyed literature was written about and for the Western context, Prof. Tan and Prof. Low explained how useful the key findings and recommendations were when the NIE was adapting and contextualizing them for Singapore with an Asian perspective in mind:
We acknowledge that a large part of research literature is still today primarily Western in orientation. But we have never shied from looking at best international ideas and asking how they can be applied to our local context. Singapore is unique from many other countries, especially Western ones, and so it is by necessity that we need to contextualize any of the international best practices and literature to our circumstances. When we contextualize, we do not change our Asian philosophy. For example, the goal of education in the Western context is freedom through individual rights. In the Asian context, the goal of education is freedom through group, family and societal cohesiveness. We are more inclined towards community harmony and the societal good as a whole. We keep to this core value of the collective welfare of all (Low & Tan, 2020).