It was a special day in Singapore for twelve-year-old children and their parents on November 25, 2020. This day marked a milestone for many of these students, and for some, it was a critical turning point in their lives. This was the day of release of the PSLE results. PSLE, which stands for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (primary school in Singapore is mostly equivalent to elementary school in the United States), is a series of examinations which twelve-year-old students in Singapore have to take to determine their middle schools and their future paths. Students with higher scores would participate in a more rigorous academic curriculum in their middle schools, while other students enroll in a curriculum more geared towards equipping them with technical skills. The former option is often perceived as the one with better long-term prospects. Thus, the stakes of the PSLE are high, and students are put under tremendous pressure to excel academically at a very early age. This stressful education environment is not unique to Singapore. In many other countries, such as that of Korea and China, excellent academic results remain a key focus of education. To better understand the education landscape in these societies, we can examine the causes and impacts of this trend and identify current efforts to move away from such heavy emphasis on grades.
The education systems in these countries play a pivotal role in producing the high pressure education environment. The aforementioned example of Singapore, with its differentiated middle school curriculum, exemplifies how the education system itself encourages differentiation using academic grades as a key criterion. Similarly, in China, the ‘Gaokao’, also known as the National College Entrance Examination, is a high-stakes examination that determines the colleges students attend. In China, students who attend the best universities in the ‘985’ category are highly regarded in society and thus most of them have the best development prospects. However, to enter these selective universities, students are solely evaluated based on their ‘Gaokao’ grades. As can be seen, in countries such as China, the stressful learning environment is an inevitable by-product of the high-stakes method of assessment employed.
However, such structural factors have then shaped societal perceptions. Parents also see academic results as a key determining factor of their children’s success. This exacerbates the situation, as parents intervene in their children’s education in a bid to help them score better. This is evidenced from the booming tutoring industries in these societies. Parents sign their children up for enrichment lessons, hoping that these would give their children additional assistance to perform better in school. In Korea, there is a hagwon culture, where most students attend these cram schools on top of formal schooling to receive additional academic guidance. In Singapore, the tutoring industry is worth 1.4 billion SGD (approximately 1 billion USD). (1) This lucrative industry underscores how there is massive demand for opportunities to improve one’s grades. The societal mindset which prizes academic achievements is thus another reason that has brought about such stressful learning environments.
While it is recognized that overwhelming stress is unavoidable when there is much emphasis placed on excelling academically, the excessive focus on academic performance also brings about other implications. It is a concern that students might be learning through rote memorization of content without fully understanding the information just so as to be able to successfully regurgitate key facts in their tests. The focus on excelling academically might also limit chances for students to pick up soft skills and develop interests outside of school.
Therefore, given that such repercussions are increasingly acknowledged by the governments and schools alike, there is a positive and gradual trend in these societies to shift away from an education system that solely values academic achievements. There are structural revamps put in place to ensure a more holistic education for students. In Singapore, students transitioning to Junior Colleges or Polytechnics (institutions for high school education) take the O Levels Examination, and students get added bonuses to their grades if they have also attained stellar results in their extracurriculars. Middle school students are thus incentivized to actively participate in clubs and volunteer to help the less fortunate, and this then encourages learning beyond the classroom.
While such shifts mark a step in the right direction towards a less academic-centric approach in education, a paradigm shift in societal mindset is also needed to enable both students and their parents to truly embrace a more diverse and holistic education. Changes in these perceptions might come more slowly, especially since prioritizing academics has long been the norm. However, given that concrete steps have been taken to gradually transform these academically-centric societies, perhaps this trend will persist in the long run, and then successfully convince these societies to pursue a well-rounded education.