pedagogy · Policy · Progressivism

Singapore and PISA: a policy warning for England

singapore and pisa 600 by 335In this blog,  I consider whether Singapore has implemented Western ideas better than the West, which arguably has resulted in significantly improved PISA results. Based on a tweet (see below), Greg Ashman suggested I had an unusual take on Singapore’s PISA success:

(…) Katharine Birbalsingh commented on Finland’s decline in performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and suggested it may be due to the adoption of progressivist educational methods (it will be very interesting to see how Finland went in 2018 when these figures are released next month). Peter Ford chipped in with an unusual take (see below).


Katharine Birbalsingh‘s point was Finland’s traditional approach to education had been a factor in its PISA success, but a recent more progressive approach resulted in a decline in performance. I’m not sure it is an argument backed by the available evidence.

Singapore has arguably gone in the opposite direction. Contrary to the belief of policymakers in England, such as Nick Gibb, Singapore is not a straight forward case of a South East Asian country with a traditionalist approach to education. In this blog, I look at the two contrasting cases: Finland and Singapore.

Finland’s rise and fall

Finland has been a high performer in PISA tests enjoying a significant rise in maths and Science from 2000 to 2006, but then suffered a sharp decline (see Figure 1) from 2007 to 2012. In the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking for 2015, Finland has fallen further (see Figure 1), though it remains a high performer.

Image result for finland pisa results

Figure One

In policy terms, Finland’s rise and fall occurred in a relatively brief period suggesting the cause is unlikely to be pedagogical whether traditionalist,  progressive or otherwise. It has been suggested by some Finnish experts that the changing picture relates more to economic austerity and cuts in educational spend rather than pedagogy. I doubt anyone has an answer to such a complex policy question.

The emergence of Singapore from its traditionalist past

In the tweet, I pointed to a TES article written by myself and JL Dutaut, which contrasted schools minister Nick Gibb‘s criticism of constructivism with his endorsement of  Singapore. 

Singapore previously had a  traditionalist approach but disappointing performances in international comparator studies in the early 1980s led to a major re-think. A top-down approach to planning, disseminating and enforcing education change undermined development resulting in three unhealthy trends:

  1. the “yes-man” syndrome, the acceptance of instructions without question,
  2. the over-reliance on leadership for direction, and
  3. a spoon-feeding culture.

Many educators in England will recognise both the traditionalist approach and the consequences of it.

The result in Singapore was:

(…) an education service that lacked autonomy, initiative and a general sense of detachment from policymakers. Within schools, teachers and children alike were mechanically fed by a bureaucratically designated and rigid curriculum. Not surprisingly, even by the mid-1980s, principals and teachers suffered from low morale.

A constructivist approach to Singapore’s education problem

To solve the problem, Singapore looked to best practice approaches from the West and constructivist theorists like BrunerVygotsky and Piaget. By the mid-90s, Singaporean students benefited from changes to the maths syllabus and the teaching of science. The emphasis placed on thinking skills and understanding concepts, rather than rote mastery of content paid dividends; the attrition rate for secondary schools decreased significantly from 19 per cent in 1980 to 3.5 per cent in 1999.

Gibb praised the outcomes of  Singapore‘s approach to maths not realising that a key principle of Singapore maths is the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach based on Bruner‘s 1966 enactive, iconic and symbolic modes of representation:

in the spirit of learning from the best jurisdictions in the world for teaching mathematics, I am delighted that England’s maths hubs are currently trialling 2 English adaptations of Singapore mathematics textbooks, entitled ‘Maths No Problem’ and ‘Inspire Maths’. The feedback we are getting from teachers and pupils so far is overwhelmingly positive, not least due to the workload savings that a well-designed textbook can provide.

In effect, Gibb was importing constructivist theory from Singapore whilst dismissing it at home.

In addition to constructivist teaching techniques, Singapore adopted a social constructivist approach to leadership in the late 90s, called The “Leaders in Education Programme”. It was designed to prepare outstanding individuals for school leadership and was described by Prashant Jayapragas, from the Singaporean Ministry of Education, as firmly anchored in the “social orientations of constructivism”.

By 2004,  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long called on teachers to “Teach Less” so that students might “Learn More” launching the TLLM initiative to encourage creativity and innovation. Its success resulted in over 40 countries, including the United States, adopting aspects of it.


Singapore seems to have used theory and evidence more effectively than in England; however, a prevailing cultural emphasis on knowledge and expertise tempered the adoption of progressive ideas.

Arguably, Singapore implemented Western ideas better than the West because it used evidence to adapt policymaking rather than using ideology to selectively cherry-pick evidence. Conceivably, Singapore’s most valuable lesson for policymakers in England does not relate to teaching approaches but how to implement policy.

It may well be that Nick Gibb‘s brand of  instructivism is working. I fully expect to see improvements in some areas in this weeks PISA results, but it is likely because it has tempered the extreme progressivism that preceded it rather than being a virtue in itself. The danger is more of it will simply replace one ideological disaster with another.  

Notes (where I have made different points based on different papers I have re-referenced the paper)

  1. Nick Gibb citing Singapore as high performing.
  2. Gibb blamed progressive ideas citing Jean Jacques Rousseau who “railed against traditional methods of education” for the failure of recent education.
    Gibb argues for a more traditional approach based upon the work of theorist Ed Hirsch and the psychologist DT Willingham
  3. Gibb is also been influenced by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clarke’s influential 2006 paper: “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based“.
  4. In support of teacher-led, as opposed to progressive, approaches Gibb cited evidence from 2015 PISA research: “Perhaps surprisingly, in no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to enquiry-based instruction (when they are encouraged to experiment and engage in hands-on activities) score higher in ”. What Gibb did not say was that the UK was below the OECD average in the use of enquiry-based learning whilst the highest performing nation, Singapore, was above it. Also, PISA research clearly showed a potential correlation between the adoption of enquiry learning and students with behavioural issues. The OECD research said as much “teachers may be using hands-on activities to make science more attractive to disengaged students”.
  5. In the same year, in a speech to the London Thames Maths Hub Primary Conference, Gibb identified Singapore as an antidote to progressive and constructivist practices. He also sought to praise their use of scaffolding techniques seemingly unaware that the constructivist Bruner was instrumental in the development of scaffolding. In another example of policymaking irony, Gibb seemed to be arguing for and against constructivism at the same time.
  6.  Top-down approaches leading to serious problems.
  7. From quantity to quality, the Singaporean revolution (a) Vygotsky, Piaget (b) Attrition rate.
  8. Bruner and Singapore mathematics.
  9. A social constructivist approach to leadership.
  10. TLLM.

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