Academic standards are a subject of some debate across Canada, with math scores being something of a flashpoint, and just recently elected Premier Doug Ford has promised that there will be a “back to basics” approach in Ontario.

Predictably, of course, there is a backlash from, especially, the progressive community (which includes the teachers’ unions) which argues that the so-called “discovery learning” approach is more “fair” to e.g. minorities and the socially disadvantaged than are the more traditional algorithm/practice (drill) methods.

The problem is that, in internationally used standardized tests, Canadian children are not doing as well as many would wish … but, as the BBC pointed out, lat year, we are doing a helluva lot better than many, many other countries, including the USA. Three Canadian provinces, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, ranked, in 2017, in the top five (along with Japan and Singapore) in science, but the other seven didn’t fare as well. Manitoba appears to have Canada’s weakest academic performance on the international standardized tests. But science isn’t the only subject and when one academic looked at the result he saw stagnation. A few years ago the Conference Board of Canada gave Canadian provinces these grades, based on the international standardized test scores:

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Three provinces, AB, BC and ON were good, two (NS and QC) were OK and five (MB, NB, NL, PEI and SK) were failing. If we are, indeed, stagnating, rather than falling behind, then those (2014) results may still hold true, today.

Last week The Economist looked at education and suggested that all of us, including “Finland,” which, the article says is “a country that educationalists regard as an example of how to achieve exceptional results with cuddlier methods of teaching,” should look to Singapore for guidance about how to do it right.


When the island of Singapore became an independent country in 1965,” the article in The Economist explains, “it had few friends and even fewer natural resources. How did it become one of the world’s great trading and financial centres? The strategy, explained Lee Kuan Yew, its first prime minister, was “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource: its people” … [and, as a result] … Today Singapore’s education system is considered the best in the world. The country consistently ranks at the top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries, in the main three categories of maths, reading and science. Singaporean pupils are roughly three years ahead of their American peers in maths. Singapore does similarly well in exams of younger children, and the graduates of its best schools can be found scattered around the world’s finest universities.

The Economist see three areas in which Singapore excels and in which the would might do well to follow its example. Singapore, the article days, teaches us these lessons:

  • Where other countries often enact piecemeal and uncoordinated reforms, Singapore tries to look at the system as a whole. It invests heavily in education research. All reforms are tested, with the outcomes diligently monitored, before being rolled out. Close attention is paid to how new ideas and results should be applied in schools. Carefully developed textbooks, worksheets and worked examples—practices often seen as outdated in the West—are used to inject expertise into the classroom. The result is good alignment between assessments, accountability and teaching styles;”
  • “The second lesson is to embrace Singapore’s distinctive approach to teaching, vf5btn9v-1391786284notably of mathematics—as America and England are already doing to some extent. It emphasises a narrower but deeper curriculum, and seeks to ensure that a whole class progresses through the syllabus. Struggling pupils get compulsory extra sessions to help them keep up; even the less-able do comparatively well. An analysis in 2016 in England found that the Singaporean approach boosted results, though it was somewhat watered down in transition;” and
  • The third and most important lesson is to focus on developing excellent teachers. In Singapore, they get 100 hours of training a year to keep up to date with the latest techniques. The government pays them well, too. It accepts the need for larger classes (the average is 36 pupils, compared with 24 across the OECD). Better, so the thinking goes, to have big classes taught by excellent teachers than smaller ones taught by mediocre ones. Teachers who want more kudos but not the bureaucratic burden of running schools can become “master teachers”, with responsibility for training their peers. The best teachers get postings to the ministry of education and hefty bonuses: overall, teachers are paid about the same as their peers in private-sector professions. Teachers are also subject to rigorous annual performance assessments.

With regard to the last lesson, I well recall, as a very young junior leader, over a half century ago, that being able to “teach: was regarded as a being a key part of every nie4leader’s skill set. It was assumed that we had mastered our technical skills, but what would make us leaders was, in some significant part, our ability to pass on our skills and knowledge to others. Like many others, I suffered, in schools and university and colleges from less than adequate teachers ~ they may have known the material but they had difficulty in passing it on to others. A bigger class with a better teacher would have done everyone more good. But, as the article says, “In most countries, teachers’ unions and parents are resistant to big classes, for instance. That is a shame. Education would be much better if more countries copied Singapore’s homework.” Canadian provinces, including Ontario, should look more closely at quality, not quantity.

Canada, unlike Singapore, is rich in many resources but people are the biggest, best and most flexible resource we have. People can learn new ideas and new skills, with a good, firm educational base middle aged people can be retrained to adapt to changing circumstances. Education matters and just as war is too important to be left to the generals (Clemenceau) so, too, is education too important to be left to the teachers’ unions.



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