Another dot in the blogosphere?

In December 2020, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in a press release that it would build on the home-based learning experience — made mandatory due to our COVID-19 lockdown — by “making Blended Learning a key feature of the schooling experience”. 

The MOE defined blended learning (point 4 of the press release) as “a mix of home-based and in-school activities, and leverage both online and offline approaches to learning”. This definition is limited to modality: Outside and inside school, offline and online.

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I have critiqued this approach before because it limits the scope of blending to just one aspect. As my thoughts were scattered over several reflections, I summarise some key ideas in point form. Blended learning: 

  1. requires a clear and shared meaning, otherwise some people will just do the same old thing differently
  2. focuses on the learner and learning, not the teacher and teaching, i.e., do not confuse blended teaching with blended learning
  3. can be about skilfully mixing different strategies, content, contexts, timeframes, tools, evaluations, etc.
  4. is about providing learners with seamless experiences, i.e., the differences above are not obvious to the learner (like a smoothie)
  5. is about the long tail, not the short game

The rollout of the exact nature of blended learning is left to schools and this is an excellent strategy. The annex to the press release states that the frequency of such blended learning is once a fortnight.

The MOE has mandated that secondary-and-above students experience this by Term 3 of 2021. This means that school personnel have started their planning. So I offer some unsolicited advice on how to approach the design of blended learning.

Address the low bar of continuity 
The blended learning initiatives might absorb the schools’ e-learning days or stand alone from them. Either way, it cannot run away from the fact that we need to keep preparing for the next lockdown, be that due to another pandemic or something short of an apocalypse. 

The key question to answer is: How do we continue with near business-as-usual in terms of curricula and schemes of work without resorting to make up sessions when everyone returns to school?

Address the meaningful bar of context 
The unstated beauty of the mandate is that each school needs to devise its own plan. This means that each school can take into account its overall profile of its students. 

This means that a school with students from lower-income groups who have just received devices and dongles can have a programme that is different from one that competes with the best on the world stage. This should be the case.

The key design question is: What is best for my learners over this period of time?

Design beyond modality and synchronicity 
The idea that blended learning is limited only to mixing the “traditional” with the “technological” is not only passé, it is harmful. It limits what teachers can design for their students.

In my third summary point on blended learning, I mentioned several things that can be seamlessly blended. For example, teachers from different academic departments could co-design a common project for students that addresses different content areas and standards.

Such cross or inter-disciplinary content design not only helps students see how different subjects work together, it also prevents teachers from designing in isolation. The latter design results in multiple tasks that all seem urgent to students. This results in stress and resentment of “blended learning” days.

The guiding design question might be: What else can be blended to create a learning smoothie?

Start simple
One principle I share with teachers and graduate students alike is this: Start simple because things will get complicated.

Do not be over-ambitious with the design of learning tasks. What seems easy and obvious to you as a teacher is not so to a student. Practice empathetic design.

One question to keep asking during planning: How can this be further simplified without compromising on quality or challenge? 

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Again, this is unsolicited advice and limited only to overall approaches, not specific strategies. I have called on my previous experience of providing consultations with teacher educators and university faculty on all manner of blended designs. You can take it or leave it.

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The TED-Ed video above provides some WHO and WHAT of Socratic questioning, but not exactly HOW. The latter is immaterial given how we are learning animals.

But like most other animals, we can be conditioned to stop asking questions. When we lack this practice, we lose this aspect of critical thinking.

Some might say that an expert or a facilitator asking a seemingly endless series of difficult questions is unproductive. They then imagine students subject to such questions exasperatedly demanding straight answers instead. This group needs to understand this tenet of Socratic questioning [timestamp]:

…questioning draws out an individual’s unexamined assumptions and then challenges those biases. It doesn’t always provide definitive answers, but the method helps clarify the questions and eliminate contradictory and circular logic. And by following a line of inquiry where it logically leads, both the question asker and answerer can end up in unexpected places.

Others might say that such a technique is far too theoretical and time-consuming. This group might investigate how Socratic questioning has been used in the fields of medicine and law. You need good theory to have good practice, and it is well worth the investment in time to hone critical practitioners.

The video points out caveats for Socratic questioning to work:

  1. The topic relies on critical reasoning
  2. The teacher is well-versed in the topic
  3. The teacher is not there to show off or bully with their superiority

That is what the video says about Socratic questioning. Here is my take: A teacher providing immediate and direct answers might help students with what they don’t know for the moment. But Socratic questioning, when skillfully and meaningfully employed, helps them realise what they don’t know they don’t know. That outcome is far more valuable and long-term.

This news report defined deep tech as “a broad term describing the latest innovative technologies in fields such as biotechnology, computing and engineering”.

If I was still a biology educator, the tweet would add fuel to my fire for the subject. But I wonder if there is any substance to the premise.

The premise is the possibility that students will learn about genetic coding as a given. I pause with caution because I know that how it is substantively taught that will make the difference.

Specifically, will the science be represented as process and not just content to get through? How about the processes as ways of thinking and not just following formulae? 

The teaching and learning of deep tech should not just scratch the surface. For example, it is not enough to know how mRNA vaccines are made, or what the difference between vaccine efficacy and effectiveness is. 

It is also about attitude and belief system, i.e., a mindset. It is about mentoring and modelling. It is about a deep understanding of why science is not about proof and all about iteration.

We cannot run away from the fact the students need to learn science content. We also cannot forget how testing and high stakes exams tend to draw the focus away from deep science to surface knowledge.

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Some folks might not like how long behind-the-scenes videos can be. So here is a quick process and product Instagram video.

Those who enjoy longer form videos might like the quirky animation and storytelling of TheOdd1sOut. In his latest video, the main man behind the channel, James, takes shots at uncritical thinkers.

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Anyone who has made videos will know how tedious the processes behind video-making can be. James opted to share his difficulty with saying “muggle public school”. 

Video source

The painful and funny sequence might provide a small insights to non-videographers how much time and effort goes into voiceover work. I can relate because I used to make videos for the now defunct Cel-Ed channel.

On broader reflection, I wonder how many educators share their processes and failures more openly and reflectively. I know I do from time to time on this blog. These are not monetised or amusing, but I am certain that our collective efforts help other educators see that they are not alone.

I have said it before and I will say it again: I do not deliver learning.

Far better and wiser people have said it too. Do not take my word for it, consider theirs.

The subject of my reflection today are reactions to the tweet below.

Yes, I agree with the sentiment and I do the same. There are many ways to teach and learn online and asynchronous forms are poorly understood and undervalued.

No, most schools and institutes of education cannot seem to shake off the cowl of synchronous instruction. There is only one lens and yardstick for what seems to matter.

Video source

Ooh! That was my reaction to this announcement by CrashCourse that there will be a 14-part series on Zoology.

My first academic love was Biology and I have an Honours degree in Zoology. I used to study with fish hormones with radioactive isotopes, bash trails for species counts and ecological conservation, and take photos and videos for documentation. I even used to process dead animals at the Singapore Zoo!

Just thinking of what I used to do as an undergraduate (and shortly after) fills me with warm nostalgia. I look forward to the new CrashCourse series and have no doubt that it will trigger more good memories.

I like the team that makes About To Eat videos on YouTube. The group is a good example of how to adapt to the changes imposed by pandemic shutdowns and distancing.

Before they called themselves ATE, one of their most popular video series involved two hosts trying foods at different price points. Since they could not visit eateries to do this, they branched out their efforts, e.g., cooking in their own kitchens.

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In the gradual reopening of restaurants, one of ATE’s producer-videographers, Alvin, opted to create reflective documentary-style videos. His latest effort is embedded above.

His video provided insights into how much continuous work that a Michelin star chef still has to do. These are things that customers or laypersons will probably take for granted because they only see the final product served up in a plate or bowl.

For me, this is a reminder about the importance of seeking and appreciating the processes behind a product. It is a principle that applies in work and in school.

One of the very few things I have against working from home is neighbours’ renovation works. If I had to give the din a kind label, I might call it the Heartland Symphony.

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Here is a sample of the noise I experience even though I am seven floors below. Even my noise-cancelling earphones and headphones cannot shield me from that cacophony. The noise is enough to drive anyone mad.

The symphony has other movements like incessantly barking dogs, screaming children, practising karaoke artistes, etc. We are creative that way.

So when I saw a new installation of work pods at a nearby mall, I was intrigued. According to the information on the boxes, they were from a company called Switch (not sponsored).

My wife wondered who would want to study or work in a mall. I would, provided that the booth I saw was relatively sound-proof, private, and properly ventilated. 

I know many others would as well, given how many work and study in public places like libraries and coffee shops. We do this not to be seen, but to avoid the Heartland Symphony.

I started listening to the Obsessed With… podcasts from BBC Sounds when they started following up with Line of Duty episodes. Why? I like gaining insights into the thought processes behind television products.

I listened to an old episode in the series which focused on Killing Eve. In the interview of Fiona Shaw, the hosts and guest reflected on why people disliked lockdown during the current pandemic.

They avoided superficial answers, i.e., how we are social animals. We can still socialise albeit differently, and we know we will eventually come out of lockdown.

Instead, they concluded that lockdown forced people to spend time with themselves. The question that each person had to ask themselves was: Do you like what you see?

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Can you face yourself without the distraction of work or taking care of someone else? What do you see in that mirror? Are you happy with or disturbed by that reflection?

I know why I liked the quiet that came with our lockdown last year. I had been preparing for it since 2014 when I left full-time work to be an independent consultant. That move forced me to examine my priorities and to look both in the mirror and the crystal ball. I took comfort in what I saw then and what I see now.

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