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This is a rant as a parent and an educator.

Last Friday evening, I attended a parent-teacher meeting for the Primary 1 cohort at my son’s school. It was held at the end of the second week of school.

We spent two thirds of the time attending a briefing by the school principal. I say attending and not listening because parents were either twiddling on their iPhones or zoning out. Who could blame them when most of it was the same thing we heard at the briefing last year?

The last half hour was contact time with the teachers in the hall. By contact I mean more briefings in a common area for all parents and teachers which was interrupted by noise leaks thanks to announcements, adjacent briefings and the eventual release of kids to their parents. We counted ourselves lucky to be able to throw in a question or two.

My wife commented that the meetings could have been held in our kids’ classrooms. I would have agreed if not for capacity issues. There would have been more parents than kids and the tables and chairs are tiny! Then again, these sessions are not really designed for actual dialogue. They are more for dissemination. I was just thinking how simple things like email and social media (e.g., Facebook or Edmodo) could have initiated and sustained dialogue.

Anyway, the only new item that got my attention was the school’s PAL (Programme for Active Learning, see point 9). This was the school’s response to the PERI (Primary Education Review and Implementation) committee’s recommendations to emphasize non-academic (and I’d add peri-academic) programmes in schools.

I am all for the PERI recommendations because they are logical, progressive and long overdue. But I am not so hot about the current implementation PAL.

To quote the school’s letter to parents, the PAL programme “will be conducted for Primary 1 pupils during the last 4 periods of every Friday with effect from 21 January 2011″. Then it points out that you have to drop your child off earlier in school “at 10 am every Friday for 2 hours of lessons in the morning”. (Context: My son’s school has not gone single session and therefore starts just before 1 pm).

I don’t have an issue with the fact that my wife and I will have to make new schedule, meal and transport arrangements (we don’t rely on relatives or maids). I don’t even have an issue with the fact that the details to parents were disseminated relatively late.

Here is what I have an issue with. Based on what I currently understand, the PAL seems to be an add on instead of an integrated programme. It adds to the child’s schedule instead of blending with it. Consider how each academic term focuses on a separate topic, i.e., gymnastics, dance, pottery and outdoor education. Why can’t gym and dance be integrated into physical education? (BTW, all the PE sessions to date were not conducted.) Why can’t pottery be integrated into art lessons?

Such a programme promotes silo-type thinking. It says to parents, here are the academic subjects and here are the non-academic ones. As much as a school tries to tell parents that both are important, these silos reinforce that academics are more important. Why else would you be required to effectively make up for the lost time on Fridays by coming in to school earlier for lessons?

We don’t teach creative or critical thinking separately because you need them in the context of experience and content. The outcomes of PAL, which include confidence, positive values and appreciation of the arts, need not (and should not) be separate from content. Most teachers know this already. Take an anti-cyberbullying campaign for example. This can be embedded and integrated in spoken and written language, poster design in art, jingle creation in music and role play in civics and moral education.

At the risk of fear-mongering, an add on programme can have unintended consequences on a child. Six-year-olds are trying to cope with formal schooling, but resilient as many of them are, it is still a lot to handle. They are already trying to assimilate more than we had to when we were that age. My wife has a colleague whose son attends the same school. He has been vomiting due to what their family doctor has diagnosed are anxiety attacks due to school.

Speaking of unintended consequences, a stakeholder* might point out that if the new PAL is about active learning, then the current programmes in schools must, by comparison, be passive. This is not something any policymaker, administrator or teacher would admit or want propagated.

*These stakeholders include teachers. A few of whom have rephrased the MOE motto of “lead, care and inspire” to read as “bleed, scare and perspire” to more accurately describe what they do.

Rant over. I call it like I see it. I am willing to admit if I have misinterpreted anything or to learn from my mistakes. Is the school willing to do the same?

I was happy to read an update about PERI’s assessment seminar in this MOE press release. I was disappointed that I could not learn more from the link, the PERI Holistic Assessment Website,  provided in that release because it was password protected.

Why call it “peripheral”? There are just 16 schools trying out the PERI recommendations in any significant way, even though the programme was successful in the pre-trial school (the school that started the whole thing really!). A major venture might justify a more cautious approach and there is an obvious need for each school to design its own way. But we are talking about threatening the life of a sacred cow (Singapore assessment) here. Why not be more daring with the carving knives?

The PERI trial is not quite in the public eye in more ways than one and this is unusual given the impact on its stakeholders. The website I mentioned is not readily public for one. The other schools who are not involved do not seem terribly concerned for another.

When I ask primary school principals and teachers that I meet in non-PERI trial schools about their thoughts on PERI, I get 1) a shrug of the shoulders and 2) an arching of the eyebrows. The latter indicates that they are surprised that I know anything about it. The former indicate indifference (wait-and-see), ignorance (wait-for-someone-to-tell-me) or intolerance (nothing-will-change).

So much for change management. There is what you say and there is what you do. We are all held accountable by what we do. Let us see more of what is happening in that black box!

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