Monday, March 02, 2015

The problem with skills-based education.

One of the more populist changes made to the education is skills-based education.

Skills-based education is a very attractive idea. If a person is skilled or qualified enough to do the job, he should be entitled to it. The middle class, middle income voter is more likely to support it if it subtly promises to overhaul the perceived unhappiness about the education system or 'meritocracy'.

One idea which is repeatedly flashed on my FB feed is the idea that our best students are exam smart, lack emotional intelligence and practical skills. Our top students are just simply sponges who rely on memory to get ahead of the curve.

I don't think a skills-based education and associated ideas can resolve the problems of the middle class. If you are in your late thirties or early forties like me and harbor fantasies that you are a unique snowflake with awesome technical skills but is constantly brought low by the education system and the elites, you probably need to take a good look at your own life-choices before casting blame at the government or the policy makers.

That being said, here are some brutal hard truths which some readers might find hard to swallow.

a) An education system not only has to train citizens, it also has to sort citizens based on conscientiousness and general intelligence, traits which are useful in nation building.

The first hard truth is that even if someone is skilled enough to do something that pays well, the fact that many people with the minimal skill-set are available just means that some folks with the skills cannot be matched with the job. The employer can choose an employee with better communication skills and is more conscientious ( with higher paper qualifications ) to pick up the job.

The case in IT is simple, there are many systems engineers who have the NCC Diploma and can run a script or administer a server. The one who gets to become a senior systems engineer can track his servers on spreadsheet without being told  and can communicate well with the customer.

The hard truth is that another role of the education system has to sort citizens based on their conscientiousness and general intelligence independent of actual technical skills. This sorting mechanism has been refined over the years to target individuals who 'deserve' the highest paying jobs in society.

Bad news for most folks is that this sorting mechanism is actually improving, exams are getting so hard that you need to be a pretty talented person to balance school with CCA activities. Just look at the PSLE maths questions these days, I bet even teachers need guidance on how to solve them.  

b) A skills based education does not mean that rote learning is defunct. 

When I was managing operations in SGX, I had an incident that the counter M41 was down, When discussing the incident, I was able to explain to the customer that some folks cannot buy or sell the MIIF counter. The SGX staff were impressed that I did not need to refer to the ISIN file to know what a stock counter refers to, but they are not aware that I am a dividends investor who know my codes due to time I spent monitoring my portfolio.

As someone back in the education system studying to become a lawyer, there is a misconception that we rely a lot on memorizing the code of laws to do our work. Nothing can be further from the truth,

The objective of professional mastery ( and I should be qualified to say this as I am trained to be an engineer, investment analyst and now trying to be a lawyer ) is met by creating a knowledge framework. This requires the ability to sort information and engineer some form of hierarchy to store them in a logical manner to assist in problem solving and recall.

In software engineering, it can be understanding data structures in a framework of classes and knowing how instantiate the right object to solve a engineering problem. The solution requires an assembly of the database, business logic layer and a presentation layer. No solution is workable without consideration for user friendliness and ergonomics.

In finance, various asset classes can be commonly described by statistical properties like the mean, variance, skew and kurtosis. These assets are then assembled into portfolios, which ultimately are aligned with a person's life goals.

In law, offer, acceptance, consideration and intention to create legal relations form the contract, which are vitiated by factors like mistake, misrepresentation, illegality and duress which are then broken down into further sub-categories. Chunking up from contracts is the notion that some promises need to be enforced by society.

Regardless of what field we are in, general intelligence picks up  the concept, generates the hierarchical trees in the form of Mind-maps and then commits the resultant chunks into memory.

Learning cannot be distanced from rote learning. But with a high general intelligence you can chunk your knowledge into components that make rote learning possible and effortless.

c) Even if skills-based education is properly implemented, it would not resolve a person's unhappiness with the system. 

I think this is the most brutal part of my essay.

I'm starting to see patterns in some of my anti-government friends and their own frustrations that would lead them to do horrible things like curse an old man on his hospital bed and spread news about his death even when it has not been confirmed by the press. Worse, they delight on seeing the son get diagnosed with cancer. My dad has a stroke about 3 years ago, even if I disagree with PM Lee's policies I should be human enough to acknowledge his pain at the prospect of losing his dad.

Back to my philistine friends, the change they want is neither fairness nor equality. The change they want is something that will put them on top. On top means big flashy cars, branded watches and effortless living ( via wining Toto ! ).

With ASPIRE and a skills-based education system, what would happen is that ITEs, Polys and JCs will be given more or less equal standing within 20 years, all of which would provide a reasonable chance of getting into a university. The effect is that the pool of talent in the top 20% of the cohort will then redistribute themselves evenly between the three institutions. The top 25% will continue into University and still take on the best paying jobs the market.

But regardless of how the education change, hierarchies remain the same.

Some stigmatization would end, but the corporate will develop new forms of discrimination. In the future, companies in Singapore may refuse to hire Australian graduates or local graduates with no honors classification.

In conclusion no government, PAP, WP, SFP or NSP can put my Phillistine friends on top of hierarchy.

Hope you've enjoyed this brutal essay.

Gong Xi Fa Cai !


  1. Chris,

    "But regardless of how the education change, hierarchies remain the same."

    Ain't it the truth!

    The communists tried it and it's still same old same old.

    Just swap "Chairman" for President or King and we are all good!

  2. Love your hard hitting points Chris. What would be the alternatives to a skills based education then?

  3. Good question.

    There are no alternatives !

    Skills based education will eliminate the stigma associated with Polys and ITE so the implementation ha to go on. It also gives Singaporeans the apprenticeship system they always wanted.

    There is no alternative that will allow the Phillistines the ability to buy branded goods and lead effortless lives.