Another dot in the blogosphere?

This blog entry by David Geurin reminded me why I shudder when I hear these two words put together: Teacher and training.

My stance has not changed, when I was a professor and teacher educator then, and as a provider of professional development now for teachers, lecturers, instructors, and yes, trainers.

You can potty-train a child. You can train a dog to do tricks. You can train people in first aid, handling weapons, evacuation procedures, and other standard operating procedures. You do this to create what some like to call muscle memory. This is suitable for situations where compliance applies.

This is the opposite of what is required of the teacher today. Gone are the days of simply opening a textbook and reading from it. A robot can do that, which is why this projection predicts that teachers are less unlikely to be replaced by them.

That is, teachers who do not behave like robots and are not trained like them.

The problem with the word “training” is the need to standardise, and in the process, favour efficiency over effectiveness. Who knows what works best from one classroom to the next? If we want teachers to move away from the one-size-fits-all way of thinking, we should not be training them.

I prefer to use “professional development” and not as a mere substitute for “training”. I think of my workshop participants as professionals the same way different types of doctors and lawyers are professionals. Just like in those fields, the contexts, methods, and content areas are in a state of flux. This requires a constant state of development on how teachers need to think for themselves.

By comparison, training is relatively simple. Professional development is more complex because it is about shaping mindsets before attempting to change behaviours. If training can be thought of as “don’t think, just do”, professional development is more like “don’t just do, think”.

Reading an article like the one recently published by the Straits Times (More schools tap tech tools for learning [archive]) should raise critical questions instead of blind acceptance.

For example:

  • How many of the 360 mainstream schools in Singapore do this?
  • How common are such practices? How special are the lessons?
  • How transparent are the tools?
  • How different are they pedagogically and experientially from outdated practices?
  • How effective are such experiences?

The general public should learn to ask these questions to keep schools accountable. These questions matter because they affect our children and use our tax dollars (see this Hechinger report on the overall ICT masterplans; amounts are in US$).

What are markers that might reveal an article to be making a mountain out of a molehill?

When examining the health of, say, a freshwater ecosystem, the marker species are amphibians because they are the most sensitive to changes in the environment. A newspaper article can be more complex because the narrative can fool the casual reader. However, there are the equivalent of sick, missing, or dead frogs.

Future Schools

Nearly a decade ago in 2007, the Ministry of Education (MOE) named five pioneering “schools of the future” under its Future Schools project. These schools, picked as test beds for the use of educational technology, are, according to the MOE, “trailblazers” in engaging in information and communications technology (ICT) projects.

In later years, another three schools joined the initiative.

In the Singapore context, the first dead giveaway is the reference to the Future Schools [PDF]. Cosy up to closed circles and you will hear how this is an experiment that is not working. The model is not scalable because the context of each school is different.

Another barrier is poor communication. It is not as if the Future Schools do not share, it is that they do not share quite nearly enough and on a scale necessary for system-wide change. Hosting visits and dialogues is good; creating community is better but sorely missing.

I am aware of one teacher grassroots effort, a Google Educators Group, that meets regularly. All involved stand to benefit from the community because this strategy relies on buy-in and ownership, not policy and good PR.


The MOE has since observed that more schools – beyond the eight schools selected for the programme – have experimented with technology for learning and teaching. But it did not reveal the number of schools that do so.

Ignore the words like “trailblazers” and take note of phrases like “but it (MOE) did not reveal the number of schools that do so”.

Buzzword: Digital native

Educators told The Straits Times that students, being digital natives, are more involved when technology is used in their learning.

Another phrase that should set off alarm bells is the labelling of students as “digital natives” by any interviewee. This term has been roundly critiqued and criticised for more than 10 years (sample of criticisms). Even the originator of “digital natives”, Marc Prensky, has backed down somewhat and moved on to digital wisdom.

“Digital natives” is artificially divisive (us and them), not entirely based on critical research, populist, and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is often used in articles and speeches by people who do not know the history of the phrase nor why it has been rejected by thought leaders and progressive educators.

Buzzword: Engagement

“Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age,” said Dr Victor Lim, deputy director of technologies for learning at the MOE. “Technology can be used not just to increase students’ engagement, but also to… help them learn better.”

“Digital natives” is often used beside phrases like “Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age” and “Technology can be used… to increase students’ engagement”.

Any practitioner worth their salt will know that “comfortable use” of technology is not the same as responsible or effective use of technology. For example, being able to Google something on a mobile phone does not guarantee critical thought.

The use of “engagement” indicates a peripheral and non-critical use of technology. If a teacher needs technology to switch students on, the technology is likely a novelty. It could be bait for a lesson that is not meaningful to the learner.

Stanford don Larry Cuban has come out against the use of “engagement” [article]:

… he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained.

“There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Here is a list of readings and musings on why engagement is fluffy.

Technology merely to enhance
I am against simple engagement because it is typically used alongside “enhancing” a lesson instead of “enabling” it. A tool that enhances is optional; a tool that enables is essential. Your phone can be optional or essential for your life and work. Guess how the modern worker and current student will describe their mobile devices.

If a tool is essential, a lesson cannot proceed and learning cannot happen without it. When the tools are essential, they are also transparent. No one bats an eyelid about using pens and books in the classroom because they are part of the environment and shape practices. The same should be said about current technologies in the classroom. The must enable, not merely enhance.

Buzzword: Future-ready

He added that the tools help students to achieve “future-ready” competencies, such as thinking critically as well as communicating and collaborating with others.

Another marker is the uncritical use of buzzwords like “future-ready”. What is this really?

Words are important because they hold meaning and are verbal contracts. Can you guarantee this state of being when the future is uncertain?

I have reflected before on why future-ready is a misnomer. Do not take my word for it, take Seymour Papert’s.

Sneak preview of my blog entry on a quote by #seymourpapert.

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

Papert did not use the term future-ready. If anything, skills like critical thinking, clear communication, and effective collaboration are needed now. They are meaningful now. They are necessary now. The ability to keep learning variants of such skills starts now. There is no need to qualify them as future-ready.

The usual suspects

If you do not get this reference, you need to watch this movie.

I have nothing against the schools listed in the article. They are doing good work. However, the press does them and MOE a disfavour by citing the same schools over and over again.

To its credit, the press sometimes does include a new school among the usual suspects, preferably a neighbourhood school.

Buzzphrase: Technology is just a tool

“Technology is just a tool,” Dr Lim said. “It is the educators who make the difference.”

There is also harm in perpetuating old narratives like technology is “just a tool”. Technology is not just a tool; they are more like instruments. Instruments require care and constant practice to perform well with them. Technological instruments show the joy, art, and love of learning.

To use “just” is to say they do not have impact on their own and to not recognise that tool use is a socio-technical phenomenon. Marshall McLuhan put it best when he said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” One need only pay closer attention to how we walk, talk, and read with our mobile devices to see how our tools shape us.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

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

Very few will deny that it is a good teacher that makes the difference. There is no need to placate the fearful by reminding people, teachers included, that teachers are important. What should be said though is this: Any teacher who can be replaced by technology, should.

I return to my pond analogy to point out the markers.

  • The sick frogs are the Future Schools and using phrases like digital natives.
  • The missing frogs are the schools whose educational technology examples and strategies that remain unreported.
  • The dead or dying frogs are the old narrative of buzzwords that attract flies.

It is easier to just accept the news article as is. It is just as easy to ignore the article and this critique. It is more difficult to question the article for the good of the system.

Which have you been taught to do? Which would you rather do? What should you be doing?

Last week I read a tweet that recommended a blog entry. I skimmed the latter and found an image quote with words attributed to Samuel Papert.

I was sure the person meant Seymour Papert. The quote was also poorly attributed as it was cited in someone else’s PowerPoint presentation with no reference to the original.

Fortunately, a combination of Google, a tweet from a reputable educator, and a blog entry by another well-respected educator helped me find this wonderful passage by Papert.

So the model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.

This bite was from a longer speech that was archived here.

I found an image of Seymour Papert and one Google Slide later, this is the result.

Seymour Papert quote.

The man said it all and he said it well.

A person as important to education as Papert and whose words challenge schooling to wise up deserve better attribution. His name is Seymour (not Samuel) and the words are from a speech crafted in 1998. It is 2016 and we ought to know and behave better.

Instead of wishing people a happy Chinese New Year, I make it a point, at least in writing, to remind folks that it is a Lunar New Year. Yeah, I am fun to be around.

The fact is that the Lunar New Year is not restricted to a place or a race. It is not just the Chinese who celebrate it. It is based on the lunar calendar. Oh yes, I am really fun to be around.

In case anyone wants to make the case that there are other lunar calendars (yes, there are), I would point out that this one marks a new year in China and parts of Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, etc. Are we having fun yet?

So to my fellow apes who are born in the Year of the Monkey, I also remind you that a monkey is not an ape.

This Sunday’s quote is courtesy of this tweet:

Tomorrow's educational progress cannot be determined by yesterday's 'successful' performance.

The quote is another way of saying that we cannot rest on our laurels.

If we do, we will get a bum rash and that will affect the way we walk. That in turn will prevent us from moving forward as well as we should. That is not implied in the quote and is something I visualise.

Yesterday’s practice was to just use the photo. Today’s is to give credit where it is due. The original image was a CC-licensed photo.

This tweet made me pause for thought and to recall what I think about “the future” of schooling and education.

Individuals and collectives that perpetuate the rhetoric of being “future ready” might be wasting their energy. The only thing we can say about the future is that it is uncertain.

We might know what is going to happen in 15 minutes. But how about what is going to happen in 15 hours, 15 days, 15 weeks, 15 months, or 15 years? How certain are we of determining the future the further away it is?

An alternative is to consider the perspective of William Gibson. I prepared two similar image quotes based on photos here (from Brazil) and here (from the Philippines).

The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. --William Gibson

The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. --William Gibson

This perspective does not mean that we ignore the future or not try to prepare for it. Instead, it helps us think about more concrete actions.

You cannot be future-ready because you cannot predict it; you can try to be prepared because you can shape what happens now. Trying to be ready is an impossible state of being; being prepared is a constant state of mind.

Part of our effort to shape the future is recognising that segments of our community or population are stuck in the past, perhaps due to circumstances beyond their control, e.g., they are born on the disadvantaged side of a divide. Their future is our current, so we need to bring them forward.

Consider a few examples. We have kids who do not have access to current technologies. We also have kids that have access but do not have permission due to outdated rules and policies. We put all those kids in classrooms that are kept separate from the wider world. These classrooms focus on content and curriculum (learning about) instead of context (learning to be).

Blindly focusing on the uncertain future and trying in vain to be ready for it could be selfish and wasteful. Focusing on the now and near-term future of the have-nots — and there will always be have-nots — is certainly a more giving and productive mission.

There is a systemic tussle between striving for continuity and managing constant change. The schooling and education systems in Singapore are caught between these forces.

For example, we have an exam system that is cruelly efficient at reducing kids to numbers and sorting them. It has worked in the past, PISA results seem to validate test-based efforts, and as most cannot think outside the test box, people want to sustain exams.

This makes us blind to the fact that high stakes testing and grades do not determine the worth of a person. Universities and employers are beginning to recognise that. Some put their money where their mouth is by offering alternative routes and taking in students or employees with less than stellar academic transcripts. I know of at least one medical school that does this and Google has famously been reported to declare that GPAs are not important.

The changes that chip away at the status quo are not always appreciated by the system. Singapore has an semi-alternative to exams called the Direct School Admission where kids vie for school entry before they take high stakes exams. They get in via interviews, portfolios, trophies, performances, and other measures of talent that some might label alternative assessment.

This is good because it is a release valve for a system that, while designed to sort on merit, focuses primarily on academic ability. Kids are not numbers or letters; they are people. Despite this attempt to move forward, other people (e.g., parents) would rather see the cruel system remain.

Recently, an 11-year-old reportedly wrote an open letter lamenting the competition that DSA has created. The tide of emotion seems go against DSA.

However, a critical examination might reveal that the problem is not DSA but the status quo of competition at the exclusion of others, enrichment classes, and unnecessary tuition. These are the same things created and sustained by the exam regime. The value placed on competition, sorting, and enrichment tuition (which incidentally favours those already well off) works against the change.

It is easy to sustain the status quo because people know no other way and seek no other way. What is difficult is to see things as they are. The formulaic strategies and that enrichment agencies push are comforting, but they act like blinders on a horse. They prevent a wider view.

If we remove those blinders, we see the wisdom in the tweet above.

Thought leaders and working adults recognise that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA). The oft quoted adage in circumstances like these is: Change is the only constant.

Somehow reasonably intelligent people will don blinders, seek to sustain a cruel system that measures the worth of a child in very narrow, academic terms, and pay other people to keep that cruel system going. They forget that blinders are designed to control instead of liberate.

Removing those blinders means taking in a larger and initially overwhelming view, and learning to take control instead of being controlled. It is about embracing discomfort and discontinuity.

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