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Posts Tagged ‘schooling

To those who only see the positive side of returning to normal schooling post-pandemic I say: Don’t romanticise school. 

I reflected on what I wrote a few days ago by focusing on how someone opined that school was a place for teachers to “get to know their students, to put a hand on a shoulder, to ask the right question, to engage a disengaged learner”. I do not dispute that these happen. 

I also read and reflected on the opinion piece above. It bemoaned how home-based learning (HBL) “has its limitations”.

Those opinions dwell on just half the story. The other half is less rosy. Socialisation is school is not always friendly, affirming, or otherwise positive. There can be negative social pressure, physical bullying, and too-early starts of the day. HBL has its limitations, but so does school.

I am not saying that in-person schooling is pointless. It has critical societal functions like enculturating and nannying our young. I am saying that we do not romanticise it by ignoring its ills.

For example, the first argument against HBL in the op piece was that “not all students are equally self-motivated to direct their own learning and some require closer supervision that may not be available in their homes”. The same is true for in-person schooling.

The argument extended to how schools provide “a relatively safe and supportive environment for at least part of the day for students facing emotionally trying circumstances at home”. I agree. But schools can also be a place that creates emotionally trying circumstances — people are people after all.

The second and third arguments were that schools were better for conducting science experiments and co-curricular activities. Of course they are. By a similar token, home is better for learning about family/neighbour dynamics, tinkering with DIY projects, inventing new games at the void deck, participating in Chinese funeral or a Malay wedding in the heartlands, etc.

The fourth argument was that schools were better at preparing kids for tests and exams. Except tuition agencies. Or preparatory centres. Or self-help groups. Or tiger parents armed with assessment books from Popular bookstore.

Of course schools are good at tests and exams. There is almost nowhere else that relies exclusively on paper-based tests to determine a child’s worth and category. But just because schools are good at this does not mean that tests and exams are good.

The fifth argument seemed to be that parents and educators preferred that kids went to school. Schools provide a vital societal function of nannying kids while their parents work. Schools also enculturate children so that they fit into society.

If the adults can rationalise the need to shut down in-person school and replace it with HBL for public health, they should also be see how much informational and non-procedural work is necessarily mediated with technology, e.g., work from home (WFH). If WFH is to become more common or even the norm, should schools not inculcate that mindset by having more and better HBL?

We should not wish for school to be the normal. We can and must do better.

I liked George Couros’ distinction between school and learning. I would label the headers schooling and education, but that is just me.

I would also take pains to explain why this is a false dichotomy because each side has their values and we need both.

For example, an education focuses on generating meaningful questions, but it also requires the critical collecting, analysing, and evaluating of answers. Such question asking might lead to the challenging of norms, but schooling serves an important social function of enculturating. This means learning when to be compliant.
 

 
The dichotomy is not wrong. It is just not nuanced at face value. This is like how I say that a coin does not just have two sides. There is a side that goes all around and gives it depth. Exploring that side makes it real.

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.

When you work in school, it can be difficult to see its faults. It can be even more difficult to admit that you perpetuate practices that are losing relevance.

So when someone points those faults out, the instinct is to ignore or push back. But a bitter pill might be easier to swallow when it is delivered with humour.


Video source

Ryan George is a YouTuber who plays many versions of himself having conversations with his personas. His videos are often sharp and funny critiques of movies (see his Pitch Meeting) series. This one takes the cake on modern schooling practices that are still unquestioned traditions or holdovers from the past.

An open-minded teacher or principal might laugh at the funny bits and admit that what he says is true. But it would take a brave and persistent one to take action to change things.

After reading this tweet, I remembered a phrase I used to describe to preservice teachers. It was a schooling process called GIGO — garbage in, garbage out.

This was not to say that the teachers did not care about their craft or their learners. It was a warning that the systemic setup of teaching to the test was an effective way of quenching passions.

Students simply react to the constant test pressure with a survival strategy of binging and purging. This results in a lack of knowledge retention and counters the calls for lifelong learning. I hope the our MOE’s recent pushes go some way to counter superficial learning.

 
This opinion piece suggested that teachers and educators had to play new roles in the COVID-19 era, specifically, health promoters, ICT champions, and social workers.

If you read the piece with an outsider’s perspective, the writer’s arguments and examples seem sound. But they are not airtight.

Any current mainstream school teacher can tell you that they already had those roles pre-COVID. It is just that the roles were not as obvious or that one role in particular — ICT champion — was easy to mostly ignore. All this means that the roles are not new. They might be renewed or more obvious to parents now, but they are not novel.

But focusing on the roles of teachers does the opinion piece a disservice. I blame part of the headline (Teachers now have new jobs) and the relegation of the more important message to the last third of the article. The COVID era has exposed our efforts in creating equitable schooling and education, and it has forced us to question if students are “truly digital natives”.

The same news site has articles highlighting how many students had to be given or lent devices and data dongles [example]. The struggles of learning from home, even with adequate technology, also indicates how being “digitally native” is a misnomer. Being savvy does not guarantee that students know how to learn or why they need to learn something.

If the article was to stay true to the remainder of its headline that “Schools will never be normal again after COVID-19”, it could have also avoided uncritical tropes and media-speak, e.g., catering to learning styles. Learning styles have been [debunked].

We do not need things to return to normal again if that means not crrically questioning sacred cow practices. I say we cull old and diseased bovines like busy work as homework, early starts that favour bus driver schedules, and high stakes exams.

If you visit this John Hopkins University visualisation of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) cases, you might discover how Singapore seems to be disproportionately affected.

Instead of focusing on the misinformation, disinformation, or panic buying of groceries, my mind turns to how this affects teaching and learning.

Most schools and education institutions reacting to the spread of the novel corona virus here share the same state — an unpreparedness to embrace online and e-learning. This is despite having a wealth of online resources that serve as a proxy for content delivery.

I anticipate that if teacher, administrator, and policymaker mindsets do not change, we will not be prepared for the next virus (or equivalent). Online platforms and content do not matter if they are used peripherally or only in emergencies.

We might take a leaf out of the YouTube book (irony intended) to learn how to be better prepared.

YouTube is an everyday phenomenon. Students need not be told to refer to it or search it. They do so on their own. They need it and want it. If that online resource was cut off, they would revolt.

Compare this with curated, designed, and aligned resources in content management systems. They are prescribed like medicine — used only when someone else thinks it is necessary as well as sparingly or strategically.

The current mindset of schooling still relies on an expert and teaching model. We need this because schools have a role to play in enculturating our children, i.e., transmitting information, values, and skills. But it is largely answer-driven.

The forward-looking mindset shifts towards learning. This means starting with complexity, not textbook answers and oversimplifications. The means recognising that learners, no matter how young, can and should continue learning by first asking questions and then learning how to find answers.

I dare say that if we manage to rely on a learner and learning-driven model, we will collectively create that paradigm shift that experts like to talk about. We will learn on demand, not just teach on supply. We will learn virally.

One of the artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives slated for Singapore schooling is “adaptive learning systems”. I take issue with calling them that.

One one hand, I understand why they are simple learning systems — they monitor what each student does and offer resources based on need or performance.

On the other hand, this is actually a content delivery system. The “learning” moniker is marketing speak. Vendors know that they are not going to get their feet in the front door if they do not use more progressive terms while mostly maintaining the status quo.

You can tie a bow on it, paint it gold, and call it an alternative-looking shovel. I call a spade a spade.
 

It is easy to play the blame game. For example, some might attribute the lack of deep writing to what seems like shallow sharing on social media. Case in point, this tweet.

The first part of the tweet that houses this assumption is itself not nuanced. Many things contribute to the inability to write more deeply, meaningfully, or reflectively. “Impatient” writing could be due to the maturity of the writer, the time they have left to write, the relevance of the task, etc.

The educator was open enough to acknowledge the feedback from her students — the low-hanging fruit sort of writing was a product of the low-hanging fruit sort of testing. If tests value and reward short-term thinking and convenient answers instead of more nuanced thought, then why do we blame students for thinking that way?

We are buffeted and conditioned by our environments. We adapt to those conditions and adopt mindsets and behaviours that help us survive or thrive. Then we bring those mindsets and behaviours to other environments and see what works.

If students learn superficial writing from superficial media, then might they learn about nuanced writing by being exposed to more thoughtfully-crafted social media postings? Maybe. Nuanced writing takes time, discipline, and effort. Pursuing and nurturing such value systems is, in part, what education is for.

I was schooled. I became educated.

The learning of any subject might seem like a goal and an end unto itself. This might be true when the learner is a novice and being schooled. But as learners mature, they might realise that it is more important to learn-to-be (a writer), not just to learn-about (writing). They become more educated when they realise that it is far more important to learn HOW to think that to be taught WHAT to think.

 
I remain cautiously optimistic for subject-based banding (SBB) to be implemented fully in Singapore schools by 2024. SBB is supposed to replace current streaming practices.

Academic streaming in Secondary schooling was first introduced here in 1981 — this makes it over 35 years old — and it is baked into our psyche.

Why is it being replaced? One might look to the study of another system to find answers:

In the latest update of Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of factors influencing student achievement, one of the most significant factors… is the teachers’ estimate of achievement (1.57). Streaming students by diagnosed achievement automatically restricts teacher expectations. Meanwhile, in a mixed environment, teacher expectations have to be more diverse and flexible.

While streaming might seem to help teachers to effectively target a student’s ZPD, it can underestimate the importance of peer-to-peer learning. A crucial aspect of constructivist theory is the role of the MKO – ‘more-knowledgeable other’ – in knowledge construction. While teachers are traditionally the MKOs in classrooms, the value of knowledgeable student peers must not go unrecognised either.

SBB as a replacement of streaming is still largely a concept as it does not yet have widespread implementation. I would like it to do well, so I look for potential pitfalls.

One obstacle is adult mindset. The policymakers, teachers, parents, and tuition agencies comprise of people who were likely products of streaming. It is hard to break out of what we know in order to try something else better.

Even if there is buy in to the idea SBB, the practice of comparing kids largely or only on academic standards remains. The SBB will see academic subjects offered at three levels G1, G2, and G3. A cynic might point out that these mirror the Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic), and Express streams after reading this CNA report.

Upon entering Secondary 1, they will take a combination of subjects at three different levels based on their PSLE scores: General 1, General 2 and General 3. These three levels are mapped from the current Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express standards respectively.

The cynic would be wrong because a child might take two subjects at G1, four at G2, and one at G3.

The actual issue is parents or students wishing to take as many G3 level subjects as possible and tuition agencies claiming to have strategies to make those wishes come true. This keeps the formulaic and reductionist thinking alive at the expense of change and what is best for each student.

Normal stream students are stigmatised. CNA reported our Minister for Education saying:

…entering a stream that is considered ‘lower’ can carry a certain stigma that becomes self-fulfilling and self-limiting,” he added. “Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, ‘I am only a Normal stream student, so this is as good as I can be.

The SBB cannot guarantee that this stigmatisation will stop. Consider how parents and students might compare how many G1 or G3 students have on their plates. Load them with G1s and the stigma follows a different label.

Then there is the fact that our schools are already stratified. Students of certain abilities and/or socioeconomic status get into certain schools. Put plainly, some schools effectively have Express students only; even their N(A) students might be Express students elsewhere. The SBB policies deal with students already in schools and does not clearly address such stratification.

Administrative measures need to counter such stratification. These measures are not yet clear: The Ministry of Education and schools “will develop guidelines and assessment mechanisms, including using Secondary 1 year-end examinations”.

Assuming that school stratification persists, will students in such “better” be offered G1 subjects if they need them? How will such schools deal with the change in traditions and reputations if this happens?

Or might enacted policies blur these stratifications so that every mainstream school here opens its doors to students from all backgrounds? How will school administrators deploy the currently stead-state pool of teachers? If teachers cannot specialise, how will they be prepared to deal with even more diverse student needs?
 

 
Like the Minister for Education, I would like to see this happen:

The Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams, together with their labels, will be phased out… So from three education streams, we will now have ‘one secondary education, many subject bands… We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but we have one broad river, each fish negotiating its own journey.

The reality is that fish rarely swim alone; they swim in schools and they do so as a survival strategy.

Like it or not, our students are also put into groups. Some of these groups are based on their choice, e.g., co-curricular activity. But some grouping is insidious, e.g., socio-economic status, general academic ability, behaviours, attitudes, etc.

Students will be taught in groups or classes based on new labels: G1, G2, and G3. These labels come with baggage in the form of fixed mindsets and current streaming practices. If we ignore this baggage, we might invite a change from streaming to streaming plus.


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