Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘singapore

In 2015, we had Cheryl’s birthday to contend with. This year we have a different math question to contend with. I call it Cheryl 2: The Sequel.

There were many types of reactions from layfolk.

The mathematically-inclined came up with different solutions. Adults wondered if life was getting that much more difficult for kids. Parents pondered getting even more tuition for their children. Enrichment centres have probably added the puzzle to their brochures.

I wager that one of the most common types of reaction looks something like the one below.

Such exasperation seems reasonable given how perplexing the problem is. However, all these responses are unwarranted.

We need not worry that we seem to have forgotten how to do math. Why? We were not taught that way, so you have nothing to forget.

Being older, and by implication, more knowledgeable and wiser, does not mean you should be able to solve the math problem.

Instead consider the silo that the math problem was designed in. According to this blog entry, the problem is called a Petite Circle-Sum Walkthrough. You can solve the problem if you follow the rules of the solution.

Solution source

Now ask yourself what application this has beyond that context. How does this actually contribute to thinking and applying in a broader sense? How does a child in Primary 1 use it now and later? How do you as an adult use it now or later?

What are you worried about?

If it is about your inability to solve the problem, then worry not because this solution was a Google search away. Your ability to find a feasible solution is more important than solving the problem because information fluency and critical thinking are more useful in the short and long term.

If you are worried about the type of math being taught, you should be more worried if their teachers do not know why the question was set.

  • If the teachers say that the question was a “bonus” one that did not mark students down, why include it in an examination? Such a challenging question could have been done in class as a form of differentiated instruction.
  • If the strategy was not taught beforehand, how assessment literate are the teachers? One generally does not test what was not previously taught and learnt.
  • If the goal was to identify students with Math Olympiad potential, could there be some other strategy for doing this? Alternatives include, but are not limited to, talent-spotting, student volunteering, and special group testing.

I critique this sequel to Cheryl not to say that mathematics is unimportant. Math is critical as a universal language and it is the foundation of our sciences.

I mean to point out that the WHY and SO WHAT of math often gets lost in the WHAT and HOW. People here seem to focus on how to solve it and what the right answer is as if setting such a question is acceptable practice. Instead we should be asking why such a practice even exists. We should be wondering “so what” if students can or cannot answer this question.


Do not blame yourself if you do not “get” this Cheryl sequel. Think of Cheryl 1 and Cheryl 2 as bad movies, like Sharknado and its sequels. Those B-grade movies were fuelled by fantasy, preyed on ignorance, and fed movie studio greed.

Those in schools and enrichment centres that perpetuate content and thinking that has no contextual meaning or relevance elsewhere are doing the same. They operate in their own silos, take advantage of information you do not (and need not) understand, and feed inertia.

Cheryl 2: The Sequel is not your fault if you do not understand it. It is your fault if you fuel the hysteria and let Cheryl 3: It Returns happen.

The writers of Quartz, some of whom I have described as using lazy writing, wondered why one of the world’s wealthiest countries is also one of its biggest online pirates.

The country was Singapore, “the world’s fourth richest country, measured by gross national income per capita and adjusted for purchasing power”. Quartz wondered why Singaporeans still resorted to piracy despite having access to Netflix.

Does it assume that 1) there are no poor people in Singapore, 2) everyone here has heard of Netflix or other legal video streaming platforms, 3) the rich people here (all of us!) subscribe to something like Netflix, and 4) having access to legal streaming should reduce piracy significantly?

These are flawed assumptions. In not trying to answer its own question, it revealed lazy thinking and research.

For example, it did not mention how Netflix Singapore only offers 15% of TV shows carried by Netflix USA. (The exact figure might vary over time and is available in the table at this site.)

It did not mention that we have relatively low-cost fibre optic broadband plans.

Telcos here now push 1Gbps plans. One needs only a cursory examination of this chart maintained by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore to see that the plans hover around S$50 now.

The low access to the full Netflix USA library combined with ready access to high speed Internet point to our ability to get the same resources elsewhere.

Quartz decided to call our behaviour kiasu. That is a catchall term that avoids actual thought and explanation. The label is convenient: You are all just like that despite your money and access.

Like most sociotechnical phenomena (behaviours shaped and enabled with technology), the underlying reasons are nuanced. I have suggested just two and backed it up with the data.

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.


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.

On the surface, this STonline article lets readers know that some tutors are taking their roles more seriously. They are seeking professional development to stay current.

Read the report more critically and “best practices” could raise an alarm. While there might be such practices in industry and business, we should be concerned if they belong in the areas of schooling and education.

I have reflected on why “best practices” is a misnomer, is a bad set of practices, and should not be co-opted in education.

In the context of tuition, can there really be “best” practices when there are different kinds of tuition? Is the group spearheading this move going to address all the different needs and contexts?

The tuition industry in all its forms has its critics and cynics. While it should be associated with help for all who need it, segments are also associated with highly selective agencies and entry tests. While it could focus on remediation or personalisation, it is also known for shortcuts and formularisation.

I am not advocating a lack of standards or guidelines. I am worried about the answer to this question: What if the “best practices” includes what is undesirable in tuition as practiced here in Singapore?

My hunt for an elusive video brought me to the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Facebook page.

While I did not find what I was looking for, I found a series of images. They served as a helpful reminder of what teachers should stock up on to prepare for the new year.

What MOE teachers will use in 2017...

It was also a stark reminder of the mindset and expectations of teachers. The technologies are not current. If they were, there would be reminders to change passwords, renew VPN plans, update software, check digital archives, etc.

The call to arms was: You will be needing these and more to make a lasting impact on that one student. I get that message and stand behind it because it is a call to individualise, difficult as that will be.

I hope that teachers read this as reaching out to more than just that one student because all students are that one student. However, this task is impossible with the traditional tools and methods because they are largely about centralisation, standardisation, and control.

The newer tools are about decentralisation, individualisation, and self-regulation. This will only happen if school leaders and teachers change their mindsets and expectations about which tools to focus on and how to use them.

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.

Two recent newspaper articles [1] [2] kept referring to one study that claimed that tuition did not have an impact on Singapore’s high PISA score. I question this research.

Today I reflect on how the articles might be focusing on a wrong question asked the wrong way: Does tuition impact Singapore’s PISA score?

It is a wrong question because it begs an oversimplistic “Yes” or “No” answer when the answer is likely “Depends”. There will be circumstances when tuition helps and when it does not.

Tuition is not a single entity. The are the sustained forms of remedial, enrichment, some combination of the two, or other forms. There are short interventions that focus on just-in-time test exam strategies. There are broad shot forms that deal with one or more academic subjects and there are formulaic forms that focus on specific subtopics and strategies.

Add to that messy practice the fact that a phenomenon like learning to take tests is complex and will have many contributing factors, e.g., school environment, home environment, learner traits, teacher traits, etc.

Wanting to know the impact of tuition, not just on PISA scores, but also on schooling and education in Singapore’s contexts are questions worth asking. A better way to ask one question might be: “How does tuition impact X (where X is the phenomenon)?”

This core question bracketed by: “What forms of tuition are there in Singapore?” and “What other factors influence the impact of this form of tuition?”

Methods-wise, the study would not just play the numbers game. Narratives flesh out and make the case for numbers or even explain what might seem counterintuitive.

We live in a post-truth world. You cannot believe everything you read online. You cannot take what you read offline or in newspapers at face value either.

Click to see all the nominees!

QR code

Get a mobile QR code app to figure out what this means!

My tweets


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: