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I got a bit steamed when I read yesterday’s ST article, MOE seeks ways to beat the heat in class. It is looking into ways of cooling schools in our hot and humid clime.

Singapore’s mrbrown was not impressed. I’m not either, but for different reasons.

The first might be an error in reporting. Or it might be that I don’t understand north-south orientations:

Given that most schools don’t have a think-outside-the-rectangular-box shape, a north-south orientation is like a lower case “l”. This would mean the building absorbs the most heat throughout the day. To reduce heat absorption, the building needs an east-west orientation on its long axis; the windows need a north-south orientation (i.e., be facing north and south).

Then there is the reason for the move in the first place:

A lack of focus and the ability to stay awake are not just because of the heat. How about a more reasonable start time? How about reducing the amount of “hot air” that is generated during teaching?

My suggestions? Make use of our plentiful sunlight to partially or fully power fans and air-conditioners. This might be expensive initially but it can pay for itself in the long run.

The other two suggestions I hinted at aren’t going to happen any time soon. We are held captive by the private bus companies and many teachers don’t know any other way of teaching.

End of nit-picky rant.

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50mm f/1.4 vs fiber optic light by vissago, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  vissago 

I normally blog my reflections, about what I am reading or about what I experience and observe as a teacher educator and as the head of the CeL. Today I blog as a Singaporean geek trying to hop on the local fibre optic bandwagon.

I was overjoyed when I first heard of the plans to lay in place fibre optic infrastructure in Singapore. This could replace the dated infrastructure for phones, cable TV, Internet access, video conferencing, etc.

I waited patiently for my area to get the upgrade. When the time came in January this year, I was probably among the first in my apartment building to get the fibre optic cable and termination point installed in my home.

But then I had to wait some more. What for? More testing and for service providers to actually provide service to my area. So I waited patiently again.

Earlier in this April, service providers flipped the switch in my area and I arranged for StarHub to activate the service in my home and to provide the proprietary equipment, an optical network terminal (ONT) as well as a free wireless home gateway (WHG).

The ONT splits the TV and Internet/voice signal. The WHG is like an elaborate router that you connect your wired computers, home phone, network attached storage and wireless devices to.

At least that is what I think they do because the information provided by Starhub online and by personal communication is poor. I had to search forums high and low for early adopters who shared this information.

The other reason is that the service as promised to me on Apr 23 was not delivered. A customer service representative called to tell me that it was a “technical fault” at their end. He could not elaborate on what that meant and I was left to imagine forgetfulness, incompetence and robot mutiny as possible causes.

So we arranged for an alternate installation date in May and I sought compensation. Why? If I had cancelled the appointment, I would be charged an additional fee. But if there is a technical fault, StarHub somehow reserves the right to charge me for the bad service. I should be charging them for the inconvenience, my time and my advice (see last paragraph).

I refused to pay any service and installation charges and got my way. But in order to do that, I had to get very angry (but reasonably so) on the phone several times. I kept demanding to speak to someone higher up who could make a reasonable decision.

So to others who might be taking the plunge, I share my experience as a warning and offer that tip on dealing with a stubborn service provider.

To Starhub (sometimes known in by the local Twitterati as S**thub) I offer this advice:

  • Train your customer service representatives to deal with conflict and give them the authority to make decisions. This will reduce unnecessary phone calls and email.
  • Speaking of phone calls and email, know when to use what. Things like terms and conditions are best elaborated upon in email, not over the phone.
  • Provide professional looking and editable PDF forms instead of those that look like they were rescued from a fire or prepared by a three-year-old. I don’t want to have to print out the forms, fill them in by hand, scan the forms and send them to you. You serve me, not the other way around!
  • If you make a mistake, admit it and be open with it. This reduces frustration and creates trust.

Warning: Rant ahead…

Today, I blog as a parent whose child has started Primary school. But my perceptions are nowhere complete and I stand to be corrected.

I wonder why Science is not offered as a subject in the lower Primary levels. If Science is embedded in the other subjects, I’d be happy because then the subjects are not taught or learnt in silos. But there is little evidence that Science is taught or integrated into Math or English. There is some bad Science as I will illustrate later.

Science, or more specifically, the initial inquiry process of Science, is something most kids take to naturally. As they discover the world around them, they ask what something is, how something happens and why.

Good kindergartens seem to leverage on this by providing experiences and lessons on Science. Kids also learn about the world around them on their own, with the support of resources provided by their parents or from the books and computers in the local library. Just listen to kids talk about dinosaurs, exchange strategies on Plants vs Zombies or share what they read in Kids National Geographic magazine.

But when my son entered Primary 1, he did not get a formal or integrated Science curriculum. I did get a flyer from the school offering optional reading materials thoughtfully prepared by tree-killing publishers. Those materials were vastly inferior to resources freely available online.

My son’s school does have a LEGO NXT programme that is integrated with the rest of the curriculum, but that seems to happen much less often than the serendipitous Science lessons he gets outside school by watching kid-friendly TV, reading magazines and books, searching the Internet, making personal discoveries during our walks, etc.

I could start writing about how deschooling seems to make even more sense, but something else grabbed me by the eyeballs.

There was bad “Science” embedded in at least one English lesson (see highlighted questions in the worksheet). Kids should know that a kangaroo’s pouch is not tiny (a whole joey fits in there), that all rabbits do not have white tails (duh!) and that leopards do not have spots on their skin (it is their fur that creates the pattern).

I doubt that there is a conspiracy to squash the natural curiosities of kids by excluding Science from the early Primary curriculum. But there are factual errors in the existing curriculum that do no favours to Science.

I like “teach less, learn more” because doing that is an art. But I dislike “teach mess, learn flaw” because that is just irresponsible.

Last week I read in the Nanyang Chronicle about NTU’s plans to upgrade its campus so that it has more progressive feel to it.

Progressive was my word for what I read. The article talked about a Holland Village like feel, collaborative classrooms and informal learning spaces.

I am glad that the planners realize that the classrooms of the future are not always actual classrooms. The informal learning spaces are nicer, higher tech versions of the BBQ benches that currently litter the campus. The article also mentioned professors chatting with grad students at restaurants and cafes. That’s more like it!

But the article also briefly mentioned smart boards. There is nothing smart about them and their use is rarely ever smart (just like there isn’t anything truly interactive about an IWB).  They focus on teacher talk instead of focusing on learning. And the first sort of focus doesn’t last very long.

Just look at the cost of maintaining the status quo. In Singapore, the cost of one smart board or IWB with projector is about the same as five low end first generation iPads with accessories and key apps, an AirPort (to create a wireless LAN) or a mobile 3G access point, and at least a year’s subscription of 3G access.

Most modern classrooms already have projectors. If they really need to, learners can project or share online artefacts on a screen that is not a smart board. At the very worst, create a very low cost IWB with a Wiimote! [comparison of vendor and Wiimote whiteboard]

So much more can be done and learnt with mobile devices in the hands of learners. Put these disruptive technologies in the hands of learners or encourage their use! That would be the smart and progressive move for me.

[click for larger version, courtesy of @tucksoon]

Last Sunday, Geraint Wong of the Straits Times wrote that the Essay software misses the point. [My bit.ly bundle of four articles on the topic] I think that he misses a point in critiquing the use of WriteToLearn and Criterion in essay writing. [My first thoughts on the original article.]

We agree that the software will not help create exceptional writers. But they are not designed to do that. If used properly, you might get good technical, rules-driven writers.

We also agree that the software will not replace the teacher. Instead they can augment and improve what a teacher can do by processing scripts efficiently. Better still, in the hands of self-directed learners (an objective of ICT Masterplan 3), this tool use can allow learners to improve the mechanics of writing on their own. This would allow human teachers to do what they do best when unfettered from the burden of repetition. The teacher can focus on style, subjectivity and substance. The teacher can also focus on helping those that the software cannot help.

But I take issue with the assumption that current media like games, blogs, Facebook and Twitter lead to bad writing. If such media are the reality of some learners now, why not leverage on that as well? By all means, encourage students to observe life while sipping some Milo at a coffee shop as Wong suggested. But there are equally rich behaviours to observe and stories to tell in World of Warcraft and social networks. Just look at the gaming literature and forums for example.

Such media offer two broad opportunities to improve writing. In consumption mode, they allow learners to read, analyze and critique many writing styles. In creation mode, they allow learners to publish their own writing to an authentic audience and their writing can then be subject to the critiquing process.

Wong describes the media as “poorly crafted blog entries, truncated tweets and vacuous Facebook comments”. I’d wager he would agree with me that the media is not the problem; the use of the media is.

Teachers are not getting students to use blogs, Facebook and Twitter to write authentically and critically. If the writing is lousy at such sites, it is because teachers are not drawing attention away from sites like stomp (or using sites like stomp as an example stamp out bad writing). Don’t blame the media or the tools. Blame the pedagogy.

That is where Wong and I have a meeting of minds. It is the teacher that can make the difference. But let us not belittle the software and media that can enhance or enable new ways of teaching and learning. Leverage on them instead!

This is a weekend rant.

Earlier this week, I was waiting outside my son’s school at pickup time. I stood at my usual spot away from the gate and near the fence. A balding gent barged on front me and started plucking hairs out of his face with two 10 cent coins as tweezers.

Ah, I thought, some of our “endearing” cultural habits haven’t completely gone the way of the dinosaur. It was grossly fascinating to watch as he was quite adept at finding small facial and neck hairs with the coins and harvesting them.

But I did not expect him to eat the hairs, which he did with great relish. My wife’s response to my SMS about the incident was “Ack. Gag.”

Still, I do not consider his behaviour inconsiderate. He was putting on a public performance, but you could move or look away. You could even say he was recycling biowaste.

What I consider inconsiderate is the indiscriminate burning of joss papers.

We opted to stay in the heartlands to stay grounded. But it is times like now and the hungry ghost festival that I have regrets. I take issue with people who burn incense paper way past midnight, close to the apartments, and in non-designated areas like grass patches or access roads.

The ash, smoke and smell gets into our apartment. The next morning the ground looks scorched as if unsuccessful alien abductions took place. The poor cleaners have to wait for the smouldering remains to cool before clearing them from drains, grates, paths, grass patches, etc.

I am all for being tolerant as long as we get the opportunity to piss each other off equally. Maybe they should be forced to read my blog as I urge them to burn e-paper.

Then again, they can move or look away and I am not being inconsiderate enough for them to be tolerant…

I’ve just learnt of a former teacher trainee of mine who is experiencing cable woes at her school. She has been at that school for a few years now.

She wants to project what is on her laptop on to the large screen in class. But since the classrooms she visits do not have VGA cables, she has to borrow one or sign one out.

As this is neither logical nor convenient, she has asked the school authorities if they can buy the cables and leave them attached in the classrooms. She was told this was not possible as the cost was prohibitive.

Of course the cables cost money, but they are not the most expensive items that the school has to buy every year. Cables like these are subject to daily abuse and should be viewed as expendables like DVD bundles, toner cartridges and thumbdrives (each of which costs more than VGA cable). When you realize that the cables are already installed in some classrooms but not in others, you will see that the teacher is just asking for a more level playing ground.

It is no wonder why some teachers have problems integrating technology. If they can’t get past the teacher-centred ICT  barriers, they might not even consider moving on more meaningful or powerful student-centred use.

The teacher I mentioned is planning on buying her own cables and leaving them in the classes she visits. I am glad that she is taking matters into her own hands because she has identified a problem and decided to solve it how she can. That is better than just complaining or blogging about it! 😉

This is a rant as a parent and an educator.

Last Friday evening, I attended a parent-teacher meeting for the Primary 1 cohort at my son’s school. It was held at the end of the second week of school.

We spent two thirds of the time attending a briefing by the school principal. I say attending and not listening because parents were either twiddling on their iPhones or zoning out. Who could blame them when most of it was the same thing we heard at the briefing last year?

The last half hour was contact time with the teachers in the hall. By contact I mean more briefings in a common area for all parents and teachers which was interrupted by noise leaks thanks to announcements, adjacent briefings and the eventual release of kids to their parents. We counted ourselves lucky to be able to throw in a question or two.

My wife commented that the meetings could have been held in our kids’ classrooms. I would have agreed if not for capacity issues. There would have been more parents than kids and the tables and chairs are tiny! Then again, these sessions are not really designed for actual dialogue. They are more for dissemination. I was just thinking how simple things like email and social media (e.g., Facebook or Edmodo) could have initiated and sustained dialogue.

Anyway, the only new item that got my attention was the school’s PAL (Programme for Active Learning, see point 9). This was the school’s response to the PERI (Primary Education Review and Implementation) committee’s recommendations to emphasize non-academic (and I’d add peri-academic) programmes in schools.

I am all for the PERI recommendations because they are logical, progressive and long overdue. But I am not so hot about the current implementation PAL.

To quote the school’s letter to parents, the PAL programme “will be conducted for Primary 1 pupils during the last 4 periods of every Friday with effect from 21 January 2011”. Then it points out that you have to drop your child off earlier in school “at 10 am every Friday for 2 hours of lessons in the morning”. (Context: My son’s school has not gone single session and therefore starts just before 1 pm).

I don’t have an issue with the fact that my wife and I will have to make new schedule, meal and transport arrangements (we don’t rely on relatives or maids). I don’t even have an issue with the fact that the details to parents were disseminated relatively late.

Here is what I have an issue with. Based on what I currently understand, the PAL seems to be an add on instead of an integrated programme. It adds to the child’s schedule instead of blending with it. Consider how each academic term focuses on a separate topic, i.e., gymnastics, dance, pottery and outdoor education. Why can’t gym and dance be integrated into physical education? (BTW, all the PE sessions to date were not conducted.) Why can’t pottery be integrated into art lessons?

Such a programme promotes silo-type thinking. It says to parents, here are the academic subjects and here are the non-academic ones. As much as a school tries to tell parents that both are important, these silos reinforce that academics are more important. Why else would you be required to effectively make up for the lost time on Fridays by coming in to school earlier for lessons?

We don’t teach creative or critical thinking separately because you need them in the context of experience and content. The outcomes of PAL, which include confidence, positive values and appreciation of the arts, need not (and should not) be separate from content. Most teachers know this already. Take an anti-cyberbullying campaign for example. This can be embedded and integrated in spoken and written language, poster design in art, jingle creation in music and role play in civics and moral education.

At the risk of fear-mongering, an add on programme can have unintended consequences on a child. Six-year-olds are trying to cope with formal schooling, but resilient as many of them are, it is still a lot to handle. They are already trying to assimilate more than we had to when we were that age. My wife has a colleague whose son attends the same school. He has been vomiting due to what their family doctor has diagnosed are anxiety attacks due to school.

Speaking of unintended consequences, a stakeholder* might point out that if the new PAL is about active learning, then the current programmes in schools must, by comparison, be passive. This is not something any policymaker, administrator or teacher would admit or want propagated.

*These stakeholders include teachers. A few of whom have rephrased the MOE motto of “lead, care and inspire” to read as “bleed, scare and perspire” to more accurately describe what they do.

Rant over. I call it like I see it. I am willing to admit if I have misinterpreted anything or to learn from my mistakes. Is the school willing to do the same?

A timely tweet by tucksoon reminded me of a blog entry I put on hold for about a week. He took a photo of an ad in the local rag of NIE’s Master of Teaching. In it were folks posing with an iPad. I had seen that photo before, but it was on a banner in the administrative block in NIE.

Most folks will realize what ads are meant to do. Sometimes you sell what you do not really have.

We do have iPads, of course, but only because those of us who own them have bought them on our own. If the picture gives the impression that we have integrated them into any of our curricula, then you are mistaken. Nonetheless I am confident that a few of my colleages and I will find ways to integrate iPads meaningfully.

But not without a fight.

How long does innovating with iPad take? A really short time if the owners seek ways to apply what they experience personally on a larger scale. But a long time if you have to wait for a committee to decide whether to buy them. If you can’t buy them, you can’t tinker with them much less think of ways to change pedagogy with them.

Shortly after the iPad was officially released in Singapore in July 2010, we submitted a proposal to bring iPads to the CeL and the our library system (LIBRIS). We wanted to explore the affordances and possibilities with a tool that seemed to fire the imagination of everyone who touched it. Well, almost everyone…

We got feedback by way of clarifying questions in late Sep 2010. It was only on 30 Dec 2010 that we actually presented before a committee.

A certain amount of critical reflection and administration is necessary. But while five months may not seem like much to some, it is an eternity in educational technology time. This was not a million dollar grant we were writing. We were asking for eight iPads to get the ball rolling.

Consider this: The time frame was enough for at least one other group to submit a proposal and for the next iteration of the iPad to hit the news. I know of at least two three other groups in my organization who are waiting impatiently to test iPads in their content areas. (Based on my contacts, I know of at least two local schools have been more nimble in planning iPad pilot programmes.)

To draw an analogy, I liken our organization to a large ship because everyone is expected to be “on board”. It is certainly more difficult to manouvre an ocean liner when you compare that to the agility of a speedboat. But the large ship model is not only irrelevant, it is dangerous to hang on to.

An ocean liner puts everyone in one boat. You may have different sections and activities onboard, but you are all going at the same speed in a single heading. A more relevant and sustainable model is several speedy and nimble boats heading in a general direction. It is the duty of some to move far ahead to test the waters. I think that the CeL is in that position.

I am sure that this story is repeated in many other contexts. Innovation always meets resistance; if not, it’s not really innovation, is it?

 

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The Onion, the news satire website, is always good for a laugh, that is, provided you know that it’s poking fun at real life events or people!

One of their latest “news reports” was a stab at Justin Bieber (gag!).

Video source

But not everyone realized that it was satire. Here is a snapshot of group of local students and a teacher having a Facebook conversation about it (click to see larger version). I have blocked out the names and faces to protect their identities. (Bieber, on the other hand, needs no protection. Quite the opposite, really.)

Click to see larger version

It’s enough to make you cry. I’m not referring to The Onion, but to the use of English and the digital ignorance.

I won’t say much about the teaching and learning of English because that is the domain of English teachers. I will say that what I have captured is quite typical and yet still decipherable. (It is almost impossible to read the tweeny and teeny tweets that come my way accidentally because my handle is @ashley.)

What worries me is that the analysis and evaluation of digital resources does not seem to feature prominently in our schools. It is not taught or modelled in any significant way. You don’t need a special course or teacher to do this. It should be done in every academic subject by every teacher!

Yes, what I have captured is a snapshot. But any teacher who takes advantage of social media experiences this every day, perhaps several times a day. Put all these snapshots together and you see the bigger picture.

We need to teach our learners how to peel onions (or Onions) apart, layer by layer, to figure out if they are edible (have any worth). The process won’t be pleasant, but they must do this because they already live, study and work in the digital world.


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