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Posts Tagged ‘right

 

I received my first anti-SARS-CoV2 jab on Friday. I was reminded that I am mix-handed.

I bring this up because I had to decide which arm to get the shot in. For the record I chose the left.

I use my left hand for fine motor tasks like writing, shaving, and tooth-brushing. I rely on my right for racquet games and stabbing people. Just kidding. I don’t kill people by stabbing them. I bore them to death with stories like this.

In vaccinations past I switched between the left and right arms. This was after we had a choice. I recall a time when we were all given the mandatory BCG on the left because no thought was given to exceptions. Perhaps people are beginning to realise that the exception is the rule now.

I would wager that most institutes of higher education (IHLs) worldwide now have a semester or two of managing continuity during the pandemic.

Those in Singapore are no exception, but we have had a less challenging time. If I had to rank the reasons for this, my top pick would be how we are more compliant about wearing masks. As a result, we wait with bated (and masked) breath on when Phase 3 will start.

But we do not need to wait for government agencies to provide exact details for every rule and policy. They cannot because contexts in each IHL are different.

For example, one department in an IHL might have typical a tutorial class size of 50 while another might only average 15. The number of students is not the issue, the other contextual elements are:

  • The class of 50 might be in a room for 200 while the 15 might be in a space for 20.
  • The 50 might be indoors with unmodified air-conditioning while the 15 suffer/enjoy a humid outdoor studio.
  • One class might involve more student-centric methods (and thus more social interaction) while the other is didactic.

Context matters.

So what is an outfit that provides professional development do when challenged to run courses for future instructors/facilitators?

One agency I work with desperately jumped on Zoom but chose not to record videos of the online sessions. This meant that absentees could not watch recorded sessions as part of a make-up lesson. They had to be catered to individually and this was costly in terms of time, effort, and money.

Another agency I know locked down its methodology by converting workshop sessions to lecture groups. This reduced interactivity and modelled the wrong way of reacting to a pandemic.

Both agencies had decently long enough runways to prepare and change, but both opted not to try strategies like:

Reducing class sizes
Both agencies had tutorial class sizes of 30. This seems to be a magic administrative number that is tied to financial turnover and the physical size of existing classrooms.

How about reducing each class size to 15 instead and have two runs of each? This reduces the density of students while balancing the opposing needs of physical distancing and social interaction.

Take one agency’s classroom for example. Students sit in groups of 5 or 6 at group tables. Consider how these tables could station just 3 students with halved class sizes.

Barriers
Each table in the example I gave could be equipped with Plexiglas (or equivalent) barriers so that masked students can communicate with group mates. Such tables-as-stations would allow a variety of instructional strategies such as peer teaching, think-pair (now trio)-share, jigsaw, etc.

A barrier to such a move is a failure to imagine possibilities or to consult with pedagogues. Another barrier is various costs.

Costs
The cost of barriers is a one-time financial investment. But there are other costs like paying a set of facilitators to teach more often, or recruiting more staff to teach extra sessions.

There is also the cost of time and effort to redesign content, strategies, and assessment, as well as to make revisions from inevitable hiccups or failures.

There is no avoiding such costs. The financial cost is actually easier to overcome because it is relatively easy to rationalise a temporary increase in spending. Any administrator worth their salt knows how to ethically and legally shift funds from one pot to another. The problem is that administrators might not wish or dare to do this. They would rather manage from a spreadsheet or play it safe.

The cost of redesigning and revising might be harder to justify because it is not as tangible as class sizes, grades, or cohorts. However, there is an administrative approach to enabling this — document everything. Write proposals, present research, record class sessions, collect feedback, craft after-action reports, etc.

Doing things differently does not always mean doing things better. But doing things better always means doing things differently. -- Hank McKinnell

We can either withdraw from the challenge of a pandemic or rise up to it. If we do the latter, I say we do the right things the right way. And we know we are on the right path when we focus on what is best for learning and learners, not what is comfortable for administrators or instructors.

I do not know what I was reading, watching, or listening to last week, but it was enough to remind me to write a short reflection on teaching the right things.

Several years after I left teaching to become a teacher educator, a few of my ex-students told me about an ex-colleague who bad-mouthed me. Apparently, he said that I had taught my students the wrong things.

I was puzzled since we shared the same curricula and textbooks. But then I agreed with my ex-students. I told them that he was right in the sense that I did not just focus on preparing them for a major exam.

I used to bring my students out on field trips, and tell stories or share resources that went beyond the prescribed curriculum. My actions were driven by a passion to share the love I had for my subject.

From the point of view of someone who wanted students to do well in exams, these pursuits were a waste of time. They were the wrong things to teach.
 

 
From my point of view, the exams were short term measures that created robotic and “mercenary” students. Content went out the window as soon as the exam ended. But a love for an academic subject and the teaching of that subject developed a value system and thinking skills. I preferred the long game to the short one.

Back then I realised that teaching some wrong things was right in the long run. I live by that principle to this day.

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.

Twitter is just now experimenting with 280-character tweets instead of 140-character ones. Stephen Colbert saw the humour in doing this and tweeted:

The Twitterati will have more room to express itself. But this also gives hate groups and hateful individuals room to do disproportionately more damage.

The increase is also not sustainable. When 280 characters is not enough, is Twitter going to increase the quota again? It might cite its research on the numbers game and say no. But does it have research on the hate and vitriol that some individuals or groups receive regularly?

When these individuals or groups report these incidents, they are largely ignored or swept under the carpet. What data does it have on how often this happens?


Video source

When Twitter defended Trump’s veiled tweeted threat to destroy North Korea, what data did it use to call the tweet newsworthy? It probably played the numbers game (views, favourites, retweets) instead of considering what was ethical.

It is easier to increase the tweet character limit and to cite tweet counts. These implementations are lines of code and a superficial analysis away. It is more difficult to do what is right.

Doing what is right means drawing a line on the ground and not crossing it. What is right or wrong may change with time and context, but the need to keep drawing those lines does not. People need to know where you stand.

 
I was quite upset when I read this headline: NCSS mulls implementing productivity metric for social service sector.

The NCSS is the National Council of Social Services here in Singapore. They were a distant entity to me up until last month when I participated in a learning event organised by them.

I did not think one intervention from me would change a lifetime of established practice. However, I was hoping that I might have made a dent.

I do not think that productivity — how ever it is defined — is the right measure. In my opinion, productivity is measuring what is possible or convenient instead of what is right.

I agree with the voices of dissent (I have highlighted the key issues in bold).

International housing development non-governmental organisation (NGO) Habitat for Humanity, for instance, said it is difficult to assess the qualitative impact of its work and a one-size-fits-all metric may be unrealistic.

Mr Yong Teck Meng, the national director of Habitat for Humanity Singapore, commented: “We are not very sure about the effectiveness of such measurements, because in the NGO and charity world, things are quite intangible.

“And even if you try to measure some of the work that we do, we think that it will take many years for the actual results to come in. So if you were to give us a kind of measurement metric, I’m not very sure whether it will be customised enough to suit our needs.

I think that the agency is repeating a mistake that the schooling world has already made with an over-emphasis on examinations and grades. In the schooling arena, this is a numbers game that not only devalues and categorises people, it has also created an unhealthy culture of kiasu-ism and dependence on enrichment tuition.

There is nothing wrong with NCSS seeking accountability. But it needs to recognise that Volunteer and Welfare Organisations (VWOs) are not factories with inputs and outputs and processes in between.

The accountability cannot be just about productivity as defined by numbers or even by compelling stories. It could seek to define what is intangible, qualitative, and long term. It could avoid formulaic thinking and learn how to ask NGOs and VWOs how they measure their worth and results. Only then does it start on the journey to measure what is right.


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