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WhatsApp groups: Bane or boon? It depends how you use them.

A basic Google search will reveal the many sites that suggest how to be civil in a WhatsApp chat group. I weigh in with recommendations from an educator’s point of view.

Don’t spam.

  • Don’t send ten messages when one will do.
  • Refrain from providing resources or starting discussions that are off-topic.
  • Send a private message to one person instead of sending to all in a group, especially when the topic is not relevant to the rest.

Respect boundaries of time and space.

  • If you start a group, establish and enforce communication window periods. As supportive as a group space might be, we also need to rest and spend time with loved ones.
  • Avoid over sharing unnecessary details. TMI is like PDA; less is more.

Don’t send large photos or video files.

  • We do not all have the same tolerance, bandwidth, data plan, or storage space for large files.
  • Do send links from reputable and secure cloud-based sites like Google Drive or Dropbox instead.

Include context in replies.

  • You are inside your own head whereas others might not understand to whom and to what you are referring.
  • Long-press on a message to reply with context.

Don’t use too many emojis if you want to be understood clearly or taken seriously.

  • Text is easy to misinterpret; emoji even more so. WhatsApp messages tend to be concise, so it is critical to be clear.
  • This is particularly important if the WhatsApp group comprises of individuals from different backgrounds and cultures.

Check your spelling and grammar.

  • This is particularly important when you are included in a professional group or if you represent an organisation.
  • This is not about following someone else’s standards; it is about showing what yours are.

Don’t be an ass.

  • If you are, pretend not to be one. Be polite. Say please and thank you.
  • Consider how you might say something in person, then dial it back a notch or two. The missing social cues make this necessary.
  • If others do not reciprocate, you can mute the group or leave it.

This is not an exhaustive list. It is an easy one I compiled by comparing my experiences in WhatsApp with my son’s and asking him what his recommendations might be.

I was a bit surprised by how much our thoughts overlapped. But I was not that surprised because human connection without civility — WhatsApp etiquette in this case — is something even kids value.

Ha-ha, funny. We get this tweet.

Do you also get why some actual iPads are used in “Victorian”, i.e., old school, ways even though they are an integration of some of the latest technologies?

There are “edu” apps that are designed just to engage instead of also empower. They focus on getting learners to consume instead of also to create. They might connect learners to content, but forget to connect them to one another, to experts, and expert thinking.

The Victorian iPad focuses on what is quaintly nostalgic and reassuringly comfortable. The powerful iPad focuses on powerfully different and meaningfully disruptive.

Doing things differently does not always mean doing things better. But doing things better always means doing things differently. -- Hank McKinnell (Former CEO of Pfizer)

I am fond of taking photos of my workshops and classes, but I can only do so during the learner-centric phases.

I often take panoramic shots of my sessions to capture the overall context and strategy. I share a few photos in order to highlight a theme.

Using collaborative learning stations to learn about collaborative learning.

Jigsaw peer instruction with SPED teachers.

Peer teaching by groups of future faculty/teaching assistants.

Station-based learning of ICT-mediated pedagogies.

Station-based uncovering of game-based learning principles.

Switching between student and teacher “hats” during my flipped learning workshop.

Military personnel decoding the differences between (and overlaps of) the flipped classroom and flipped learning.

The obvious similarity is learners working in small groups. Read the captions underneath the photos and you will realise that the contexts, pedagogy, and content differ.

My point is this: The physical environment is an important factor in shaping what an educator does, but it does not dictate or determine what happens. The important ingredients are creative thinking, reliable wifi, mobile devices (preferably owned by the learners), furniture that can be arranged to create stations, and elbow grease.

The elbow grease is one thing you do not see in the photos. Organisers who work with me realise how much time and effort I spend during preparation. This often involves site visits prior to workshops, liaising with administrative and technical folk, and physically setting things up just right.

While the elbow grease ensures that the articulating points move smoothly, it is the creative thinking and planning that brings the parts together in the first place. This sort of creativity is balanced with critical thinking that is a result of deep knowledge and experience with technological instruments, content, and pedagogy. These three elements are overruled by contextual design.

It is not pedagogy first and technology second. It is context that comes first and everything else in a very close second.

Is honesty always the best policy? Are we totally honest when:

  • Someone asks how you are?
  • A server asks you how the meal was?
  • Your wife asks you if her clothing makes her butt look big?

We lie all the time, and to make ourselves feel better, we call those social niceties white lies.

So is honesty the best policy? No, not when you have to lie to be nice or to ensure peace.

There is another type of lie: Telling the truth, but not all of it.

When I read this tweet, I had to ask myself if this was a lie of partial truth or one of wishful interpretation.

Taken at face value, all the roughly 33,000 teachers in Singapore are mentored. This means that mentors have mentors, and perhaps there is even reverse mentorship because everyone is good at something.

But just how feasible is this given practical realities of limited time and resources?

About five years ago, NIE co-implemented a modified post-practicum system with MOE to formalise the mentoring programme. Before this, mentoring was a function of teaching practicum and only few schools took the initiative to assign mentors for beginning teachers thereafter.

In the more comprehensive programme, all student teachers not only had one or more cooperating teachers during practicum, they had mentors who could look out for them in the first year or so as full-time teachers.

So do teachers in Singapore have mentors? Yes, but they are typically the younger teachers. Do they keep that mentor? Maybe, but not indefinitely. Do they go on to mentor their juniors? We cannot say for sure. Not all are cut out to be mentors and teachers already have so much to do.

The point is that an observation or interpretation in a tweet is unlikely to represent accurately. And yet that partial truth (at best) or a blatant lie (at worst) is what gets propagated.

We live in the era of #fakenews. In schooling and education, we also have #halftruths and #partialfacts. We need to dig deeper, model that practice, and teach all our learners to do the same.

Bonus: I have only critiqued the bit about mentor teachers. There is also the claim about how our students are not evaluated on their results. It is your turn to do the critical thinking.

You do not have to read the article in this tweet to get the picture.

Does the improvement depicted in the “now” graphic represent one approach fits all or giving different approaches a wider berth?

This is why graphics are powerful conversation pieces for teaching and learning. One visual can create different interpretations which can then be discussed and critiqued. There are no models answers, only modelled thinking.

I had a few questions after reading an opinion piece on the changes to the Direct School Admissions (DSA) in Singapore.

For the uninitiated, the DSA is a semi-alternative route for primary school children to get into secondary schools of their choice. There is also DSA for secondary school children to get into junior colleges.

I call DSA a semi-alternative over the PSLE and GCE O-Level Examinations because the latter are still key criteria for the child to stay in the school after they have their foot in the door.

The problem was that some parents gamed the DSA by hothousing their kids by way of preparatory courses and activities. The original purpose for schools to admit children based on their mostly non-academic talents got diluted.

So the op piece, DSA revisions laudable, but challenge lies in transparency, had a lot going for it based on its title.

The article started with the main changes from 2018 onwards:

  • Discontinuing general ability tests (GATs)
  • Increasing the DSA proportion of each Secondary intake to 20%*

Both moves revisit the purpose of DSA: To allow kids with non-academic talents to shine and get a place in hotly-contested schools. I would add that taking away the GATs removes one element of hothousing (test preparation) and the companies that charge money for administering tests.

*This cap applies only to the majority of schools that do not rely exclusively on DSA for new students. The rule change does not apply to schools offering the six-year Integrated Programme (IP) leading to the International Baccalaureate, e.g., the School of the Arts (SOTA), NUS High School for Maths and Science.

The op piece first addressed the fact that students taking advantage of DSA tended to come from more affluent backgrounds. For example:

… there is often a high degree of correlation between student wealth and non-academic talent. Why? Consider students who excel in music. Affluent parents would be in a better position to provide their kids with music lessons at a young age to hone their musical talents.

While any reader (myself included) might nod in agreement, a more critical one should ask: Can we take the statement “high degree of correlation between student wealth and non-academic talent” at face value? Where is the data? How high is the correlation? Did the newspaper leave it out? Perception and opinion are not fact and even facts can be challenged.

Then there was the suggestion that schools be more transparent and objective. I am all for transparency, but I am critical of objectivity as some perceive it.

While non-cognitive skills like tenacity, resilience, trustworthiness and perseverance are important traits desired by schools, schools should be mindful that these are typically difficult to measure and will be measured subjectively, depending on the person evaluating the child.

So any evaluation of these traits should ideally be complemented by more objective measures (answering questions such as “Has the student ever represented his/her school at the national/school level?”, “Has the student ever held a leadership position at the community/school/class level?” and so forth).

What schools take kids in purely based on such character traits? At best these are secondary or tertiary considerations after the primary criteria have been evaluated.

Schools already have (or should already have) rigorous requirements for DSA: Interviews, focus groups, evidence-based performance, verification of certificates, portfolios, etc. What some might call alternative assessments become central or mainstream in the case of DSA to complement academic results that arrive later.

While objectivity is seems to be the gold standard, it is not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes a child has an X-factor that is not in the rubric because it is difficult to define or measure. Sometimes it is the potential of that child that is important and so judges have to make professional projections.

These decisions are based on the experience of the panel of selectors. They may quantify some traits, but the rest is largely qualitative or gut feel. Such decision-making processes are subjective because they rely on professional judgement and take into account the real individual that stands before them, not the illusionary above “average” child.

Furthermore, do such “objective” measures and questions develop the school or the child? To be fair, the school needs to decide whether or not to invest in the new student. But unlike a Google or Apple hiring a new employee, schools have social and civic roles to play. These are to enculturate children by schooling and to help them self-actualise by educating them.

Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet or dots on a graph. They might be to a bean-counter who is looking for the most efficient ways to channel them into different schools. We already have a very efficient streaming (and now DSA) system that can be very cruel too.

I say we be more effective and empathetic. We have reached that state in our collective social evolution and so we must embrace such higher ideals and make them real. To do this, we should also embrace subjectivity, not just objectivity, in the DSA process. To not do this is to act contrarily to what DSA stands for: Putting the child and his/her talents first.


Do these statements create dissonance?

  • Schooling is not education.
  • Gamification is not game-based learning.
  • Flipping your classroom does not guarantee flipped learning.
  • The choice to consume different resources is not the same as personalised learning.
  • Teaching objectives do not guarantee learning outcomes.
  • Enhancing lessons with technology is not the same as enabling learning with technology.
  • Engagement is not the same as empowerment.
  • An infographic is not a poster with a collection of graphic elements or snazzy fonts.
  • Learning styles are not a fact. They are a myth.
  • Calling your students digital natives does nothing to change pedagogy and might actually entrench teacher behaviours.
  • Cyber-anything.

Some of our fellow Earthlings in the USA say they should continue to question and critique everything Trump because they do not want time and lethargy to normalise what he says and does.

Likewise, educators should not allow unquestioned practice, outdated research, tradition, or vendors out simply to make money to perpetuate falsehoods.

If we do not listen with an informed ear, we let what they say become acceptable truth. If we do not cast a critical eye on what we read or observe, we normalise what we would normally object to. We owe it to our learners to do better and be better.

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