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Posts Tagged ‘curriculum

According to STonline, this is an example of transformative schooling in Singapore’s Infocomm Media 2025 masterplan.

Imagine a future where each student goes home with a different set of questions for their homework, which are customised to address areas that an individual is weak in. That future could be at our doorstep over the next few years.

Using data analytics technology, teachers can easily sift through their students’ strengths and weaknesses, and assign homework based on areas they need more practice in.

This technology will also be able to generate customised worksheets and practice papers for students, such as generating more problems which students are weak at to practice on, or coming up with more challenging questions in topics they are breezing through.

It is a description of the holy grail of individualized instruction. To some, this might be transformative as we leverage on big data and more advanced analytics.

But just how transformative is the example? It certainly takes a load off teachers and leverages on what technologies can do better than people. However, it is still using words like homework, practice, and worksheets.

What would be transformative is thinking and acting outside that box. It is building on what has already started differently today instead of the all too familiar past.

For example, learners already watch YouTube videos that fuel their passions and actively pursue skills they want to develop. YouTube already has algorithms that suggest what other related videos to watch (like the way library systems might recommend books to you and Amazon recommends what you buy).
 

tall pine by mamaloco, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  mamaloco 

 
What would be transformative is a system that is learner-centric and predicts what each person wants and needs, be it curriculum-based or passion-based. But chasing curricula is going for the relatively low-hanging fruit; enabling the identification and pursuit of one’s passions is more worthwhile.

Now one might argue that ten years is not a long time to develop systems that help us climb higher up that tree. I disagree. With YouTube, we are already at the start of passion-based pursuits.

Building elaborate curriculum engines will tend to focus on content and providing it when the learner needs it. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not enough. Doing this will not necessarily create context for authentic use and help learners make meaningful connections. However, focusing on what drives learners and learning creates context and connection, and is even fueled by these two elements.

Consider Singapore’s refocus on vocational or skills-based education. Now think about how many instructional videos there are on YouTube, e.g., baking cakes, putting on makeup, playing musical instruments, building your own X, hacking your own Y, fixing your own Z, etc. The desire to learn these skills is driven by the learner. The content is sought out as a result of context and connection, not the other way around.

If we are going to use the word “transform”, then we should be using it properly. Transforming is not just doing more of the same and better. It is doing something different and more worthwhile. In education, transformational edtech should enable passion-based learning, not just more curriculum-based learning.

This is the fourth part of my week-long focused reflection on flipping.

In 2009, I tried to balance the components of an overloaded curriculum for a compulsory course for preservice teachers, ICT for Meaningful Learning. The core topics were self-directed learning and collaborative learning. There was also a minor cyberwellness component.

I opted to introduce the cyberwellness topic by asking my student teachers if they would friend their own students in Facebook. I did so outside of class time and used VoiceThread to collect their responses. My student teachers responded enthusiastically and creatively with text, voice, and video. A few even took to performing skits.

One thing I did wrong was not follow up with this activity in class. Assuming that the topic was covered and that teacher intent somehow translates to learner understanding is something some teachers who experiment with flipping might be tempted to do.

The bigger sin was trying to extend curriculum time. There was no time in the planned curriculum for cyberwellness even though the student teachers had to incorporate it into a graded assignment. I relegated that topic to non-class time while telling myself I had partly covered the topic. But I had done this at the expense of my learners’ personal time and I did not facilitate a rise above so that there were clear take home messages.

Imagine if more teachers or instructors gave in to the pressure to complete curricula instead of focusing on actual learning by our students. Collectively we would get our extended curriculum time, but only at the expense of, and not to the benefit of, our learners. As I explained yesterday, we would burden them with a different kind of homework.

How might teachers right this wrong of flipping?

One way is to play the zero sum game. If a class session or workshop is allocated three hours, then keep to a total of three hours instead of trying to create an extra hour from students’ personal time. When I conduct a three-hour workshop, for example, only two hours may be face-to-face time. The other hour is dedicated to online or out-of-workshop time that my participants invest in.

Teachers might argue that they are limited by their timetables. If they gave their students a 15-minute online task before class, how might they return it to their students? If they have a 60-minute class session, they might return that 15 minutes by allowing their students to rest, relax, or do something else.

Another way is to focus on learning instead of teaching. Teachers with curricular concerns worry about width and how much they can cover. Teachers who focus on their learners and learning realize that it is about depth and what their students can uncover.

One of the worst reasons teachers might adopt flipped classrooms is to create more curricular time at the expense of learners’ time. Increasing curriculum time might appeal to an administrator and even to some teachers, but it does not put students at the centre of learning. If a worker would not accept doing overtime work without overtime pay, then we should not expect students to give up their time for your curriculum.

Teachers and school leaders who buy in to the flipped classroom approach might view it as an administrative or curricular solution to create more timetable slots for more teaching time. Focus on what is important: Flipped learning is about the learner and learning; it is not about the teacher, school principal, or the curriculum.

This week I read a good critique of the way some science teachers in Singapore design test questions and grade them. The issues were a misplaced emphasis on rote learning (instead of inquiry) and the poor use of language (English and scientific) in setting test questions.

A parent wrote in to the ST Forum with a suggestion:

There seems to be something inherently wrong with how science is taught in primary schools today. Perhaps the time is ripe for a systemic review of the curriculum to address all these concerns.

This suggestion will not work alone. Curricular reviews and revisions tend to focus on content. That is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
 

 
To see the whole picture, one needs to also factor in how teachers teach an academic subject (which is a function of pedagogy), and how they unlearn old habits in favour of learning new ones (professional development, leadership, incentives, and more).

A seemingly superficial or simple problem like stupid test questions or stubborn teacher behaviour has complex roots. The layperson does not dig as far and is not expected to. The real problem is when some schools, their leaders, and/or their teachers are not aware that they need to dig deep too.

Thanks to a tweet from @ryantracey, I read this blog entry by @gregwhitby. The main issue that Whitby raised was:

It seems that whenever there is a need to change behaviours or address attitudes we look to the curriculum. Is this the role of a curriculum? Is it the responsibility of schools?

He concluded:

When there are vigorous calls to continually pare down the curriculum (similar to Singapore’s approach), why do we waste valuable time proposing ways of over-loading it?

In between, he raised good points of how schools could be providing just-in-time learning over just-in-case instruction as well as the role of parents in values-based education.

I was drawn to Whitby’s conclusion that briefly mentioned Singapore’s content and curricular reductions.

I was involved in one major curriculum reduction exercise here almost 20 years ago. The reason for this effort was to reduce instructional and assessment loads. This was also before our ICT Master Plans kicked off.

More recently, the reduction of curricula has happened to provide time and space for efforts like ICT integration and the infusion of less academic outcomes in order to nurture more holistic learners. At least, those are the official and administrative statements someone higher up in the hierarchy would make.

Any plan is only as good as its implementation. Fast forward to today and probably the most common complaint teachers still have is a lack of time to complete curricula. The situation is bad enough that the need for private tuition in Singapore continues to rise and the money thrown at this shadow schooling system might soon rival our official education budget.

Curricula may be reduced on paper, but the other initiatives that pushed out content in the first place now take disproportionately more time and effort. I have reflected on this phenomenon before, so I’ll not flog that horse [1] [2] [3] [4].

The quantity-oriented approach of curricular reduction without an accompanying increase in quality instruction and effective professional development of teachers is pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum and schools tend to fill up the time meant for innovation and reflection with traditional curricular endeavours.
 

 
When I meet with school leaders and middle managers, I ask them if they know what “curriculum” means. One of the Latin roots of “curriculum is “race”, as in foot race. The nature of curriculum is a race that teachers and students must complete within a limited time.

Content or curricular reductions do not work if the design remains a race: Limited time, same obstacles (or different ones that serve the same function of obstructing), single finish line.

If you were to take the pulse of stakeholders, I wager that you would detect the general feeling that there is so much more to learn today than there was in yesteryear. A content or curricular reduction seems counterintuitive. If there is more content, there should be more coverage in schools. The curricular race will then have more obstacles and twists and turns than before.

That is the wrong design solution to a misperceived problem. The problem is not the need to cover more content; it is to learn how to deal with more information that you can possibly learn. One solution is to think outside the curricular race course and focus more on thinking and just-in-time skills.
 

 
Curriculum then ceases to be relevant. The race is abandoned for something that resembles treks or personal journeys. Such paths have different start and end points and are not strict functions of time. Obstacles are natural and may or may not be anticipated.

This suggestion makes most politicians, policymakers, and administrators uneasy. Very little of this approach fits spreadsheets, Gantt charts, or statistical models. But if you realize that we will in a VUCA world, then we need VUCA strategies.

Curricular reduction is not only an oxymoron (it cannot happen by design and implementation), it is an old solution to a new problem. We do not need more of the same. We need something different.

A while ago I wondered out loud about offering teachers a series of professional development workshops on The Pedagogy of Questions.

I have since extended my list of potential workshops by three:

  • The Harm of Homework
  • The Myths of Learning Styles
  • The Problems With Current Curriculum Designs

All three will seem counterintuitive because they challenge established practice. All three are based on emerging research and progressive practice.

Each workshop would follow a similar pattern: Bring hidden problems to the surface, suggest well-informed solutions, and roadmap real change in schools.

I call the problems hidden because teachers and school leaders might not realize that there are problems or wrong mindsets to correct. Most teachers accept homework as a given, blindly believe in learning styles, and accept current curricula as gospel truth.

When the scales have fallen from their eyes, they will invariably seek solutions and alternatives. They cannot heal old wounds or fill gaps with snake oil. The solutions must be based on rigorous research, critical comment by thought leaders, and reflections of progressive practitioners.

Identifying problems and finding solutions are not enough. There must be a concerted plan to change and sustain those efforts.

Side note: I will be away on family vacation soon, but I am scheduling blog entries so that faithful readers have something to chew over while my mind and body wander elsewhere.

 
Recently Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) announced a new curriculum for Mother Tongue (Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil) languages that will take effect in 2015.

Not many bat an eyelid since wholesale curricular revisions used to happen once every twelve years and then once every six or seven. Like cookies, one batch does not get the chocolate chips while another does.

What I find unusual is how parents do not really complain if their children are excluded from a new or better curriculum. This is another example of one-size-fits-all in that something good does not benefit those outside its designated demographic.

One one hand, we can understand the implementation constraints. It takes time, effort, and money to prepare a new slew of reference material (mostly textbooks) and on-going professional development for teachers. Curricular changes may have always been implemented that way, but we should question why.

On the other, curricula should not be designed with legacy issues like electronic devices. You should not have to abandon your device for a new one unless it is truly lacking a hardware feature or if a flaw cannot be corrected with a software update. Even then people have a choice to move to a bigger or better device.

In short, curricula should not be designed with lock in or lock out clauses. That is how the cookie crumbles.

Here are a few ideas for a better cookie recipe.

Other than acceptance and mindset change, the two biggest barriers to curricular change are supporting resources and teacher preparation. Acceptance is a low bar in relatively compliant Singapore. Mindset change is a matter of time.

Traditional publishers can hold schools to ransom with production times and antiquated policies. One way to overcome this is with open textbooks and electronic publishing. These will not circumvent all publishing problems, but they will enable resources to be created more collaboratively and revised on-the-fly.

Teacher preparation is a more difficult recipe to design. That said, Singapore teachers are nothing if not adaptable. They may complain, but they get things done and eventually are bought over. I think that an open approach will go a long way in creating ownership because they can make individual changes on the ground and contribute to systemic changes as a whole.

Here is the pinch of salt that makes or breaks the recipe. The MOE press release stated:

There will also be a greater use of information and communication technology (ICT) to enhance the teaching and learning of MTL. ICT resources such as videos, animations, digital interactive games will continue to be developed to support the curriculum in engaging our students to learn MTL in a fun and purposeful way.

We all know what is likely to happen and that is the reluctant or ceremonial tacking on of ICT. I hope this will not happen, but history has a way of repeating itself.

We should break out of this cycle. ICT should not just be a “fun and purposeful” tool but also a basic enabler. Make all resources electronic and make processes like production, consumption, and interaction electronic as well.

Let the production be open to keep costs down, let the consumption be across multiple platforms so kids can use what they already have (or can buy for very low cost), and let some of the interaction be where the kids are already at or need to be.

If you are going to leverage on ICT, do it to make a different and better cookie, not to make the same one that will crumble.

The Joys Of Homework by Cayusa, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Cayusa 

 
Yesterday I read this ST article, Have at least two homework-free days a week, and shook my head. I did this not in disagreement, but because of what I predict could happen if such an idea was implemented.

A member of parliament suggested that MOE require schools to mandate two homework-free days a week and reduce curricula by 20-30%. Most Singaporeans can predict what the official response is going to be: It is up to schools to decide homework policies and there have been curricula reductions in the past. But any suggestions will be reviewed and implemented on merit.

Two homework-free days a week. Does that mean the whole week or the school week? If you include the weekend, most schools already have two days teachers do not meet students in person to dish out homework.

If the week refers to the five-day schooling week, then consider one response. The same amount of homework gets spread over three days instead of five. If you play the numbers game, others will find workarounds also based on numbers.

Doing this does not deal with the issues of homework: What is homework, why have we come to expect it, and is it even necessary?

Some people might suggest that flipped classrooms become policy. I would ask them if they are just changing the nature of homework instead of dealing with the problems that homework creates (no support at home, more tuition, less quality family time, more unnecessary stress, etc.).

I am not sure that content reduction will help. I recall being involved in curricular reduction more than 15 years ago when I was a teacher. Now there only seems to be more to do. Why? Instead of filling the time with exploratory or creative ventures, teachers filled the time with anything linked to test preparation.

In an effort to develop kids holistically, curriculum time was also filled with other activities. In theory, this is a wonderful idea. In reality, this breaks down when things like zoo visits become administrative, logistical, and legal challenges instead of pedagogical ones. Kids then spend their time following orders and rushing from one station to another instead of learning deeply.

I do not think that a good solution lies in homework or curriculum reduction. I believe that there should be no homework (the type we understand now) and there should be a curricular redesign.

I say there should be no homework not to keep the home and school life silos separate. That is an impossibly difficult game to win. The silos were created simply because school was created for a different context, the Industrial Age, and because schools do not bring in enough real world context.

For example, in current social studies about tourism, much of the content is just about that. Content. Delivered in a book. Possibly practised with homework and then tested with exams. How about bringing in real world context?

As some families here prepare to go on June holidays, consider the amount of logistical and financial planning it takes. Why not give kids some virtual money to spend on a trip. Let them use current technologies to plan itineraries, do price comparisons, suggest travel and accommodations, debate and document their processes, etc. Make this the curricular default instead of an enrichment activity done only after exams are over.

These are activities that might start and end in class. If not, they spill over naturally at home or in the social lives of learners because the activities are fun, meaningful, or seamless.

This is homework of a different kind. It can be very difficult, but engages naturally. To do this would not require so much a content revamp but a contextual one. The change in context is from a theoretical one created in schools to a more realistic one that already exists outside of it.


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