The Singapore education pendulum swung again this week with the Ministry of Education (MOE) announcing in Parliament that “hard skills” of mathematics and science are insufficient in the 21st Century. Greater importance will now be placed on the “soft skills” of art, music and physical education. To be sure this is not a new conundrum. In November 2009, the Singapore Competitiveness Report by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy warned that Singapore’s lagging competitiveness in innovation may be attributed to the fact that “Singapore focuses too much on the type of repetitive memorarisation of knowledge that generates high performance on standardised tests…(but this) is not necessarily the best driver of intellectual capabilities”.
To redress the imbalance, more school time and resources will be given over (read: zero-sum) to the “soft” side. MOE would nearly double the current pool of 2,500 art, music and PE teachers to 4,500 by 2020, many of whom will be specialists and teaching only these subjects.
The hard-soft dichotomy is false. That is, one cannot account for the lack of the other. They are certainly not mutually exclusive. Further more, neither can account for the extensive middle ground that is concerned with character, values, networks and capacity (as distinct from capability). These are qualities that cannot be taught, but can be coached and mentored. But these raise the critical question of who and what are the ‘teachers’? Is it too much to expect students to acquire the blended “hard skills” and the “soft skills” when such an exemplary quality is a rarity in teachers who are usually from the hard or soft side?
This is clearly not a simple issue. One way to understand the false dichotomy is to look at another context that “hard” and “soft” are used to divide the industry: computing. It is by now quite clear to most people what is “hardware” as distinct from “software”. But what baffles many is the Operating System (OS) (on which Bill Gates got famously rich). Is OS software? Well, yes and no. An OS is not an application; it enables applications to run properly on hardware, be it the desktop, laptop, mobile phone or machine. The OS manages resources (processors, memory, display, communications, etc) and controls traffic to and from peripherals (keyboard, mouse, disk drives, modems, printers, video camera, etc).
I suggest that the OS in education is its culture. It exists by virtue of the community with all its overlapping interests. These interests may swing from “hard” to “soft” issues, but in the centre of it all is the culture that is both active and reflective. For a balanced outcome that the Singapore education system now yearns for, that needs to be a creative culture. The Minister of Education quoted the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child”. It has the right connotation that the village culture — its OS — is what ultimately shapes the whole person of the child.