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Innovation Blog

Innovation in Fifth Grade – Over My Dead Body: Literally!

By Shlomo Maital



 “crime scene”




  Singapore fifth grade

Writing in his regular New York Times column (Jan. 29),  Tom Friedman recounts an innovation he observed, in a fifth grade class in Singapore, in the Gan Eng Seng Primary School.  Here is what he writes:

All the 11-year-old boys and girls are wearing junior white lab coats with their names on them. Outside in the hall, yellow police tape has blocked off a “crime scene” and lying on a floor, bloodied, is a fake body that has been murdered. The class is learning about DNA through the use of fingerprints, and their science teacher has turned the students into little C.S.I. detectives. They have to collect fingerprints from the scene and then break them down. … When I asked the principal whether this was part of the national curriculum, she said no. She just had a great science teacher, she said, and was aware that Singapore was making a big push to expand its biotech industries and thought it would be good to push her students in the same direction early. A couple of them checked my fingerprints. I was innocent — but impressed. This was just an average public school, but the principal had made her own connections between “what world am I living in,” “where is my country trying to go in that world” and, therefore, “what should I teach in fifth-grade science.”

   All over the world, we hear rabble-rousing speeches from political and business leaders.  Most recently, we heard them at Davos, where Russian President Medvedev spoke about innovation.  This reminds me of how businesses shape competitive strategy – top down strategy “Bibles” written by the CEO and top management, which somehow are supposed to trickle down to the ‘foot soldiers’ in the field, who do the real work.  It never happens.

    Singapore has a national strategy to build up its biotech industry.  Somehow, a school teacher at a middle-class school listened, got it, and acted.  The result: A brilliant innovation for teaching genetics and DNA to fifth-graders, one that involves memorable action learning.

    We can learn much from Singapore.  As Friedman notes:  “Singapore has something to teach us about “attitude” — about taking governing seriously and thinking strategically. We [America] used to do that and must again because our little brick house with central heating is not going to be resistant to the storms much longer.”     

   How can we inspire fifth-grade teachers in America, Europe and Israel to do the same? What will it take?  How can we think strategically, and then see school teachers implement the strategic vision with their kids.  And why, if Singapore is so undemocratic, reviled by American politicians for that reason, does the essence of democracy happen there, more than elsewhere:    Ordinary working people get the message from the top, and put it into practice with creativity and energy somewhere near the bottom. 


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2011
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