Professional Development the Singapore Way

For years we have heard how the American school system does not measure up to the Singapore school system in student achievement. Singapore’s 4th and 8th grade students scored top place for Mathematics in 1995, 1999 and 2003 on the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – the earlier acronym was Third International Mathematics and Science Study), designed to measure trends in students’ mathematics and science achievement in four-year cycles. The battle cry began…why can’t we be more like Singapore when educating our students?

An often overlooked component of the Singapore school system is the emphasis on the professional development of practicing teachers. I was recently reading an article summary on The Daily Riff called The Role of Professional Development by Dr. Yeap Ban Har, of the Marshall Cavendish Institute in Singapore. I found it interesting that Singaporean teachers are entitled to 100 hours of yearly professional development, much of it workshop-style in nature.

There are three main roles for teacher professional development in Singapore:

• Teachers’ Mindset –If teachers’ mindset isn’t in the “right place” for implementing a new initiative, whatever else we do may not be useful.
• Helping Teachers to Construct Knowledge—Like students, teachers need to construct knowledge, not just receive it.
• Enhancing Learning Capacity—Teachers should be life-long learners. An important goal of professional development, therefore, is to enhance teachers’ capacity to learn.

There are many differences in the Singapore system that we cannot emulate:

1. All Singaporean pre-service teachers attend Singapore’s only teacher training institution, the National Institute of Education (NIE).
2. Singapore has only 300 schools. (Don’t laugh all you large districts out there!)

While we can’t expect one institution to have the capacity to prepare all our teachers or to eliminate all but 300 schools, we can learn some lessons about teacher professional development. If we want to match their results, we have to match their commitment to professional development. We can offer more than one or two 6 hour-days (a long way from 100 hours per year) on new initiatives that we expect teachers to integrate into their teaching. Like our Singaporean colleagues, we can recognize the limitations of just workshop style professional development, and move towards helping teachers develop school-based collaborative professional learning communities (PLCs) where teachers work together to improve teaching and learning. Mathematics educators here in the United States have been advocating for of these ideas for a while now.  We need to listen.  We need to value our teachers as professionals and approach professional development as though teachers are truly life-long learners.

2 thoughts on “Professional Development the Singapore Way”

  1. Sandy,

    I am so glad someone was fearless in addressing the issue of Singapore vs. the United States as it relates to education. Not only should educators have more opportunities for professional development, they should also be using e-learning and technology so they can learn the same way the students will need to learn in order to adapt to the 21st Century. I highly recommend e-learning as the channel for professional development for teachers. Self-directed learning is often a cost-effective, time–saving model that just makes sense. Additionally, you can build online.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that e-learning can, and should, play a role in professional development. I know that many groups are working in this arena, including Key Curriculum Press. I would hate to see face-to-face meetings go away entirely though. Networking with fellow participants is professional development in and of itself. I am also a big fan of lesson study as a medium for professional development. As they discovered in Singapore, “experts” who come in for a day and then leave don’t instill the same level of immediate impact and sustainability that providing teachers closest to the students with the ongoing time to work together does.


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