Champions in PISA: Why are Singapore Students the Best in the World?

World map with SG

Students in Singapore perform exceptionally well in critical thinking.

A random sample of 5,000 Singapore pupils topped the global PISA rankings in English, Mathematics, and Science in 2016. The OECD created the PISA tests, which are administered three times a year. The survey included more than 60 countries from around the world. Tests are given to 15-year-olds all throughout the world to see how well they apply their knowledge to solve issues. PISA, in other words, assesses pupils’ critical thinking abilities.

What is the definition of critical thinking?

It is not necessary to memorize facts in order to think critically. A person with critical thinking skills, on the other hand, can: –

  1. quickly sift through vast amounts of moving data in order to solve problems
  2. sift through pertinent data in order to predict future events
  3. gather accurate and reliable data in order to establish impartial judgments or ideas
  4. discern connections (patterns) between facts and thoughts when people are unable to
  5. form autonomous and rapid judgments
  6. understand why and how ideas are significant
  7. approach difficulties in a methodical manner.
  8. able to reflect on and detect flaws in one’s own views, i.e. to be able to think about one’s own ideas
  9. able to summarize, explain, and convey one’s thoughts in a rational and persuasive manner.


What is the significance of critical thinking?

  1. In an age when everything, especially information and opinions, changes so quickly, it allows us to be flexible in our thinking.
  2. It enables us to come up with ‘unique’ ideas and solutions that are not immediately apparent to others.
  3. It enables us to view the larger picture and identify the real challenges at hand.
  4. When confronted with ambiguous difficulties or challenges, it allows us to self-educate and self-help.


Why do Singaporean children perform so well on the PISA exam?

What is it about Singapore’s educational system or atmosphere that allows its students to excel in PISA tests?

1. Exams in Singapore

Take a brief look at the standardized examinations used in other countries, as well as the PSLE and O-level exam papers used in Singapore, and you’ll notice something:-

#1 Singapore examinations are really difficult.

#2 Students in Singapore are expected to do far more than memorize facts.


In Singapore, there has been a lot of talk about rote learning and memorizing. Surprisingly, the Singapore school system is unique in that it places a greater focus on critical thinking and application abilities than on memorization alone. It is considerably more difficult to identify pupils who can reason, rationalize, and forecast future scenarios than it is to find a child who can memorize effectively, as experienced educators know.


a) The PSLE in Primary School Education (7 to 12 years old)

i) Mathematics

The Singapore model technique of mathematics was established in the 1980s. Students utilise rectangular bars to depict the link between known and unknown quantities in this model drawing or ‘bar drawing’ method. To put it another way, young kids learn to visualise issues without having to resort to algebra. Furthermore, arithmetic word problems teach children to apply various math principles to real-world situations. This approach of teaching Maths is now deemed to be so effective that it has been adopted by some British and American schools in their native nations.


(ii) English

The most difficult aspects of English are I comprehension, (ii) cloze passages, and (iii) composition. Students must be able to infer (predict effectively) by looking for clues in I and (ii). The most recent composition format (iii) requires students to compose a compelling story by connecting the given topic with one, two, or three of the provided photographs. The ability to blend the title and photos in a flexible and unlimited manner demonstrates pupils’ capacity to weave an intriguing, innovative, and yet sensible story. Finally, visual text/comprehension is the most recent addition to the PSLE format. This poster format is intended to teach pupils how to read, digest, and apply the information provided in order to arrive at their own conclusions. While the English language is examined, it is apparent that the PSLE English examination is also designed to evaluate the students’ thinking ability.


(iii) Science

The pattern in PSLE papers throughout the years demonstrates a growing emphasis on students’ ability to apply science concepts to real-life instances. Students must be able to deduce, forecast, analyze, examine, and present their ideas. This necessitates the ability of individuals to think critically.

Students were asked to explain how a coffee shop’s water mist system can chill the surrounding air in a previous PSLE question. This question baffled a lot of kids since they couldn’t connect this example to anything they’d learned in school. This example demonstrates how students should apply theory to real-world situations. And this is an example of how critical thinking is taught to kids.


b) The Singapore–Cambridge GCE O-level Exam in Secondary School Education (13–15 years old)

Singapore’s Ministry of Education has been in charge of the GCE O-level curriculum since 2006. Although Cambridge University continues to mark these exam papers, there is no connection between the UK O-level and Singapore O-level programs. While the UK GCSE O-levels are internationally recognized, criticism about the system’s worryingly dropping standards spurred the British government to revamp it in 2017.

The Singapore GCE O-level tests, on the other hand, have been regularly revised and altered to make the program more rigorous for its youth. Many post-O-level Singapore pupils who leave the country to further their education claim to have studied some of the UK A-levels or Australian HSC curriculum before turning 16. To put it another way, the Singapore O-levels are extremely demanding.


2. The Cultural Environment

Many place a high value on education. The outstanding academic achievements of Asian immigrants in the United States and England are commonplace, reflecting the cultural attitude toward education. This is also evidenced by the success of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian students in international math competitions. Singaporeans with forebears from China, India, and Malaysia share a similar goal-oriented approach to schooling. More and more parents consider education as a vital aspect of their children’s life as society becomes more affluent and globalized.


3. Tuition and Enrichment’s Role in the industry

Singapore’s tuition and enrichment sector, like that of many other Asian countries, is thriving. While some claim that their existence is due to ‘kiasu-ism,’ few would argue that professionally run centers and dedicated retired instructors contribute to many kids’ great performance.

Most Singaporean children receive home tutoring if they are very poor in a topic. This is because tuition is intended to assist struggling students in catching up on their schoolwork. Enrichment, on the other hand, is for children who I do better in a smaller, more focused class setting and (ii) require additional stimulation outside of the conventional school curriculum, i.e. they acquire subjects in greater depth and breadth. Many children who have a strong foundation in primary school adapt to secondary school more quickly.

Students who are capable of adapting to changing conditions and information will prosper as the world moves quickly. While such awards like PISA are remarkable, the real test comes when the students walk out into the real world and begin working.