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Posts Tagged ‘normal

The release of the GCE A-level results and the summary statistic (pass rate) reported by the press reminded me of two YouTube videos I watched.

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The first was a TED-Ed video from which my favourite line emerged: Normal doesn’t describe a single data point, but a pattern of diversity.

It made the point that some might mistake about normal distributions and means. An average as a descriptive statistic could mislead us into thinking that is what most people are like. This could not be further from the truth.

This reminded me of a chapter from Naked Statistics in which the author described how a group in Australia described the “average” woman and others tried to find such a person. She did not exist because we are so different.

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The other video was from Wired and featured a statistics professor. He answered several questions and one was about why polls are inaccurate.

He explained that polls did not pick participants at random and thus the results were not necessarily representative of a population. He also mentioned how some people respond to polls and some do not. Those that respond might have certain traits and the poll becomes self-selecting instead of representative.

These reminders are normal in statistics. At least, they should be because the science and mathematics of generating the results are no more important than the narrative that follows. The stories we tell are what connects with our audiences.

Photo by Kathryn Archibald on

I do not like how background music in stores has returned as COVID rules are eased (see point 5 here).

Food and beverage (F&B) establishments in Singapore could not play recorded background music as one COVID safe management measure. This is probably because people talk over such music in order to be heard. The more people there are, the louder they have to talk and this means they spew more aerosols. Not safe.

The background music also means that people collectively create a din because we do not seem to remember how to talk in hushed tones. Folks elsewhere might call this “using your inside voice”. Judging from how loudly people talk on the train and cafes, we seem to think that we are behind a jet engine all the time.

I wish that F&B establishments would stop playing background music even as we learn to live with COVID. Some blast this music and patrons talk even louder as a result. When I am alone, I can wear noise-reducing earphones. But when I am with others, social niceties mean I suffer in noisy silence.

For me, this is a reminder that we should not blindly (or deafly) return to normal. I found eating in small groups in relatively quiet F&B establishments to be an improvement in quality of life. Why backslide to a noisy normal?

Photo by Brett Jordan on

I have returned to my local library in earnest. I had to avoid all our public libraries for over a year because the COVID-19 pandemic required that they be closed or operate at much reduced capacities.

When they first opened up, there was an online queue system that required me to reserve one or two-hour long slots at least the night before. These were snapped up before I could hit the enter key.

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Now that we are entering an endemic phase (i.e., trying to live with SARS-CoV2), libraries have opened up. Literally. There is more space between tables and chairs in the library and this should be the norm.

I am drafting this blog entry in the study area of my local library. In front of me are masked-up students mugging for their year-end examinations. Like me, they benefit from the well-lit, air-conditioned, and quiet surrounds. With the improved distancing, we can study and work safely.

Library display about air travel.

But now I think my local library is trolling us. Here is one photo I took of an extensive display of “travelling the world”. This is something most of us cannot do even with a few special air travel lanes.

Perhaps the display is aspirational. It is an attempt to help us look forward to better days. And that is what they should be. Better, not normal. 

Normal is a crowded library. Normal is congested streets as people make their way to work. Normal is sub-optimal and even sub-human treatment of people. We can, and must, do better.

This reply and the original tweet reflect brutal honesties about romanticised aspects of higher “education” and office work.

If you are a white-collar office worker, you might have a cubicle. A large part of work is fencing yourself off from others and staring at a screen — much like working from home with Zoom.

If you are a university student, then attending mass lectures is the norm. Your institution might make video recordings of these lectures available online so that you can watch them on your own schedule. Or you might attend a Zoom-based lecture.

An aside: The photo of the lecture hall is of a local university. It was taken well before COVID-19. It is so large that there are smaller screens halfway up the hall. I recall using it several times for briefings of large numbers of students or student teachers.

Back to the message: Both the photos might make you think about how we can be alone together. Furthermore, being face-to-face does not automatically make work or education better. This mode does not guarantee that we are more productive or studious. 

There are other social, environmental, and other factors that make face-to-face interactions desirable, e.g., immediacy, convenience, structure. But there are other factors and conditions that make going online better than being face-to-face, e.g., more time to think through tasks/problems, not needing to commute, greater freedom.

If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we might realise that returning to “normal” is not good for everyone in every circumstance. Lockdowns due to the pandemic tried to teach us that. Has that lesson even registered?

I read this tweet with interest.

I share my observations and offer a call for positive change.

What is new? The masks.

What is normal? The lecture.

What is better? Nothing.

We do not need to return to normal. We need to do better.

Better edubloggers than me have reminded us why schools should not return to normal post-pandemic.

In a moment of serendipity, Seth Godin just blogged this:

…we learn in ways that have little to do with how mass education is structured…

…The educational regimes of the last century have distracted us. It turns out that the obvious and easy approaches aren’t actually the ones that we need to focus on.

How likely is meaningful change to happen? Not very, but we can hope while pushing from whatever edge and corner we are at.

If nothing substantial happens this time round, perhaps the next pandemic will bring a more forceful reminder.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

The news article in the tweet above provided a long answer to the question why the percentage of children graduating from primary to secondary school has not changed over five years.

One short version of the long answer is that the number of students taking the exam, the PSLE, is statistically large enough that the pattern repeats itself.

But here are a few short considerations.

A normal distribution is a bell curve, but a bell curve does not have to look like a normal distribution. The majority of students — about 66% — end up in the Express stream so the bell is skewed.

Not force fitting results into a curve does not mean that moderation did not occur. Moderation exercises typically occur after many individuals grade papers. The graders make adjustments should they be too strict or too lenient.

As the post-exam processes are not completely transparent, we can only guess what happens out of the view of stakeholders. But another short answer presents itself if you lean cynical: We have found a comfortable formula and we are sticking to it for sorting’s sake.

Not a day goes by when I hear or read about someone wishing that things got back to normal. That is not just wishful thinking, it is also harmful.

We cannot return to the way things were because we cannot travel back in time. We can only move forward. I have a favourite saying about people who look back and see only good and conveniently ignore the bad:

Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

The wish to turn back the clock — like trying to make America great again — is harmful. It ignores current context, the progress we have made, and the problems we still need to solve.

We should not go back to normal if that means wasting time on work commutes, loutish behaviours on public transport, or attending pointless meetings.

We should not go back to normal if that means wasting natural resources, polluting our environment, and not adopting sustainable habits.

As an educator, I certainly do not want to be part of teaching that focuses on what the teacher does, traditional assessments, and putting administrative needs first.

Wishing for the normal of the past ignores what we need to do today and tomorrow. It is a failure to imagine and to be better than we were before.


I have reflected on how we should not return to “normal” post COVID-19. Others have expressed the same thoughts in different and better ways than me.

Earlier this month, Lisa Lane introduced a recent reflection like this:

I hear people say things like “when things go back to normal” or “after the pandemic” or just “afterwards”.

That might have worked for something that lasted a few weeks. Or for a hurricane or fire that destroys your home, then you have to rebuild. We can’t do that yet — this is the classic slow-motion train wreck. And anyone who’s rebuilt, had tragedy strike, knows that nothing is ever the same again.

Because we cannot go backward. Trust me on this — I’m a historian. I know backward. We only go forward.

Returning to normal can be backward if you retain the ignorance and stupidity in the normal that was.

So what happens if we do move forward? Tim Stahmer tweeted this as a reaction to claims of the “new normal”.

The new normal can reek of empty rhetoric or policy speak, particularly when it is the old disguised as new.

So what really is daring, different, and desperately needed? I offer Alfie Kohn’s take on testing and grading.

He offered evidence for the normal failing the less privileged and better alternatives like pass/fail and ungrading, and no grading that served everyone.

If those ideas sound foreign, that is sadly normal. We need to move forward without the baggage of catchphrases and millstones of legacy. As Kohn put it, this is our “chance to turn a(n) epidemiological crisis into an educational opportunity”.

The transfer of teaching strategies between physical and online classrooms does not seem to be balanced.

When forced to conduct emergency remote teaching, most teachers transferred strategies they were already familiar with, e.g., teacher talk and proctored exams.

While such a response is understandable — the runway was short and the need was urgent — repeating these behaviours when we know better is irresponsible. Teachers need to be taught how to design for and to facilitate actual online learning.

Teachers also need to be guided to reflect on why certain strategies failed and to learn from the successes of others who avoided the usual tropes.

When they return to their classrooms, they also need to transfer online designs that are likely to work well in-person, e.g., independent learning strategies, greater choice and individualisation, broader and context-based assessment, ungrading.

Things should not return to normal; they should get better. This means that teachers learn how to facilitate online learning and also that classroom-based teaching improves as a result.


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