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Posts Tagged ‘singapore

The STonline reported that a sample of Singapore students topped an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) test on problem-solving.

I am glad to read this, but only cautiously so. This is partly because the press tends to report what is juicy and easy. I am cautious also because such news is not always processed critically from an educator’s point of view.

For example, how did the OECD test for problem-solving ability? According to an excerpt from the article above:

Screen capture of original article.

Screen capture of original article.

There were no other details about the authenticity, veracity, or adaptability of the software-based simulation. Only the makers of the software and the students who took the test might provide some clues. This test system is a closed one and lacks critical observers or independent evaluators.

Perhaps it would be better to raise some critical questions than to make blanket statements.

The product of problem-solving is clear (the scores), but not all the processes (interactions, negotiations, scaffolding, etc.). So how can we be certain that this problem-solving is authentic and translates to wider-world application? Our Ministry of Education (MOE) seemed to have the same concern.

MOE noted that the study design is a standardised way of measuring and comparing collaborative problem-solving skills, but real-life settings may be more complex as human beings are less predictable.

Our schools might have alternative or enrichment programmes — like the one highlighted in Queenstown Secondary — that promote group-based problem-solving. How common and accessible are such programmes? To what extent are these integrated into mainstream curriculum and practice?

The newspaper’s description of the problem-solving simulation sounds like some of the interactions that happen in role-playing games. How logical and fair is it to attribute our ranking only to what happens in schools? What contributions do other experiences make to students’ problem-solving abilities?

Test results do not guarantee transfer or wider-world impact. What are we doing to find out if these sociotechnical interventions are successful in the long run? What exactly are our measures for “success” — high test scores?

What is newsworthy should not be mistaken for critical information to be internalised as knowledge. The learning and problem-solving do not lie in provided answers; they stem from pursued questions.

I argue that we have more questions than answers, and that is not a bad thing. What is bad is the current answers are inadequate. We should not be lulled into a collective sense of complacency because we topped a test.

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.

… why do we not dominate at edtech conferences overseas?

This was one of the questions I asked myself after the seemingly endless ad-tweets for ICTLT.

ICTLT is a locally run and controlled edtech conference that happens every two years. You might say that it is by Singaporeans for Singaporeans to show off Singaporean efforts.

There are invited speakers from elsewhere, of course. No conference worth its salt would ignore the pull of A-list or even minor academic celebrities.

Events like ICTLT are meant to disseminate, inspire, and propagate. There is current or new information to share, people to energise, and propaganda to spread. There is also the overall Singapore brand to sell.

But I return to my original question: If we are that good, why do we not dominate at edtech conferences overseas?

I am not saying that our natively born or locally nurtured professors and experts do not present at all. I am wondering why our reputation does not seem to be matched by our reach.

There are a few usual suspects — you can count them on one hand — who are invited to do keynotes or seminars internationally. But we are not known for our prolific sharing.
 

 
Might we be better at quietly implementing and not pronouncing these efforts on the highest stages? Why operate along this false dichotomy when we need to be doing both? After all, if we are rich with information and experience, we should be sharing more openly and frequently instead of keeping this to ourselves.

Are we going to keep hiding behind the excuse that our schools collectively hosts lots of visitors from lands near and far? Visitors from those very same countries do their share of hosting and they dominate the conference floors and stages.

So I still wonder: If we are that good, why do we not dominate at edtech conferences overseas?

It this tweet about “infective“ tuition did not sell you on tuition, then this ad for a tuition agency might.

Tuition ad: The right answer: We prepare your children not just for exams - but for life.

The ad claimed that the agency could prepare kids not just for exams, but also for life. To reassure parents, the agency claimed that it had “the right answer”. In the spectrum of schooling and life, this group had one colour to rule them all. This is shortcut schooling and parenting at its best!

Now, not all tuition is the same. There are honest and earnest educators who provide remedial tuition as coaches. They do not advertise on YouTube because 1) they do not have the revenue, and 2) they have a collective conscience.

Then there are the enrichment centres that have entry tests, formulaic approaches that sometimes contradict what teachers do in classes, and give the industry a bad name. They charge top dollar — because Singaporeans equate quality with cost — and they widen the gap in equitable access.

This may be one of the reasons why all Singapore students in mainstream schools will soon have access to the Student Learning Space (SLS). The SLS has already been touted as providing equal (not equitable) access to high quality resources.

Those that buy in to that idea are missing the point. Tuition in all its forms — remedial, enrichment, other variants — is not just about access to resources. It is about personalised attention and coaching, bragging rights, babysitting, taking shortcuts. It is about catching up, keeping pace, or leaving someone in your smoke.

Let us not oversell tuition as practiced here. Let us tell it like it is.

Being “data-driven” seems to have garnered a bad name in some schooling and education circles.

This is probably because of its misuse by edtech vendors for so-called analytics and misinterpretations of what being data-driven means by policymakers. Each is bad enough on its own. Both are lethal in combination.

But here are two recent examples of how being reliant on data is a good thing.

In a recent contest in Singapore, teams of students relied on shared pools of data to create visualisations.


Video source

The video above used data to create awareness of the difficulties that face families who have children with special needs.
 

Video source

The next video presented data to question commonly held misconceptions about ex-convicts.

Providing concrete visualisations of abstract data is not the same as being data driven. The former is about seeing what is not immediately apparent. The latter can sometimes be about playing the numbers game above all else, and that often ignores or harms the people that make up those numbers.

When being data-driven loses its original intent to inform decisions to actually help people, perhaps data visualisations like the ones above are a timely reminder of what good data might do.

Today I link a YouTube video and a call by one of our Deputy Prime Ministers (DPM), Tharman Shanmugaratnam: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not cut it for Singapore’s education.


Video source

We were all taught that we have five senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. These senses are obvious and seem irrefutable, but they are oversimplifications.

We actually have a myriad of basic senses. Two of the less obvious ones include proprioreception (sense of space) and equilibrioreception (sense of balance).

It is easier to just teach everyone that we have only five senses. We are taught these in kindergarten or in primary school. However, most adults probably do not realise they have more than five senses even if they have a basic degree.

We do not seem worse for not knowing. This is an indicator of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. It is being satisfied with or indifferent to the status quo because we choose not to be receptive or reflective.

The only-five-senses-as-fact is broken. We had more studies discover and verify more senses, but somehow we choose not to update what we know and teach.

Arguing that teaching these extras makes things more complicated does not make sense. Teaching these “new” facts leverages on the wonders of the human body and illustrates the importance of the scientific method.
 

 
We need to be critical and humble enough to spot the cracks in WHAT we teach and HOW we teach it. We need to consciously keep breaking old mindsets and expectations like test is best.

CNA quoted DPM Tharman:

“The biggest mistake we would make is think that because we are doing well in the PISA test, or we get a good rating by the Economist Intelligence Unit or anyone else, that therefore we keep things as they are,” Mr Tharman said.

“The biggest mistake is to think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because in education, more than in any other field, we will only know how well we are doing 20 or 30 years from now.

“If it ain’t broken, experiment. That’s the way we will secure our future.”

DPM Tharman was our Minister for Education from 2003 to 2008. Even though he has a new portfolio now, I am glad that he singled out changes in education as a pillar for holding Singapore up.

The PISA scores remind us that Singapore is doing well on testing stage. The type of schooling and education that helps us do this is like relying only on our five basic senses. We have so much more to discover and develop.

The CNA article and DPM’s speech highlighted more sets we need to challenge ourselves with. These included:

  • Avoiding the “lottery of birth” and ensuring social mobility
  • Reducing emphasis on academic-only measures and providing time and space for creative efforts
  • Not trapping ourselves with false multiculturalism

Like our “extra” senses, these education experiments will make us more complete.


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