SINGAPORE: More than 1,000 years ago, in Tang Dynasty China, the imperial examinations were everything.
Candidates were confined to tiny cells during the examination period, often for days at a time, eating and sleeping there.
The published results and rankings were of tremendous importance as they had the power to decide the social standing of an entire family and were used as a system of talent selection.
In fact, the examination system was a positive development for the poor as scholars from humble families used their results to transcend socioeconomic classes and become government officials, giving rise to a form of meritocracy.
Today, centuries later, metrics are still everything, especially in result-obsessed Singapore where every week brings us a new array of headlines of where we stand versus the rest of the world - including this week's PISA results.
But while it’s useful to collect data, our obsession with rankings can also be dangerous for three reasons.
THE DEATH OF INNOVATION
First, an obsession with maintaining rankings can ironically lead to the death of innovation.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in educational institutions where once they reach the top of the charts, they switch from playing offence to defence.
The entire system starts becoming risk-averse, paralysed by its own success, and no one at the top wants to tinker with the “winning formula” for fear of criticism and slipping down the rankings tables.
However, the brave new future necessitates making bold decisions that may appear counter-intuitive and unproven.
For instance, Apple’s wildly successful iPhone, iPad and watch products were all widely derided as “white elephants” by the consumer tech industry when they were introduced.
On this front, I must commend the Ministry of Education in Singapore for making some progressive moves towards de-emphasising grades and encouraging more critical thinking, but we also need to have these messages trickle down to our educational institutions and educators.
While the Government is trying to instill a love for learning and the broadening of skillsets, these messages are still not yet fully integrated on the ground by educators.
I often hear from parents that it is commonplace for schoolchildren to be actively discouraged by their school teachers, and asked to “drop” subjects they are not deemed proficient in for fear of laggards dragging down the school rankings. This is the antithesis of the growth mindset we are trying in inculcate in our youth.
In my line of work, I often meet educators in Singapore who cite rankings as an impediment to change.
On a training camp I conducted for more than 80 professors and educators, several educators said while they would dearly love to experiment with innovative teaching methods and formats, in practice they were discouraged to rock the boat by their superiors, deans and principals for fear of student and parent complaints.
“The number one rule is no student complaints”, said one teacher, shaking her head rigorously. Yet, innovation starts with conviction and courage, not dull consensus on the least controversial way to teach.
IT DOESN’T MEASURE WHAT MATTERS
Second, rankings may divert attention away from what actually matters.
For example, as a student or parent, choosing a university is a huge decision and you may think that when you choose a top ranked university that you are paying for the quality of teaching you will receive.
However, the stark reality is that most university ranking calculations place much more emphasis on the quality and quantity of its research than they do on quality of teaching.
For instance, The Times Higher Education University Rankings, gives 60 per cent weighting to research and citations, and only 30 per cent on teaching metrics.
The QS survey is largely based on the opinion of academics. Many global university rankings do not even factor in teaching quality.
Thus, it is, unfortunately, a common experience for educational institutions to “game” the rankings system using tactics such as discouraging professors from publishing research in journals deemed to be less prestigious (e.g. Southeast Asia studies), or using the bulk of their budget to hire prominent research professors who barely see students while outsourcing the actual “teaching burden” to junior teaching assistants
A SIGN OF INSECURITY
Third, overfocusing on rankings is a symptom of insecurity. In our avid desire to reach the top of the charts, if that is indeed what most Singaporeans would be prouder of, we give our power away to an outside authority to judge us on arbitrary measures of their deciding.
Is an education system better if it has higher average scores, or if there are less children left behind? How do we measure how much value our educators have added?
We measure our academic outcomes but do we pay as much attention to the prices we pay for them – anxiety, lack of psychological safety, depression and in some cases, suicide?
Why not put our focus to comparing ourselves in terms of what actually matters to us? If nothing else, it would force some societal reflection on our values and what outcomes we truly want for our youth.
Bhutan for instance has deliberately chosen to steer their focus away from using GDP as a measure of success to their own GNH (Gross National Happiness) index, which measures nine domains including psychological well-being, health, culture, education and ecology.
RANKINGS DO HAVE SOME UTILITY
However, I’m not saying that rankings are totally pointless. Last week I was speaking at an educational symposium organised by the Soros Foundation in Kazakhstan and graphics of ranking comparisons with the OECD were often used as a wake-up call to urge concerted effort towards focusing on challenges in literacy, maths and education resources.
It reminded me of my childhood growing up in Singapore when we were lower down on our development trajectory.
Fear of not surviving made us work harder, faster and spurred us on to advance to first world status in record time. But that was a simpler era.
We now live in a complex world of massive disruption where not even the best experts can predict the jobs of the future. Half of the companies on the S&P 500 will not exist in the next 10 years. More than half of the work tasks in the world can already be automated.
The human brain is not accustomed to change at this speed, not to mention the proliferation of new threats to the psyche such as digital addiction and social media. The result is that burnout, anxiety and depression are increasing at scary levels.
Some have said that the PISA finding that many Singapore students have a huge fear of failing may be a positive development if it spurs a pursuit of excellence.
Sure, fear of failure and loss of face may have been an effective motivator in the past, but now our youth are grappling with so much unpredictability, that what they need is empathy and encouragement to measure themselves against what they have achieved and how much they have grown.
It is useful that the Ministry has clarified that their intent in signing up for PISA isn’t about trying to beat every country but learning important areas for improvement for ourselves, and learning from countries who do well, in order to make the educational journey a positive one.
Indeed, we need educators who understand how to create an environment of psychological safety where our students feel accepted and included.
And we need Singapore leaders and Singaporeans to have the clarity of mind to decide what we want to stand for and the conviction to believe that we can be our own best judges – instead of relying on PISA scores for validation.