In the beginning of February 2012 the art teacher educators of the Department of Art in Aalto University had visitors from the School of the Arts in Singapore. The small but influential delegation consisted of rector, Mrs. Rebecca Chew, vice rector, Mr. Yap Meen Sheng, and head of the faculty of visual arts, Mr. Tan Wee Lit. The encounter in Helsinki was not the first between our institutions: we had already visited Rebecca and her team in Singapore in 2006, when the operations of the new kind of school were being designed and the present school building was still only a scale model – albeit impressive and meticulously constructed – in the centre of the planning office.
Today the School of the Arts, SOTA for short, is no longer just a vision, mission, and a scale model, but an independent, international pre-tertiary school that offers a connected arts and academic curriculum for youths aged 13-18. It was initiated by the Singapore Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) with an intention to provide a dynamic learning environment to those who have interest and show early talent in the arts, and to identify and groom future generations of artists and creative professionals to be leaders in all fields, particularly in the arts.
In Rebecca’s opinion developing the young school and its practices further requires that outsiders view them. In her cheerful and straightforward manner, she welcomed our teachers and students to visit their school any time, to do a teacher exchange or a teaching practice – “Let’s keep it simple”. She also invited me to take part in their forthcoming Talent Academy (TA), the selection of new students for the next academic year, as a visiting art pedagogue and a researcher, and I gladly accepted. What a great opportunity to observe how the ideas of art based education or interdisciplinarity, long cherished by the Finnish art educators, were put to practice!
After four and half months I finally arrived to Singapore on June 20th, two days delayed. On the night I came to the Helsinki-Vantaa airport and went to check in, an unpleasant surprise was waiting for me: to be allowed to enter Singapore the passport had to be valid for at least six months but mine was only valid until October. It was not possible to obtain a passport from the airport police, because it was already past office hours. My only option was to take the next flight with seats available, and luckily there was one no more than two days later.
Thus, unfortunately, I missed the first day of the Talent Academy to which I had been invited to partake as an external panelist for the faculty of visual arts. However, despite feeling a bit unprepared, jetlagged, enveloped in hot air, and barely acclimatized when walking the few meters from my hotel to the school across the street and up the steps of the impressive main portal leading into the massive building, I was still able to catch up with the selection process that was already well under way.
After a warm welcome by Rebecca and Wee Lit, who had visited my university in February, I was shortly informed about some practical issues and introduced to some other teachers and members of the faculty of visual arts. Hearing them talk assured me that at least as far as language was concerned getting around and along in this school – and in the whole nation for that matter – would be a doddle, because everybody here, including the students, spoke English, the main official language of Singapore. I was given a visitor’s pass that would allow me to enter the school and use the lift which was meant exclusively for the staff – students had to use the escalators and the staircases – to move between the classrooms and studios distributed in the ten storey building. I was appointed a desk in one of the cubicles in the extensive teachers’ office space on the 5th floor, where I could leave my belongings until I would get my own little cubicle. After all that it was time to ascend a few floors with Wee Lit to where the interviews of the applicants to his faculty of visual arts were taking place.
TA – The student admission process
Kids of 11-12 years of age are so sweet all over the world! Most of the 10 girls and 4 boys that I met within the two days of my participation in the interviews seemed very genuine and honest about themselves and their feelings, for instance, towards different school subjects. Some had a clear idea of why they wanted to focus on art and what that would help them to become in future, some just “loved art”, had “always loved it”. One boy actually wanted to become a pilot, but he had heard that studying art would be good for him, because it would develop both sides of his brain equally.
And indeed, he would need all sides of his brain if he were to be among the 80 students who will start their combined visual arts and academic studies in this school next January. In the Talent Academy students are selected according to their artistic giftedness into one of four faculties, which are dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. Once the applicants are chosen to a specific faculty, they will specialize in the respective art for the rest of their studies in SOTA. However, because the students are expected to graduate in six years with an IB (International Baccalaureate) diploma, it is not enough to be good at your art to be selected, there are also some academic requirements that the applicants must fulfill to be accepted. Thus each of the visual arts selection panels as well as the panels of the other art faculties also had to have a member of a science or a humanities faculty. In my first panel team this member was a mother tongue teacher, and in the second panel a mathematics teacher, both women.
There were four parts in the visual arts entrance exams: (1) a group task with a discussion, (2) a drawing task, (3) a short essay, (4) and an interview. The applicants were also expected to bring along their latest school reports and portfolios assembled of their artwork, which they had to present to the panelists as part of the interview. During two days I got to see parts 3 and 4 of the exam as well as look at the portfolios and even the school reports, which I had hard time understanding since they were marked very differently from what I was used to at home.
The topics of the 300-500 word essays that kids had to write in order to give an idea of their writing skills could be chosen from 3 alternatives. One of them was about where they would like to live, another about the importance of art, and the third was about watching television. Most TV essays stressed the harmfulness of too much telly watching but on the other hand underlined its educational potential. The art essays mainly praised art as being the thing in the world that makes life beautiful and worth living. Writing about “where I’d like to live” was clearly most challenging, because the solutions were quite different, such as a tree house, or a place where there were “intelligent people with leadership abilities”.
The portfolios showed a lot of both qualitative and quantitative variation, including gender differences in the more spontaneous work, also evident in the two images shown below. With four boys out of fourteen applicants the gender ratio of children wanting to study visual arts looked slightly better than that in Finland. But apparently even fewer boys applied to dance art, a situation which, in SOTA, was seen more problematic than having less boys than girls in visual arts. One of my (male) fellow panelists told me about a boy from some previous Talent Academy who had been recommended to study dance which would have suited him better than visual arts to which he applied, but as his parents would not allow him to study it, he carried on with visual arts. I got the impression that in Singapore parents may be generally quite conservative in terms of what is allowed for boys and girls, and even the boys in the visual arts audition seemed to underline their masculinity by stressing how they liked depicting certain subjects more than others. One of the four boys had mainly drawn cartoon characters in his sketch book, another boy’s favorite subject was weapons, and a third boy showed works where he had gradually turned animals into some kind of robots or transformers and was strictly of the opinion that animals, for instance, are more of a girls’ subject.
Some of the children seemed to have had more art instruction or spent more time painting, drawing and working with more varied mediums than others. Some might have had a proficient adult helping them to assemble the array of artwork and coaching them for the interview, others possibly not. But I could not also help noticing that certain themes and types of work recurred in many portfolios. How come they had ended up in so many kids’ repertoire? Did these children come from the same primary school? Or were there some particular, well-known tasks that all primary students were supposed to do in visual art, like the one about analyzing or reinterpreting a work of some European impressionist artist such as Van Gogh or Degas?
Following my little but curiosity awakening observation, some other questions also came to my mind, such as, who can teach art in primary school? Is art obligatory in all schools? What are the art lessons like in SOTA? After the entrance examinations were finished, Talent Academy posters were cleared, classrooms were organised to make way to business as usual, and the students returned from their four-week holidays, I had a chance to make some more observations and look for information.
MOE, NIE, GEO – The national context
Asking around and searching through the Internet about the teacher qualifications I learnt that there is a teacher-training unit in the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore where primary school teachers and secondary school teachers of sciences or humanities can get their teacher qualifications through undergraduate or postgraduate programs. For instance in SOTA some of the teachers of the 2nd year Integrated arts and most of the teachers who taught art on the levels 1-3 had gone through some line of that education. But I was even more curious to know if pedagogical studies or qualifications are required of the art teachers in the secondary or higher levels in schools – after all, in Finland secondary school art teachers need a master’s degree in art education or equivalent. From discussions with the visual art teachers I got the impression that at least in SOTA they were not strictly required – it was enough to be an established artist and have earlier teaching experience – although, on the other hand, SOTA expects all its teachers to take part in various pedagogical courses. The justification for the higher levels not having pedagogically qualified teachers seemed to be that the students are more adult-like and do not need the same kind of strict control as the younger ones. In effect, the concept of pedagogy seemed to be somehow associated with discipline or ‘classroom management’ as somebody put it.
An Internet search more or less verified what I had been told. According to the very informative Ministry of Education (MOE) Internet pages a Singaporean person needs to have at least a general university degree in education (GEO – General Education Officer) to become a teacher at primary level. But at secondary level you can be enrolled to teach visual arts if
a) you have a degree in Art – which in Singapore usually refers to BA degree –, or
b) you had a Minimum Grade of “C” in Art at ‘A’ Level, or
c) you have a Professional Art Diploma from LaSalle or NAFA (Nanyan Academy of Fine Arts), the two major high level art institutions in Singapore.
However, after the enrollment teachers may be sent for training at National Institute of Education during which they will be paid a monthly salary.
It is worth noting that there was no compulsory education in Singapore until 2003, when it was implemented. In effect the first Singaporean resident citizens who by law had to enter the national primary school at the age of six and finish it – or else their parents could be fined or even imprisoned – were born between 2nd January 1996 and 1st January 1997. This means that some of the older students I met in SOTA were actually pioneers of the implementation of compulsory education in Singapore! It also means that all students in SOTA – and the students in all other schools beyond primary level for that matter – were there voluntarily. Unlike in the Finnish system, the Singaporean compulsory education does not concern children with special needs, and for the rest only the six-year primary school is compulsory and that only until they turn fifteen. By comparison, in Finland people in age groups 7 to 16 must cover the nine‐year school curriculum and can only be freed from this if ten years have lapsed since entering the education system.
As to the art education in primary school I found that there is a national core curriculum as well as an art syllabus in Singapore, which guides and defines the aims, focus areas and methods of art teaching in the mainstream schools, much the same way as in Finland. Although it does not dictate the exact contents, it seems to me – after seeing the art portfolios during the Talent Academy – that a certain set of artists and styles from Western art history is introduced to the primary students. Even in SOTA the visual arts syllabus I saw contained pretty much the same Europe/USA-centered set that has been taught in Finnish schools until recently. I wondered if this could be because of a national level emphasis on internationality and commerciality. However, as far as I understand, the affiliation to the international IB program in visual arts only requires that students acquaint themselves with various art traditions and that they are also introduced to the art of their own cultures and encouraged to research them.
In fact another noteworthy feature about the Singaporean educational context is its intrinsic multiculturalism and multilingualism. In practice this has lead to the designation of English as the main language of all instruction throughout the Singaporean school system, even though Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil are also official languages. English is the first language learned by half the children by the time they enter pre-school, and by the time they reach primary school nearly all subjects except the official Mother Tongue languages and the literatures of those languages are taught in English. (See e.g. Wikipedia: Education in Singapore; Dixon 2005)
I spent most of my second week at SOTA walking around the school premises and popping into the classrooms taking photos, participating in a couple of teacher assemblies, observing some ongoing art lessons, chatting with teachers, and even exchanging a few words with students every now and again. The variety of studio and theory based courses that I could choose to observe, ranging in varying combinations and scope from the first study year to the last, was so impressive that it could make any Finnish visual art teacher envious: Sculpture, Drawing, Ceramics, Theory & History of Art, Integrated Arts, Painting, Drawing & Concept Development, Design Concepts, Theory & Context, Media Arts, Specializing studios in Media Arts/ Design Concepts/ Painting/ Sculpture, Sculpture Workshop, Ceramics Workshop, Painting Studio, Media Arts Lab… The teaching facilities were equally impressive in quantity and scope, especially considering that the maximum size of a teaching unit was 20 students, and it was not uncommon to see that number split in two, each occupying one of the many labs, studios, or classrooms. There were also various sized auditoriums, dance studios, concert halls, exhibition spaces, courtyards, a big library and even an extensive rooftop terrace adorned with tropical trees, bushes, and a magnificent 360-degree view over the city to be used for diverse educational purposes.
The Theory & Context lesson I observed first was about Text & images and Art & context, and it was given by Mr. Tan Wee Lit on Monday afternoon to a group of 4th year students of whom eight boys and eleven girls – which I would consider a rather good gender distribution in any art class – were participating. One of the boys was reading his notes, and four of them had their laptops open in front of them while the teacher started preparing the assignment by playing some Edith Piaf through the loudspeakers: “Padam, padam, padam…” After a few verses he turned the volume down to ask his students what kinds of thoughts the music brought to their minds.
– It sounds like a clip from a musical, said one girl.
– Is it about war? A boy asked.
– Why? Wee Lit asked the boy.
– I don’t know why, it just sounds like that to me. Like gun fire.
– It’s about love, said Wee Lit. The room was a bit too resonating for me to hear the conversation properly, but the students seemed to agree with their teacher.
As Wee lit told me later, the idea was to share a song in a language foreign to the students, allowing them to interpret its meaning through other means than language or text, such as tone, intonation, pitch, expressions of feelings. This would prepare the students for the sharing of what they would be seeing next. Wee Lit wanted to show them some videos by Matthew Barney, an American artist (and the husband of Björk!) known for his infatuation with Vaseline and his art rich with imagery, projects, objects, and videos. Students were supposed to translate his work to their own drawing and artwork, trying to convey the idea so that it gets to the audience the way they want. All the students listened to the presentation in silence, but when the projector refused to work and Wee Lit went out for a moment to make a phone call (to find an alternative room with Audio Visual facilities that would enable screening), they started chatting with one another. One girl even left her place to look for something and one of the boys stood up. Then Wee Lit returned and wanted to take the group to another classroom to watch the videos. The second space, a little auditorium with tight rows of creaky chairs on ascending floor levels, was even more resonate than the first one. Most of the boys took seats on the second level next to each other, whereas most of the girls lined up in the seats on the top level at the back.
The video we watched was one of the many in Mathew Barney’s Cremaster-series. It was one of those experimental art films with no clear plot, but a sequence of events and actions that take place in surreal places and are held together mainly by the coherent aesthetics of the set and the characters, the colours, the objects, the visual imagery etc. It portrayed beautiful women making highly exaggerated, awkward, almost symmetrical gestures and strange deeds either dressed as stewardesses or half naked, their body parts well displayed by the artist. Suspecting that this was not what the students would voluntarily watch I observed them, wondering what they thought about it. There was no chatting or movement at all this time, on the contrary: one boy looked very dozy, and another was actually sleeping. The girls in the back row seemed more interested at first, but then I realised that at least two of them were also asleep, and towards the end of the show quite a few of the spectators seemed to have difficulties of maintaining attention and staying awake.
When the lesson ended, ten minutes of the video still remained unwatched. Wee Lit got up and went to the front. He said that there would be more film viewing next time but also encouraged the students to find the videos on the web and watch them by themselves. He asked: “What is cremaster? Anyone?” As nobody answered he explained that it was certain suspensory muscle of the testis. The video had been a study of the sex, although not only that.
Immediately after Theory & Context I had a chance to observe the same group of 4th year students on a two-hour lesson of Drawing & Concept Development, which was normally given by Ms Lydia Wong, but due to her absence was given by her replacement, Mr. John Stewart Jackson. John – a young artist who was originally from Alabama USA and had came to SOTA 5 years ago – who usually taught sculpture to the 5th and 6th year students, told the 4th year group that Ms Wong wanted them to carry on practicing the continual line drawing technique she had previously introduced to them. The assignment she had given for John to deliver demanded “seeking continuation between eye and hand, avoiding adding from imagination”. Although (or maybe because?) John was very soft spoken, all the students sat still at their desks, which were organized in a circle around a plastic human skeleton in the middle, and listened attentively when he gave the instructions:
– Make several drawings to show Lydia. When you are finished, stick them on the wall with blu-tack. Draw slowly, don’t lift the pencil from the paper. I’ll put some of your favorite music on…
After this all students remained silent, and some of them started drawing almost immediately, while others carried on staring at the plastic skeleton that was supposed to be used as the model. In fact it was so quiet that one could hardly have believed that this was a drawing lesson in an art school! Was it because of my presence? All I could hear were the air conditioning and the noises of cars from the busy streets eight or nine floors below. One girl and a couple of boys were listening to music through their headphones, but everybody was concentrating really well. I wondered if they had the same level of motivation and concentration on all hands-on lessons. And were they always able to work without further instructions, without the teacher going around helping individual students?
But after a while, when all the students were already well versed into the assignment, John did get up and start checking around the circle of students to see how they were getting on. As the first drawings were gradually blu-tacked on the wall, he estimated them with individual students or little groups, while the rest carried on with their work. He encouraged the students to look at each other’s drawings and to go and touch the model to get a tactile idea of its shapes. And, although he had repeatedly insisted from the beginning of the lesson that the continuous line should be drawn in a slow concentrated manner, at some point later I heard him telling the students to draw faster and try different speeds while executing versions of the drawing task.
Eventually I also ventured to get up from my chair and started walking around the students, looking at and photographing their drawings and exchanging a few words with them. This enabled me to acknowledge that apparently it was not my presence that caused silence in the classroom, nor was this kind of silence typical or demanded on the art lessons. As one girl put it, students were allowed to talk and they did talk on lessons that required it, but this particular task required concentration, so they kept quiet. By the time all the finished drawings were attached to the wall to be examined from near and afar and discussed together, the classroom soundscape had clearly livened up but was still more subdued and controlled than I would have expected from any group of fourteen to fifteen year old youths in my own country. These teens certainly did not appear to be in need of “classroom management”.
IBDP, RWB, AGP, IA, IDU, CC – Connecting arts and academic
I never got to observe lessons of the 6th year students because they had to be preparing to present their science diploma portfolios to the IB international assessors all that week. To SOTA, an independent international school following an integrated arts and academic curriculum, situated in a city nation famous for it’s atmosphere of commercial success, socio-cultural progress and cosmopolitan trends, opting for the IB diploma programme seems most fitting. In practice it means a lot of work for the staff and especially for the students.
At least the IB diploma in visual arts, which is undertaken during the 5th and 6th years, seemed to demand loads of independent work from SOTA students, both during and outside school hours. First of all, they would have to undertake elaborate investigations about their artistic mediums through experimentation and knowledge seeking in order to navigate towards realisations of their artworks. By the end of the two IB years they would have to exhibit a carefully chosen selection from the plethora of art pieces they had made for the diploma to be evaluated by the IB examiners. According to John, after this year the group of international IB assessors would no longer come to Singapore, because the organisation wants to reduce it’s carbon footprint. Instead, the teachers would have to video the IB programme students presenting their art projects, process the videos and send them to the assessors.
Having to prove their work authentic and to show they had done the thinking themselves made the workload particularly heavy for the students because, even if most of them apparently had laptops, they had to handwrite their process notes, essays and analysis about their research subjects in the research workbooks (RWB), at least 5 pages weekly. To illustrate their points and narratives, which was a must, they could draw directly in these books or paste prints of digital photos and other visual documents of their project works and experimentations in them.
As I was observing the Painting Studio given by Mr. Khiew Huey Chian to a group of 5th year students, I saw that all of them had the typically black workbooks – mostly of the bound unlined type recommended in the IB portfolio instructions – open or at hand on the desks while executing their individual art-based investigations. Leafing through the books I realized that these students must actually write huge amounts of text. A lot of it contained ideas and reflections that seemed mature indeed considering the age of the authors, while some of it added up to little more than gobbledygook, as if written for the sake of having to make an impression by masses of “witty” jargon or even just masses of text. I can well imagine that there are individuals who find any amount of literal deliberation enjoyable, or at least an exciting challenge, but for those who are more visually expressive and hands-on oriented it might also be the cause of much stress. I’m not absolutely sure if even my Finnish art education students ever needed to deliver as much written evidence of their artistic potential as these teenagers did just for their IB diploma in visual arts, but I want to think that in both cases all the time and energy spent in text production instead of visual thinking and doing will prove educationally worthwhile.
Having said that, compared to the Finnish matriculation examination system where arts are not represented at all, in IBDP arts can be, even if optionally, one of the six subjects that are assessed in the final examinations and required for a full IB qualification. The IBDP curriculum positions arts as the optional sixth subject group from which, for instance, the visual arts course can be chosen. In SOTA this subject group option is well catered for and well used among the students.
When the IB arts diploma courses and projects of the last two years are added up with the arts courses of the first four years, one can see that there really is a lot of visual arts, dance, music, or theatre studies going on in SOTA on each respective study line and in each of the six school years. For some exceptionally talented individuals there is even more coaching available in the Artistically Gifted Programmme (AGP), which gives them opportunities to learn with global experts and in real world settings.
Furthermore, all students also have to introduce themselves to other than their own art forms. This happens during the first two years on Integrated Arts (IA) courses, where students of all four faculties are mixed and expected to form groups that bring together at least two art disciplines. After the first two years the students have to choose between four thematically different Integrated Arts groups, which then carry on for another two years. In these groups they are supposed to develop collective inter-arts projects where different art forms are actually integrated. I had a couple of opportunities to visit Integrated Arts lessons during my second week in SOTA. On one of them 4th year students, lead by two female teachers, were about to start developing collective projects around “motion in photography”. When I entered the classroom, which was really more like a dance studio with spotless floor and no seats or desks, the students were sitting on the floor in groups of four and chatting. I was told to take off my shoes and join in. The other lesson I visited, also given by a female teacher, was intended for 2nd year students. The theme of the lesson, Keith Haring and pop art, culminated in learning a method to make simple 3-dimensional objects from 2-dimensional card cutouts in mixed arts pairs.
The IB programme guidelines underline the importance of, and thereby encourage, interdisciplinary approaches. To this end teachers are supposed to guide students towards taking up individual and also collective projects, which force them to venture outside the limits of their own disciplines. In the curriculum and course descriptions I could also find a more concrete example of how arts and academic subjects are connected in SOTA: Interdisciplinary Units (IDU) are lessons specifically designed to exploit collaboration between disciplines. For example, in the Mathematics programme there was an IDU course called Motion Geometry, which was undertaken in collaboration with music and visual arts. In the Science programme there was a photography course with visual arts, media education, and TOK (theory of knowledge, one of the core courses of IB).
Clearly, to properly satisfy my original curiosity as to how the ideals of art-based education – implicated in the SOTA mission as learning environment anchored in the arts – and interdisciplinarity – expressed in the promotion material as integrated arts and academic curriculum or Connected Curriculum (CC) – were put to practice, I would have needed to look beyond the visual arts and interviewed teachers of other arts and sciences as well as observe their lessons. But I ran out of time.
So, to conclude…
In the end I was only able to focus on a small slice of all that I would have wanted to learn about the School of the Arts while in Singapore. Even so I have only partially managed to squeeze that slice of experience into the lengthy review above, most of it has to wait for another time to be told.
If given a chance, I will be pleased to go back and continue my investigation in SOTA, but I would also recommend it as an excellent context of exchange to any educators or teacher students who are interested in developing their pedagogical skills and thinking in an international, multicultural environment. It may be elitist in terms of its status as an arts specialised school for gifted children, and there are aspects in the written school rules that Nordic people might find outdated, too strict, or even unethical, such as obligatory school uniforms or caning as a possible punishment for boys. But SOTA certainly holds, especially if supported by research, great potential and an ideal framework for developing arts-based interdisciplinary education in school.
For a Finnish art teacher student an international teaching practice in SOTA would give an opportunity to:
– Learn about how art is taught outside Finland,
– Learn about the IB diploma program and how it is run,
– Learn about the everyday and the rules and practices of an Asian international school (pedagogical ideas, assessment, laws, school conduct rules, attires, punishments etc.),
– Experiment with integrating different subjects,
– Step outside her/his comfort zone and adopt an open attitude,
– Create connections to art schools all over the world and acquire experience that is useful for embarking on an international career later,
– Learn about an Asian city culture (values, mentality, working ethics, free time, home life, customs, etc.),
– Enjoy the varied Asian culinary cultures daily at very reasonable price,
– Travel inside and outside Singapore – travelling is cheap in Singapore and to the neighboring countries from there.
The children and young students in SOTA come from different language backgrounds, and although they all speak English as their first language, their differing intonations can, at first, demand quite a bit of concentration from a listener whose mother tongue is not English. Therefore, a minimum requirement for a student teacher wanting to achieve an effective learning experience would be good communicative skills in English language. In addition to this he/she would benefit from being sociable, independent and proactive, and from an ability to observe, compare, and analyze with an open, unbiased, non-judgemental mind.
For further reading:
SOTA curriculum booklet http://www.sota.edu.sg/Portals/0/files/SOTA%20Curriculum%20Booklet%202012.pdf
SOTA homepage: http://www.sota.edu.sg/