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Posts Tagged ‘school

When the stone dropped in the once placid waters of teaching, its ripples started spreading. One result of enforced mergers of some mainstream Singapore schools was how some teachers had to look for teaching opportunities elsewhere.
 

 
This is a classic case of a problem defined largely through an administrative lens, being patched by an administrative solution, only to create another problem.

The original problem was falling enrolments due to falling birthrates. Logically, fewer children means smaller intakes mean fewer classes. Administratively, this also means too many teachers.

The administrative solution was to maintain established teacher:student ratios above all else. Never mind other possibilities like centralised efforts, team teaching, or more boutique efforts.

This created the previously non-existent problem of teacher surplus. As a result other schools now have to take in teachers who have no where else to go.
 

 
The silver lining in this dark cloud has been that teachers who interact in tight circles within their own schools now are forced to fraternise with teachers elsewhere.

Interactions take the form of phone calls, job interviews, job initiation, mentoring and guidance, and daily interaction. Unlike the induction of beginning teachers, these interactions are with intermediates or veterans.

Staff at all levels — school leaders, middle managers, on-the-ground teachers — can more clearly see the differences in school culture and teacher quality when new old teachers join their ranks.

This is like going on a vacation and experiencing a new culture for the first time. Unlike a vacation, they cannot return home to what they are used to. They have to live with the consequence of administrative decision-making.

Today I draw a link between a newspaper that calls itself Today and schooling.

Over the last few weeks, I noticed the Today paper experimenting with different web publishing formats.

I had previously been able to read desktop and mobile versions of the same article from Today. Recently, however, some pages seem to only be desktop-only or desktop-like.

Whether the pages were desktop or mobile, I could load them in Reader View in mobile Safari and get only text and images that were relevant to the article. There were no other distractions. Lately, I rarely have the option to toggle Reader View.

I have also noticed that some pages do not load content on the desktop or mobile browsers if ad blockers are on or privacy apps are active, respectively.

The Today paper is doing this despite Google Chrome and Apple Safari browsers cracking down on various types of ads and trackers.

The paper needs to stay ahead of the game, not fall and roll backward into the web publishing past. Back then newspapers pushed what they wanted — content, ads, and trackers — with very little consideration for reader experience.

There is a similar parallel in schooling. Some schools restrict technology use (“it is distracting”) and others ban them (“it is harmful”) in favour of ye good olde days. They push content and testing with very little consideration for how students actually learn best.

Both newspapers and schools need to get a broader sense of what is happening today. Readers and students want more say and involvement, have more rights, and feel more empowered.

Modern web browsers already reflect these changes. Users can install blockers of ads and trackers. Content creators can upload and share their thoughts on multiple platforms with only themselves as filters. But the Today paper seems to want to roll back time to yesterday.

Students today might block boring or irrelevant lessons by averting or closing their eyes. They do create content, but this is often heavily filtered, strictly dictated, or otherwise constrained like recipes. Schools still are stuck in the past.

We might think of schooling as teaching the prior generation's knowledge so that youth are prepared to communicate on an equal footing with those they are about to join in the economic and civic spheres. -- Robert Pondiscio

This is not news. I share the quote above as a critique of how many schools prepare students more for the past than the current and much less the future.

The sensing mechanism that newspapers and schools have is the same. What they create as artefacts are mirrors with which to reflect on themselves. What they critically read, watch, or listen to online serve as looking glasses to anticipate tomorrow.

It was not the fault of Plickers. It was a terrible 0g and SWN connection at a school venue.

Yesterday I planned on using Plickers at a master class to provide a shared experience for 60 teachers. At that point, I wanted them to apply what they had learnt about the SAMR framework for technology use and integration.

In my original plan, I would have just given a mini lecture on SAMR to highlight how one tool could be used at four different levels depending on the mindset, resourcefulness, and pedagogical leanings of the teacher.

What would follow was a Google Forms quiz on the session’s content taken by all participants individually. They would then take the same quiz using Plickers, this time in their assigned groups. The plan was to illustrate how the tool could reinforce old practice or enable new ones due to task design.

My plan and implementation allowed for the mini lecture, but I only had time for one quiz. I opted for the Plickers-based one. Unfortunately, I had to resort to the Google Forms quiz and describing the original plan.

Plickers fail.

The failure was down to two very poor wireless signals. My phone’s signal went from 4G to 3G to almost no bars at the venue, so I could not tether my phone to my laptop. This meant that I could not call up the ‘live’ Plickers page on my laptop’s browser (to show questions) nor use the Plickers app on my phone (to scan code answers).

I bought some time during an activity and managed to get on the school’s wifi — the infamous “segregated wireless network” (SWN) — with the help of a teacher. However, things hardly changed from my run-in with SWN two years ago.

Back then, web pages in my browser were stripped of formatting to look like the web of 1997 instead of 2017. This time around, I kept getting “insecure website” error messages when trying to access Padlet and Plickers. The new Google Sites seemed to work fine though.

Why was Sites secure but Padlet and Plickers insecure? Why were the latter two secure enough minutes ago when I tested them while having lunch offsite? My phone connection, home connection, and Wireless@SG treated Padlet and Plickers as secure. Does the SWN admin know something that every other entity does not?

Infrastructure.

During the initial activity, I asked teachers to suggest key factors for technology integration. That group highlighted “infrastructure” as one important factor. I can see why. There is no point telling them to integrate technology if their hands are going to be tied by wifi.

To be fair most other schools and educational institutions I visit provide excellent wifi. But even as I acknowledge these hotspots, I also need to point out the notspots.

With Bhutanese educators.

It is 2017 and sadly school wifi woes are still somehow a concern here. I had slow but reliable Internet access when I conducted a weeklong series of workshops in Bhutan in 2010. My experience at yesterday’s school venue was one of time travel. I went back to when I had my dialup modem and someone kept picking up the phone. Connectus interruptus.

Last week, a local newspaper tried to brew a storm in a teacup by reporting that a parent sues school for refusing to return confiscated phone for three months.

This is the sort of headline and article that only helps a newspaper sell more ads. It does not help change the rhetoric, mindset, or behaviour around phone use in schools.

One predictable reaction to this was the “parents nowadays” sort.

Another set of reactions, in a follow-up article by the same paper, was parents that sided with the schools that have strict rules about phone use. The common refrain seemed to be that such rules “minimise distraction and temptation”.

I do not buy that. Nor do I agree that “such confiscations can be ‘teachable moments’” about school rules or for “values like responsibility, respect and self-control”.

I am not saying there should be no rules. I am saying that these rules are a relic function of schooling when they should be more about the current and future.

Let’s break the issues down logically.

When people focus on distraction and temptation, what they actually want is for students to pay attention to their teachers.

Students of all ages through the ages have been distracted when the lessons are not interesting, meaningful, or challenging. We are asking them to pay attention when the product and process do not seem to be worth the price.

As phones are much more interesting, meaningful, or challenging, they become the “distraction” from the teacher or “temptation” away from the lesson. The blame is placed on the student and the phone instead of the teacher and the teaching.

When a student gets caught for giving the phone more attention, it is an opportunity to teach and reinforce a school rule and not much more. Learners are unlikely to learn responsibility, respect, or self-control if the phone is taken away from them because there is no circumstance and context for them to develop and practice those values.

Learners needs to have the phone to decide they should pay attention or not. They need to read contextual cues to decide if the use of the phone when someone is doing their best to teach them is irresponsible or disrespectful. This is how they learn self-control.

It might help to view these values as skills-in-action instead of fuzzy concepts. Phone use is the context and circumstance to practice these skills, just as planes and flying are the context and circumstance for pilots to get good at what they do.

In a phone-free environment, there is no pressure for teachers to teach differently. For example:

  • Why teach what is Googleable when it is more important to think about what you might find online?
  • Why limit learners to consumption when creating, sharing, and critiquing are more powerful ways of learning?
  • Why keep teaching in the artificial confines of the classroom walls when phones can make those walls transparent or break them down?

I wonder if the newspaper could instead feature what academic purposes of phones in classes might be. (Hint: See my questions above.) This could go some way in educating themselves and parents that phone use is not all bad.

It is telling that parents, school authorities, and other stakeholders focus on the negatives of phone use. It is just as telling that the newspaper opted to focus on schools that disallow phone use when there are other schools here that have more reasonable usage policies. The paper seemed to grudgingly report that:

ST understands that most polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education do not ban the use of phones on campus, though students are discouraged from using them for non-academic purposes in classes.

I wonder if it did its homework in finding out how many primary and secondary schools have more logical phone usage policies. My interaction with different schools and education institutes here, thought limited, has revealed a riot of colours instead of the monotone grey presented by the newspaper.

In siding with an old school message, the paper reported:

Acknowledging that some parents may be concerned about their child’s well-being, most schools also have payphones or alternative arrangements for parents who want to contact their children urgently while they are in school, such as calling the school office.

If a message is truly urgent, why delay it with unnecessary intermediaries? There could be circumstances that require some protocol, but even world leader open themselves via social media and modern organisations flatten hierarchy for more direct reach.

Furthermore, the well-being of a child is not restricted to when he or she is in school. Some rely on public transport and the phone is a lifeline in the event of delays, emergencies, or just plain checking in.
 

 
In 1982, ET needed to “phone home” in order to return to his home planet. A communication device was a lifeline to where ET needed to be.

Current phones are where the learner of today is at and indicative of where they need to be. They are periodic tools and everyday instruments for learning how to be: How to think, act, and behave.

Restricting or banning their use might provide the so-called “teachable moments”. However, such moments are not necessarily learnable ones. The latter are powerful, meaningful, and interesting to the learner. These are the same properties we might afford a phone. Instead of turning them away, we should be embracing them.

We let ET phone home. We should let our students phone home, too, with the ET (educational technology) that they already carry in their pockets and bags.

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I am not sure where I am going with this, so I will let the storytelling tell me where to go.

Last Friday was the final day of the school term for mainstream schools here. I was at a mall and walked behind a mother and her son. The boy, about 8 or 9-years-old, started merrily declaring, “I am so happy there’s no more school!”

Then he started walking like the little girl in the now infamous video. There is even a GIF of her and her younger brother.

As he dance-walked, he kept repeating, “Woo-hoo, there’s no school! Woo-hoo, there’s no school!”

I am sure that many teachers are just as thankful for the break. Inside they might feel like the girl in the GIF and secretly they might want to express themselves like the boy at the mall.

Enjoy the break teachers because you deserve it. And if you gave too much holiday homework, you deserve what is coming your way too. 😉

Last week, news broke that seemed to rock the schooling and teaching worlds in Singapore.

The number of tweets about the school mergers, analyses [example], and opinion pieces [example] practically overshadowed the other hot topic of a few church leaders serving prison sentences.

Systemically speaking, the school mergers are a response to a generational change. The long story short is this: Singapore schools, junior colleges in particular, are feeling the impact of declining birth rates over the last 25 years. If you play just the numbers game, fewer kids mean smaller student intakes means fewer schools — and arguably fewer teachers — are needed.

If some teachers are worried now, they might look back with the benefit of hindsight of how their friends and relatives were retrenched during downsizing exercises in other industries.

While some of these job losses and changes might be due to cyclical events like the ebbs and flows of our economy, you cannot ignore the larger scaling down efforts due to declining birthrates.

The cyclic events are like hula hoops in that what goes around comes around. But the hoops are tumbling under the gravity generated by the birthrate slope.

The changes in school resource allocation might be driven primarily by population dynamics now. In the years to come, the changes might be due to automation as enabled by rapidly evolving technologies.

It might be difficult to see how teachers might be replaced with technology because teaching is such a human and subjective task. But we already know of people who teach “robotically” or we might be aware of vendors trying to offer automated solutions. The latter include “analytics” platforms and services that monitor, diagnose, and remediate students on-the-fly.

So how might teachers and policymakers respond to impending change? The current response provides some clues and I counter with alternatives.

The latest merger response is thinking inside the box. The numbers game is typified by comments [source] like:

Currently, there are 23 schools offering a JC programme including Integrated Programme schools. All eight JCs involved in the latest merger exercise can each take in up to 800 students annually, however their enrolment numbers have fallen – one of them, in fact, has a student population size of only between 500 and 600. Without the mergers, the Year 1 intakes at some of the JCs could fall to as low as 200 or 300 in the coming years.

In light of the impending mergers, Serangoon JC, Innova JC, Tampines JC and Jurong JC will not take in any JC1 students next year.

And:

The ministry reiterated that falling cohort sizes would limit the co-curricular activities (CCAs) available at schools, as the CCAs require a minimum number of students in order for learning and participation to be meaningful. At secondary schools, declining enrolment could also affect the range of subject combinations which students can take in upper secondary level.

School mergers meet the number quota. These in turn allow school curricula and programmes to operate as they normally would.

This seems to solve the problem because the numbers look good in a spreadsheet and policy document. However, these measures still operate inside the box of business-as-usual (others might point out that this business is cruel).

Why not take the opportunity to try something different that leverages on other changes or helps educators work towards a fuzzy future?

Some outside the box ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Co-curricular activities (CCAs) in centralised venues
  • Boutique programmes
  • Having more than one teacher per lesson (team teaching)

The centralisation of some CCAs is already partially outside the school box. Schools that do not have the numbers or resources send their students to other providers and venues. Think about sports like sailing, canoeing, dragon boating, bowling, shooting, wall-climbing, etc. Non-sports programmes might include computer programming, geocaching, community service, new media production, and more.

The affected schools and zones might adopt the boutique approach in that they embrace smaller class sizes. These run not on the efficiency-driven model but on one of effectiveness instead.

Hattie conducted meta analyses that concluded class size reduction only had a very small effect size of 0.2 (effect sizes of 0.2 and below are considered small). However, arguments persist for smaller class size (lower student-teacher ratios) thanks to conflicting research.

We already reduce class sizes for students with special needs or students who are not academically blessed. They undergo programmes that leverage on their strengths and alternative methods like e-portfolios, experiential strategies, and most importantly, closer teacher attention.

One boutique strategy is to have more than one teacher in each class. I do not mean administratively having two form teachers per class. I mean having two or more teachers in class during each lesson, i.e., team teaching.

This is already the norm is some Normal or Normal Technical subjects. This might also be the case when “special needs” students are integrated with “normal” students.

Having more than one teacher per class could address many issues:

  • The bean counter’s problem of having a surplus of teachers per school goes away because of the lower student-teacher ratio.
  • The teachers of the same subject could take turns to teach different sub-topics.
  • Team teaching could be part of teacher mentoring in terms of content expertise, classroom management, school culture, etc.
  • Teachers can share the workload of providing feedback and grading. A smaller burden could lead to more personalised attention to students.
  • Team teaching could allow teachers to specialise in different types of students and meet specific learner needs, e.g., some students need more remediation while others need more challenges.
  • Having less administrative work and a shared academic load could contribute to the ever elusive work-life balance.
  • Teachers finding better balance, deeper meaning, and more time to reflect and develop professionally all point to better retention and job satisfaction.

If the balance tips to a better quality of life, perhaps teachers might create more life (wink!), and possibly contribute to an increase in birthrate. The falling birthrate was officially the root issue after all, so anything to cause a sustained rise is good, is it not?

We cannot keep applying old rules to new changes, or using the tired excuses like “not efficient” or “not cost effective”. We should not have to wait until times are dire and resources are low to try something different.

We still have plenty and we can afford to change. If we do not try now, we might not be able to afford it when dire change arrives.

 
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.


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