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It is that time of the year when I deal with the haze.

A photo I took of the haze in 2013.

Not the literal and annual haze that has plagued Singapore. It mercifully gave us a miss this year.

Neither was it the burning, smoke, smells, and extra dust that accompanies the month-long hungry ghost festival.

I am referring to the haze of written assignments that I grade and provide formative feedback on.

The assignments are cumulative. This means that the first one sets a foundation for the second, and the second is the basis for the third. This makes the writing (by learners) and the evaluating (by facilitators) of the assignment challenging.

I could simply focus on the grading criteria and content of the assignments. That would be challenging enough. However, I do not think that this is logical or ethical.

I also focus on various aspects of writing as a form of communication. I provide feedback on spelling, grammar, organisation and structure, logical flow, presentation, use of white space, and more.

Example of what I provide feedback on that has nothing to do with content.

Doing these might seem like doing extra work. To use the haze analogy, it is like smoking while burning incense paper during the haziest time of year.

It is not.

I know that good writing is not just about WHAT my learners say, but also HOW they say it. It is about their attitudes and mindsets — whether they show care, sincerity, and effort as they write — that also matter.

Here is a general example of the persuasive writing that is expected in some parts of the assignments. A good structure of three arguments (1, 2, 3) is to have three parts to each argument (A, B, C).

An organised person who takes care to communicate clearly would write in this pattern: 1A-1B-1C; 2A-2B-2C, 3A-3B-3C. This is critical thought that flows logically.

A writer that does not care or is not aware of such structure might write like this: 1A-2A-3A, 1B-2B-3B, 1C-2C-3C. This makes it very hard to follow arguments because the elements are out of place.

If I focused just on my learners’ understanding of content and their application of concepts, I could ignore structure and just look for mention of the content and concepts. However, this would be like singing parts of a song out of sequence. All the parts are present, but it does not make sense.

While I am not teaching a writing class, my learners are writing purposefully. The best way to learn how to write is to write, get critiqued, reflect, and revise.

Learners who pick up good writing habits break through the haze of ignorance or stubbornness. It takes effort to do this, but the sunlight and fresh air when you rise above the smog is worth it. So is the effort to help my learners get there.

This is Part 2 of my smell something-say something rant on an op piece on the upcoming Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS).

In Part 1, I critiqued how the article:

  • made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  • perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  • stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”

In this reflection, I focus on how it:

  • claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  • quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

A social leveller
The article claimed that the SLS would provide “the same quality resources, regardless of their home background”.

It is very tempting to buy into the rhetoric that the portal will be a social leveller. The key idea is that everyone will have equal access to the same quality resources.

Will they?

Social levelling is an old and simplistic argument that has not come true for the decades-old edtech movement. It trivialises the complexity of access issues, among them socio-economic status, infrastructural preparedness, pedagogical nous, informed leadership, and rapidly evolving technology.

Uncritically citing social levelling is not researching and learning from recent history and parallel systems. The work of Cuban, Fullan, Hattie, and Reigeluth is a substantial but revealing start.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

One of the most recent statistics about Singapore households showed that as of June 2016, the Residential Wired Broadband Household Penetration Rate was 98.4%. This included households that might have more than one broadband subscription plan. On the surface, this could mean that most students will not have a problem with basic access.

Dig a bit deeper beyond the statistics that hide “realistics”: Teachers and parents prevent access because students and children are supposed to only “learn what is expected”. There is no or little room to learn by play, error, or experimentation.

Another realistic is the prevailing mindset that test is best. This is my way of saying that most of us cannot think and operate outside the box that is testing and chasing grades. The SLS is supposed to help reduce and perhaps remove that sort of behaviour.

However, a platform alone cannot and will not realistically do this. It will take political courage and will on the part of our leaders, pedagogies driven by progressive mindsets in teachers, and informed decision-making by parents and students to head in that direction. Social levelling does not happen only via a technological platform; it requires social interventions leveraging that platform.

Now consider another aspect of access and social levelling.

The same set of information-communication statistics revealed that Singapore’s Mobile Population Penetration Rate is 148.2%. Even the poorest of family units save for a phone. Given that 2G was phased out here this year, our population is technically on broadband.

However, a technical affordance does not guarantee social or pedagogical affordances. While a previous article mentioned that the SLS would be accessible on mobile, it did not say whether it was mobile-friendly or mobile-first.

Such a distinction is important. Any online resource that is mobile-friendly is designed for the desktop or laptop first. For example, I can only create and edit Google Sites in large screen format. When I publish the work, it adapts to smaller screens. However, elements like wide tables, animations, and videos might be optimised for the large screen and not appear properly on small ones.

A mobile-first design is just that — the design or redesign starts with a small form factor first. This approach is typical of apps made for emerging markets. More mature ones like ours are stuck in the desktop age.

Ask any teacher if they use their phones to do research. Then ask them to prepare resources and facilitate lessons using only their phones. The answers will be different because of the prevailing desktop mindset.

If you are not a teacher, then consider how stripped down banking transactions via apps are compared to the full web versions. Exceptions and mobile-first app designs might include transport and some e-commerce apps because their use is on-the-go.

My point is this: We should expect the learner of today to consume and create on mobile devices and platforms. If the SLS is designed for laptops or desktops, this creates another access barrier. So much for being a social leveller.

Learning styles and best practices

Experts like Dr Chan pointed out that not every student learns the same way. Teachers, then, cannot be expected to cater to varied learning styles, even with the portal.

They hope that besides benefiting students, the e-learning platform can aid teachers by having them share best practices and work together on materials with their colleagues from other schools.

I am going to sound like a squeaky wheel. Learning styles are a myth and there is no such thing as best practices, particularly in education.

I will oil the wheel and point out that I have written about the learning styles myth and claimed that we should not have best practices in education.

I return to Jon Stewart’s quote about being socially responsible. If you see or smell something, say something. Better safe than sorry.

People respond more quickly to an abandoned parcel in a public space because there is potential and imminent danger. The same people are less likely to respond to a warning like mine because the danger is not immediate and the impact is spread out over time.

The danger is still there, but we prefer a pat on the back instead paying attention to warning signs right in front of us. We are shortsighted that way.

If you see or smell something, say something. This applies to an abandoned parcel in a public space as much as a fishy opinion piece in a local newspaper.

The article was about the upcoming Student Learning Space (SLS) and had this byline:

A new e-learning portal to be introduced next year promises to make lessons more engaging. Experts say it can even be an education leveller, giving the same quality resources to all students, regardless of their home background.

I have five main critiques of the article: It

  1. made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  2. perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  3. stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”
  4. claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  5. quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

I share my thoughts on the first three point today (Part 1) and the rest tomorrow (Part 2).

Vague reference to observers

observers agree that learning has to be made more engaging, particularly for the younger ones, to keep them interested

Who were these observers? What were their backgrounds, areas of expertise, and biases? Did they all share the same observations?

The article dropped a few names and quotes later on, but it was not clear if these were the same observers. The quotes were about students actively getting getting feedback, not merely “engaging” with resources.

I am an observer who has been in education for almost 30 years and half of that time was as a critical advocate for educational technology. My views are plain to see as I blog openly. One of my consistent messages is this: I disagree with the current and dominant rhetoric of engagement.

The rhetoric of engagement
I understand the appeal of citing engagement. It is basic educational psychology to say that you must first pay attention to learn. Without that receptive channel, there cannot be inputs of information, much less the recreation of knowledge.

The type of motivation that the writer focused on was extrinsic. Following this logic, teachers need to make the lessons fun or interesting, and move away from — get ready for another cliche — chalk and talk.

Half of that reference is outdated. There is no more chalk in our classrooms, but there is still a lot of teacher-centric talk. Is “engagement” with content supposed to deal with the other half?

If so, the argument is incomplete. Extrinsically fueled engagement is only half the story. Motivation also comes from within. While extrinsic motivation is the low-hanging fruit offered by shiny bells and whistles, intrinsic motivation is more difficult to nurture. However, that internal drive is what creates habits of learning over the long run.

No portal, as good as it promises to be, can spark, identify, or nurture this intrinsic motivation. Only the learner and others around him/her can do that.

Focusing on short-term gains has a negative long-term consequence. Always providing “engaging” resources teaches students to be spoon-fed in a different way. Previously it was tell us what we need to know for the test and students would respond with the garbage in-garbage out strategy of superficial learning.

Now it might be show me, give me, tell me albeit in an engaging way. That is fine if the instructional design of the resources is based on principles solidified by rigorous research and critical practice.

But no matter how well-designed, providing a go-to portal creates dependence. It teaches students to eat processed fish fingers or to shoot fish in a barrel. Students do not learn how to actually fish (search) or decide on the quality of their catch (evaluate).

What is expected

Currently, the portal’s resources, produced and curated by MOE, are based on the national curriculum, which means students will be learning what is expected of them.

There is nothing wrong with having high standards for content. We take pride in being Number One is so many things that we expect these standards to be the norm.

However, it is presumptuous to limit our children to learn only “what is expected of them”. Do we have a future-proof crystal ball? Is the e-learning portal also one that peers into the future?

What happened to the other rhetoric about the VUCA world? How about even more rhetoric about being future-ready (an impossible state if you think about it)?

I am not against providing resources. I am against spoon-feeding by another name and method.

What should be expected is not just to consume, but to also to create. What should be expected is to not work in isolation, but also to collaborate authentically and meaningfully. What should be expected is not to be spoon-fed, but to also find and prepare your own food.

I find myself turning into a curmudgeonly old man as I write this. So I end Part 1 and seethe over Part 2 tomorrow.

Recently I shared my thoughts on Turnitin’s latest attempt, Feedback Studio. I gave a lightning review of its iOS app and commented on how form did not meet function in its web app.

A colleague of mine also used the same tool to grade and provide feedback on student essays. He contacted Turnitin directly by email over a form-does-not-meet-function issue: Papers were not arranged in alphabetical order once the tool was launched from an LMS.

He described the problem clearly and provided a simple programming solution. The various tech and other support people he communicated with practised tai-chi, i.e., they deflected and redirected.

I will not share the details of the email exchanges because they were restricted conversations. But I will say this — they were amusing and frustrating to read.

I had a wry smile on my face as I identified immediately with frustration of trying to get someone from tech support to recognise and empathise with a problem.

I actually LOL-ed when I read the standard signature that the Turnitin folk used: “Revolutionizing the experience of writing to learn”. What was revolutionary about bad design, low empathy, and deflective service?

The email exchange and my own experience reminded me of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.

Video source

The Soup Nazi wanted things done a certain way and was closed to feedback. Any suggestion (no matter how good) or complaint (no matter how valid) was ignored and summarily dealt with — no soup for you!

My colleague and I were only thinking of improving the service and helping other users. This would ultimately benefit our learners if Turnitin took our critiques in the spirit they were offered.

Turnitin seemed to behave more like Turnyoudown. Perhaps some revolutions are the dictatorial sort.

A tweet reminded me about the current discourse on how robots are going to take our jobs.

In schooling and education, one side of the debate looks like this:

And the other side looks like this:

My response looks like this:

This is not to say that any job with repetition is ripe for a robot takeover. Instead the point is that dexterity, artistry, and entertainment are difficult for a robot to emulate.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Another human trait in the classroom is empathy for the learners. It is understanding deeply why teaching is neat while learning is messy. It is educating in ways that focus on the learner and learning, not the teacher and teaching.

I have probably said this so often that I sound like a robot. Just as robotic are statements made by others before me. For example: Anyone and any job that can be replaced with a robot should be.

So ask yourself: What value do you bring to the table? How dextrous and empathetic are you as an educator?


You cannot make this up. There is no need to.

The tweet above aptly illustrates how learners today can be savvy, but neither smart nor wise.

I do not mean to say they are stupid. They are simply ignorant because they have not learnt new ways of seeing and doing things. Over time with smart teaching and wise counsel, our learners might gain new perspectives and habits.

They must be taught or they must have good models to emulate. They are learning machines as we are. But they are not magically or mysteriously digitally native. The “digital native” is a myth.

No educator worth their salt benefits from buying into this myth. Making false assumptions about the learners will be frustrating for both students and teachers. The teachers will have heightened and unrealistic expectations of their students, and the students will not learn optimally with technology-mediated pedagogies.

I have met and tried convincing my fair share of administrators and teachers who do not process Prensky’s claims of the so-called “digital native” more critically. I am quite certain most have not even read this original work in 2001. That is a long time to believe and implement policy blindly.

I urge anyone who has not questioned the use and assumptions of “digital natives” to read this excellent critique, Digital Natives: Ten Years After, by Apostolos Koutropoulos. A friendly debate over lunch is not going to cut through over a decade of hardened myth. Perhaps a slow but deep burning will.

Video source

So this happened at the Apple keynote last week — unlocking your iPhone with FaceID.

So this is what is going to happen. There will be articles:

  • fearing the technology.
  • embracing the technology.
  • suggesting how the technology will be the start of a revolution.
  • proclaiming how education will change as a result of this technology.

All are premature because they are based on assumptions and perceived technological affordances. There is no widespread use or misuse, i.e., social affordances, pedagogical adoption, contextual adaptation.

There will be a lot of creative thinking not balanced by critical reasoning. We will need to push past the nonsense to evaluate and try the makes-sense.

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