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Posts Tagged ‘class

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.

Gathering around an iPad to edit a Popplet.

Whenever I facilitate learning at workshops or course modules, I try something new or tweak a time-tested process.

Here is some context first.

Last year, I facilitated ICT-focused classes for special needs/inclusive education teachers. The sessions were conducted in the evening and I did not change the active learning design this year. However, I made the effort to jump at the deep end, tried a different swim stroke, and dealt with an unexpected current.

Chrome Incognito
What was the deep end jump?

I opted not to bring my Chromebook or Macbook Pro to the first session, and used the ageing desktop at the venue instead.

I used Chrome in Incognito mode to sign into various accounts, and with two-factor authentication via the Google app on my iPhone, was able to verify the log-in. When I was done with the session, I cleared the browser cache.

In between, I rediscovered the bane of YouTube ads because the Chrome browser on the desktop was not protected like my extension-enabled ones on my laptops. I wanted to show a small segment of a video but had to click away layered ads and two video ads that played before the actual video.

On hindsight, I could have relied on one of the many online services that let me download offline versions of entire videos or video segments.

As I neared the end of the session, the browser crashed. Ordinarily, this would mean having to log in to various services all over again. Thankfully, we were almost done and I did not have to do this. I also had my iPad on standby, but did not have to use it.

The interruptions due to the ads and crash were a reminder why facilitators should always bring their own devices. If you prepare and practice on that device, it is best to bring it along unless you like living dangerously.
 
Panoramic shot of 32 learners in five focus groups.

Google Forms to form groups
What did I do a bit differently with folks that I had not met before?

I usually ask participants to complete a Google Form questionnaire before we meet. In one question, I ask participants to choose a focus area or issue. Instead of trying to deliver a one-size-fits-all experience, I want to shape a custom one.

I normally follow this up by showing the results of the questionnaire at the start of our meeting to remind them of their selections. This time round, I predefined groups based on their responses and indicated what these were in a Google Site page.

About a quarter of the class did not respond by the deadline, so I met these learners during a break to sort them out before the group-based activities. This was a necessary step since it is rare for everyone to complete tasks beforehand. I also had two last-minute additions who probably did not get the instructions.

Such a preemptive design prevents groups from self-selecting. In this context, however, I wanted groups to be as diverse but as focused as possible. Knowing how people tend to stay in their comfort zones both social and cognitive, my decision to do this turned out to be a good one. The discussions were rich and there was a lot of productive noise in the room.

Jumping Padlet notes
I like getting participants to use Padlets for reflective pitstops and exit tickets.

However, a recent change to the platform seems to have made the online stickies refresh and rearrange themselves more often. This meant that some of my learners could not compose their thoughts because the notes kept “jumping away” from them.

This did not seem to affect all of them equally. Anecdotally, I have found that this happens to owners of small screens and slower devices with older Android builds.

One alternative might be to provide Google Forms and share the resulting Google Sheet with my learners. However, this limits my participants to text instead of other media like audio, photos, or video in Padlet.

I also like my participants to take ownership of their notes and to revisit them at different stages of learning. They could co-edit the Google Sheet resulting from Forms, but this is not as natural as the simulated writing or drawing on an online sticky note.

No space for Google Space
Last year I used the then brand new Google Spaces and reflected on the pros and cons of using it versus Google Sites [1] [2]. This year, Spaces will be shut down on 17 April in a failed Google experiment, whiles Sites, a mainstay for about a decade, lives on.

This meant transferring many resources, instructions, and activities to Sites from Spaces. This was no mean task as the two are not interoperable.

I also had to restructure the Site and this meant URLs changed. This affected the shortened URLs and QR codes I had created, so I had to make new ones, print them out as cards, and laminate them myself.
 
Scanning a QR code in class.

Bonus experiment
I was about to end this reflection when I remembered another step I took.

I normally send participants instructions to download and install a QR code reader. This makes it easy for them to access online resources instead of having to type URLs.

This time round I left this instruction out to see how adept my participants would be.

I was pleased to notes how several were game to use the QR codes on their own. Those that did not still had the benefit of using my shortened bit.ly URLs.

Overall takeaway
It is easy to be complacent and to coast with strategies that seem to work over different contexts and content. I choose not to do this.

I tell my learners that one of the best ways to learn is by cognitive dissonance. Better to live by this mantra than to come across as a hypocrite. If the situation does not provide these challenges, I create my own.

This is my final thought on last week’s MOE Work Plan Seminar (WPS) 2011. Honest!

I just started following @LeticiaBongnino on Twitter. This is a parody account of “a celebrity maid”.

Many of her tweets are hilarious and here are two that have accidental relevance to the main theme of the WPS:

Tongue-in-cheek the tweets may be, but there is truth behind the humour. They give us something to chew on as we attempt to better integrate values into schooling.

The teaching semester resumed for me yesterday, after a one-month delay thanks to the YOG. It’s great to be back teaching. Correction, facilitating and modelling. Cajoling and tinkering. Stimulating and pressing.

I only have one class to nurture this time round as my administrative responsibilities are heavy. But what a motley crew they are promising to be!

We were in the new Games Lab (ECL2) because no other lab was available. (Does no one want to use the newest and most flexible learning environment?)


Video source

We were here only because last Friday was a holiday and we had to make up for it. We’ll be back in a normal lab soon. But my class will also visit other venues to reinforce the fact that you can learn anytime and anywhere as long as you have a mobile, Internet-connected device.

Well, almost any such device. Phones and iPads are still not good for content creation. So those that did not already collect their NIE-provided laptops or bring their own were not able to edit the wiki or the shared online mind map.

But they shared what devices they brought and they are editing the shared spaces furiously (I am getting a slew of email and RSS updates). I cannot wait to read their group blogs! I’ll have to remember to remind them to pace themselves, but it is always a joy to see such motivation.


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