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I read an newspaper article that summarised the changes to our schooling system this year.

The newspaper took an important step by relying on expertise outside their organisation to write it, but chose to give the article an inaccurate title: In 2019, expect further moves towards greater equality in education.

The article was not just about moves towards equality. The opening paragraph indicated that it was about offering “a level playing field for all students to enjoy diversified educational pathways while developing a lifelong joy of learning”. The three content chunks were:

  1. A reduction in formal assessments
  2. Kinder admission systems
  3. Reducing the financial cost of schooling

Only the third chunk was properly aligned to the title of the article. To be more precise, it was about facilitating greater equity and not equality, since it was about giving the disadvantaged a disproportionate leg up.

After this information dump, the author chose to highlight two more areas of concern. These dealt with the equality and equity playing field:

  1. How private tutoring skews access to opportunities
  2. How the current Primary school admission system still favours the haves over the have-nots

Now these were not only important topics, they were also aligned to the topic of equality and equity. However, they were not official moves but much needed ones.

I wonder when our sociopolitical system will be mature enough to appreciate more direct and aggressive critique. I would like to see articles like these be actual opinion pieces instead of being reduced to mouth pieces.

In “olds” made news, this report tells us what we already know: Singapore teachers are paid very well and they are overworked.

So instead of focusing on established fact, I concentrate on how the latest facts were established. In the process, I illustrate principles of Skepticism 101.

First, were the 200 teachers from each country representative of the teacher population?

A sample of 200 might be statistically sound, but there was no information about how the sampling was conducted. For example, were the numbers garnered from a convenience sampling of respondents, e.g., from a limited set of schools or a captive audience?

We’re all 200 beginning teachers or was there a proportionate mix? If there was a mix of teacher experience, how many beginning teachers were used to determine their average starting salaries?

Second, the starting salaries of beginning teachers in Singapore was very high. The amount was equivalent to what a local assistant professor might make a decade ago.

Even taking into account salaries that keep pace with the rising cost of living, there was no information on whether the sampled teachers here were mid-career switchers, hired by independent/private schools, and/or Masters or Ph.D. holders. All these teachers typically command higher starting salaries.

It was entirely clear if the salaries were relative or absolute. If they were relative, they would be scaled to the cost of living in each country. If the numbers were absolute, then you would have to make comparisons of salaries from different Jon’s within each country and not between teachers of different countries.

Third, the definition of work hours was not clear. Were these official or unofficial work hours? Was the average over term time or over the entire calendar year? What if some teachers reported office hours but not weekend marking?

Were the salaries and work hours compared against data that the Ministry of Education here might have? This was not the job of the producers of the report; this was something the newspaper could have done to add meaning and value.

I do not doubt that teachers here are well-paid and work-stressed. But as long as the processes (i.e., data sampling and analyses) were murky, I do not trust the product (the report). When a news article further simplified the report, this muddied the water even more.

This is the MOE press release that accompanied the announcement on reducing tests in Singapore schools.

First comes the policy shift (long overdue, in my opinion). Then might come the years-long mindset shifts. Next is the decades or generations-long behavioural shifts.

The press release ends as most documents that herald change do.

You could apply points 15 and 16 to any change in schooling, but that does make them any less true.

The stakeholders hardest to reach and change lie immediately outside the school arena, i.e., parents and enrichment tuition centres. This is what makes the change process arduous.

Like teaching, the policy announcement is neat. And like learning, the actual change processes are messy. It is time to muck about.

I normally wait for everyone and their grandmothers to have their say on the latest blip in the Singapore schooling radar. This time I waited for the uncles and aunties to weigh in as well.

The usual and time-honoured statements breached like whales, made a splash, and then returned to the deep. Also usual was the response of tuition centres.

Some tuition centres, particularly the chain and branded ones, responded to the Ministry of Educations (MOE’s) new policy of reducing academic exams by maintaining the status quo or providing purely extrinsic rewards. Case in point:

…parents whom he has spoken to were also largely in favour of keeping the centre’s in-house mid-year and end-of-year examinations, which are set by its tutors, even though the schools are removing such examinations for certain levels.

…tutors would turn an assignment into a mini-competition for students during class, with rewards such as snacks given at the end of the assignment to encourage good work.

There were also examples in the report that mentioned the names of centres that would offer or expand their offerings on enrichment. But since I do not wish to advertise their wares, I am not quoting them.

The tired excuse for doing these things: Tuition centre operators are giving in to what parents want. Never mind that these steer everyone in the direction that is opposite to MOE’s.

According to the same article, some tuition centres have embraced formative, non-graded assessment and feedback, and/or actually focus on remediation.

The exam reduction policy has yet to be implemented, but tuition centres have reacted. Some take advantage on what parents know and fear, and offer replacement tests. Others seem to focus on the learners.

Tuition has been called the shadow schooling system here. Like an actual shadow, you cannot actually get rid of it as long as we cast light on schooling. That said, some shadows distort and some are scary.

Cast a stronger light directly at the shadow and it disappears, perhaps taking away with it the associated fears. Just how enlightened and equipped are parents to critically examine what they are sold about tuition in is various forms?

I watched this two-part video report how mandarin is taught now. It featured a journalist who revisited a classroom and immersed herself in the student experience.

Video source

Video source

The intended message seemed to be that the methods were more progressive now compared to, say, the time of the kids’ parents. Given the examples and strategies, you might agree.

But I wonder about how the narrative was crafted.

Was three days enough to gauge how the teaching of mandarin had changed? Pragmatically speaking, a journalist is not a researcher and it is tough to get permission and time to record the classroom. That said, three days was not representative compared to three months or three terms.

The class comprised a group of a Secondary 2 Higher Chinese students. These were the minority of students and they enjoyed a smaller class size. How was the class representative of the larger population of students?

That said, the teaching of mandarin, like most other content areas, has changed with the incorporation of various technologies and curricular interventions. Perhaps both were too difficult to show.

I am not referring to the journalist’s toting an iPad. It could have been her own and it did not feature prominently. White boards dominated and this could indicate more a change of medium (from blackboards) and of methods (peer instruction).

An example of a curricular change is the different levels of mandarin in Primary school — foundation, standard, and higher — for students with different abilities. Instead of one size curriculum fits all, it was three sizes fits all.

Perhaps even more insidious is how the type of teachers of mandarin has changed. They are younger, more open to different strategies, and effectively bilingual. If mindset and cultural circumstance have any influence, the way these teachers practice their craft is different from their teachers.

The changes on how content is taught is more nuanced than two videos can reveal. Perhaps a focus on the type of teacher might have been a better narrative.

Today I continue my reflection on the CNA article and video, Regardless of Class.

The video segments on what kids thought about the “class divide” caught my attention the most. There were clips of children aged 9 to 11, and older students aged 15 to 17.

Video source

The whole video is proprietary on CNA’s site, but most of the segments featuring both sets of kids are in the YouTube video above.

The footage and editing sent a clear signal: The younger kids were perceptive and honest about the class divide; by the time they were older, the gaps were
brutally obvious.

The video, particularly in its longer form, made for uncomfortable viewing. Rightly so because the full video was designed to create cognitive and emotional dissonance.

Such dissonance might lead to questions like:

  • How is our schooling system creating and perpetuating such class divides?
  • What might we do to mitigate this?
  • If schooling is, as one teacher pointed out, a symptom and not a cause of social divides, what other contributing factors of social divides might we also need to address?

After repeated and reflective readings of the article and viewings of the videos, I am convinced that what happens at and to the family unit is crucial.

Disadvantaged adults pass their status on to their children and it is difficult for the latter to break out of their structural and social strata. Adults with greater means not only pass their privilege to their offspring, they also find ways to boost what they have.

Fundamental to what adults and parents do is their attitudes and mindsets. Are they defeated by or defiant to their lot in life? Do they believe they have a right to a better life and is this right reserved only for some?

So I wonder simplistically: We have SkillsFuture now; do we need AttitudeFuture and MindsetFuture as well?

We might have the SkillsFuture programme that is supposed to provide post-schooling and lifelong resources for learning. But after reading the article and watching the video linked to the tweet below, I wonder if we need something akin to AttitudeFuture or MindFuture.

Here are a few things I took note of and have thoughts on, particularly from the article linked from the tweet.

I have no doubt that the “class divide” is a critical issue that might potentially disrupt what Singapore stands for. So I was not surprised that this threat was identified by almost half of the 1,036 survey respondents.

That said, “class” is insidious and hard to define. It has multiple contributing factors and layers like education, socioeconomic status, family background, etc. I wonder if respondents had the same things in mind when they thought of class.

Other factors like race and religion were identified as threats to social cohesion by about a fifth of the respondents. However, these perceived factors might have a disproportionate effect in reality.

I am reminded of a tweet from satirical Twitter account, Werner Twertzog:

A third of the population can act on another third while the last third remains indifferent. A minority or a seemingly small threat can have a disproportionate impact.

This does not mean that the class divide less impactful. The class divide is also worsened by indifference, which is why the article and video are important to consume and process now.

I am still ruminating on the article and video. Both provided much to reflect on even though they undoubtedly present only snippets and snapshots of a complicated and nuanced social phenomenon. I think I will focus on what school children and teachers think and do in the next part.

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