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I paraphrase a saying: You cannot drive forward while constantly looking in the rearview mirror. Actually you can, but you will probably cause an accident.

The point of that saying is that if we want to progress, we should not obsess on the past. However, that does not mean we should not look back in order to move forward, particularly if there were people ahead of their time.

Two such people — prophets shouting in the desert if you will — were John Dewey and Seymour Papert. They were famous for distilling many wisdoms, and here are just two of them.

From Papert: Technology alone will not change classroom teaching.

From Dewey: Question those who tout being “future ready”.

If we are to look back, it should be to reflect on timely reminders such as Papert’s and Dewey’s.

We do not learn from experiences. We learn from reflecting on experiences. -- John Dewey.

Yesterday I outlined why the powers-that-be in Singapore have refused reduce the number of students in classrooms. To oversimplify matters, the almost Freudian response is that size does not matter. It is what you do in the classroom that matters.

They have a point. We seem to top international tests even though that might have to do more with our regime of teaching to the test than class size. Current technology like adaptive content delivery and testing might reduce the need for teaching and coaching, but these are not common in classrooms (quite the opposite really).

The most important rebuttal that those-in-authority might have is that the quality of our teachers is more important than class size. Here they might cite the work of John Hattie while conveniently ignoring the critique.

The quality of our teachers is very important and it is very high in Singapore. I know because I was a teacher and am a teacher educator. But our teachers are far from perfect and one need only engage in regular “canteen talk” to make that clear.

How do solar panels fit in? In yesterday’s reflection, I mentioned the issues of reducing class sizes and adopting solar energy in Singapore are cyclic issues and dependent on right timing.

Suggestions that Singapore take solar energy seriously appeared in the news for more than a decade. From the layperson’s point of view, this made sense since sunlight is something we have plenty of. Contrary to our national education refrain, people are not our only natural resource.

However, the initially high cost of solar panels was a barrier, as was the availability of surface area. When the idea to use buildings like our HDB flats to house these panels was raised, it was rejected because the returns then were not cost-effective.

Fast forward to today and we have trials to use water reservoirs for floating panels, the Apple Singapore being fully solar-powered, more HDB flats having solar panels, and at least one electricity provider whose primary source of energy is sunlight.

A decade ago, these realities would have been a pipe dream. There was so much opposition to an idea that made so much sense. Its main obstacle seemed to be cents and dollars. With cheaper and more efficient solar technologies, that barrier was removed.

The issue of reducing student-to-teacher ratios reappears in the news periodically, just like the adoption solar energy did. We recognise it is cyclic, but when might the timing be right? What might be the straw that breaks the classroom camel’s back?

One of several topics about Singapore schooling that gets raised cyclically is the call to reduce class sizes in schools.

A Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) raised this issue earlier this week and it was not the first. One need only scan Google search results on “reduce class size singapore” in the general findings and news sections to see how frequently and far back this goes.

The most often cited reason for reducing class sizes is the attention that teachers can spend on each student. Fewer students means potentially more attention. This might then reduce dependence on remedial and enrichment tuition — the bane that is Singapore’s shadow schooling system.

Of late, our plummeting population growth has resulted in rounds of school mergers. This has tempted observers to suggest that the resulting “excess” of teachers be removed by increasing the teacher-to-student ratio, i.e., reduce class sizes.

However, our Ministry of Education probably sees things differently. It will not say this publicly, but trimming the fat is a good way of getting bad teachers out of schools. The problem with this is that some very good teachers get caught when they pull this plug.

The MOE has and will cite its own data of low student-to-teacher ratios. For example, here is a tweet from @singapolitics in 2016 and an extract from the article last week:

In August, (Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng) had told Parliament that the average form class size in primary and secondary schools last year was 33 and 34 respectively, while the median form class size was 32 in primary schools and 36 in secondary schools.

However you make sense of these numbers, they probably have more to do with obtuse calculations, Singapore’s low birth rate, and policy changes.

Step into a mainstream primary or secondary school classroom. You are unlikely to see 16 students in an “average” primary school classroom and 13 in an “average” secondary school classroom.

The numbers hide the fact that you can get such ratios by totalling the number of teachers and students while not factoring how many teachers are actually in active service. Speak to school leaders and managers and you will realise the manpower struggles they face every academic term. The most honest response I have come across in a parliamentary session was this one in 2013:

our PTR (pupil-teacher ratio) has improved from 26 in 2000 to 18 in 2012 for primary schools, and from 19 in 2000 to 14 in 2012 for secondary schools…

But a PTR of 18 in our primary schools does not mean that our class sizes are 18 in our primary schools – it simply means that we have one teacher for every 18 students, or two teachers for every 36 students, etc. The same PTR can result in different class sizes – as it depends on how we deploy our teachers.

Combine this fuzzy math with our falling birthrate and the policy decision to have smaller class sizes in Primary 1 and 2. Now consider how schools also have special programmes or interventions that temporarily reduce class sizes, e.g., dividing a class for mother tongue lessons into two or three classes, or having smaller classes for a few at-risk students at strategic periods. These schemes reduce student-to-teacher ratios, but they should not be confused with a reduction in class size across the board.

The long story told short is that the reply to having smaller class sizes is no.

What does this fuzzy math and resistance have to do with the use of solar panels in Singapore? It is cyclic and about leveraging on good timing. More on this tomorrow.

Instead of priding ourselves on how well Singapore does on PISA performance, I say we also analyse what we post in social media and newspaper comment sections.

I am thinking out loud, but I am also serious. I am looking at academic measures even though online social commentary also offers insights into our attitudes and value systems.

Why did I have this thought exercise? I watched the video below about “luck” and I have been monitoring a local Pokémon Go (PoGo) Facebook group.

Video source

The video by SciShow host, Hank Green, describes how people attribute phenomena to “luck” instead of mathematical logic.

When things go their way, people believe that they are “lucky”, and when they do not, they are “unlucky”. This is the start of the slippery slope towards the belief of “luck” becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

PoGo SG group in Facebook.

In the PoGo Facebook group, I read an almost constant barrage of layfolk attributing their legendary Pokémon rare catches to being “lucky” or their string of fails as “unlucky”. To improve their “luck”, they mention wearing red underwear, carrying charms, or offering appeasements to the gods.

They persist with these lines of thought despite the occasional group member sharing resources on gameplay strategies (targetting methods, throwing curve balls, and using berries to increase catch rates). They also share the work of others who attempt to collect and analyse data to make sense of what works and what does not.

The larger “luck” group insists on unsubstantiated and blind belief. They seem to take comfort in not knowing and not trying something different. The smaller logic group is the exact opposite — they uncover new information and try to manage the cards they are dealt with.

There is no point in having world-beating PISA scores if we end up with adults who insist on being wilfully ignorant. Tests are good for just that — tests. They are not predictions of how well the students will do later in life.

Online social commentary are not complete measures either. But they offer insights into what people learn, value, and choose to apply. They provide indicators of learning that is stunted or life wide.


The video in this tweet creates an almost irrational joy or hope. It featured people trying to return to the owner a cap that dropped from an upper floor of a high-rise building.

Spoiler: The owner got the cap back, but not without a couple of failed attempts.

Why feature this video? One might talk about the small things we can or should do today to restore faith in humanity. One might also wonder how the bar got set so low.

No, for me this video is a start to having conversations with teachers about the overlaps and distinctions between cooperation and collaboration.

… why do we not dominate at edtech conferences overseas?

This was one of the questions I asked myself after the seemingly endless ad-tweets for ICTLT.

ICTLT is a locally run and controlled edtech conference that happens every two years. You might say that it is by Singaporeans for Singaporeans to show off Singaporean efforts.

There are invited speakers from elsewhere, of course. No conference worth its salt would ignore the pull of A-list or even minor academic celebrities.

Events like ICTLT are meant to disseminate, inspire, and propagate. There is current or new information to share, people to energise, and propaganda to spread. There is also the overall Singapore brand to sell.

But I return to my original question: If we are that good, why do we not dominate at edtech conferences overseas?

I am not saying that our natively born or locally nurtured professors and experts do not present at all. I am wondering why our reputation does not seem to be matched by our reach.

There are a few usual suspects — you can count them on one hand — who are invited to do keynotes or seminars internationally. But we are not known for our prolific sharing.

Might we be better at quietly implementing and not pronouncing these efforts on the highest stages? Why operate along this false dichotomy when we need to be doing both? After all, if we are rich with information and experience, we should be sharing more openly and frequently instead of keeping this to ourselves.

Are we going to keep hiding behind the excuse that our schools collectively hosts lots of visitors from lands near and far? Visitors from those very same countries do their share of hosting and they dominate the conference floors and stages.

So I still wonder: If we are that good, why do we not dominate at edtech conferences overseas?

There is something fundamentally wrong with most instructional design (ID) programmes and processes.

Novice instructional designers are often taught to design FOR someone. They do not necessarily learn to design WITH someone. I call the latter ID+.

This is a fundamental shift in the multifaceted processes of ID. Just like teaching is not the same as learning, the focus of designing with someone is about putting the learner first.

Now how many Masters programmes and ID companies will buy into this idea? How many will take such ownership? How many will say they already do this, but not have the evidence that they really do? Why will they still focus on what is efficient and ignore what is effective?

Click to see all the nominees!

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