Comment: Exams in S’pore are ‘all or nothing’. How will young S’poreans learn to try & fail (a lot)?

Is the very existence of these exams harmful to promoting innovation?

Mothership | November 25, 2021, 08:36 AM

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COMMENTARY: "It is safer and more rewarding to stick to the script, do your ten year series, and do well in your exam."

Writing for Mothership, Alexander Woon explains that the core of innovation is experimentation and making a lot of mistakes before eventually succeeding. But exam culture in Singapore promotes something very different: risk aversion, conventional thinking and the idea that you have to 'do it once, do it right'.

Alexander Woon is a lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences, School of Law, and Of Counsel with RHTLaw Asia. He was previously Deputy Director of the Office of Transformation and Innovation (Judiciary), working on innovation initiatives for the Supreme Court, State Courts and Family Justice Courts.

By Alexander Woon

It’s PSLE season again and parents, children and teachers alike are stressed.

Many of my colleagues and friends treat a “PSLE year” as an ordeal not just for the child but for the parents as well, who take large amounts of time and energy to monitor and coach their exam-taking offspring.

Having not taken the PSLE, as I was living abroad at the time, I was surprised at this.

I would not have expected the immense significance that is placed on the PSLE — not just to avoid failing the exams, but also to avoid failing to live up to expectations.

In Europe, where I grew up, there is far less emphasis on academic achievement, and students are generally left to perform or not perform as the case may be. There is less fear of failure, and many children simply fail and see it as no big deal.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether the exams are fair – I want to talk about whether the very existence of the exams themselves is harmful to our national interest in promoting innovation.

Innovation is about trying and failing (a whole lot) before succeeding

Anyone involved in innovation work will tell you that, in innovation, you fail a lot more than you succeed.

When I was working full time in legal transformation and innovation, it sometimes felt like I was failing a bit every day: there’s always a reason it won’t work, always another hitch in the plan, always another person telling you, “no”.

The core of innovation is experimentation. This is where agile practices, widespread in software and commercial product development, come into play.

Unlike a traditional “waterfall” model, where requirements are dictated by higher ups and the task of engineers and designers is simply to execute the vision, in agile development, a multi-disciplinary product team works iteratively to develop the product over a series of “sprints”.

This is often combined with a design thinking approach: the first step is to discover what the “job to be done” is, that is, how to serve the target audience. Second, the problem must be properly defined. Third, solutions are proposed and tested for viability. Fourth, the best-fit solution is put into production and delivered to users.

But this is only the beginning of the process, as user feedback then goes back to the team, which uses the feedback to continuously improve the product.

We see this happening regularly, most noticeably with software products, which is why your Windows and Zoom, among others, are constantly (and at the worst times) undergoing updates. This is what Eric Ries in his book, The Lean Startup, describes as the “build-measure-learn” loop.

The point is that you are not expected to get it right the first time around. Failure is a given. Initial failures give you the data on which future success is founded.

What is important is not the theory of what works, but what actually works – and that is only discoverable by experimentation in the real world.

When it comes to innovation, it is about consistency and effort, making lots of mistakes and then small steps in the right direction, not quantum leaps forward.

Exams don’t encourage experimentation, failing & trying again

Exams like the PSLE are the exact opposite of that. The exam paradigm encourages people to believe that they need to “do it once, do it right”.

The pressure placed on students comes from the underlying belief that you can’t fail or fail to live up to expectations. It is a “big bang” mentality, the exact opposite of the incremental, iterative approach that innovation requires.

The idea that life is about mugging for a certain number of predictable milestones, and that ‘success’ or ‘failure’ at those milestones determines future trajectory, is just plain wrong.

I have seen this with my younger relatives: their parents place great emphasis on them getting into the “right” secondary schools, rather than what options their education gives them in the working world. There are many paths to success but parents don’t seem to see this.

This attitude also becomes a real issue in the working world.

In one project I worked on, despite the fact that the technology clearly wasn’t good enough (through no one’s fault), the project owner could not even believe that I would suggest it was a failure.

“It has to work,” she told me, “We already committed to do it.” An attitude like that means that resources get diverted to projects on life support instead of being refocused on more productive efforts.

The system may be creating a misleading conception of the world: it may be encouraging children to think that being successful means knowing exactly where you are going, finding out how others got there, and then copying them: this is, after all, what studying for exams entails.

The exam culture also discourages risk-taking and encourages conventional thinking – it is safer and more rewarding to stick to the script, do your ten year series, and do well in your exam.

My teacher in Junior College actually dissuaded me from trying to be original in my History exams: “Don’t be a hero,” he said. He knew that I would often take unorthodox or contrarian views to what was offered in the “model answers” and feared that I wouldn’t live up to my predicted grades if I did that in the real exams.

The importance of changing the culture

Innovation is a strategic priority for Singapore, and education policy must be an extension of national strategy.

No longer can we succeed by copying the models of more developed countries, as we did in previous generations. Where we go from here, no one knows. That is why innovation is important – we can no longer copy, so we must invent.

Breaking down barriers to innovation requires breaking down the culture of risk-aversion and conventional thinking.

Although our leaders have in recent years been encouraging the youth to be more adventurous and open to entrepreneurial careers, the messaging is somewhat mixed when the education system continues to incentivise risk-aversion and conventional thinking.

Culture is the biggest obstacle we face in transformation and innovation work. In every project I worked on, except one, the technology was mature and readily available: it was culture that proved to be the stumbling block.

People are conservative and suspicious of change. They generally like things to stay the same: Case in point, I was trying to get officers to move from paper to electronic files and arranged for training in Adobe PDF to show them that whatever could be done on paper could be done digitally, and more.

Some officers were so stubborn that they brought their paper files into the training session and did them in the back, ignoring the trainers. Lesson learned: you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.

Innovative organisations succeed because they prioritise building a culture of innovation.

At Google, for example, employees are famously encouraged to spend 20 per cent of their time on personal projects. In fact, Google thinks culture is so important that it even has its own Chief Culture Officer.

In his book, No Rules Rules, Netflix CEO Reid Hastings talks about Netflix’s culture contributed fundamentally to its success – they found that productivity actually went up after a low point at which the company had to fire a lot of people, because talent density increased.

They managed to retain the right people who, now unencumbered by poorly motivated, less able colleagues, were able to thrive. Netflix also does not punish employees for making bad calls (within reason), asking instead: “What can we learn from this experience?”

An alternative: A system that neither reinforces nor incentivises fear of failure

I am not saying that exams are the sole or even main cause of the fear of failure. This fear has many sources, including parental and societal pressure. My point is that people respond to and are shaped by structures and incentives.

We may not be able to do much about parental or societal pressure directly, but we can shape the education system in a way that does not reinforce or incentivise a fear of failure.

I think it is worth raising the point that the structure and incentives created by the system of “big bang” exams like the PSLE are diametrically opposed to the structures and incentives we need to create a culture of innovation.

I am not a primary school educator. I have immense respect for what they do and the challenging circumstances in which they do it. I appreciate that standardised exams have certain advantages: consistency and credibility, for example.

But perhaps the time has come to examine whether those advantages are now outweighed by the disadvantages of such a system.

The education system should be aiming to train people for the real world, which means designing a system of assessment that simulates and teaches students about real world conditions. A system of continuous assessment, replacing some or all of the major exams, may be a better alternative.

Though it has its downsides, continuous assessment is a much closer simulation of real life than exams. In the working world, your performance and value are generally assessed over longer spans of time, and generally not based on your work on a single, arbitrary occasion.

Continuous assessment is also more forgiving of failure – though a bad assignment can drag down your average, you have the opportunity to make up for it on subsequent assignments.

These are the lessons that we need to teach our children, if they are to be successful in innovation: persistence, consistency, and the ability to learn from mistakes.

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