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Posts Tagged ‘context

The Joys Of Homework by Cayusa, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Cayusa 

 
Yesterday I read this ST article, Have at least two homework-free days a week, and shook my head. I did this not in disagreement, but because of what I predict could happen if such an idea was implemented.

A member of parliament suggested that MOE require schools to mandate two homework-free days a week and reduce curricula by 20-30%. Most Singaporeans can predict what the official response is going to be: It is up to schools to decide homework policies and there have been curricula reductions in the past. But any suggestions will be reviewed and implemented on merit.

Two homework-free days a week. Does that mean the whole week or the school week? If you include the weekend, most schools already have two days teachers do not meet students in person to dish out homework.

If the week refers to the five-day schooling week, then consider one response. The same amount of homework gets spread over three days instead of five. If you play the numbers game, others will find workarounds also based on numbers.

Doing this does not deal with the issues of homework: What is homework, why have we come to expect it, and is it even necessary?

Some people might suggest that flipped classrooms become policy. I would ask them if they are just changing the nature of homework instead of dealing with the problems that homework creates (no support at home, more tuition, less quality family time, more unnecessary stress, etc.).

I am not sure that content reduction will help. I recall being involved in curricular reduction about 15 years ago when I was a teacher. Now there only seems to be more to do. Why? Instead of filling the time with exploratory or creative ventures, teachers filled the time with anything linked to test preparation.

In an effort to develop kids holistically, curriculum time was also filled with other activities. In theory, this is a wonderful idea. In reality, this breaks down when things like zoo visits become administrative, logistical, and legal challenges instead of pedagogical ones. Kids then spend their time following orders and rushing from one station to another instead of learning deeply.

I do not think that a good solution lies in homework or curriculum reduction. I believe that there should be no homework (the type we understand now) and there should be a curricular redesign.

I say there should be no homework not to keep the home and school life silos separate. That is an impossibly difficult game to win. The silos were created simply because school was created for a different context, the Industrial Age, and because schools do not bring in enough real world context.

For example, in current social studies about tourism, much of the content is just about that. Content. Delivered in a book. Possibly practised with homework and then tested with exams. How about bringing in real world context?

As some families here prepare to go on June holidays, consider the amount of logistical and financial planning it takes. Why not give kids some virtual money to spend on a trip. Let them use current technologies to plan itineraries, do price comparisons, suggest travel and accommodations, debate and document their processes, etc. Make this the curricular default instead of an enrichment activity done only after exams are over.

These are activities that might start and end in class. If not, they spill over naturally at home or in the social lives of learners because the activities are fun, meaningful, or seamless.

This is homework of a different kind. It can be very difficult, but engages naturally. To do this would not require so much a content revamp but a contextual one. The change in context is from a theoretical one created in schools to a more realistic one that already exists outside of it.

Recently I had to remind my son how to clear and rinse a dirty dish instead of just dumping it in the kitchen sink. That incident spawned lessons on values, Science, a brief the history on language, and perspective taking.

When my son left an uncleared dish in the sink, I realized that he should not only learn WHAT to do but WHY he should do it. The why was not limited to “because I said so”.

The lesson in values was obvious. He had to help out around the home because we do not have a maid. It was the responsible thing to do.

But I decided that he also needed a Science lesson to know why dishes are harder to clean if you leave them unrinsed in a sink. I had to teach him why gunk is hard to remove or starts to smell. I had to teach him about oxidation.

I had to link oxidation with something he was familiar with, our need to breathe. He understood how oxygen was necessary to burn fuel. The good thing about this type of oxidation was that it gave us energy.

But oxidation could also be a bad thing when you consider things like rust. Which was the common name for iron oxide otherwise known as ferrous oxide. Which was the link to the Latin roots for some of our English words.

I pulled us back to why oxidation was bad not just because it could cause rust, but also how it caused fats in food to turn rancid and smell.

In the end, it was an opportunity to look at something from different perspectives. Oxidation could be helpful or harmful. My son thought he was helping by putting the dish in the sink, but my perspective was that a job half done was one not done at all.

Later on I reflected on how contexts create moments for meaningful learning. Teachers need to think and operate outside their content silos to take advantage of such learning moments.

My son remarked that this was the best Science lesson he had, especially when compared to the ones he was getting at school. Flattering words.

I will only know that he has learnt something if he consistently rinses his dishes when he puts them in the sink. And if he can tell me why.


Video source

This video was featured in LifeHacker and soon ended up on the popular list in YouTube. It provides arguments on why one should run instead of walk in the rain.

But the lessons here are not just in the video. They are in the comments in the LifeHacker page.

If you watched the video for a Science or Math lesson, then you are missing a more important point. Critical thinking is not just logical math or science. It is about thinking in context.

Look at it this way. If your context is the classroom or the textbook, then the argument is just an academic exercise.

In the real world, other contexts (like the ones highlighted in the LifeHacker comments area) present themselves. In the real world, some academic answers are not answers at all.

One might argue that some theoretical knowledge is important. But the ultimate test (not just the paper test) is whether the strategy works in context in real life.

I argue that there is no point having head knowledge without heart and soul knowledge. There is no point touting one’s test scores if they do not translate to real world use.

Here is one more reflection I had on last week’s MOE Work Plan Seminar 2011.

The image of this T-shirt was the closest thing I could find that matched what was on one of the Education Minister’s slides.

Whenever someone wants to show Singapore on the world map, you get the typical view of the Americas on your left, the Asian continent on your right and a little red dot where Singapore is.

I think that it was at around point #21 of our Education Minister’s speech that Mr Heng mentioned changes in Singapore’s context:

…education must suit our unique context. We must always be humble and we must always learn from the best in the world. But we must not simply copy what works elsewhere, or do what is fashionable, without bearing in mind our unique culture, context and circumstances, and what we have achieved. We should have the courage and confidence to do what we think is right, and evolve our system to what is best for us.

His point was that we must do what is best for our context. With the map on screen, visually and verbally I received the message that the context meant the red dot.

I read things further in between the lines (or dots in this case). In today’s world, the entire globe is our context. What happens far away elsewhere affects us locally. Take the haze and financial fallouts as examples. The waste products that we generate every day affect us not just space but also in time.

Our context should be global and we need learners with complex, worldly and systemic views. So what might we do to prepare such learners?

Stop dumbing down schooling and start providing as realistic contexts as possible.

  • Learning how to speak and write a new language? Learn it in context as an amateur news reporter or author.
  • Exploring a scientific concept? Solve a problem in real life or interact in a believable simulation.
  • Grappling with math? Again contextualize its use in life and emphasize the thinking over the drilling process.

I’m reminded of something funny I saw at 9gag. The math problem was: John has 20 donuts. He eats 13 donuts. What does John have? The answer: Diabetes. John has diabetes.

Let us not forget the wider context and to learn within realistic contexts instead of made-up ones.


Video source

This Wikipedia article provides links to the theory behind the practice in the video.

When I watched the video, I thought about how this was mirrored in life. You can take the exact same practice and apply it in two different contexts and you will get different reactions or results.


Video source

It’s strange how some things get triggered in one’s mind. I get most of my a-ha moments when I am about to sleep or when I shower. That is why I have my iPhone and Evernote near me all the time. Too bad they aren’t waterproof.

Anyway, this video of a journalist trying to tell the Dalai Lama a joke (that crashed and burned very quickly) reminded me of a conversation I had almost a year ago.

A group of us went on a study trip to the US to get ideas on e-portfolios amongst other things. At a social gathering, I mentioned to a fellow teacher educator how technology could be replicate, enrich, enable or transform what we do in education.

I mentioned how technology could be used to replicate or enrich how we already teach and how the other two concepts, enabling and transforming, had more to do with learning rather than teaching. I also presented my concepts as a hierarchy of difficulty (e.g., easy to replicate existing teaching, difficult to transform learning).

My conversation partner disagreed with technology as an “enabler” because she had a negative view of the word, e.g., how one might be an enabler of someone else’s addiction. My perspective more positive: Using technology in ways that enable learning that could not otherwise take place in the absence of that technology.

It dawned on me then how important context and semantics are when trying to sell ideas to other people. Take the use of the word “resistance” for example. It will have different meanings to a police officer, a freedom fighter and a physics professor!

Returning to the video, the breakdown in communication could have originated in a lack of a shared understanding of what a pizza was or what “one with everything” meant. This was an issue with semantics. But there also was an issue of context: Why tell the joke in the first place?

This is a reminder to me to be where my learners are at and to realize what they might not understand.

Being honest is how you behave when you with others; practising integrity is how you behave when you are alone. I can’t remember where I read that and I’m paraphrasing what I remember, but I think I’ve got the gist of it.

I had a chance to discuss the nuances of honesty and integrity with my son as we made our way to his school today.

We spotted a car that was parked illegally. The driver justified his or her actions by opening the bonnet of the car to indicate engine failure. That’s honest enough, right? No, not if that you know that there is a coffee shop nearby and the same car seems to “breakdown” at that same spot regularly.

I told my son that the driver was dishonest, but I changed my mind because it really was a matter of integrity. So I tried to explain with examples.

I reminded him how a canteen stall operator at his school was dishonest on at least one occasion by not giving my son the correct change and on another occasion overcharging him by making him pay twice for an item. That matter has been dealt with, but it was a painful lesson in life that he will remember because he was a victim of dishonesty.

On the flipside, I told him that “honesty is the best policy” was only a guideline and not a rule in life. If my wife ever asked her boys if her butt looked big, we would have to a) run away, b) change the topic, c) be diplomatic, or d) lie through our teeth. My son said that D is not an option because he thought that all of us had nice butts. Looks like he already knows how to use option C.

As for integrity, I reminded him of how he had to set a timer to regulate the amount of gaming time he enjoys. He does this without us having to remind or monitor him. He has to be honest with himself. He has to practice integrity.

After I dropped him off at school, I reflected on what I tried to teach my son. I had relied on serendipitous and contextual learning. The illegally parked car was a chance event and it served as the initial context. The meaningful contexts were my son’s own experiences.

As I head into the last week of my teaching semester, I resolve to design more serendipity (purposeful accidents) and meaningful contexts in courses to come.


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