Another dot in the blogosphere?

I wrote the title using the Betteridge law of headlines. Such a headline almost always leads to no as the answer.

I write this in response and reflection to this STonline opinion piece, Kids with tuition fare worse.

An academic analysed PISA data from 2012 and concluded that students who had tuition:

  1. Came from countries where parents placed a premium on high-stakes examinations.
  2. Were likely to come from more affluent households.
  3. Performed 0.133 standard deviations worse than their counterparts who did not and after adjusting for “students’ age, gender, home language, family structure, native-born status, material possessions, grade-level and schools, as well as parents’ education levels and employment status”.

So does the third point not counter the Betteridge law of headlines? That is, I asked “Does tuition lead to lower PISA scores?” and the answer seemed to be yes instead of no.

A standard deviation value tells us that the scores of tuition receivers varies relatively little from a mean score. There should be some students with tuition above that mean and others below it, but the scores are tightly clustered around that mean. Furthermore, just how practically significant is 0.133 standard deviations?

The practical reality is that the answer varies. Treated as a faceless corpus of data for statistical analysis, the answer might be yes. Take individual cases and you will invariably get yes, no, maybe, depends, not sure, sometimes yes, sometimes no, and more.

More important than the statistic are the possible reasons for why students with tuition might perform worse than their counterparts without. The article mentioned:

  • They are already weak in the academic subjects they receive tuition for.
  • Forced to take tuition, they might grow to dislike the subject.
  • Tuition recipients become overly dependent on their tuition teachers.


#Singapore Brain Development Centre. Specialists in "reasoing" but not spelling. #tuition #enrichment

A photo posted by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

There are at least three other questions that the article did not address. The questions that have social significance might include:

  1. What kind of tuition did the students receive (remedial, extra, enrichment, other)?
  2. If the tuition is the remedial type and the kids are already struggling or disadvantaged, why do we expect them to do as well as or better than others?
  3. Why must the comparison be made between the haves and have-nots of tuition, particularly those of the remedial sort, when the improvement should be a change at the individual level?

The article hints at tuition that is of the enrichment, or better-the-neighbours sort. However, students get tuition for other reasons. The original purpose of tuition was remediation for individuals or small groups when schools dropped the ball thanks to large class enrollments.

Tuition is not a single practice and is sought for a variety of reasons — from babysitting to academic help — and needs to be coded and analysed that way.

If the point of the article was to dissuade parents from having tuition for its own sake or for competition, then I am all for that message.

On the other hand, if the point was to actually help each child be the best they can be academically, then a comparison — even one that says tuition does not help — is not helpful. Some kids might benefit from individualisation and close attention that remedial tuition affords.

So my overall response to my own question “Does tuition lead to lower PISA scores?” is that it does not matter if each child and learning are the centre of any effort.

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Are articles and postings about how schooling and education should be more like Amazon Go next?

As in technology that is transparent, enabling, and always monitoring. 

As in learners that decide, self-direct, and choose what they need.

As in what used to look like shoplifting (cheating) is just shopping (learning).

As in how technology can change mindsets, expectations, and behaviours if we let it.

As in what we can already do now, but with difficulty when limited by classroom walls, schooling practices, and education policies.


Rankings from surveys and studies like TIMMS and PISA are released around this time of year.

We expect Singapore to be at the top or very near it. We are so used to our heady heights that to not be there would be embarrassing.

The next few days and weeks will see opinion pieces in papers and blogs about how Singapore does it. Practically every one will try to sound original, but you will hear the same refrains from every tune: Our methods, our teachers, our culture.

I say these three things:

  1. If we are to take rankings seriously, we should not cherry-pick only the ones that make us look good. We should also focus on where we do not do as well and seek to do good or be better.
  2. If we are to attribute what creates good results in tests, I say we not ignore a) critics like Yong Zhao, and b) the effect of tuition and test preparation.
  3. Tests are just that and so are their results. They are not necessarily designed to be predictive nor do they guarantee transfer of test-based skills to wider world application. The context of a test is the test.

I also ask this question: Ever notice how the rankings focus on mathematics and science? Have you wondered why there are no rankings for the humanities or our humanity? Have you reflected on your answer to the last question?

I have never actually “read” an entire book by audio. I am not sure why, but I am going to start on my first one today.

I have listened to bits and chapters because they were either samples or someone was playing something during a road trip. But I have never decided to read a book, or rather, have it read to me, despite all the offers in YouTube videos or podcasts.

I listen to podcasts of people I enjoy. I watch some of these people on YouTube. But I do not buy any of their books because they do not write about education.

Even though audio books have been around for a while, I wondered why I did not take the plunge. Perhaps I have not been read to since I was a child. Perhaps who reads it might make a difference. Perhaps I already read so much via my RSS and Twitter feeds that I might not have the bandwidth to read any more.

So why try an audio book only now? I find myself with a bit more spare time because I have “closed accounts” for the year. I would also like to learn how to use a new app. In particular, I want to know how easy it will be to find and use juicy quotes from what I “read”.

What will I be reading? Todd Rose’s The End of Average.

How am I reading it? With the Overdrive app, the default of many public libraries.

Shh, don’t bug me. I’m reading.

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When I find a juicy quote like this, I do at least three things:

  1. Try to verify that is was actually said and why.
  2. Find out more about the person who said it.
  3. Create an image quote of it.

Edison's electric light did not come about from the continuous improvement of candles. ~ Oren Harari

A quick search revealed Oren Harari to be a business and management professor. The context of the quote seems to be that of encouraging startups to think and act differently.

The quote seems to have made its way into educational circles as thought leaders seek to challenge outdated teaching practices or correct misplaced notions of “innovative” teaching.

I would have liked to have reused the candle bulbs image, but it was not CC-licensed. So I found an alternative.

Today’s reflection has two parts. The first is a technical one about mifi devices offered by Changi Recommends. The other is about the level of service of that chain store.

The Philippines has been an annual “mecca” for me since 2013 thanks to speaking engagements. In 2015, I decided to try a travel router (mifi) for a short engagement.

This year I did the same, but received a different device and had a different experience.

Mifi device.

Last year, I had a device that I could switch on and it would connect to a local SIM-based data service. It was intuitive to use. Switch on when I needed Internet access, switch off when I did not.

This year I had one in which I had to activate a data plan every 24 hours. It also took a long time to start up, and in between restarts, reset its SSID from the one printed on a sticker on its side.

Last year’s device was fully-charged as promised when I first switched it on. This year’s device was only half-charged even though the counter staff said it was fully-charged. Perhaps he had a positive outlook: Half-full could be rounded up.

The more recent experience was unnerving and a step backwards.

The chain store at our airport calls itself Changi Recommends. I cannot recommend the product or the service given how local telcos are stepping up their game and how it is getting easier every year to get a local prepaid SIMs from kiosks while overseas.

Each time I return from the Philippines, I get a rude reminder how lacking our service standards are.

When I returned from my trip, I decided to buy a Pokémon plush toy as I had a receipt that offered me a discount.

I followed the instructions on the receipt and approached a Changi Recommends counter only to be told, “No stock, go to the other counter in this terminal.”

I walked to the other counter and was told, “You need to go to the counter in Terminal 3.”

So I trotted over to that terminal only to be told at that counter, “Collect downstairs”. Where? “Downstairs!”

I had ask a weary-looking person at an information counter exactly where this downstairs collection point was before I finally found it.

The things we live with if we do not know how much better the service could be. The things we put up with when we do.

Even if the counter staff are not as warm or polite as the average Filipino seems to be, could they not communicate better and let all counters deliver the same message?

If they do not, the chain should change their name to Wild Goose Chase or Changi Not Recommended.

In describing how I might design for interaction during what are normally passive talks, I mentioned how I used Google Forms for a quiz, AnswerGarden to crowdsource ideas, and Google Slides’ Q&A tool for a keynote I delivered yesterday.

This is my reflection on how things panned out.

I used Google Forms to get participants to use their mobile devices to take a five-question quiz. They had to Google for information to answer the questions.

Google Forms quiz.

Of the roughly 200 people there, 107 managed to take the quiz in the time I gave. The quiz scores ran the gamut, but that was not important.

What was important was how a low-bandwidth activity could get everyone involved (imagine if each person shared their device with someone else) and that it served as an introduction to the recurring themes of my talk on 21C: Mindsets, expectations, and behaviours.

I think that activity went well as did the AnswerGarden activity.

I used AnswerGarden to get participants to suggest what they thought were important 21C competencies. This is a screenshot of what they suggested.

AnswerGarden word cloud.

The word cloud that emerged highlighted the popular concepts. For example, 33 people suggested communication, 33 creativity, 28 critical thinking, and 21 collaboration. With that information, I was able to make the point that such 21C competencies were not unique to the 21C; they are timeless and it is more about how we model and make these happen with today’s technology.

I opted not to use my go-to TodaysMeet backchannel or close with a one-minute paper on the same platform. Instead I opted for Google Slides Q&A.

Google Slides Q&A.

This tool allowed participants to ask questions and vote them up. The URL to do this was at the top of every slide. However, I found it to be too unwieldy.

The URL kept changing based on the instance of the presentation I ran. This meant I could not prepare a QR code and short URL in advance. Participants had to type in a URL that, while not terribly long, was not very convenient either. It was no surprise that there were fewer than ten questions.

When I first tried this tool a few months ago, Google Slides kept track of the questions. Now I do not know exactly how many there are and what they are. I do not have this problem with any other tools I have used before.

I mentioned in a pre-keynote reflection that I removed three of four chunks of content. I think this was a wise move as that not only provided focus, I had almost 30 minutes for Q&A which meant that I could provide more specific answers to those who had questions.

I normally reflect on my preparation for consultancy services and do post-mortems like this one. I often have one more follow up in the form of unanswered questions, either from a pre-event poll or a backchannel. But since this was a whirlwind engagement, I do not have those closing tasks. So tomorrow I will reflect a travel experience instead.

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