Stop focusing on AI. Start focusing on soft skills!

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Below’s a piece I wrote last month to two local dailies. It was a response letter to recent announcements on new initiatives by my country’s Ministry of Education (MOE).

Unfortunately, neither dailies were interested in publishing it, so this letter never saw the light of day.

Until now.

But first, let me summarise what those new initiatives by MOE were.

For The Future of Education, AI Is The Way To Go

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The “Transforming Education Through Technology (EdTech) Masterplan 2030” was launched last month by my country’s Education Minister Mr Chan Chun Sing at an MOE School’s Workplan Seminar that took place on 20 September. The theme for this year’s seminar was — surprise surprise — “Shaping The Future of Learning”. (I mean which country’s MOE or MOE-equivalent doesn’t address this perennial topic right?!)

Among different measures proposed to propel the next generation of workers into the future, heavy emphasis was placed on the importance of equipping both teachers and students now with the requisite techno know-how to navigate the uncertain world we live in. In particular, the ability to harness and tame AI, especially generative artificial intelligence, was pushed across as the panacea to potential problems in transitioning to a new world order.

Now for those unaware, my country Singapore’s education system has often been ranked high globally. Five minutes of Internet search should put to rest any doubts on that. But increasingly, I’m having some serious concerns about whether or not the powers that be fully understand what’s needed to navigate the choppy waters of this increasingly messy world we live in.

While there’s no denying we’ve to continuously train our people to employ the latest technology well, I think we’re spending too much time scrutinizing the screws and bolts, and not enough time revisiting the fundamentals of how to fully develop the human potential in our country’s citizenry.

This was what prompted me to pen my letter last month in response to the MOE announcements and to unpack what those fundamentals were.

[The letter is reproduced below without the usual salutations and closers]

Newsflash! AI Is NOT The Way Forward

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There is a disconnect between MOE’s latest announcements on new directions to chart Singapore’s education path into the uncertain future, and the reasons why. 

According to the report published on Thursday 21 Sep 2023 (“Tapping technology to prepare students for the fast-changing world”), the way ahead is to further digitalize and ensure our students are ready and able to manage non-stop technological advancements, especially in the area of AI.

As reported, the reasons for picking this way ahead were “a fragmenting global order, economic disruptions, and rapid technological developments, especially in the field of generative AI.”

But, MOE has already been pushing hard on digitalization in recent years, so to me this announcement was hardly new.

In fact, it seems to lack the ‘winning formula’ for our small nation to continue punching above our weight on the global stage in harnessing our best resource — human capital. 

If many governments worldwide are already on this digital/technological drive with (by sheer country size) far greater access than Singapore to resources that can propel their citizenry ahead of us, where’s the differentiating factor that will best place Singapore’s students today to be global leaders tomorrow if all we do is to merely further digitalize?

Rather than pushing harder with more of the same, might MOE not instead reconsider how Singapore’s education system should lead, rather than be led by, digitalization and technology?

Stop Playing It Safe

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Born and schooled in Singapore’s education system for over two decades, I have also taught here for nearly two decades now in institutes of higher learning.

In all these years, I’ve observed one persistent, stubborn trend. Students (and my fellow colleagues), through no fault of our own, are far more inclined to play it safe. An unfortunate result of the prevailing achievement-oriented climate here.

Students in Singapore pursue grades to ace assessments, secure coveted university places, and lucrative internships and job placements. All at the expense of actively pursuing knowledge for its own sake and beyond the set curriculum. They shun opportunities to deepen insights to better engage their intellect. They fail to challenge convention to achieve new breakthroughs and increase society’s collective wisdom.

Considering the ever-surging, choppy waves of global change, this achievement-oriented attitude toward education is a potential tragedy of epic proportions!

I contend that the aforementioned qualities of pursuing knowledge and deepening insights are the better way to go. They are the very ingredients civilizations throughout history have utilized to survive and thrive. Not simply relying on technological innovations. 

So the question before us should simply be: How can we as a nation surmount the current trends of playing it safe to better navigate the uncertain future?

Developing Soft Skills IS The Way Forward

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I would like to propose to MOE to stop playing catch up to continuous light-speed innovations in digitalization and technology. Instead, we should overhaul Singapore’s education system to pursue and master deeper, more intentional, measured, and nuanced future-proofing soft skills that: 

1) develop young minds to mature, think, and reason for themselves, 

2) communicate cogently and persuasively in schools, workplaces, and life, 

3) engage with the immediate community and greater society they live in sensitively, graciously and inclusively, and 

4) pay it forward to help every younger generation whilst caring for the older generation. 

That’s how we can ensure Singapore’s future survival. And how we can lead the way for technology to follow, and not the other way around.

For in the end people, not machines, should shape our world.

And our future.

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