The bigger picture: a holistic approach to education

Dr. Lim Lai Cheng, former Principal of Singapore’s Raffles Institution, looks at why schools should adopt a holistic approach to education

As an education practitioner, I am proud of the fact that Singapore took first place in reading, mathematics and science in last year’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), marking its best performance yet in the global benchmarking test which included 72 economies. 

I also read with interest that a study by the Boston Consulting Group has placed Singapore high in the global rankings for wellbeing, making us the only non-European country to make the top 10. For many who have grown up accustomed to a highly demanding Singaporean education system, the reaction to this is likely to be one of scepticism. 

Countries that are aiming to emulate high performers have been tempted to push for academic outcomes through more hours of classroom instruction, more homework, and more frequent testing to climb the rankings. Countries, like Finland, that prefer to advocate holistic and social development of children, on the other hand, are seen to be slipping from the ranks.

All in all, as the European economies like to stress, PISA statistics tell only one part of the whole story. Therefore, is PISA – and other similar assessments – missing the bigger picture?

Character growth supporting future success

In order to ensure that students are successful in later life, academic development has to be coupled with the development of character and wellbeing. 

Academic development has to be coupled with the development of character and wellbeing

A team of educators at the Character Lab in New York has identified seven key character strengths which they hope to build a scientific developmental model for. These character traits are grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity and zest. 

If schools are able to integrate the development of these key traits alongside academic achievement, the chances of children’s success in an increasingly complex and competitive world will be much higher.

To understand how we can make a fundamental change, a number of schools in Singapore, such as Westwood Primary School, have endorsed a framework that emphasises imparting both skills and competencies, as well as teaching wellbeing, so that the students can gain a greater insight into the self as an agent for change.

Some strategies employed by teachers daily include using a traffic light system to teach explicit reflective thinking. For example, a traffic light to represent ‘Stop-Think-Go’ is used by teachers to guide pupils to reflect on their actions and thoughts in class. 

Teachers also hold regular ‘What Went Well’ activities in the classroom so that students are able to reflect regularly. Reward charts are created to provide specific praise for effort, rather than just achievement, in tasks and relationships. Teachers also make use of opportunities to offer words of affirmation to the children.

The importance of positive education

Positive education, a movement that is gaining momentum across the world, works to create a school culture that supports caring, trusting relationships. It is an approach that encourages and supports individuals to flourish, and focuses on specific skills that assist students to build positive emotions, enhance personal resilience, promote mindfulness and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Schools that promote wellbeing but undervalue excellence (academic or otherwise) will produce students who underperform, while those that do little to promote wellbeing and instead overvalue the drive for success often end up with students and staff who are burnt-out. Schools that do neither produce languishing students who are neither happy nor performing. 

Finally, when schools or systems focus on wellbeing and excellence, they will have thriving or flourishing individuals. 

Dr. Lim Lai Cheng is an Executive Director of SMU Academy, Singapore Management University and board member of Winter’s International School Finder.

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