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Skills alone are not enough for advancement

I am a very proud father as I type this. Yesterday, my second boy (that's him on the left) attained his Taekwondo black belt, although at his age, he is too young to hold one, so it is the junior black belt for him (called the "poom" belt). So both my sons are now Black Belters, and I can have a bodyguard on both sides when I walk down Orchard Road! Yet, truth be told, I doubt my younger boy will ever rise to become a bodyguard; you see, he is a very sensitive soul. He is so quiet and so gentle, I would not be surprised a non-belted ruffian could scare him easily away. I could see this very clearly when he was sparring with his partners - there were three rounds - and he didn't take much of the offensive in each of these rounds; quite unlike my elder boy in his grading - he was very much the aggressor, and truth be told, rather intimidating. However, timid or not, my younger boy got through his grading and is now a poom belt. I am very proud!

So what's my point? The poom, or black, belts are the recognition of high level of proficiency in the art of kicks and punches. It is a martial art, and is primed for self-defence. Yet, as I see the students in the grading yesterday, I dare say that most of them will probably not be able to defend themselves sufficiently if an unschooled ruffian were to pounce on them. Perhaps only one of the 15 or so who went for the black-tip grading (to qualify for the poom belt) showed behaviours consistent with one who would be a black belt Taekwondo exponent. Which got me thinking - "If I were the chief judge, would I have awarded the poom belt to them or not?" Probably not, which is a good thing that I was not the judge (and that would not have been the case, too, because I stopped Taekwondo training after Green belt, so hey!). Yet, another more important issue is this, "Do you judge them based on their skills or do you judge them on their behaviours, or both?"

Can you build me a Mercedes?

In truth, I don't see that any of these Black Belters will represent Singapore in a Taekwondo competition. They lack the "eye of the tiger", to quote a famous movie. They lack the behavioural traits that accompany Taekwondo champions. But it is not for lack of skills. These proponents have shown that they have the skills, and they were graded on them. Having received the black belt shows that they have demonstrated these skills, and can wield them, if needed. The problem is, they might never be needed. A carpenter who has learnt the skills of using the circular saw, but never sees the need to take the saw out for use, is as good as one who has not learnt it at all. This is very much like our skills-based learning system. The Workforce Development Authority of Singapore (WDA) is the custodian of our national skills certification system, and uses the skills-based (also known as competency-based) framework to manage skills upgrading. One of the advantages of using a competency-based framework is its ability to chunk all learning into bite-sized units, called competency units, which can be managed by assessments. This is quite like the Taekwondo grading system, when the skills are codified and taught in bite-sized fashion, and once the learner has mastered these units, will attend a grading and achieve a higher-coloured belt. So, as the learner continues his/her learning, collecting more competency units along the way, he/she will be able to rise to the level of mastery. Well, that is the theory, at least.

The problem with this system of training is that the whole is very much less than the sum of its parts. Putting all the competencies together has seldom yielded a master. Yes, these are competencies that the master needs to have, yet learning these skills has never once made a person a master. A case in point; if you know how to screw down bolts, you know how to align gears, you know how to wire electrical components, you know how to code a computer system, you know how to join sheet metal together, you know how to lay carpets and leather, then can you build me a Mercedes? No, right? So the reductionist policy of competency-based learning, or any form of learning that deals with standards, has a limited impact in real-work arena.

By WDA's admission, the competency-based learning system has NOT yielded the most basic of outcomes for our workforce skills qualifications (WSQ) - productivity growth. Since productivity is one of Singapore's GDP growth pillars, and the WSQ is its main engine of delivering such growth, the very least that it should achieve is productivity increase of participating companies, don't you think? Unfortunately, this did not happen. According to its own report, only 54.6% of attendee companies reported an increase in productivity last year, considerably lower than the 76.8% in 2013. Almost half of the people who attended WDA's programmes last year, delivered by its service providers throughout different industries, have not produced the most important thing that WDA was supposed to deliver. Put it another way: WDA spent $110M in training grants in 2015 (as reported in their financial report), and $50M went down the drain!

What makes a master skillful is not the number of competency units he has acquired

So what is the solution? Does this mean that we should not teach people skills? Not at all! Skills acquisition is important, but they are not the be all and the end all. The objective is not the skills, but the outcome from the use of these skills. This then goes into behaviours, because it is in behaviours that we see action. If you are putting the skills to use, we can see it in your behaviour. If you are keen to compete in the national Taekwondo competitions, we can see it in the number of hours that you practise the art, by the way you contribute to new learners, even by the way you wear your clothes! These are all outward signs of your intent within. So attitude and behaviour are more important than skills alone. A fired-up and enthusiastic Green Belter may be able to beat the living daylights out of a nonplussed Black Belter any time, even with fewer skills. Skills accumulation, the preoccupation of the Singapore skills development system, has very limited impact on the outcomes of the application of these skills. What makes a master "skillful" is ironically not the number of competency units he has, but how he wields them. Hence, mindsets are the more important things to develop than skills. But herein lies the rub - how do you shape mindsets, how do you identify them, and more importantly, how do you assess them? Without proper assessment, you cannot have accountability, and without accountability, it is difficult to justify spending public money. Yet, what justification is there when you spend $110M, and $50M is wasted? Should we continue to use a system that is broken simply because it is easier to meas