Commentary: Making Applied Learning the DNA of education

Commentary: Making Applied Learning the DNA of education

On the back of the Ministry of Education's announcement that all primary schools will have an Applied Learning Programme in five years, SUTD's Nachamma Sockalingam says there are aspects that can be strengthened.

SINGAPORE: Imagine this scenario - a teacher gives the following math problem sum to his students: “There are 15 crows on a tree. One is shot. How many are left?”

Student A responds that the answer is 14. Student B responds zero. Who is correct?

In a traditional system, Student A would have gotten the full mark and Student B zero. But Student B’s reasoning that in a real-life situation, all the (remaining) crows would have flown away right after and that there would be zero remaining on the tree, is not wrong.

Call it being street-smart versus exam-smart. Does our current education system encourage and accept such lateral thinking?


We know that being exam smart is not the same as being able to apply what we have learnt to real life. And so, we often see that many who have succeeded in school may not necessarily succeed in life - not just in the monetary sense. Life is a lot more complex than what we learn in textbooks.

In that case, do we need schools? Yes, because we still need to gain fundamental knowledge and skills. Then the question is, is it possible to teach the real-world in the classroom?

On the flipside, topics in textbooks can also be complex or distant to the point where one does not understand the use of learning these topics. 

Take for example factorisation, thermodynamics or plant cell-reproduction taught in primary and secondary schools. While these topics are routine, how many of us have applied knowledge in these topics to real-life situations? 

Mayflower 1
Mayflower Primary has been making adjustments to its operations to cater for six Primary 1 pupils with hearing loss who joined the school this year. (Photo: Rachelle Lee)

Many of us learn for exam’s sake and perhaps even get an A, but forget whatever we have learnt subsequently. It is almost like the knowledge has evaporated away. Why is this so? What has gone missing in our education system?

One likely reason is we have not put to use what we have learnt. In fact, we may have not actually learnt. What we may have done is to “pick up” information and be able to regurgitate but we have not really internalised and figured how to use the information - that is convert it to “knowledge”.

And we may not know how to apply it outside of the classroom. So how can learning be long-lasting?


Educational psychologists suggest that “deep learning” could be the answer. Deep learning is characterised by not only knowing facts, but being able to identify related facts, to connect and draw relationships, and to derive abstraction and apply what is being learnt to new situations.

In this approach, students learn not just the facts, but develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that can be applied to real-life situations. Deep learning could make learning fun, engaging and meaningful as students can relate to what they learn.

Not convinced that being able to apply what we are learning is important for deep learning? Ask yourself what were the effective learning moments in your life. Take a paper, jot down these points and note the commonalities.

It could be any or all of these - when what you have learnt made sense to you (and sometimes it is the experience of failure), when you figured something new, when you were actually physically doing something and not just reading or listening to fill up with new information, when you connected what you learnt that to other aspects of your life, or when you could see the benefit from the knowledge you have gained.

So, what type of learning experience would you think is good for students - rote learning or deep learning? This is what the Applied Learning Programme announced by the Ministry of Education two weeks ago seems to address. 

According to the Education Ministry, it seeks to encourages learning that:

  1. Emphasises the relevance of what is being learnt to current needs and future trends of industries;
  2. Provides hands-on or experiential learning for students to enact authentic scenarios;
  3. Equips students with the skills to engage in the practical application of knowledge; and
  4. Could involve partnering the industry, community, institutions of higher learning, and/or professional training bodies.

The Applied Learning Programme is not new. It is already adopted in all secondary schools, and has been implemented in some primary schools since 2013. What is new is the announcement that it will be rolled out to all primary schools by 2023. 

primary student
What more can be done to level up children from disadvantaged backgrounds? (Photo: TODAY)

READ: A commentary on whether true change in our education system is elusive.


The move by our Ministry of Education is in the right direction and is laudable. However, there are some aspects we could look into further.

First, there is no common curriculum or concerted organisation of how ALP is implemented across schools. Each school works on niche areas. A general trend is toward the science, technology and maths subjects with a minority focusing on humanities, arts and social sciences, and others like business entrepreneurship.  

The question is - is it possible to have a more holistic approach to ALP in primary and secondary level at a national-level?

While all schools offer ALP, not all students may be involved in ALP because it is not compulsory. How can we expand this to all students? 

Second, the ALP may be implemented as an additional programme to a school's base curriculum and co-curricular activities - which may mean additional time at school will be asked of students. 

But is it possible to integrate ALP as part of the curricular subjects rather than have ALP as an additional programme? 

Consider this from a student’s point of view. What does it say if ALP is a separate programme instead of being integrated with core curricula when we extol the benefits of applied learning?

Traditionally, we have always used project work in schools which are supposed to be hands-on and relevant to real-world situations. But consider that many of such projects are worked on by students independently over holiday periods – without much support or discussion with teachers. The resulting learning may not be deep if it is not well-facilitated and supported. 

At the same time, the role of an educator in this new model of applied learning is more a facilitator than a teacher. How are we supporting the teachers?

An assessment of applied learning would also be very different from traditional subjects. Assessments need not just be for grading – but for learning, to help determine what students have learnt and not, and support accordingly. 

Going back to the earlier math problem on crows, one could consider it from a purely mathematical problem perspective or from a dynamic environment modelling perspective. Both the answers are correct. So, how can we move beyond examining content knowledge and correct answers to include process skills such as reasoning? 

The current decision of having ALP as a non-examinable subject for primary schools attempts to overcome the challenges in assessing ALP - but herein it misses its mark. What gets measured is what drives student learning. So shouldn’t we assess ALP in schools? 

Overall, I feel that the ALP has a great potential in molding a generation of more resilient, innovative, pro-active and flexible learners prepared for the VUCA world – it could do even better with some additional refinements.

Dr Nachamma Sockalingam is the founding assistant director of Learning Sciences Lab at SUTD, which provides educational development and support programmes for faculty and learners at SUTD. Nachamma holds a PhD in educational psychology.

Source: CNA/sl