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Posts Tagged ‘school

 
The start of the school year is a mixed bag of emotions for parents. More so for the kids, but for just a bit let us focus on the people who bore them life.

While there are many parental emotions this week, there are two major ones that different types of parents might swing between. One is relief and the other is anxiety.

A working parent with kids might be relieved that the nanny that is school has resumed business. Cruel as it sounds, these parents are happy that their children are back in school and out of their vacation hair.

The anxious parent is typically a first-timer. Not a new parent, but one whose child is starting kindergarten or primary school or any new school for the first time. There is separation anxiety.

There is a spectrum, of course, not a dichotomy of either one or the other type.

I actually prefer to be with my son during vacations. I like observing how he grows up and revisiting life through his eyes. You might say that I have a Piagetian fascination (Piaget formulated his theories on cognitive development in children based on observations of his own kids.)

It is this same Piagetian fascination that reduces my parental anxiety. I know that one role of parents is to let go and create independent individuals, and hopefully nice, responsible, happy, and self-regulating ones at that.

My small anxiety was not that of separation, but one of travel.

When I was a university professor, my son attended kindergarten at an outfit on campus. When he was in primary school, it was in the neighbourhood and I taught him how to take the bus home.

Now that he has started secondary school, he has to travel about an hour on the train. He has to deal with the possible train breakdowns and the various travel alternatives. He has to think on his feet and grow up in the process.

This is about as authentic as learning can get. No amount of Xiao Ming travelling westward at 90km/h and northward at 80km/h in a textbook will come close to that sort of learning.

So I prepared him during the vacation by familiarising him with travel routes and possible alternatives. I was his guide at his side on the train.

Like a learning scaffold, I was literally at his side yesterday on his first day of travel. Like a proper scaffold, I gave him the choice of using it or not again depending on how confident he was.

He took the scaffold down today. I am happy and proud, and a little sad.

 
Some Singapore teachers returned to school over this last week of vacation to learn that budgets had been severely cut. This will affect operations and programmes, but not their salaries.

Combine this news with schools being shut down or combined [1] [2] and the message is clear: Do the same, or possibly more, with less.

How reasonable is this?

It is reasonable when you consider how belt-tightening has been the de facto practice in sunny Singapore just in case of rainy days. Our MOE and schools have been doing this by:

  • Conducting professional development (PD) in-house at various PD centres, e.g., AST.
  • Relying on school-based and and teacher-led PD.
  • Reducing dependence on vendors, e.g., not requiring compulsory subscription to vendor-hosted CMS and LMS.
  • Scaling down on teacher recruitment and encouraging, um, redeployment.

Elsewhere budget reductions send the message that schooling and education are lowered priorities. Perhaps not so much here. Again, do the same with less.

But we might heed a warning from another high-performing system, Finland. One reason they slipped in the PISA rankings has been the political deprioritising of education by reducing funds to entire school systems. This has led to the crippling of key programmes like early intervention.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, the go-to Finnish educator and “leading figure in education policy”:

Finland has been living with a very serious economic downturn since 2008 that has affected education more than other public sectors. Sustained austerity has forced most of Finland’s 300+ municipalities to cut spending, merge schools, increase class sizes, and limit access to professional development and school improvement. The most harmful consequence of these fiscal constraints is declining number of support staff, classroom assistants, and special education personnel. Finland’s strength earlier was its relatively small number of low-performing students. Now, the number of those pupils with inadequate performance in reading, mathematics and science is approaching international averages. In Finland this is probably the most significant driver of increasing inequality within education.

There is no single cause for Finland’s slide, but one might reason how budget reforms made the slope very slippery. No money, no teach. They cannot do the same, or better, with less.

We have something that the Finns do not. I am not referring to our teachers because both countries have very good ones. The factor that some of us love to hate (or hate to love) is tuition.

I am referring to tuition of the sort that helps those that fall between the cracks despite their teachers’ best efforts. I am talking about tuition that reinforces what happens in class and helps prepares student for their tests and exams. I am pointing at tuition that parents pay for, so never mind the official budget cuts.

I dislike noise that prevents me from concentrating and thinking. Given that I do a fair amount of my work on the move in public transport or in cafes, I face a lot of noise.

Even libraries are not immune from interference because the quiet space makes even page flips, periodic sniffling, or inconsiderate talking seem loud.

So I invested in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, the Bose QuietComfort 25, almost two years ago.


Video source

This pair of headphones is expensive, but I did not realise that I would have to pay an additional SGD49 so far each year to maintain them. This is not some insurance or other fee. This is the cost of replacement Bose ear cups.

The ear cups do not seem to be made for Singapore’s humidity. The photo shows what one of my old pairs looks like. I have not made them look worse. The photo shows the literal wear and tear from just putting the headphones on and off repeatedly.

Wear and tear of a pair of Bose QC25 ear cups.

I suppose that the company assumed that someone who bought the headphones would only wear them in a plane or in an air-conditioned office.

I already have two pairs of ear cups that have similar damage and my current third pair has just started showing the typical signs of wear and tear.

My receipts remind me that in October 2015 and May 2016, I visited a brick-and-mortar store in town to get replacements. This year I wised up. I read an article about Alibaba’s 11/11 online specials and searched Lazada’s offerings (Alibaba bought Lazada earlier in 2016).

I found the same ear cups from Lazada for a lot less. At the time of my purchase, I paid SGD8.60 for a replacement pair. My wallet felt relief from the savings and I felt stupid for paying so much in the past.

As is my habit, I wondered if there was a lesson for those of us in schooling and education.

I learnt my lesson. But can the same be said of schools or universities that keep buying and maintaining hardware and software that they underutilise or not use at all? I am thinking about “special” rooms or labs, “interactive” white boards, LMS which are neither about learning nor managing, and more.

In my case, I found something I needed for less by responding to timely information. But schools and other educational institutions spend so much more on the unnecessary. They listen uncritically to vendors and companies that do not process educational research or speak with authority.

So they spend foolishly like I used to. I have learnt my lesson. Have they?

[Full disclosure: I have not been paid by Bose or Lazada to mention them.]


Video source

This video should provoke thought.

Those who do not question the purpose of schooling will be the most disturbed. Those that do will likely nod in agreement.

But what are both parties doing about it?

If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

 
Singapore used to have just two seasons: Hot and humid, and hot and rainy.

A generation of kids has now grown up with another season thanks to neighbourly land-clearing by fire. I am talking about the haze.

The seasonal haze is no joke and schools take the matter seriously because exams and results are at stake. Oh, and the health of kids is important too.

To remind us how important this matter is, STonline published Making sure haze won’t cloud exam season.

How does a newspaper get away with an article that seems to have been based on a template or an older article with the names changed?

If we let the rhetoric wash over us, the air purifiers are a godsend to schools trying to conduct end-of-year exams under threat of the seasonal haze.

Examine more critically what the context is for most mainstream schools: Non-air-conditioned classrooms with about 30 to 40 students in each room (in the case of primary schools).

Now try doing this on your own in a non-air-conditioned room at home in the day with the door and windows closed. Keep a fan running if you must, but see how long it takes before it feels hot and stuffy. Then consider a larger room you are forced to share with other people. They also happen to breathe, cough, sneeze, and fart.

In the event of severe deterioration of air quality, a classroom teacher has to balance allowing airflow (since we produce carbon dioxide and heat) and trying to filter toxins and particulate matter from outside air.

This was MOE’s statement, not mine.

… if the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index is in the very unhealthy range of 201 to 300, doors and windows would be closed and air purifiers turned on.

“Schools have been advised to reopen windows or doors periodically or when the outdoor air quality improves to provide better ventilation and relief from thermal heat build-up in the classrooms,” said an MOE spokesman.

Assuming the air filters are of suitable capacity, they only work optimally in a closed space. They do not work with a cuckoo clock strategy.

Imagine this scenario. The haze is bad and all teachers close the classroom doors and windows tightly shut and switch on the air purifiers and fans. The classroom gets stuffy and the teacher has to periodically open the windows and doors for the air to circulate.

Oops. The stale air indoors is replaced with the toxic air outside.

Oops again. How does a teacher decide when to do this? Is the decision based on timing, the feeling of stuffiness, or a scientific measurement of temperature and carbon dioxide levels?

Am I overthinking this? No, not when you realise that some people with the means provide air-conditioned rooms for their pets and valued collectibles.

Are you going to point out that you were schooled in an oven-like attap hut and that kids are too soft these days? Are you pointing this out from your air-conditioned office or home? In your (and my) time there was no haze and you (and I) could merrily catch spiders without worrying much about exams or grades.

Just because someone official deems a practice safe or acceptable does not make it right.

Some people travel to experience a different culture. Ask a group of travellers what “culture” means and you will get different answers.

Culture is hard to define, but you know it when you see, feel, or otherwise experience it. The same can be said of the culture of a workplace or school.

The first thing I do when I work with a new group is ask to walk around and get a feel of the place. I do this to get a sense of the culture of the workplace and the mindset of its workers.

I have visited the headquarters (HQs) of two technology giants in Singapore several times. One giant’s name sounds like a fruit, the other sounds like a large number. Just sitting in their waiting areas provides a palpable sense of the different cultural mindsets of the organisations.

I am not talking about the decor. I am talking about how they treat their guests.
 

 
The current campus of Fruit HQ is divided into two main blocks, each with its own waiting area. You speak to a human at reception to have your identity verified and to get a name tag sticker.

I had a series of visits where I met different people from Fruit HQ. Some told me which block to go to while others did not even when I asked. I found out the hard way that the check in system and the human receptionist do not tell you if you are in the wrong block.

I always arrive early for my appointments. On one occasion I waited for a long time to be met by my contact. The receptionist decided to call the person and discovered that my contact was in the other block. I scurried over to the other building and was told that I had to check in and wait some more.

Had I not already done that? Was my contact not already waiting for me? Apparently there was protocol to follow.
 

 
At Number HQ, you self-register and get a sticker at a computer kiosk. There is more than one kiosk and people can be processed individually or in groups efficiently. There still is a human receptionist if you need one, but you see the kiosks before you spot the person in the background. Better still, there is just one meeting spot.

Another way I look for how an outfit welcomes its visitors is its guest wifi policy. The access points are easy to see on any modern mobile device. How you join them is a different matter.

I asked the receptionist at Fruit HQs how I might access guest wifi and I was told that my contact would have to request it. This meant meeting the person first, being asked to show something, saying you need wifi, the person going back to reception and making the request, processing the request… it is tiring just recalling and typing the process.

This is why I have a mifi device. Unfortunately, Fruity HQ does not have the best reception and things only get worse inside its core.

At Number HQ, you hop on their guest wifi by registering with your mobile device online like you would at a mall or public library.
 

 
The people that you meet at both HQs will generally be schooled and skilled in the art of social interaction — these are the 1%. That is not an accurate picture of the culture and mindset of the workplace — this is the 99%.

While the people on frontline are a good show, the protocols and processes are a better indicator of the culture and mindset of workers. The latter are a result of how well an organisation takes the perspectives of the people it serves and policies it puts into play.

The technology giants are very successful even though they vibe different cultures. That said, would you rather have a closed and controlled environment, or would you like a more open and expressive one? Both seem to lead to the same end, but what would you like to invest part of your working life to?

Now transfer this philosophy to schools. Then consider these questions:

  • What are your school’s cultures and mindsets? What is real and what is perceived?
  • If you say you are a leader or teacher in a school and do not know the vibe it gives off, how do you find out?
  • If you are aware of the vibes, what would you like your stakeholders to resonate with?

Like the tech giants whose success is measured by how much money they make, the success of schools here are judged by standard exam results. However, as we swing back to values-based education, academic results fade into the background. It is the cultures in different schools that help them stand out and apart.

ECG is an acronym for electrocardiogram. I had an ECG earlier this week, but it was not about my heart. I volunteered to share some thoughts at a school’s Education and Career Guidance event.

As with other events which are designed so that I give, I received much in return. Here are a few of my takeaways from the event.

Many thanks to this group for giving me the permission to share this photo.

The students were prepared with some guiding questions, but we found much of this scaffold unnecessary. When we made meaningful connections, questions and answers flowed naturally.

For me this reinforced the importance of being personable and personal as an educator.

Being personable is being approachable, having a smile that comes from deep within, and above all sounding human instead of high-and-mighty. Being personal is sharing meaningful events or stories. This sort of sharing is sincere and connects with heart and mind.

For example, when I introduced myself I mentioned that I was married to one of the teachers in the school. That naturally piqued interest and generated a Q&A game.

I also noticed all members of one group were armed with smartphones. So instead of answering the “What do you do?” and “Why do you do it?” questions the standard way, I asked the students to Google me. It was my way of showing them that:

  1. they should use the tools they already have,
  2. they could teach themselves, and
  3. it was important to be Googleable in a good way.

All three are important in modern work. If that is not career advice and guidance, I do not know what is.

I took the opportunity to ask different groups of students what they thought about the state of technology use in school compared to their personal lives, what games they played, and what social media tools they preferred. I will focus on their social media habits since that was the topic I discussed with all of them.

Almost without exception, the students seemed to favour Instagram. Some were on Twitter, and if they were, they preferred to keep private accounts. YouTube was also popular, but it is not really a social media platform if the behaviour is largely consumptive. Only a few had heard of or used more current tools like Snapchat, Meercat, or Periscope.

The serendipity ship sailed by because a tweep shared this the next day:

Her students were slightly older, but they had a similar evolutionary social media profile.

Take one or two accounts and you have anecdotes; collect more anecdotes in a disciplined way and you have data. Groups like comScore, TheNextWeb, and MindShift provide similar anecdotes and data about how teenagers use social media.

The more important question is whether teachers know and care enough that their students are on such platforms. If they do, the next question is whether teachers use appropriate strategies (read: non-LMS, non-traditional).

Students and teachers have different expectations of social media. For example, teachers seem to forget how they use social media in their own lives and resort to push strategies instead of pull.

Push strategies include making announcements, giving instructions, requiring online discussions of a certain quantity by a certain time, etc. These are pushed towards students and rely on an external locus of control (the teacher).

Pull strategies, on the other hand, originate from the students, a shared event, a common interest, or some other internal locus of control. No one has to tell them to take a photo (like the one above) and share it on Instagram, to talk about Amos Yee or Taylor Swift on Twitter, or to discuss homework on Facebook.

I let some of the students know that one of the things I do now is try to show teachers how to unlearn old habits and pick up new value systems for teaching. The secret sauce is this: Teachers have to use social media in their own lives and transfer what is good and useful to class. It is social first, not content first.

One student asked me if I could come back to her school and tell her teachers how to do that. I would love to. I can, but will the school leadership or staff developer even bother?


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