How do Singapore, Finland, Poland & Denmark differ in their approach to STEM & 21st Century Skills?
In a few weeks, I will moderate a panel discussion for LEGO in Billund, Denmark addressing ‘Global Views on the Future of STEM learning’. The panel discussion brings together teachers from four countries – Singapore, Finland, Poland and Denmark – to discuss how they view their national approach to 21st Century Skills development in relation to ROW. In preparing for the panel, I researched with the teachers via a conference call, whilst also delving into the various MoE websites, OECD reports and other articles. Below I share what I found (and I’d love to hear your own thoughts in the comments).
Top of the PISA tables for STEM
Singapore came top of the 2016 PISA table. It was 1 of 12 countries from 72 that saw its Science marks go up since 2006. Around 1 in 10 students across OECD countries, and 1 in 4 in Singapore, perform at the highest level in science. More than one in four students in Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (China), Hong Kong (China), Singapore and Chinese Taipei are top-performing students in mathematics, a higher share than anywhere else. The results are relatively balanced between boys and girls.
Ministry of Education: Focus on 21st Century Competencies and Applied Learning, as well as Civic Values
The Ministry of Education aims to help our students to discover their own talents, to make the best of these talents and realise their full potential, and to develop a passion for learning that lasts through life. We seek to help every child find his own talents, and grow and emerge from school confident of his abilities. We will encourage them to follow their passions, and promote a diversity of talents among them – in academic fields, and in sports and the arts.
We want to nurture young Singaporeans who ask questions and look for answers, and who are willing to think in new ways, solve new problems and create new opportunities for the future. And, equally important, we want to help our young to build up a set of sound values so that they have the strength of character and resilience to deal with life’s inevitable setbacks without being unduly discouraged, and so that they have the willingness to work hard to achieve their dreams.
Minister of Education: Ng Chee Meng, Minister for Education (Schools)
Quote from representative teacher:
We work to the mastery of subjects not just passing or enquiry
Demographics: Ageing population, with falling birth rate. Exposure to global ideas as an international business hub. As at end-June, the proportion of residents aged 65 years and over has increased from 8.4% in 2006 to 12.4% in 2016. There are now fewer working-age adults to support each resident aged 65 years and over as indicated by the falling resident old-age support ratio from 7.8 in 2006 to 5.4 in 2016.
National Programmes – Applied Learning Programme (ALP), Learning for Life Programme (LLP), and Smart Nation
Singapore focuses heavily on what others might call ‘real-world’ problem solving. Here’s how they describe their vision for applied learning:
Applied Learning refers to an approach that emphasises authentic and practice-oriented learning experiences, and is not necessarily restricted to vocational or technical education. It gives students additional opportunities to acquire skills and qualities based on the practical application of knowledge in real-world contexts, and strongly supports our focus on developing 21st century competencies and values in our students.
Applied Learning in schools is characterised by these features:
- Emphasises the relevance of what is being learnt to current needs and future trends of industries;
- Provides hands-on or experiential learning for students to enact authentic scenarios;
- Equips students with the skills to engage in the practical application of knowledge; and
- Could involve partnering the industry, community, institutions of higher learning, and/or professional training bodies.
While the Applied Learning approach is integrated within the various subjects studied in school, additional opportunities for students to experience applied learning include the Applied Learning Programme (ALP) and Learning for Life Programme (LLP) in both primary and secondary schools, Applied Subjects, Advanced Elective Modules (AEM) and Elective Modules (EM) for secondary school students.
Whilst STEM is front and centre in these programmes, with Computing and Electronics, other subjects including Retail, Sports Science and Drama also feature.
Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative was officially launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2014. In January 2016, the second trial of educational robots at a cost of S$1.5m (£840,000) across 160 nurseries formed part of the Smart Nation Programme. The initiative was started to get nursery children ready for collaborative work and ‘to encourage children to be more creative with technology.’
Singapore has also invested heavily in artificial intelligence, and an AI advisor features on the Ministry of Education’s Steering Committee on future skills and applied learning.
Move away from ‘Over-Dependence on Examinations’
Whilst topping the PISA tables for STEM subjects, Singapore also topped the PISA tables for school work anxiety. From 2021 onwards, the Primary School Leavers Examination (PSLE) will be scored with wider bands and the scores will reflect the student’s individual performance and not his performance relative to his peers.
High Value on Teachers and Teaching, Reward Incentives for Raising Colleagues PD
Collaborative CPD In Singapore, an elite group of “master teachers” are responsible for helping other teachers in the school system to improve. Those teachers train mentors and other leaders within the system, who in turn work with newer teachers to develop their skills.
Singapore recruits its teachers from the top third of high school graduates. Each year, Singapore calculates the number of teachers it will need, and opens only that many spots in the training programs. Teaching is a highly-respected profession in Singapore, not simply because it is part of the Confucian culture to value teachers, but because everyone knows how hard it is to become a teacher. The bonuses are based on Singapore’s rather sophisticated teacher appraisal system in which teachers are evaluated annually in 16 areas, including in the contributions they make to the school and community. Teachers’ salaries in Singapore are largely commensurate with other professions. The maximum salary for a lower secondary teacher is twice the GDP per capita, indicating that teacher compensation is generally quite strong.
Performance-related bonuses for teachers, based on the above criteria, can be up to 30% of base salary. Teachers can also participate in as many as 100 hours of professional development per year. On the third year of teaching, teachers are asked which route they would like to develop into: the highest level of teacher, school-leader, or researcher. To progress is no easy task, and requires an understanding of ‘real-world’ problem solving again:
Vice principals on the verge of being promoted to principals participate in a two-day simulation test and interview process that requires them to demonstrate their capability to respond to real-world scenarios.
Verdict: Singapore takes STEM extremely seriously, reflected in its investment in teacher training and 21st Century national programmes. It is top of the PISA table for STEM subjects at the time of writing, but also diversifying its approach to reduce impact on student anxiety. It has a good track record on equality between boys/girls and immigrant education. It has a very well embedded and collaborative teacher training programme. It will be interesting to see how it fairs on the 2017 global competency category for PISA’s table, published in a few months.
Finland still among the top of the PISA tables, but Scientific literacy among young people in Finland has dropped from the 2006 level prompted new Government initiatives
Finland’s average score in scientific literacy has dropped by 32 score points relative to 2006, when the focus was last on science performance. The drop amounts to nearly one full academic year’s performance. The PISA assessment shows that every year the basic skills in scientific literacy of over 6,000 students in Finland are inadequate. This increases the risk of coping with further studies and with the demands of modern working life. Girls did better than boys. 2/3rds of those who did poorly in Science were boys. Relative to all the participating countries and economies, Finnish girls were second best after girls in Singapore. In the comparisons among boys, Finnish boys came in tenth place.
Ministry of Education: 2016 sees introduction of new curriculum. Focus on Learner-Centred, Comprehensive Education to Improve Student Motivation
In Finland, motivation plays a part in student performance whereas in the OECD countries socio-economic background had the greatest effect. Motivation and knowledge form a self-perpetuating cycle, where motivation improves knowledge and knowledge fuels motivation. This is a cycle that should be achieved as early as possible, says Professor Jouni Välijärvi.
Reform of the comprehensive school has the Government ‘key project’ stamp of approval, with implications for teacher CPD, curriculum and international vision.
In future, there is more internationality in schools, children start learning languages earlier and everyone can go on student exchange, Minister of Education Sanni Grahn-Laasonen
In 2016 a new curriculum was introduced, famously less subject-focused than previous curriculums and more multi-disciplinary:
The world surrounding school has changed essentially since the beginning of the 21st century – the effects of globalisation and the challenges of a sustainable future
Focus of the curriculum reforms:
Rethinking the learning conception • Importance of students own experiences and activities, feelings and joy • Importance of working together, learning to learn in dialogue with others • Renewing the idea of learning environment Rethinking the school culture and the relationship between the school and the community • School as a learning community • Diverse and open cooperation Rethinking the roles, goals and content of school subjects • Transversal competences to support the identity development and the ability to live in a sustainable way
Quote from representative teacher from Finland:
Finland is trying to teach STEM learning through the curriculum. There is a lot of effort to try to keep up with the world and be on time with relevant education. Digital skills. The local education dept. of Helsinki is funding for laptops. Their school doesn’t have 1:1, but quite a few.
Minister of Education: Sanni Grahn-Laasonen
Demographics: Ageing population
The key project aims to renew comprehensive education, learning environments and teachers’ competence. Digitalisation is to be promoted, Schools on the Move Project expanded and language education increased and diversified.
The reform focuses on three things:
- new pedagogy,
- new learning environments and
- digital learning.
The objective is to improve learning results, respond to future competence needs, renew pedagogy through experimentation and turn learning into an inspiring life-long process.
The key project supports schools and municipalities to make it easier for them to apply solutions that promote digital learning. Experiments on new pedagogy, digital learning and new learning environments will be launched. The New Comprehensive School action plan provides the guidelines for the support and implementation of the new core curricula for Finnish basic education. The objective is to turn the Finnish comprehensive school in to a learner-centred education system with the most competent teachers in the world and an open and collaborative school culture.
Teacher Competence and CPD
Part of the Comprehensive Education programme. The objectives are:
Finnish teachers are future-oriented and broad-based experts who create new pedagogical innovations and diversely utilise new learning environments. They are constantly developing their own competence and their working community. Teachers have in-depth knowledge of their field, pedagogical aptitude and knowledge of values. Teachers have courage to develop and experiment with things. They have the ability to apply new teaching innovations and skill to change their own actions. Teachers use the latest research and evaluations in developing themselves, their working community and their educational institution. Teachers’ work is supported by an extensive network, which the teachers can use to seek help from others as well as share and combine their competence at the national and international level.
A total of EUR 90 million will be spent for the implementation of the project New Comprehensive School during this government term.
Other notable initiatives in Maths and Engineering:
A national development programme LUMA Finland has been launched to support children’s and youths’ competence in mathematics and natural sciences. The programme will be introduced all over the country in the beginning of 2017. The programme supports inquiry-based learning in natural sciences, mathematics and technology education all the way from early childhood education and care to the final grade of the comprehensive school. A total of EUR 5 million have been reserved for the implementation of the programme in 2014-2019.
A new university network in the field of engineering, FITech Turku, will be established in Finland. The purpose of the network is to attract more experts with an academic degree in the field of engineering to Southwestern Finland through concrete measures. The objective is to ensure that the supply of educated experts in the field of engineering meets the demand for these experts in the growth sectors in Southwestern Finland. The working group having prepared the establishment of the university network submitted its plan to Minister of Education Sanni Grahn-Laasonen on 21 August.
Verdict: Finland has avoided panic when confronted by a slip in Science Literacy, instead embracing initiatives which seek to improve student engagement ,as well as teacher readiness, for 21st Century skills needs. Aware of their size limitations on a global stage, they have put emphasis on languages, and openness to international relationship building. Time will be the judge on these new initiatives and how they bed in. Finland retains its place as a forward-thinking, pedagogy-first education.
Poland – now among top in Science and Maths, following extensive reforms in 1999, but independent problem solving a new focus
Traditionally, in Poland the school system channelled most pupils into basic vocational training through an emphasis on employment where most pupils left studying at the age of 15. By the 1990s Poland had one of the lowest participatory rates of pupils in full secondary and university education. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 2000, Poland scored well below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. (see the OECD/Pearson report: http://www.pearsonfoundation.org/oecd/poland.html).
However, following extensive reforms since 1999, Poland now leads the UK in the latest 2015 PISA rankings for Maths and Reading, lagging only slightly behind the UK in Science. The reforms focused on three strands namely, aiming for educational opportunity for all, improving the quality of education and raising secondary and higher education participation.
Ministry of Education: 2016 sees introduction of new curriculum.
The current Government is seeking to reverse many of the 1999 reforms in ways which critics say will lead to introspective, nationalistic agendas. Programming since primary school has been introduced:
Abolishing middle schools will cost jobs among the country’s 684,000 teachers. But Slawomir Broniarz, president of the Polish Teachers’ Union, says the biggest issue is the “embarrassing” new curriculum. “This is not the Poland of the 21st century,” he says.
Quote from representative teacher:
STEM learning doesn’t exist in Poland. Very divided and not connected to each other. Depends on the teachers. Schools are case by case. Last year we got the new curriculum. From primary school we learn programming. Government didn’t give any tools to do this. Not the equipment or the budget. Science, Maths, separately. Poland new Government since last year – investigate. 21c skills. Three languages – mother, English and programming. Cross-curriculum there is a fear of this, as the tests are very particular.
Frugal reforms and spending
All this has been achieved with stable levels of education spending, at about 5 percent of GDP and below the OECD average.
Poland well-positioned on cognitive skills, but needs to improve in self-directedness and equity
Poland’s performance in problem solving in the 2012 PISA assessment was below the OECD average. It will be interesting to see how it fares on Global Competency in the 2017 report. There is also disparity between teaching quality in mainstream and vocational schools: vocational focus should not come at the expense of reading and mathematics. Students can only be successful in learning vocational skills if they have strong cognitive skills. Socioeconomic background also still matters for performance.
Minister of Education: Anna Zalewska
Demographics: If current Polish birthrates were to continue amid a trend of emigration, the population would shrink by 13.5 percent to around 33 million by 2060 (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-09/poland-s-taking-a-stand-against-europe-s-demographic-decline)
Notable STEM Initiatives
Women in STEM programmes
Several projects have been initiated in Poland to foster women’s participation in scientific programmes and strengthen a scientific career. The Ministry of Science and Higher Education in cooperation with ELLE magazine has granted scholarships for outstanding female researchers in the contest ‘Girls of the Future, following the path of Maria Skłodowska -Curie”. The aim of the initiative was to identify and reward young, talented women – students in technical, medical and life sciences who conduct independent, innovative research and hold impressive scientific achievements in the fields that are commonly associated with the world of men. The Conference of Rectors of Polish Technical Universities runs a program ‘Girls at technical universities”, elaborating lists of ‘women-friendly’ technical universities, and establishing dedicated contact points and information campaigns for potential candidates.
More girls than boys expect to have a Science-related career.
Repatriation programme for young Polish Scientists
The National Agency for Academic Exchange (Narodowa Agencja Wymiany Akademickiej, NAWA) will help young Polish scientists return to Poland, among other things by offering the guarantee of employment – told PAP Deputy Minister of Science Aleksander Bobko. NAWA is one of the flagship projects of the ministry. (See demographics issues)…
“Making games is more fun than playing” – argue the initiators of the social campaign “programuj.gov.pl”, which has launched in Warsaw. Its aim is to encourage young people and their parents to engage in programming.
“Programuj.gov.pl” is a joint initiative of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Ministry of Digital Affairs, Industrial Development Agency and the National Centre for Research and Development, carried out in cooperation with the Warsaw Film School. Within its framework, two spots prepared to encourage programming have been made available on the website: http://programuj.gov.pl/
Verdict: Poland has done an impressive amount with relatively little investment. The next challenge is utilising STEAM aspects more than STEM to ensure that problem solving and creative thinking is also strengthened. This will be alongside their investment to get families growing to battle current demographic challenges.
Marked improvement for Denmark – especially in Mathematics, but still lagging on equity for Immigrants
Denmark went above the OECD average for maths, science and reading for the first time ever, with the 2015 results. In these results, Denmark was ranked number seven in mathematics, number 15 in science and number 15 in reading. The results followed previous school reforms from 2014, with longer school days of 30hours+ and a focus on Danish, Maths, Languages and Physical activity. It was deemed inconclusive at the time of the PISA results whether the improvements were as a result of the reforms (put in place under a different Government).
Current Ministry of Education Vision:
The Danish education system is based on self-governing institutions and an independent, decentralised responsibility for education. There is a strong focus on ‘life-long learning’:
Denmark is one of the countries where most people participate in education: adult education and continuing training, on-the-job competence development, and liberal adult education activities in their leisure time.
It is the Government’s aim that the education system, from pre-school to higher education, ensures that all young people receive a high-quality education and a solid foundation for engaging in lifelong education. The education system should also contribute to fostering a learning culture that promotes creativity, independence and responsibility. There must be cohesion between the various education pathways and levels such that the individual can obtain qualifications and competences. The Government has set the following specific goals for all levels of the education system– from pre-school to university level higher education.
All young people are to gain knowledge and skills that provide them with the basis for actively taking part in a globalised world.
Quote from representative teacher:
I would like to be able to have all the remedies and finance I need to teach programming.
Minister of Education: Merete Riisager Andersen
Demographics: The ratio of the population aged 65 and over to the population aged 20-64 is projected to increase from 30% in 2012 to 43% in 2050. Even so, the ageing process is slower than in many other OECD countries, making Denmark better positioned to meet the demographic challenge.
Denmark recognises STEM through National Initiatives and Investment in Science and Maths Teacher Training
Centre for Science, Technology and Health
Recent data about university graduates in STEM gives an indication of progress made, with 15 Member States showing a rise in the share of university graduates in STEM related subjects from 2006 to 2012. Some of these countries have been quite active in the field, for example Denmark, Germany and Portugal have developed a wide range of initiatives under the umbrella of either a National Strategy or a National Centre. Portugal set up the National Agency for Science and Technology Centre (Ciência Viva) in 1996, Germany has had a national strategy in place since 2006, and Denmark set up a Centre for Science, Technology and Health more recently in 2009.
Czech Republic, Denmark, France are expected to have the highest proportion of job openings for STEM associate professionals – ranging from 10 % to 5 %.
Science Team K 2003-2006
Through the joint efforts of many people, and in particular the efforts
of Danish Science Communication, the project called “Science Team K”
was born with a double purpose: To increase interest in science among
young people in the local area around Kalundborg city. And, at the same
time, to do this in a manner that would render itself to effect measurements
and other evaluations so that the results – both good and bad
– could be made available to all interested parties. The Lundbeck Foundation originally granted 7.9 DKK (approx. 1 mill.
Euro) to the project. Following the initial positive impressions of the
project’s development, an additional 1.0 mill. DKK was granted in order
to secure more lasting effects, and to finance the ongoing statisticalinvestigation
of students’ career choices. The foundation has been
pleased to see that local political leaders have taken steps to continue
the efforts to improve young peoples interest in science. The Lundbeck
Foundation has subsequently granted 5.1 mill. DKK to a project aimed
at supporting the development of science in high schools in Denmark
(“Danske Science Gymnasier”).
The project consisted of five major project elements, which represented different efforts to develop new ways of teaching science as well as improving conditions for science teaching so that science teachers were able to develop professionally: –
- Teacher initiatives
- Teacher training courses
- Cooperation with private enterprises
- Involving school and municipal administration
Increased focus on teacher professional development
The continuing education of teachers in public schools was the target of the Danish Government. The objective of the initiatives was to provide teachers with a specialisation in science or mathematics – although other specialisations could be also followed. During the three year implementation period, more than 800 teachers gained a science subject specialisation. 430 teachers also finished courses which qualified them to be science guidance counsellors.
The Nordic Lighthouse Project – Sharing evidence-based teaching practices and research
The Nordic Lighthouse Project aims to effectively increase the amount of relevant research available to educational practitioners such as teachers, school principals, students, researchers, municipalities and other Nordic stakeholders. This is done by facilitating the distribution of existing educational research-based knowledge between Nordic countries. By making research-based knowledge more accessible and practice-oriented, the projects aims at inspiring professionals in the field of education to find new, exciting research within their field and to develop their practice further.