19 Jan 2018

In two recent separate speeches, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng spoke of the need to nurture active Imagination, collective Inquisitiveness, and rich Interconnections (3 Is) among our students so that their Innovation Quotient can be increased.

He first said this last month at an appointment ceremony for principals, and more recently at the opening of the 2018 International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement held in Singapore.

Minister Ng rightly identifies these meta-level traits - as opposed to acquiring content knowledge through direct instruction and rote learning - as having the potential to help Singapore navigate, if not master, the many disruptions coming our way.

Singapore is not unique in this, as the various delegates at the education congress also discussed their respective national challenges of fostering qualities such as adaptability, divergent thinking, creativity and so on, all variations of his theme of Innovation Quotient.

That these qualities will be indispensable for Singapore's transformation is not in doubt. What is not so certain is whether Singapore's education enterprise, in its current form, is the means by which these qualities can be cultivated.

To begin with, we need to ask if we would recognise the qualities of imagination, inquisitiveness and the ability to connect the dots if we saw them.

Take the faculty of imagination, for instance.

Imagination in young children tends to manifest in cognitive and behavioural tendencies such as daydreaming, fantasy, mental time travel, world building - traits typically regarded as undesirable and disruptive from the perspective of an education philosophy that privileges orderliness, discipline and formal examinations.

Incidentally, creativity is distinct from imagination; creativity is intentional, manifests in adaptability and problem-solving, and involves the creation of something novel and unconventional.

To get from imagination to creativity, teachers and parents themselves need time, patience and a broad-mindedness in order to discern the nascent creativity that might be inherent in apparently naughty, even deviant, behaviour.

There is an irony at work here in that we too need a certain imagination in order to recognise imagination possibly masked by behaviours that we tend to frown upon and inadvertently choke off.

Furthermore, we need to honestly ask if we are predisposed to expect these qualities from certain segments of our society.

Are we predisposed to expect art, poetry and innovation from particular types of students, from particular schools, and from particular backgrounds? The poet Alvin Pang is fond of asking, From whom do we expect poetry?

He calls our attention to the migrant workers in our midst and asks, Do we expect poetry from those whom we see solely as low-wage, low-skilled workers?

Are we surprised that our migrant workers can produce such poetic gems that have, since 2014, been showcased in the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition?

If it is the case that we only ever expect the 3I's from the privileged few, and it turns out that these qualities are lying dormant in unexpected places, then as a society we stand to lose much due to our biases and intransigence.

Finally, we need to ask if we are really prepared to accept the full consequences of a highly creative, inquisitive and critical generation?

The imagination and inquisitiveness that we are desperately trying to cultivate in our students may produce outcomes that are not well-behaved.

We like art that wows and lifts our spirits.

But art can also produce rude shocks, yank you out of your comfort zone and scandalise you. Are we prepared to accept the risk that the outcomes of the creative process might cause discomfiture and even offence?

Indeed, if you accept that Singapore is becoming more complex not only in technological and economic terms but also in the social, cultural and political dimensions, then all the more the next generation needs a broader imagination in order to figure out radical alternatives to how we have traditionally defined and organised ourselves.

We would need this bigger imagination in order to ask new questions of ourselves, rather than to solve questions that are taken as given.

But one possible consequence of this developing sociological and political imagination might be to make a generation of students contest the dominant ideas and narratives of the day that are, in the main, safeguarded and transmitted by the education system.

In an essay on education and social reforms, Bertrand Russell wrote: Education is, as a rule, the strongest force on the side of what exists and against fundamental change: threatened institutions, while they are still powerful, possess themselves of the educational machine, and instill a respect for their own excellence into the malleable minds of the young.

Russell's point is that the establishment, by its nature, is driven to continually reproduce itself in more or less the same form. If so, how could we ever expect the institution of education, which is owned by the establishment, to effect fundamental change?

To meaningfully cultivate and reap the benefits of the 3I's, we must admit that our entrenched conservatism will constrain the imagination and inquisitiveness we are trying to unleash.

We owe a duty of care to our students to refrain from sending out mixed signals when, on the one hand, we exhort them to challenge orthodoxy (more specifically, our orthodoxy), while on the other, we mete out punishment when they breach our so-called out-of-bounds markers and destabilise our worldview by inconveniently pointing out the naked emperors in our midst.

This piece was first published in TODAY on 19 January 2018.