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Posts Tagged ‘change


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I find Rube Goldberg machines fascinating. They are basically just chains of immediate cause-and-effect, but when well done, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

So how did this Japanese group make a better Rube Goldberg machine? They added a narrative to it. The rolling balls were characters in a story that featured friendship, misadventure, a rescue, suspense, and a happy ending.

It is one thing to build a creative and intricate Rube Goldberg machine; it is another to let a narrative drive it. But ask almost anyone which they will remember and they are likely to say the one with the narrative. We are just programmed that way.

Now what do your change initiatives look and sound like? Be they piecemeal or systemic, is there a narrative that drives it? Does your change process look like a checklist, a spreadsheet, or a story? What connects and moves people? What is your next move?

Last week, news broke that seemed to rock the schooling and teaching worlds in Singapore.

The number of tweets about the school mergers, analyses [example], and opinion pieces [example] practically overshadowed the other hot topic of a few church leaders serving prison sentences.

Systemically speaking, the school mergers are a response to a generational change. The long story short is this: Singapore schools, junior colleges in particular, are feeling the impact of declining birth rates over the last 25 years. If you play just the numbers game, fewer kids mean smaller student intakes means fewer schools — and arguably fewer teachers — are needed.

If some teachers are worried now, they might look back with the benefit of hindsight of how their friends and relatives were retrenched during downsizing exercises in other industries.

While some of these job losses and changes might be due to cyclical events like the ebbs and flows of our economy, you cannot ignore the larger scaling down efforts due to declining birthrates.

The cyclic events are like hula hoops in that what goes around comes around. But the hoops are tumbling under the gravity generated by the birthrate slope.

The changes in school resource allocation might be driven primarily by population dynamics now. In the years to come, the changes might be due to automation as enabled by rapidly evolving technologies.

It might be difficult to see how teachers might be replaced with technology because teaching is such a human and subjective task. But we already know of people who teach “robotically” or we might be aware of vendors trying to offer automated solutions. The latter include “analytics” platforms and services that monitor, diagnose, and remediate students on-the-fly.

So how might teachers and policymakers respond to impending change? The current response provides some clues and I counter with alternatives.

The latest merger response is thinking inside the box. The numbers game is typified by comments [source] like:

Currently, there are 23 schools offering a JC programme including Integrated Programme schools. All eight JCs involved in the latest merger exercise can each take in up to 800 students annually, however their enrolment numbers have fallen – one of them, in fact, has a student population size of only between 500 and 600. Without the mergers, the Year 1 intakes at some of the JCs could fall to as low as 200 or 300 in the coming years.

In light of the impending mergers, Serangoon JC, Innova JC, Tampines JC and Jurong JC will not take in any JC1 students next year.

And:

The ministry reiterated that falling cohort sizes would limit the co-curricular activities (CCAs) available at schools, as the CCAs require a minimum number of students in order for learning and participation to be meaningful. At secondary schools, declining enrolment could also affect the range of subject combinations which students can take in upper secondary level.

School mergers meet the number quota. These in turn allow school curricula and programmes to operate as they normally would.

This seems to solve the problem because the numbers look good in a spreadsheet and policy document. However, these measures still operate inside the box of business-as-usual (others might point out that this business is cruel).

Why not take the opportunity to try something different that leverages on other changes or helps educators work towards a fuzzy future?

Some outside the box ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Co-curricular activities (CCAs) in centralised venues
  • Boutique programmes
  • Having more than one teacher per lesson (team teaching)

The centralisation of some CCAs is already partially outside the school box. Schools that do not have the numbers or resources send their students to other providers and venues. Think about sports like sailing, canoeing, dragon boating, bowling, shooting, wall-climbing, etc. Non-sports programmes might include computer programming, geocaching, community service, new media production, and more.

The affected schools and zones might adopt the boutique approach in that they embrace smaller class sizes. These run not on the efficiency-driven model but on one of effectiveness instead.

Hattie conducted meta analyses that concluded class size reduction only had a very small effect size of 0.2 (effect sizes of 0.2 and below are considered small). However, arguments persist for smaller class size (lower student-teacher ratios) thanks to conflicting research.

We already reduce class sizes for students with special needs or students who are not academically blessed. They undergo programmes that leverage on their strengths and alternative methods like e-portfolios, experiential strategies, and most importantly, closer teacher attention.

One boutique strategy is to have more than one teacher in each class. I do not mean administratively having two form teachers per class. I mean having two or more teachers in class during each lesson, i.e., team teaching.

This is already the norm is some Normal or Normal Technical subjects. This might also be the case when “special needs” students are integrated with “normal” students.

Having more than one teacher per class could address many issues:

  • The bean counter’s problem of having a surplus of teachers per school goes away because of the lower student-teacher ratio.
  • The teachers of the same subject could take turns to teach different sub-topics.
  • Team teaching could be part of teacher mentoring in terms of content expertise, classroom management, school culture, etc.
  • Teachers can share the workload of providing feedback and grading. A smaller burden could lead to more personalised attention to students.
  • Team teaching could allow teachers to specialise in different types of students and meet specific learner needs, e.g., some students need more remediation while others need more challenges.
  • Having less administrative work and a shared academic load could contribute to the ever elusive work-life balance.
  • Teachers finding better balance, deeper meaning, and more time to reflect and develop professionally all point to better retention and job satisfaction.

If the balance tips to a better quality of life, perhaps teachers might create more life (wink!), and possibly contribute to an increase in birthrate. The falling birthrate was officially the root issue after all, so anything to cause a sustained rise is good, is it not?

We cannot keep applying old rules to new changes, or using the tired excuses like “not efficient” or “not cost effective”. We should not have to wait until times are dire and resources are low to try something different.

We still have plenty and we can afford to change. If we do not try now, we might not be able to afford it when dire change arrives.

The saying, “Pics, or it didn’t happen” is wiser than it appears.

The phrase is a quick way of saying show me evidence, specifically photos, because what you claim to be a truthful or factual account may not be valid or reliable.


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Our memories are imperfect. The majority of us do not have “photographic” memories, and those that do are exceptional talents. Even then, captures are not facts devoid of colouring, contrasting, or other manipulations.

Any teacher who still thinks that drill and rote memory are still the best ways to teach and learn needs to reconsider or retire.

What you capture today might not be relevant tomorrow in the age of social media. There is as much point to objecting to such circumstances as there is blowing raspberries at a tornado.

Instead, “pics, or it didn’t happen” could be one principle to base change on. It could be the foundation for dealing with fake news. It could start the line of questions against learning styles, digital natives, “best” practices, and extrinsic gamification. It could shift the focus away from just learning-about (content) to learning-to-be (contextual thinking). It could spur the search for evidence-based practices, and personal and professional development.

If there is anything that Singaporeans appreciate, it must be our food. If there is something we dislike, it might be our antiquated coupon parking system.

Both remind us of important lessons on systemic change.

TODAY reported the mixed response to an app for ordering meals at a food court.

It was practically an article that wrote itself. Without interviewing anyone, an unscrupulous reporter could have made up a story of customers and store holders who were for and against it.

The same paper reported how coupon parking would be “phased out altogether”, but did not specify exactly when.

What both reports have in common is a new system (a set of tools, expectations, and behaviours) replacing an older one. Perhaps “replacing” is too strong a word. A more accurate phrase might be “working alongside but not yet at the tipping point”.

The older systems prevent mass adoption, further experimentation, and change. In the case of ordering food, there is the unwillingness to learn how to use the app.

Our paper-based coupons are a relic of the 1980s. Based on numbers provided in the TODAY article, 73% of all our public off-street carparks already use the electronic reader system. However, our on-street parking does not have any such infrastructure, so we rely on coupons to pay, and parking uncles and aunties to issue summons.

Almost six years ago, some drivers resorted to using apps like Summon Auntie to alert fellow drivers of parking wardens. This was a sociotechnical system that was not sanctioned by the authorities, but was a ground-up effort instead.

The paper-based parking coupon is also ironic given that Singapore has grand designs on being a Smart Nation. While some of our parking is paper-based, our road tax is not. As of 15th February this year, drivers need not display road tax discs on their windscreens thanks to an online registration system.

The antiquated paper coupon system seems to be tolerated simply because no other system was prepared in order to replace it.

So what are the reminders of opposing forces in systemic change?

There are the new or better possibilities that accompany technology versus the fear of learning new behaviours. The barrier to change is compounded by the lack of foresight and planning, and weighed further by general inertia.

A superficial observation of systems outside schooling provide such insights. The barriers to change in schooling are essentially the same. They are human stubbornness, apathy, and lethargy. They are obvious if we are willing to reflect critically and humbly on ourselves.

Yesterday I learnt something new.

Semmelweis reflex.

Thanks to generously and openly shared Google Slides (and this one in particular) I found a label for a phenomenon that has plagued schooling since the very first classroom: The Semmelweis reflex.

It is unreasoned and unreasonable resistance to change. It is the stubborn defence of “it has always been done this way”. It is the Goliath to my David.

The tendency to maintain the status quo or to throw the might of inertia in the face of progress is probably the biggest barrier to change in schools. That is why I fight it.

I am not necessarily for the Uber-ification or Netflix-ation of education. Some principles and practices do not transfer.

For example, the customer is not always right and the bottomline is not always immediate nor about profit or mindshare.
 

 
However, the changes that Uber and Netflix bring signal the need to adopt and adapt some ideas. I suggest a few less radical but important ones using company slogans.

Burger King’s favorite ditto seems to be “have it your way”. I am all for nurturing independence and critical thinking by getting learners to decide what they need to learn and to determine if they have learnt it.

IKEA says that “you do not have to be rich to be clever”. I am a proponent of open educational resources and open access journals being the norm rather than the exception, particularly if education is to be the great leveller.

McDonald’s would like its patrons to say “I’m loving it”. I would Iike our children to say the same thing about their education and following their passions.

Right now it is the privileged few who hate school but have opportunities to love their personal journeys thanks to family-sponsored rides. If all our children had access to more open resources and were taught to give back, we would have the equitable system that dreamers imagined.

Come early February I can correct a two-year mistake that I tied myself to — my TV subscription.

Two years ago I committed to a contract to my go-to telco for something they called Home Hub. Where home Internet, phone, and TV services were once separate, all three were bundled under that then new scheme.

The promise was that I would get more for less. That was true to some extent because I got a higher Internet speed for less cost per month. The digital home phone line was something we rarely used, but it was a comforting backup.

What was a waste of money was the TV subscription. My family and I do not watch it the way we did when my wife and I did when we were growing up, i.e., based on someone else’s timetable. We watched on demand.

The meant relying on platforms like YouTube and Netflix. This in turn meant that we paid for what we did not use or need — conventional TV delivered through a fibre optic cable.
 

 
Soon we will “cut” that cord and rely solely on data access for everything we need in terms of employment, education, enrichment, entertainment, etc. I will pay even less to get Internet access speeds that I could only dream of when I first went online.

I wish we had done this sooner when the competition was heating up among service providers and prices dropped even as options increased. The telcos had no choice but to listen to their customers and ride the trend of cord-cutting.

Still I wager that I am in the minority. Why else would the other options persist? The telcos create customer lock-in and retard change.

The status quo is comfortable for the telcos and most customers. However, this denies everyone a better experience. If customers take the initiative or are presented with newer options, they get better experiences for less cost. Happier customers mean better retention for telcos.

As I relate almost everything I experience to schooling and education, I see two reminders for educators and change agents.

If your plan is for one year plant rice.  If your plan is for ten years plant trees.  If your plan is for one hundred years educate children. -- Confucius

First, unlike telcos the school system changes very slowly because the impact on its bottom line is seen or felt very late. This is like watching a tree grow.

Second, the telcos respond to their customers because the latter speak loudly with their wallets and credit cards. If they are unhappy, they move to a better provider. The onus is on the telco to be progressive.

Most schools, on the other hand, have captive audiences. Like the telco customers, students have changing needs and wants. Unlike telcos, schools do not respond to these changes because the pressure is less immediate.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves if we can afford to wait. The cost of waiting does not come directly from the wallet. The cost is maintaining mindsets, expectations, and practices of teachers that are quickly losing relevance.

Standardised and fixed-time broadcasts used to be novel and then became the norm. The same could be said for teaching and delivering content. But just as TV viewers found another way with technology — on demand, just-in-time, and just-for-me — the learner of today needs a school embedded in today, not yesterday.

How else is schooling supposed to prepare the learner for tomorrow?


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