Singapore Schools Held Up as Models

Article excerpt

Byline: ANNE WILLIAMS The Register-Guard

To most Americans, the Singapore way of life probably wouldn't hold much allure. The average workweek is 55 hours, and if you're caught with drugs, you're dead.

But when it comes to education, the Southeast Asian island nation should be the envy of the world. On virtually every academic yardstick, Singapore's students outshine their counterparts around the globe.

Bonnie Benesh, an organizational change consultant who works in Singapore, spent much of Monday and Tuesday explaining to a roomful of Eugene educators just how they pull it off.

For starters, Singapore has made the schooling of its children the No. 1 national priority, Benesh said, recognizing that it's critical to the country's success.

To that end, educators there pay great attention to the brain. "Brain-friendly" is the term Benesh used to describe the typical Singapore school, and she spent most of the two-day workshop at the Eugene Hilton explaining what that means and how to design one.

"I'm not trying to sell Singapore," she said, acknowledging the vast cultural and political differences between the two countries. "I'm trying to get you to itch your scratch and embrace some of these ideas."

Benesh, a former teacher and administrator in Iowa, is familiar with school systems all over the world. She has consulted with schools in Africa, Asia, Canada and the Caribbean. She's worked extensively with the Singapore government since 1998 and lives there much of the year, helping schools apply brain research to classroom techniques.

Singapore's success story isn't very old, she said. It's been just a decade since the government essentially scrapped the previous school system and began anew, designing a unified system that emphasizes state-of-the-art technology and building design, consistent curriculum, early childhood education and ongoing teacher training - all of it rooted in the latest brain research.

Ensuring that children are healthy is the most important element, she said - a feat made easier by the seamless links between schools, public health and other government sectors. The schools provide healthy meals, and exercise is a critical component of the school day.

"What we know about the brain is if you are unhealthy, the brain cannot function," Benesh said.

Singapore schools also place great emphasis on music and art, which stimulate the brain and enhance the ability to learn math and science concepts, she said.

Singapore schools succeed without lavish resources, she noted. Only about 37 percent of the nation's budget goes to schools (in Oregon, it's more than 40 percent), and the average class size is 44 - a fact that made a few mouths drop in the room.

"That has to break down your myth a little bit about having to have small class sizes," she said. "Whether it's 27 or 44, it's how you actually manage the classroom that makes a difference."

Increasingly, other countries, including Denmark, Israel, Malta and Chile, are looking to Singapore as a model for best educational practices, she said.

"We in America think that we do things really, really well, and that the rest of the world is looking at us for replication," she said. "They're not."

Standardized tests - increasingly the cornerstone of the United States educational system - can be useful, she said. But many are poorly designed and misused, and too many schools focus on test preparation to the exclusion of other elements, she said, such as music, art and wellness.

Benesh offered practical tips and strategies for making classrooms more brain-friendly. …