Educational Research for Policy and Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 231–246 | Cite as

Managing the paradox of control: the case of ground-up implementation of active learning in Singapore’s primary schools

  • Christina Lim-Ratnam
  • Matthew Atencio
  • Christine Kim-Eng Lee
Original Paper


The Singaporean education system has recently shifted emphasis from being highly centralised and standardised towards one that aims to promote innovation and autonomy at the school level. Yet, the concomitant move towards a more decentralised and flexible curriculum enacted and controlled at the local level has not been straightforward. Consequently, Hargreaves, Shirley, and Ng have described five paradoxes of educational and social change that characterise Singapore’s continued performance in academic achievement. One of these paradoxes is the paradox of control: How could the Ministry of Education (MOE) release classroom decision making and curriculum development to teachers and schools, while maintaining overall control across the system? They respond that the MOE maintains a fine balance characterised as bottom-up innovation with top-down support that requires further investigation. In this paper, we illustrate the implementation of an active learning curriculum in four primary schools to illustrate this approach of ‘top-down support for bottom-up’ curricular innovation in schools. In Singapore, the ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ movement has ignited school-based development of innovative curricula to bring about active learning, with the intention of developing pupil attributes such as creativity, collaboration, and self-confidence. Our case study explores how practitioners implement a curriculum that is meant to nurture a more emancipatory spirit in students that builds up their confidence and collaboration through active learning. A key premise is that such a curriculum requires practitioners’ autonomy to interpret the goals and desired outcomes and to plan their pupils’ learning experiences.


Active learning Curriculum reform Teaching/pedagogy  Primary/elementary years School change 



This work was supported by the Ministry of Education, Singapore under Grant OER 11/10 CL.


  1. Albright, J., & Kramer-Dahl, A. (2009). The legacy of instrumentality in policy and pedagogy in the teaching of English: The case of Singapore. Research Papers in Education, 24(2), 201–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Apple, M. (2001). Comparing neo-liberal projects and inequality in education. Comparative Education, 37(4), 409–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bailey, R., Collins, D., Ford, P., Macnamara, A., Toms, M., & Pearce, G. (2010). Participant development on sport: An academic review. Leeds: Sports Coach UK.Google Scholar
  4. BBC News. (2010). Scottish teaching unions raise curriculum pressure. Retrieved from
  5. Curdt-Christiansen, X. L., & Silver, R. E. (2012). Educational reforms, cultural clashes and classroom practices. Cambridge Journal of Education, 42(2), 141–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Day, C., & Gu, Q. (2013). Resilient teachers, resilient schools: Building and sustaining quality in testing times. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Dainton, S. (2005). Reclaiming teachers’ voices. Forum, 47(2), 159–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Deng, Z., Gopinathan, S., & Lee, C. K. E. (Eds.). (2013). Globalization and the Singapore curriculum: From policy to classroom. Singapore: Springer.Google Scholar
  9. English, F. W. (2010). Deciding what to teach and test: Developing, aligning, and leading the curriculum (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Sage.Google Scholar
  10. Fullan, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Columbia.Google Scholar
  11. Goh, C. B., & Gopinathan, S. (2008). The development of education in Singapore since 1965. In S. K. Lee, C. B. Goh, B. Fredriksen, & J. P. Tan (Eds.), Toward a better future. Washington DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank.Google Scholar
  12. Gopinathan, S., & Lee, M. H. (2011). Challenging and co-opting globalisation: Singapore’s strategies in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(3), 287–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gopinathan, S., & Mardiana, A. B. (2013). Globalization, the state and curriculum reform. In Z. Deng, S. Gopinathan, & C. K.-E. Lee (Eds.), Globalization and the Singapore curriculum: From policy to classroom (pp. 15–32). Singapore: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., Moore, S., & Manning, S. (2001). Learning to change: Teaching beyond subjects and standards. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  15. Hargreaves, A. & Shirley, D. (2011). The Far Side of educational change. Report commissioned by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Retrieved from
  16. Hargreaves, A., Shirley, D., & Ng, P. T. (2012). Singapore: Innovation, communication, and paradox. In A. Hargreaves & D. Shirley (Eds.), The global fourth way: The quest for educational excellence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.Google Scholar
  17. Hohmann, M., & Weikart, D. (1995). Educating young children: Active learning practices for preschool and child care programs. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.Google Scholar
  18. Koh, A. (2004). Singapore education in ‘new times’: Global/local imperatives. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 25(3), 335–349.Google Scholar
  19. Lee, H. L. (2004). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally English speech on 19 August 2004. Singapore Government Press Release. Retrieved from
  20. Lim, L. (2013). Meritocracy, elitism, and egalitarianism: A preliminary and provisional assessment of Singapore’s primary education review. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 33(1), 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Luttenberg, J., van Veen, K., & Imants, J. (2013). Looking for cohesion: The role of search for meaning in the interaction between teacher and reform. Research Papers in Education, 28(3), 289–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ministry of Education. (2009). Report of the Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee. Retrieved from
  23. Ministry of Education. (2011). Primary education: the way forward. Retrieved from
  24. Ng, P. T. (2005). Students’ perception of change in the Singapore education system. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 3(1), 77–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Niemi, H. (2002). Active learning—A cultural change needed in teacher education and schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 763–780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Priestley, M., & Humes, W. (2010). The development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Amnesia and déjà vu. Oxford Review of Education, 36(3), 345–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ratnam-Lim, C. T. L., & Tan, K. H. K. (2015). Large-scale implementation of formative assessment practices in an examination-oriented culture. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(1), 61–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Sharpe, L., & Gopinathan, S. (2002). After effectiveness: New directions in the Singapore school system? Journal of Education Policy, 17(2), 151–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Silverman, D. (2005). Doing qualitative research (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  30. Simons, P. R. J. (1997). Definitions and theories of active learning. In D. Stern & G. L. Huber (Eds.), Active learning for students and teachers: Reports from eight countries (OECD). Frankfurt amMain: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  31. Singapolitics (2013). Singapore in 20 years: A meritocracy of equals. interview with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Retrieved from
  32. Sivan, A., Leung, R. W., Woon, C., & Kember, D. (2000). An implementation of active learning and its effect on the quality of student learning. Innovations in Education and Training International, 37(4), 381–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Skilbeck, M. (1984). School-based curriculum development. London: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  34. Stake, R. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  35. Stephen, C., Ellis, J., & Martlew, J. (2010). Taking active learning into the primary school: A matter of new practices? International Journal of Early Years Education, 18(4), 315–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Stern, D., & Huber, G. L. (Eds.). (1997). Active learning for students and teachers: Reports from eight countries. Frankfurt amMain: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  37. Tan, C. (2008). Tensions in an ability-driven education. In J. Tan & P. T. Ng (Eds.), Thinking schools, learning nation: Contemporary issues and challenges (pp. 7–18). Singapore: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  38. Tan, C., & Ng, P. T. (2007). Dynamics of change: Decentralised centralism of education in Singapore. Journal of Educational Change, 8, 155–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Tan, K. H. K. (2011). Assessment for learning in Singapore: Unpacking its meanings and identifying some areas for improvement. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 10(2), 91–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Teo, C. H. (2000). Dynamic school leaders and schools- making the best use of autonomy. Speech presented by Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at Mandarin Hotel, Singapore. Retrieved September 10, 2015.Google Scholar
  41. Yin, R. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christina Lim-Ratnam
    • 1
  • Matthew Atencio
    • 2
  • Christine Kim-Eng Lee
    • 1
  1. 1.Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Group, National Institute of EducationNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore
  2. 2.Department of Kinesiology, College of Education and Allied SciencesCalifornia State University East BayHaywardUSA

Personalised recommendations