Views on Singapore’s Competitive Education System

Views on Singapore’s Competitive Education System

words Evelyn Peiqi Ooi Widjaja illustrations Amy Sihyeon Jeong

Singapore has one of the most highly ranked education systems in the world. In the 2015 PISA (an international standardized assessment that measures the cognitive proficiencies of 15 year-olds around the world), Singapore ranked 2nd in Maths, 3rd in Science and 3rd in Reading – just behind China (Shanghai) and Hong Kong.[1] The results show that Singapore’s 15-year-olds perform significantly well on standardized tests and some international education researchers and government officials have taken this as an indication of the excellent quality of Singapore’s education system. As a result, Singapore’s education system is frequently studied and adopted as an exemplary model.

However, the high PISA rankings mask the constant pressure felt among students, parents and teachers in Singapore due to the system’s focus on high-stakes tests. Teen suicide is becoming a worrying problem — the number of suicide cases among those aged 10-19 years old has doubled to 27 cases in the first half of 2015 compared to the previous year. This rate is especially concerning because Singapore’s overall reported suicide rate in 2015 was the lowest since 2012. [2] In late October 2016, there was a tragic incident of a Primary 5 student committed suicide by jumping from the 17th floor of his home as he feared his parents’ beratement for failing two out of five subjects in his mid-term exams.[3]

To reduce pressures associated with high-stakes testing, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) made significant changes to a scoring system that determines students’ placement into secondary schools in 2016. Previously, students graduating elementary schools were ranked based on a point-difference scoring system of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE). A one point difference in the exams could lead to drastically different school placements. For instance, a student who scored 259 points was placed at a mediocre ranked secondary school, whereas a student who scored just one point more (260 points) was given the opportunity to go to a top ranked school. Since 2016, the introduction of an eight scoring band (Achievement Level 1 for those who score 90 on all subjects; Achievement Level 2 for students who with average scores between 85-89, etc) gave students more chances of gaining access to  elite schools. Since then, students who score 85 and 86–a point difference–now have more or less the same opportunities to enter a good quality secondary school.  Although this change should reduce some amount of academic stresses, Singapore’s MOE continues to hold onto its central tenet of streaming students to different tiers of schooling based on academic merit.

It is yet unclear how Singapore’s education system will change with the integration of future skills into the curriculum. In January 2016, the Committee of Future Economy was created by the Singaporean government to review economic strategies to position the country to face the next 5-10 years. The government is especially concerned about helping Singaporeans to develop skills that will match the job demands of the future. Specifically, the Committee aims to create programs to help people to develop technical and generic skills and increase opportunities for up-skilling.[4] Although these initiatives are focused on the level beyond secondary school, these programs will likely have an impact on the K-12 curriculum. Will Singapore’s education system become less focused on standardized testing? It is currently doing well? If so, in what way? How can it improve?

To understand the opinions and concerns of stakeholders in education, I interviewed a teacher, parent and a student in Singapore.

Parent perspective – Fadli, Father to two children – ages 7 and 1

Q: Singapore is said to have one of the best education systems in the world. Do you agree with the statement, and why so?

A: Yes, I partially agree. Singapore’s education system is among the most highly regarded in the world especially in Maths and Science. On the other hand, it is also known as a pressure cooker because students are conditioned to perform well academically from a young age.

As parents, we have two choices. We either follow the crowd or set our own standards in guiding our children through school. But, there is a general mentality that if you do not follow the crowd, your child will be left behind.

Parents who have the money spend a significant amount of extra fees for their children’s after school classes. Some parents even take a year of no-pay-leave from work to help their children through high-stakes exams like the PSLE (taken when children are around 12 years old) and the O-levels (taken when children are 16-17 years old).

Q: What do you like the most about the education system in Singapore, and what do you think can be improved on?

A: Singapore has a highly skilled workforce – more than half are university graduates. Furthermore, literacy rates among Singaporeans are among the highest in the world. Students tend to perform well in international rankings such as the PISA.

However, I think there is too much emphasis on being book smart. I think that education in Singapore should be balanced with outdoor activities and take more consideration of the emotional wellbeing of students. Perhaps Singapore can look to Finland and Sweden for examples of a balanced education where students not only perform well in tests, but also enjoy their school life.

Q: Despite the government’s effort to move away from rote learning towards project-based learning, students still seem to do best in memorizing and scoring well in tests. What is your opinion on the method of teaching, and what would you like to see introduced in the curriculum?

A: Although the government is making efforts to move away from rote learning, a small group of anxious parents will be keen to give their child a headstart in life. This means getting their children the best tuition teacher and enrolling them in expensive classes, which reinforces the competitive spirit and memorization to score well in tests. In other words, parents play an important role in shaping how the child learns.

I would like to see more opportunities given to students to broaden their interests and talents, develop life skills, and a sense of curiosity and love for learning. Academic rigor is important, but it shouldn’t be over-emphasized to the point where other skills cannot be developed.

As a parent, I want to provide the best learning environment for my children and be physically there for them whenever it is possible in their learning journey.

Q: The support of the community/ecosystem – teachers, school, neighbors, government – is integral to having you teach your children well. Does Singapore’s ecosystem help give you the right support?

Yes. Teachers support children’s learning and establish a rapport with parents and regularly communicate with them via Whatsapp even after school hours. Schools expect parents to follow up on what is taught in school. For example, my daughter attends religious class every Saturday and she has a “Homekit” book for me to work with her on her home assignments. She also has a communications book, which is a two-way communication tool between parent and teacher. Teachers provide feedback about the child’s progress and vice versa for parents to note down their concerns in the book.

Teacher perspective – Ms. Lee, Primary School Teacher in a government school

Q: Singapore is said to have one of the best education systems in the world. As a teacher, do you agree with the statement, and why so?

A: I do not fully agree. The education system still places a lot of emphasis on academic results through test scores, which means that teachers are under great pressure to complete the curriculum before each exam cycle–half by the mid-year exam, and the whole curriculum by the year-end exam. Teachers’ competency is questioned if students do not perform well.

A small minority of parents who are overly anxious call me before the exams to ask for more materials to be provided to help their children before the exam. My competency in teaching is tacitly accessed by my ability to provide these extra materials. Parents apply a great amount of pressure on their children to perform well through monitoring their children’s work and through teachers.

Q: As a teacher, what do you like the most about the education system in Singapore, and what do you think can be improved on?

A: The MOE is very supportive in providing money and resources to upgrade school facilities and fund co-curricular activities and immersion trips. These programs help pupils develop a strong sense of civic responsibility and communication skills, which is something different from scoring well on tests. For example, students are brought to Shanghai, China to immerse themselves in the Chinese culture and extend their learning beyond Chinese language learning in the classroom.

Q: Despite the government’s efforts to move away from rote learning towards project-based learning, students still seem to do best in memorizing and scoring well in tests. What is your opinion on the method of teaching, and what would you like to see introduced in the curriculum?

A: Despite the Ministry’s effort to push for more holistic assessment–a certain portion of the grades is dependent on project work–most of the grade is determined by students’ final examination results. I hope to see lower weight placed on final examination results so that there can be more flexibility in the curriculum. This way, I can have more time in the classroom to explore different ways of teaching my students. Also, with less pressure to complete the curriculum, I can try to get to know my students better and build better relationships with them.

Q: The support of the community/ecosystem – teachers, parents, neighbors, government – is integral to having you teach well in school. Does Singapore’s ecosystem help support you as a teacher?

A: Singapore’s ecosystem is generally quite supportive of teachers. The support comes from a couple of stakeholders, such as MOE, the school management, colleagues and parents. MOE launched an initiative to give an award to students who exemplify good values and character. Schools will roll out the program and based on a structured assessment, with teachers picking a student for the award. Teachers feel empowered this way. When we tell our students the importance of building their character, we have awards to affirm them. Having a good management-level personnel in school also affects our teaching. For example, some teachers are exhausted from a high teaching workload. A good school management would respond by delegating our administrative responsibilities to other personnel in school. Also, it is up to the principal of the school to set guidelines on whether to allow direct communication through phone/Whatsapp between teachers and parents.

Q: When teachers face complaints from parents, how did the school management help or react at your school?

A: Within my school, my colleagues have been very encouraging. We also share teaching expertise with each other. Parents’ trust and support for us boosts our morale to teach. On the other hand, if parents doubt our competency, it will affect how we think about our teaching.

Students perspective – Ang Aik Siang, polytechnic graduate

Q: Singapore is said to have one of the best education systems in the world. Do you agree with the statement, and why so?

A: I agree that Singapore has one of the best education systems. By having opportunities to interact with friends from other countries like Thailand and Vietnam, learning geography and social studies in school, I have learned about the context and general knowledge needed to converse with friends from foreign countries now. I also think that Singapore using English as its medium of teaching is advantageous for me on the global level.

Q: As a student, what do you like the most about the education system in Singapore, and what do you think can be improved on?

A: Personally, I did not enjoy studying in Singapore. As someone interested in arts and music, there was limited room for me in secondary school to learn the subject in an environment with a heavy emphasis on science and mathematics. I think the government should include an option for students interested in arts and music to take these subjects.

Q: Despite the government’s effort to move away from rote learning towards project-based learning, students still seem to do best in memorizing and scoring well in tests. What is your opinion on the method of teaching, and what would you like to see introduced in the curriculum?

A: I believe that one of the objectives of education is to get a job in the future. Currently, schools compress knowledge into textbooks and focus on excelling in tests. More room should be given to students with interests to learn new skills relevant to the workforce. The polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education function to provide skills for the workforce, but I personally think these institutions do not provide sufficient diversity and room in teaching new skills.

Q: The support of the community/ecosystem – teachers, school, classmates, government – is integral to helping you to learn and have a good education. Has Singapore’s ecosystem been supportive to you?

A: The government is very supportive in giving financial support to students with intentions to further their study in the form of bursary, subsidies and scholarships. This is very encouraging for people intending to obtain a degree. Some of the teachers in secondary school could provide better care and support for students. I had better experiences with my polytechnic teachers.

Singaporean students generally view success as excelling in studies and getting a high paying job. For students who intend to deviate from the norm, there is a sense of judgement against them for doing so. Classmates have a tendency to be less supportive of others who choose a different path or have a different perspective of success.

Kindness and Empathy in the Danish Folkeskole

Kindness and Empathy in the Danish Folkeskole

words and photos Laura Malou Philipsen and Mathilde Ploug Hansen

Hello or “Hej!” as we say in Danish. We’re two girls named Laura and Mathilde, who are attending 9th grade in the Danish Folkeskole. In this article we would like to tell you a bit about how the danish folkeskole works. We will mainly focus on the school we’re attending, which is Trekronerskolen in Roskilde, but will include facts about the Danish Folkeskole in general. We hope you’ll like to read it!

The Danish Folkeskole is the municipal primary school in Denmark. It is mandatory and takes a period of 10 years to complete. It consists of a 1-year kindergarten class and nine years from 1st to 9th grade. There is, in addition, an optional 10th grade.

The word Folkeskole can be divided into two words, folk and skole. ‘Folks’ means people and ‘skole’ means school, you can translate it as ‘the school of the people.’ This actually describe it really well, in our opinion, since there are all types of children in the Danish Folkeskole.

In Denmark, we also have other types of schools, such as boarding schools and private schools. However, the majority of parents choose to enroll their children in the Danish Folkeskole. As a matter of fact, 81% of the Danish children, at an compulsory school age, are enrolled in the Danish Folkeskole. Something that could explain a big part of this is that the Danish Folkeskole is free of charge and paid by the government. This is, however, only possible due to the high tax rate in Denmark.

In 2014 the Ministry of Education created a new school reform for The Danish Folkeskole. This new school reform changed the 8,070 mandatory school hours to 10,960 mandatory school hours divided across nine years, from 1st to 9th grade. There is also, in addition, an obligatory kindergarten class, a transition phase between kindergarten and 1st grade. This means that the Danish students have the most compulsory school hours than students of any other country in the OECD nations.

If you look at how many hours we are spending in school each day as 9th graders, we’re in school around seven hours a day, but of course this number depends on what school you go to and what grade you’re in. When you read that, you will probably think that it is not much more than in many other countries, but our holiday breaks aren’t as long as in most other countries, therefore we have more school days. Our summer break, for example, is only about six weeks long, which we both think is very short and also when we talk about it with different students from around the world when we travel or through English class. Instead of having two big school breaks, like in many other countries, we have 5 small school vacations: Summer Holiday (6 weeks), Autumn break (1 week), Christmas Holiday (around 2 weeks), Winter break (1 week) and Easter Holiday (1 week).  

Personally, it doesn’t really matter to us that we’re in school so much. Of course it would be nice with longer breaks or shorter school days, but it’s not something we particular long for because we have never tried anything else.

Teachers and Students

From the very beginning, when we start school, the teachers put a lot of energy into creating a positive and comfortable atmosphere between–not only the pupils–but also between teachers and students. This is the reason why the relationship between teachers and students in Denmark is quite unique. For example  we do not call our teachers, and not even our school inspector, by their last name, but by their first name, without any form of address. This reduces the distance we feel between teachers and students so that we feel more equal as individuals. Our attitude towards each other is really down to earth and informal.

Kindness and Empathy

Kindness and empathy are values we learn about without really knowing it. We learn about it through play and talks.

The talks can be something like a thing we call class meeting. We have these class meetings in every grade, in most of the schools in Denmark. However, the younger students have it more often than the older ones do. In these class meetings, all students in the class sit together and discuss a certain topic. It can be everything from problems in the class to kindness. If a subject like this is taken up at the meeting, the students typically take turns saying what they think about kindness and what they think when they hear the word.

Other than class meetings and talks, we do special exercises, especially in the younger grades. An example of this is something we did when we were little, which was called “The Warm Seat”. In “The Warm Seat” each student takes turns sitting in a armchair and the rest of the class sits in a circle around the person in the warm seat. Then everyone went around saying something they appreciated or liked about the person.

By doing this, we learned how to respect each other’s values and realized that we were all special and that other people liked different things about us. By showing kindness towards each other, we were able to break the “wall” that is between us.

For about five years of schooling, we also had something called “playgroups.” The purpose of this was to get students to play with different pupils from the class. We were divided into small groups of four or five, and then we all took turns hosting playdates. Other than playdates at the different pupils homes, we also had to play with our group during school holidays sometimes.

When we became older and felt like we were too mature to play, the teachers changed it to something called dinner groups. So instead of playing together, we met to cook and eat dinner together while chatting with each other. When everyone in the group had hosted either a playdate or a dinner date, the teachers would make new groups so that we managed to be with as many pupils in the class as possible.

We both personally think these groups were a really great idea. This was part of what made the environment in the class so great because you got to get to know all of your classmates better.

Our favorite memory that relates to learning about kindness and empathy is “The Warm Seat”. This is because it made the environment in our class really friendly and open. We think that because we did this exercise back in 1st grade, our class has a really good cohesiveness and a comfortable atmosphere.

We really hope that you enjoyed reading our article just as much as we enjoyed writing it. We also hope that you feel like you know a little more about the Danish Folkeskole.

Letter from the Editor

Letter from the Editor

In June 2016, I was wrapping up a presentation on a report I wrote about South Korea’s creative and software education for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. The report became one of the most viewed report of the year in the organization I worked for and was retweeted by big names in education such as creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson. I think the report fared well because it discussed a big trend in K-12 education–creativity and computer science education in a way that was relevant and readable to both education practitioners and researchers.

After putting that report together, I wondered why research can’t be more engaging, relevant, and fun for the stakeholders who really matter the most–children, educators, and parents. How can we really learn about what education is all over the world instead of depending on international standardized data? How can we bring people from different fields with a common passion for education together? Personally, I was also really curious about what teaching and learning looks like in classrooms in other countries.  

Last summer, I took a leap of faith and started Ottiya as a platform to bring together a global community people passionate about education to start the conversation about creative, meaningful, and fun learning and education. The Ottiya magazine all started with one conversation with one friend, which led to another conversation and eventually that snowballed into over hundreds of back and forth emails and messages. Over the course of about 8 months, I gathered contributions from all corners of the world and looked for more when we needed to the pages. I worked really closely with all of our contributors to help them put together interesting articles and activities. With no previous issue to refer to, literally everything had to be built up from scratch.

This was definitely not an easy journey. Hundreds of hours were poured into writing, editing, and designing, and illustrating this magazine and Ottiya’s online platform. Although I had support from my wonderful assistant editor, designer, and publisher, I had to quickly pick up new design, production, and business skills. What kept me going in the tough times was my strong conviction that our children and the education community deserve and need a platform like this: a place to connect, a place to refresh, and to come together for learning and education.

I hope that the Ottiya magazine will provide you with valuable insight about learning and education from our contributors from all over the world. Also, keep your eyes out for the next issue on play and consider contributing to and supporting our work in the future.

Many thanks to my wonderful assistants, our publisher, our contributors, our sponsors, and you for believing in this vision for Ottiya and making this a reality! I hope you will stay connected in our community–together we can continue to grow into a global community dedicated to meaningful, creative, and fun learning and education for children for years to come!

Yours truly,


From Sesame Street to the Communities of Left Behind Children in China

From Sesame Street to the Communities of Left Behind Children in China

words and photos Rae Cao

Equity has become an increasingly important issue and pressing concern in China. China’s rapid economic development and urbanization process have created high demand in construction and manufacturing jobs in the cities and increased rural-to-urban labor migration. In search of fortune and a better life, many young adults who once lived with families in rural China doing agricultural work now choose to move thousands of miles away to urban cities to work, for instance, on assembly lines in factories or operating gigantic machines at construction sites.

Unfortunately, migrant workers’ children cannot move with them due to the Hukou, a rigid household registration system in China which dates back to the 1950s that ties rural children’s basic welfare rights, such as education and healthcare, to the rural villages in which they were born. Even if the migrant workers are financially well-off, these rural children are often denied access to public education and healthcare benefits in urban cities. Although various reforms have been made by the government, especially in recent years in an attempt to address social problems related to rural-urban division, the Hukou system remains a complicated one. Therefore, given highly limited and restrained resources in big cities, migrant workers have almost no choice but to leave their children behind to the inadequate care of their grandparents. These children are called “left-behind children”.

This is no small phenomenon in China. In the 2010 report released by the All-China Women’s Federation, it was estimated that there were more than 61 million left-behind children in China, among which about 4 million children were left behind with no guardian at all [1]. Additionally, according to “China Left-behind Children’s Psychological Conditions” [2], which is a White Paper written by various researchers and NGO workers in the field sampling about 10,000 rural children, those who are left behind suffer from a variety of serious psychological stressors and oftentimes show delay in social emotional development.

Due to early separation from primary caregivers and insufficient educational guidance from schools and communities, left-behind children on average experience much higher levels of anxiety, loneliness, and resentment towards family and society than urban children. Their poor psychological well-being at times results in extreme behaviors towards others and oneself. For instance, in 2015 in Guizhou Province, four left-behind children of an average age of only nine ended their lives out of desperation by drinking pesticide; in the same year, due to inability of managing anger, a 14-year-old left-behind boy in Fujian Province drowned his friend in a fight over a toy car.

These kinds of tragedies among left-behind children have increased in recent years raising significant concerns from these children’s parents who work thousands of miles away in the cities. Migrant workers are physically too far away to play a part in their children’s development. When challenges arise, they are unable to provide immediate help and care. In the fall of 2012, I had a chance to conduct a field research on migrant workers about their thoughts on their left-behind children. Of all the migrant workers I spoke with in the city of Chengdu and Shanghai, when asked “what is your biggest concern about your child”, nine out of ten answered “Anquan”, the Chinese word meaning “safety”. Problems like health, psychological well-being, and education were barely mentioned.

It is very reasonable that migrant workers put safety as the top priority of their children’s development. Like every other parent, their very basic hope is that their children’s physical well-being can be ensured and they can grow up in a safe environment. However, safety is only one of the many challenges that left-behind children face these days. Their anxiety, confusion, insecurity, and vulnerability do not always stem from the lack of safety; instead, they come from inadequate care and support provided by their caregivers, schools, and communities. Without such care, support, and proper guidance from adults, children can be left in helplessness when emergencies, conflicts, or challenges arise.   

Realizing the important role of parent’s participation in children’s early development, many NGOs in China have made diligent effort in helping migrant workers and their families. Many programs now provide migrant workers with travel stipend to go back and visit their children more frequently than before. Some NGOs also arrange “parent-visiting” trips for left-behind children to bring them into the cities to stay with their parents for a week or two. However, these programs do not solve the crux of the matter. Temporary reunions only provide short-term comfort. When parent-child separation comes again, the whole situation is set back to its default, and sometimes it even backfires. In 2014, when I was traveling in rural Anhui Province conducting observations on left-behind children, an 11-year-old girl, who lives with her 83-year-old grandmother and only gets to see her parents every two years, approached me. She told me she barely had friends in town because she “hates talking to people of her own age”. Back then, fourteen years older than her, I had thus become her “friend” very soon and heard her candid thoughts of her mixed feelings about her parents coming back to visit, “I would love to see my parents because I know I miss them, but I don’t want them to come back to see me. They will leave after several days anyways, why come back then? I feel they don’t belong here, they don’t belong to this village anymore.”

It was striking and heartbreaking to hear things like this. For many years, I was naive to think that every left-behind child wished for more company from their parents, and increasing parent-child face-to-face interaction would be a major, if not the ultimate, solution in finding the missing piece of this vulnerable group of children’s developmental puzzle. Yet, I came to realize the situation is far more complicated than I thought. Even for families who live together every day, lack of proper educational guidance still leaves room for children’s developmental problems. Education, especially early childhood education, plays an important role in helping children develop critical skills such as emotion regulation, impulse control, resilience, and social understanding that will help them deal with uncertainties in their lives even in the absence of their parent’s presence.  


Kids show me correctly how to use a toothbrush after watching the episode on oral hygiene (photo Ke Liu)

As many developmental psychologists point out, the first five years of children’s lives are enormously important with respect to their language development, cognitive development, social development, and even moral development. High-quality educational materials, adequate teacher training programs, and carefully-honed parenting messages need to be developed to meet left-behind children communities’ specific needs. Twenty-five million of the total population of left-behind children in China are under the age of five. While the number seems strikingly high, it also provides opportunities to educational organizations like Sesame Workshop to make a real impact. Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit organization behind the well-known TV program Sesame Street that serves children in 150 countries around the world with a seemingly simple but powerful mission: to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. The three parts in its mission are closely interconnected and are reflected in every educational material it has produced. Whether a child is watching a Sesame Street episode or playing an online digital game, carefully-designed educational messages from the three domains are conveyed to every child to help them become smarter, stronger, and kinder from their early years on.

Sesame Workshop China, or Zhima Jie in Mandarin Chinese, was officially established in 2013. While it is still a young organization, the educational demand from communities like the left-behind children have already existed for more than a decade, and it calls for educators’ immediate action. I joined Sesame Workshop China as a Social Impact Program Manager mainly to help develop and disseminate specifically-tailored educational programs and tools for families most in need. In China, many of these families are located in remote underprivileged communities in rural areas. It is our responsibility to reach these children who would otherwise have little or no access to early childhood education.

In October 2016, in order to better understand left-behind children’s needs, we brought several episodes of Big Bird Looks at the World, a China locally-produced Mandarin-language version of Sesame Street, to a remote county in the far west of Qinghai Province. The 52 episodes in this season aim to promote children’s knowledge based on many of their everyday encounters with science, health, and nature, while incorporating messages to help kids develop critical executive function and social emotional skills such as problem-solving, self-control, resilience, and perspective taking to engage with their complex world.

The observation process was an amazing experience for me. Children were immediately drawn to Sesame’s furry lovable Muppets and the fun educational content when I started playing the sample episodes. When characters like Elmo or Big Bird began doing a task on the screen, children mimicked their behaviors and started doing the task with them. For example, an episode of Big Bird Looks at the World focuses on teaching children the importance of taking care of one’s own oral hygiene. When Elmo started using a toothbrush to clean his teeth, all the children in my observation group pretended that they had a toothbrush in hand and started brushing up and down with Elmo. Later in discussion with local teachers, I found out that in this small village even adults do not brush their teeth, and children were barely exposed to the idea of cleaning their teeth using a toothbrush. It was encouraging for me to see that although these children had no idea what toothbrush is, they learned so quickly about how and why to brush their teeth simply by watching the episode. After screening, several kids asked me if I could bring them toothbrush so that they can “have shiny teeth just like Elmo’s”. I was glad that changes on their attitudes and behaviors were already shown.

This is just one small example of how a carefully-designed educational tool can greatly change children’s attitudes and behaviors in such a short amount of time. It is important that we never underestimate the ability of a simple piece of well-designed educational material in empowering children’s mind and fostering their learning. As one of the most vulnerable groups of children, the left-behind children who are at preschool age need more high-quality educational materials and tools like the Big Bird Looks at the World to help them acquire important life skills, understand social relationships, and get ready for school. By filling the blanks in their lives with fun and engaging educational materials and encouraging them to use such tools on their own in an informal way, children can learn easily by playing happily.

Addressing complex issues like the problems of left-behind children is by no means an easy task. Same for every other educational problem in the world, there is no silver bullet. Tackling issues like this takes a long time and a lot of diligence from a variety of organizations that are willing to make a collective impact towards a common goal. It is every educational organization’s responsibility to take actions now to ensure that quality early childhood education resources are easily accessible and useful to every child, especially to the underprivileged and vulnerable. While we all understand that the progress might be slow and the journey might be grueling, each small step should be made, valued, and celebrated.

Reflection, a Nobler Way

Reflection, a nobler way words Rebekah Nivala  illustrations Rufina K. Park

As I reflect on the role of reflection in my own journey toward wisdom, there are several experiences I would like to share with you, which may be of interest to you and your family. Confucius once said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest”. Not fortunate enough to be a student of Confucius, much of what I have learned about reflection came about through the easier and bitterer forms of enlightenment. Yet, becoming aware of what I do not know makes me wonder if others similarly struggle with intentional reflective thinking in the face of life’s myriad distractions. Wherever you are on wisdom’s road, I hope you may find a helpful signpost within this missive that may serve to direct toward Confucius’ nobler way.  

Growing up in small town America, I was privileged to study as a home-schooled student. Like any form of instruction, homeschooling has its own fair share of pros and cons. However, homeschooling has great potential to capitalize on the student’s interests [1], which can determine the course of study that may or may not include collaboration with an established education institution. In order for such a seemingly free flow method of schooling [2] to attain its aim, the student and homeschooling parent must mutually understand the student’s interests, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses. For this, reflection is needed. Indeed, my parent teacher often urged me to reflect deeply on subjects that interested me most – science and music – and to pursue every opportunity to broaden my exposure and connections with those in relevant fields.  

Reflection also promises substantial dividends in the traditional public or private school classroom setting. In a study involving 350 students [3] and 27 pre-service and in-service teachers, the practice of reflection was linked to improved knowledge, awareness, self-control, and classroom practice related to science teaching and learning. Reflection has also been correlated to enhanced test taking strategies. Research led by Harvard Business School [4]  found that reflecting after taking a test may positively impact future performance, thereby increasing the productivity of experience.  

During my master’s study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Personalized Learning Platform  (PLP) [5] came into view. An online learning tool that allows students to customize and take more ownership of their education, PLP works by having students create individual plans and set personal goals of both short and long-term length. PLP uses a “backwards planning” method and solicits students to reflect on their learning as well as where they want to grow. Students are then given opportunity to collaborate with teachers to create a plan that will help them reach their goals. Essentially, PLP has created a platform to help students pursue their interests with purpose – similar to homeschooling, but on a digitized and larger scale.

Though testing of PLP has been centralized in California’s Summit High Schools, the platform is expected to increasingly gain traction. It may be especially helpful to students who wish to add meaningful depth and focus to their learning. Yet again, reflection is an essential ingredient to this recipe of building self-concept; PLP has provided a set of blocks, but knowing where one is currently juxtaposed to the self one is trying to create is the first step toward drafting the study blueprint.

My current work for a local foundation in Indonesia also points me to the importance of reflection. Collaboration with Universitas Gajda Mada, one of Indonesia’ premier universities, as well as with leading experts in the field of psychometrics led to the development of AJT COGTEST – the first intelligence test developed specifically for students in Indonesia aged 5-18 [6]. Based on Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) Theory, this test works to identify students’ cognitive domains, reported in the form of mountains and valleys or strengths and weaknesses. The psychologist’s report is then used to inform development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) [7], which helps student, parents, and teachers work together to achieve the student’s learning goals. Reflection is an integral component throughout this process: teachers reflect on how her/his students are doing in class and request an observation from a psychologist. If after reflective observation the psychologist gives recommendation, a tester administers and reflectively scores the test with qualitative input and a psychologist develops the report. A Case Management Team (CMT) is formed and works to develop the IEP, the implementation of which is greatly enhanced by daily reflection on the progress of the child.

Despite evidence on the positive returns associated with the practice of reflection, it is too often seen as a non-essential and languorous activity that requires long hours of quiet solitude and deep thought. Additionally, the terrific tempo of life and school coupled with occasionally invasive use of technology presents a formidable barrier to the quality of attention, focus, and thinking integral to reflection [8]. However, with a little creativity and experimentation, reflection can become a powerful tool with which to help yourself and those around you form self-concept, identify goals, and find the path to take you there.

Teaching Diversity in Japan

Teaching Diversity in Japan

words Hanna Otani photo Cory Schadt

My best friend from middle school was bullied when she came back to Japan from the United States in 5th grade because she was the only student who had lived abroad. They used that “difference” as a reason for why she should be picked on. Her classmates pretended that she did not exist and said mean things to her.

As a result, my best friend kept her experience abroad to herself when she transitioned from elementary to middle school. I, a student who had came back from the United States in middle school, was the only student who knew about her experience abroad. She took comfort that I would not exclude her because we had similar backgrounds. We would exchange journals to share thoughts in English and spoke in English with an American accent when we were alone. However, she would speak English with a Japanese accent in class.

Later on, in high school, our English teacher accidentally told the class that my friend had lived abroad. Although the other students seemed to be surprised, she was not bullied like she had been when she was in elementary school. I think it was because some students also lived abroad, including myself. Moreover, they had already come to know my best friend for who she was, and did not care too much about which “category” she fell under. Ever since then, she stopped hiding her experience in the US and being self-conscious of speaking English in an American accent.


Regardless of Japan’s image as a “homogeneous” country, there is diversity represented by factors such as experiences abroad, body shape, family structure, and gender identity.  Moreover, Japan is becoming increasingly more diverse ethnically. After a slight decrease in 2008, due to the financial crisis, the number of foreign national residents in Japan has been increasing steadily.

The number of foreigners visiting Japan has been rapidly increasing as well. Since 2012, visitor arrivals have been increasing by an average of 33.7% every year, and in 2016, 24.04 million foreigners visited Japan. Based on an analysis of government data, one in 29 (3.4%) babies that were born in 2014 have at least one non-Japanese parent. Although this may seem like a small fraction compared to countries like the United States, the number has been steadily increasing: in 1990 this proportion was 1.7% [1].

With increasing diversity and rapid globalization in Japan, it is becoming more crucial for the Japanese society to develop the capability to accommodate differences. As one approach, the government has been making efforts to teach children what diversity is.   

Education for International Understanding in Japan

“Education for International Understanding” has been introduced in Japanese public schools since 1996 to enhance students’ basic qualities and capabilities necessary to take proactive actions from an international perspective.

UNESCO first introduced the “Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” at the General Conference in 1974. The basic principle is “friendly relations between peoples and States having different social and political systems and on the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Japan decided to introduce Education for International Understanding (EID) to prepare children for the 21st Century, as the society is experiencing rapid globalization. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), qualities and capabilities that are enhanced in EID include communication skills, capability to live with different cultures, and self-establishment. To develop these skills, schools teach students about different countries, interact with foreigners in Japan, research how products in Japan were made in different countries, and how Japanese products are exported and used outside of Japan.

EID was explicitly mentioned in the primary school curriculum from 2002 as one of the many topics for the “Period for Integrated Studies”, which is a time “to enable pupils to think in their own way about life through cross-synthetic studies and inquiry studies, while fostering the qualities and abilities needed to find their own tasks, to learn and think on their own, to make proactive decisions, and to solve problems better” (Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).  

Each school determines the specific objectives and content for Integrated Studies based on the overall objective stated above. However, all schools are required to teach 70 classes of Period for Integral Studies every year. Depending on each school’s policies, EID could potentially be taught in a variety of other classes such as ethics class, extracurricular class, English class, and other subjects in addition to the Period for Integrated Studies.

UkiUki English

A workshop for 5th and 6th graders called “UkiUki English” (Exciting English in Japanese) held in Sakaiminato since 2016 is an example of the EID in action. Sakaiminato is a port city in Tottori Prefecture, with a small population of 35,000. In recent years, the city has experienced an increasing number of foreign tourists who have come to the city by cruise ships. “The Ukiuki English” was thus a response to the accelerating rate of globalization affecting the city.

The Board of Education of Sakaiminato promoted the program in all elementary schools in the city and allowed any interested student to participate for free. Every Saturday morning, several international students, about ten Japanese university students and 40 elementary school children gather for the workshop (for details of activities held, see p. 108). The Japanese university students plan and facilitate the program and the participants play various English games, which provide an opportunity for students to internalize and adapt to cultures and customs in other countries.

Mr. Kagemoto, Chief of School Education Section of Sakaiminato City, introduces Sakaiminato as “the gateway to the Sea of Japan” with both a seaport and airport. He hopes that “students develop global competency and English communication skills from an early stage to build a foundation for interacting with people of different countries. This workshop was not based on demands from the school side, but was created by the city to adapt to its rapid globalization. This workshop is intended to be different from education provided in schools in that there is more emphasis on interactions with international students and activities such as games. As future goals for Ukiuki English, he commented, “if possible, we would like to create opportunities for these children to interact more with foreigners”.

Mr. Kagemoto commented that it was not difficult to gather pupils to participate in the workshop. In fact, there were more children than expected. He explained that this may be because fifth and sixth grade students have prior exposure to foreign language activities in school. These 4th and 5th grade students in Sakaiminato learn about international understanding through a variety of channels (through these out-of-school activities, classes in Period of Integrated Studies, and English classes). However, this is not always commonplace.

Challenges of Education for International Understanding

As schools have autonomy to decide the contents and methods for teaching Education for International Understanding, there is significant differences in the delivery of this education program depending on how motivated teachers are at each respective school. In addition, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has outlined several challenges such as a decrease in priority of EID due to increase in English classes, lack of EID teacher professional development, lack of effective use of Japanese teachers who have taught abroad, failure to maximize use of external resources, and increasing demand to meet ethnically diverse student population as well as Japanese children who have lived abroad. It may be difficult to meet all of these challenges, but as seen in Sakaiminato, the Japanese society is making efforts to adapt to the globalization in its communities.

Another concern is that the current educational practices in EID may not be effective in teaching children to embrace and thrive in diverse culturally diverse communities and environments. Through EID, children learn about different cultures and customs of different countries, as well as how to communicate with people from abroad by learning English. Although these are valuable lessons, children may not be learning enough how to cope with differences and how to cooperate with people who they perceive to be different.

This is concerning because bullying is a common phenomenon in Japan. Numerous Japanese friends have told me that they experienced the “circle of bullying” where each person gets bullied in the classroom. Some have short experiences of bullying while others are left altered and crushed for a long time such as my best friend I talked about at the beginning of this article. In 2015, Japan’s MEXT reported that 56.5% schools in Japan have reported cases of ijime (bullying in Japanese) in 2014. As there are cases of bullying that are not perceived by the teacher, the percentage may be higher in reality.

One of the reasons why a student decides to bully another is because a student is perceived as different compared to others. In other words, it may be a reaction to not being able to embrace cultural diversity in the classroom.

As echoed throughout this article, children need to learn to respect differences. These differences are not limited to ethnic differences but also include diversity in gender, body shape, family structure, and personality. If children do not learn how to accept and respect differences among themselves in the classroom, it will be extremely difficult for them to accept and respect differences in people who they perceive to be a non-ethnically Japanese foreigner. Thus, to maximize the learning of EID in Japan, it may be necessary to teach how to respect diversity inside the classroom.

By building on pre-existing EID frameworks, Japan can continue to help children to learn about the differences and similarities of other countries and cultures. With more time for children to reflect on similarities and differences inside the classroom and perceive the differences as advantages of the classroom community, the country can better teach diversity and hopefully prevent sad incidents like the one my best friend experienced.

Issue One Contributors: Mijeong Takahashi


Mijeong contributed an article + activity about how to exercise creativity and perspective taking in the first issue of the Ottiya Magazine. Learn more about Mijeong below:

How would you introduce yourself in less than 10 words?
Educator and researcher interested in people and a better world.

What was the most important factor in nurturing your creativity when you were growing up?
What a wonderful question for reflecting! Countless factors have contributed to developing my creativity, but perhaps one of the most important were the open and creative adults around me. For example, I believe thinking critically and questioning allows me to explore new thoughts, and my father was excellent at patiently listening to and answering my numerous questions as well as asking me questions that pushed my thinking. Another example are my wonderful, artistic elementary school teachers who would beautifully decorate our classrooms and design countless creative activities in all disciplines. I have been extremely fortunate to have mentors of various fields encouraging me in my creativity and curiosity.

Where do you draw your inspiration from today?
I draw my inspiration from everything around me, including the people around me as well as my experiences from the past. I’m always collecting pieces of ideas, and they fit together in different situations and times. Of course, there is also my lifelong source of inspiration, nature.

Creative potential: nature vs. nurture? What’s your take?
I believe it’s both. Every single individual is born with creative potential in some capacity. There is no non-creative person. “Creativity” might look different, but I believe everyone is capable of it. However, what creative potential or ability one has is shaped by the environment, thus nurture can and does have significant impact.

The theme of the first issue of Ottiya is ‘community’. What is community to you?
Community to me is a place of acceptance and give and take. It is the next step after your family, a place where multiple families and entities learn from and support each other to come together as a larger piece of society/living in the world.

Nurturing Our Children’s Creativity


Nurturing Our Children’s Creativity words Sally Chung illustrations Amy Sihyeon Jeong

When we hear the word “art”, we often think of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night and hastily conclude that we aren’t skilled enough to do that kind of art. We draw a line and limit our creative potential as the imaginative and experimental individuals that we are meant to be. Somewhere in our transition to adulthood, we pick up a false notion that creativity is for the gifted and the gifted alone. As a result, we grow up into adults who have a limited and rigid understanding about what is “good” and “bad” art.

Maybe you began to think of yourself as not “creative” or “artistic” enough after a negative childhood experience. Perhaps it was that elementary art teacher who praised your friend’s artwork with enthusiastic statements such as, “Wow! That looks amazing!”, but passed you by with only a gentle nod and a reluctant smile, even though you were very proud of the sketch you made. Or, perhaps it was when you attempted to draw your favorite car for the first time, but a friend looked at it and laughed and asked, “What is that?”. Still, maybe it was the time when you received a C- on a new invention you made in science class that your teacher criticized as unoriginal. Whatever your story is, I’m sure that many others can empathize and agree that they too do not consider themselves as the artistic types.  

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Issue One Contributors: James MacDiarmid

James contributed an article and activity about nature and biophilia in the first issue of the Ottiya Magazine. Learn more about James and his article below: 

How would you introduce yourself in less than 10 words?
I am a teacher by trade but an educator by choice.

The theme of the first issue of Ottiya is ‘community’. What is community to you?
Community is greater than the mass. It is about acknowledgment, awareness, appreciation and learning. Community is built on shared understandings and values. Community is not confined to the human species but rather all living and nonliving others. We are nature therefore we too make up the community that is known as planet Earth. 

You contributed an article/activity about biophilia. Can you briefly explain what it is?
Biophilia is a term first introduced by Erich Fromm to describe our innate psychological needs and tendencies of being attracted to all that is alive. It is why, for example, you will always observe young children chasing birds and for that matter, expressing wonderment in all things found in nature, despite never being exposed to it before.

What’s your favorite quote about education?
“Experience is what you get, when you didn’t get what you want.” – Dr. Randy Pausch

Where is your favorite green space?
All areas that make up the natural world. There can never be one (favourite) green space as all spaces are interconnected and provide that same feeling of awe and wonder.

What is your favorite nature experience from childhood?
Going to space everyday in my rocket ship, or more commonly known as ‘my tree in the front yard.’

What are your hopes for nature education in schools?
That nature becomes the nucleus for all learning opportunities. That we look to nature for inspiration, provocation and teachings. That a school ‘setting’ resembles that of a nature space; one which is alive, transient and ingenious in design.


Interview/Editing: Rufina Park, Founder and Creative/Editorial Director of Ottiya

Thank you for bringing Ottiya to life!

From the bottom of our hearts, thank YOU for bringing Ottiya to life! Here’s a recount of some of our favorite moments on Twitter during our Spring 2017 Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign: