When Japan cut classroom hours and introduced more flexible learning in the 1980s, under a policy which it called the Yutori – which means “relax” – students’ scores dropped. Parents tried to compensate by sending them to cram schools to make up for the decline in rigour in the regular classroom.
In recent years, the UK educational authority has also come under criticism for relaxing the school syllabus, in particular, the mathematics syllabus too much. It seems that every time the curriculum is simplified and exam questions made easier, several years down the road, students and parents still complain they are too hard, because teachers are now teaching less in response to the reduced scope of the curriculum. A vicious cycle is thus set into motion — one that Singapore should avoid.
Director-General of Education Mr Wong Siew Hoong has stated previously that Singapore has learnt from these lessons and appreciates the fact that attempting to lessen the burden on students should not come at the expense of academic rigour.
In MOE schools, mid year exams are being scrapped at many levels and full subject-based banding will replace streaming in secondary schools. Former education minister Ong Ye Kung also stated that schools will gradually shift away from an overemphasis on grades and assessment, and invigorate the classroom through applied and inquiry-based learning. All this is done to modernize Singapore’s approach to education and reduce unnecessary or unhealthy levels of stress on students even while academic rigour is maintained.
We should also expect the mathematics curriculum in particular to gradually evolve over the coming years to include more topics in applications of maths to real life problems, and de-emphasize the need to cram too many formulas into the syllabus. But drilling, repetition, and constant practice will always remain at the heart of learning mathematics as this is one subject in which foundational skills must be mastered to a reasonable degree of competency before progress can be made.
To summarize, in the coming years, we should expect the school curriculum, and the mathematics syllabus in particular, to include a wider diversity of topics but without overburdening the student, and at the same time, to continue to emphasize the need for a strong foundation of skills and knowledge.