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Commentary: To survive COVID-19 disruptions, Singaporeans must learn how to learn better

With a quick crash course on better learning, Fung Fun Man and Ng Chia Wee say workers and those aspiring to join the workforce must re-gear themselves or risk being left behind.

SINGAPORE: Earlier this year, Senior Minister (SM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam stood at the entrance of the Employment and Employability Institute, exalting Singaporeans to take up the challenge of lifelong learning.

“Everyone should have the courage to re-gear to stay on track,” he said in his June ministerial broadcast, “and make the effort to acquire new skills at regular points in your careers, possibly even learning whole new disciplines.”

“Please take on the challenge.”

More than four months on, the protracted economic downturn and the continuing spate of retrenchments have only reinforced SM Tharman’s points. 

If anything, it is no longer just an important challenge, but an urgent necessity for individuals to re-gear themselves, or risk being left behind.

READ: GE2020: Tharman assures that Singapore wants to provide better jobs over time

Many resources have been devoted to this national effort helping Singaporeans consider what they should learn, not least through programmes like the SGUnited Jobs and Skills programme.

Yet amid the flurry of discussion on this issue, have we missed out on an equally critical point: How Singaporeans should learn?


At first glance, this seems strange.

We were never taught how to learn in school, we were just taught what to learn and learnt it seemingly well by most measures. As a nation, we ace PISA scores and the sheer number of passes and straight As each exam season seem to gravitate upwards.

A teacher interacting with students at an MOE Kindergarten. (Photo: Ministry of Education)

But that’s the point. We were never really taught how to learn.

At a time of massive disruption wrought by a pandemic, when we are being called on to learn new skills and master new disciplines with unprecedented urgency, not knowing how best to learn could hamper our efforts to re-gear ourselves.

According to Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) researchers Chia Ying and Sheng Yee Zher who were involved in Singapore’s Skills and Learning Study in 2017: “Technologies for learning and learning to learn are important elements to enable lifelong learning, especially amongst seniors.”

They also noted that “seniors with low education attainment have low learning to learn score”. This is disconcerting, as older workers have the highest risk of being left behind by disruptive changes and find themselves in long-term unemployment.

READ: Commentary: No worker is untrainable. Employers have to step up to help

While public discussion often involves “technologies for learning”, a cursory glance at the news and our daily lives suggests far less talk about “learning to learn”.

While the IAL has in recent years incorporated “learning to learn” (and “technologies for learning”) into their lifelong learning framework, the intensity of the COVID-19 situation demands that much more be done to bring “learning to learn” into mainstream national discourse.

In this regard, a recent comment by Nvidia’s Dr Simon See on how students have to learn how to learn given the rapid obsolescence of tech skills is a promising sign. 

However, more than just an enabler of learning or a strategy for students to confront technological change, we argue that learning to learn should represent the foundation on which lifelong learning policies must be developed, especially given COVID-19 disruptions.

(Photo: Unsplash/Sergey Zolkin)

Far from being a headlong rush into something novel, this view echoes those of education and training researchers like Ian R Cornford, who had argued in a 2002 International Journal of Lifelong Education paper for the necessity of “learning-to-learn skills” in successful lifelong learning endeavours.

This new foundation, we further argue, must be incorporated at three levels: Individual (our focus), workplace, and institutional.


The fastest path to change lies within the individual. Before turning to institutions, individuals must seek out means to help themselves learn better which can be achieved in a few ways.

First, focus on learning that makes connections and join the dots with what you already know.

In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, a book used and cited by many educators, the authors argue that a key distinguisher between experts and novices is “the number or density of connections among the concepts, facts, and skills they know”.

READ: Commentary: Extending Jobs Support may only delay the inevitable - retrenchments

Think back to all the “aha” moments you’ve had in life – some may have been the birth of new ideas, but more commonplace are the new connections you made between ideas.

At the risk of over-simplifying neuroscience, making connections ties down new knowledge to the old, strengthening our entire mental structure of knowledge because we understand how vastly different issues might be related to each other and learn how to recognise and create new patterns and relationships of understanding.

The next time you go for a new course, actively connect prior knowledge to new content, and you will get much more out of it.

A second strategy focuses on getting to the core of novel concepts by asking “why?” or “so?”, and is interestingly well-illustrated by an example involving Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, himself an avid lifelong learner.

In The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew, Heng Swee Keat, who is now Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, wrote about his time as Mr Lee’s principal private secretary. He noted that Mr Lee’s favourite question was “so?”, one which forced Mr Heng to “drill to the core of the issue”.

A similar question is “why?” In another IAL research project, Dr Bi Xiaofang and Mohamed Fadhil found that “why” questions were important for adult learners from the healthcare and information and communications technology sectors in making sense of new knowledge.

File photo of office workers.

A simple word can indeed help one go far.

Third, have the right mindset to succeed at every goal. Recent research by Assistant Professor Patricia Chen, deputy director at NUS Institute for Applied Learning Sciences and Educational Technology (NUS ALSET), suggests going far as a learner ultimately relies on one’s attitude, especially in the face of challenges in learning new things.

LISTEN: Unfair firing and hiring practices under scrutiny during Singapore’s worst recession

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Prof Chen and her team found that students with a “strategic mindset” – who actively consider how they can adapt their strategies in the face of challenges – had a greater tendency to use metacognitive strategies that in turn helped them achieve their goals.

Thus, the next time you face a learning difficulty, actively ask questions like “What are things I can do to help myself?”, or “Is there a better way of doing this?”

Sustain this as a consistent habit, and you may achieve your learning goals more easily in the long run.


While individuals can benefit from a few learning strategies to learn how to learn better, sustained success in better learning for all Singaporeans will require continuous involvement by employers and educational institutions.

Employers should consider sending their employees for learning strategies courses, and consider, for instance, rewarding employees who have made use of newly learnt skills effectively. 

Educational institutions can play an upstream role in preparing for the post-COVID-19 world, incorporating learning strategies into their curriculum.

Before COVID-19, learning strategies might have been a good-to-have, a discussion we could put off for the future. However, the intensity of the current economic disruption means we can no longer wait.

After all, as SM Tharman said in his ministerial broadcast, “the future begins now”.

Fung Fun Man is an Instructor of Chemistry at the National University of Singapore and the principal lecturer of the course Learning to Learn Better and a recipient of the YSEALI Fellowship for Civic Engagement (2019).

Ng Chia Wee is a third-year student at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and a teaching assistant for the Learning to Learn Better course. He is also part of Access, a social mobility non-profit organisation.

Source: CNA/cr