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Posts Tagged ‘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.

Singapore used to have just two seasons: Hot and humid, and hot and rainy.

A generation of kids has now grown up with another season thanks to neighbourly land-clearing by fire. I am talking about the haze.

The seasonal haze is no joke and schools take the matter seriously because exams and results are at stake. Oh, and the health of kids is important too.

To remind us how important this matter is, STonline published Making sure haze won’t cloud exam season.

How does a newspaper get away with an article that seems to have been based on a template or an older article with the names changed?

If we let the rhetoric wash over us, the air purifiers are a godsend to schools trying to conduct end-of-year exams under threat of the seasonal haze.

Examine more critically what the context is for most mainstream schools: Non-air-conditioned classrooms with about 30 to 40 students in each room (in the case of primary schools).

Now try doing this on your own in a non-air-conditioned room at home in the day with the door and windows closed. Keep a fan running if you must, but see how long it takes before it feels hot and stuffy. Then consider a larger room you are forced to share with other people. They also happen to breathe, cough, sneeze, and fart.

In the event of severe deterioration of air quality, a classroom teacher has to balance allowing airflow (since we produce carbon dioxide and heat) and trying to filter toxins and particulate matter from outside air.

This was MOE’s statement, not mine.

… if the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index is in the very unhealthy range of 201 to 300, doors and windows would be closed and air purifiers turned on.

“Schools have been advised to reopen windows or doors periodically or when the outdoor air quality improves to provide better ventilation and relief from thermal heat build-up in the classrooms,” said an MOE spokesman.

Assuming the air filters are of suitable capacity, they only work optimally in a closed space. They do not work with a cuckoo clock strategy.

Imagine this scenario. The haze is bad and all teachers close the classroom doors and windows tightly shut and switch on the air purifiers and fans. The classroom gets stuffy and the teacher has to periodically open the windows and doors for the air to circulate.

Oops. The stale air indoors is replaced with the toxic air outside.

Oops again. How does a teacher decide when to do this? Is the decision based on timing, the feeling of stuffiness, or a scientific measurement of temperature and carbon dioxide levels?

Am I overthinking this? No, not when you realise that some people with the means provide air-conditioned rooms for their pets and valued collectibles.

Are you going to point out that you were schooled in an oven-like attap hut and that kids are too soft these days? Are you pointing this out from your air-conditioned office or home? In your (and my) time there was no haze and you (and I) could merrily catch spiders without worrying much about exams or grades.

Just because someone official deems a practice safe or acceptable does not make it right.

In August 2016, the Singapore Health Promotion Board updated its documentation for the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme. If the programme has a mission statement, it must be this (from programme site):

Research has shown that food preferences are generally acquired during childhood and that eating habits acquired after adolescence are more resistant to change. The school environment plays an important role in nurturing and sustaining good eating habit. In view of this, the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme (HMSP) seeks to enhance the availability of healthier food and beverage choices in schools.

School canteen stall owners generally toe the line during normal school operating hours. But some might operate outside those lines when they can.

My son had to attend extra classes Monday through Saturday during the school “vacation” last week because of the upcoming PSLE. He told me that the canteen uncles and aunties sold french fries and fizzy drinks like Sprite.

Were they doing this to make a quick buck? Might their excuse be that the junk food items were morale boosters? Might they reason that they did this only rarely so they were not really doing anything wrong?

Who can blame them if they have self-interests to think of, they retain old mindsets that are not challenged, and there is seemingly little monitoring?

The same could be asked about the implementation of our latest ICT Masterplan. The fourth iteration was released a year ago without much fanfare. However, in this case there is even less pressure.

There are guidelines and principles. There are even metrics from the previous plan. School ICT heads will know what I am talking about, and if they are honest, they will acknowledge that such data and soft policies do not make a dent.

The ICT Masterplan and the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme suffer similar problems. If they are viewed as policies, rules, or guidelines to follow, people will look for loopholes. If the words are not enforced, they will be ignored. If there are spot-checks and periodic measures, they are predictable and can be prepared for, just like exams.

What needs to happen is a shift to ownership of better teaching and learning as enabled (not just enhanced) with ICT, and better eating habits as enabled by an environment promoting healthier food. Both address mindsets first, not behaviours. Both seek to replace an old culture of practice.

Both need non-traditional leadership — from the ground up. Both need social pressure, not just periodic measuring, testing, monitoring, and punishing.

To be fair, the 4th ICT Masterplan is crafted in a way that embraces such forms of ownership, leadership, and cultural change. However, they are just as easy to ignore in favour of french fry or instant noodle teaching.

Such teaching is fast, efficient, and seemingly filling. But like the unhealthy food, this results in long-term harm. Schooling is favoured over educating; the schooled are exam-smart and dependent on such meals; the next generation are prepared for the teachers’ past instead of being able to shape their future.

My reflection starts with an Apple Pay verification process and ends with lessons on teaching and assessment.

When Apple Pay launched in Singapore in May, I jumped on the bandwagon by verifying one of my credit cards. The process was quick and painless: Scan the card details into the Wallet app and verify the card by SMS.

I tried the process with another eligible card, but did not receive SMS verification. I put that down to early implementation issues.

However, I tried about ten times between the launch in May and this month and was still unsuccessful. The Wallet app provided the alternative verification process of calling the credit card issuing bank’s customer service.

I dread using such customer “service” because the process make me feel like a rat being tested in a maze.

I had to get through several layers of number pressing before getting the option to speak with a human. Once there, I was informed that they were “experiencing a high call volume”.

I missed having an old phone that I could slam down on the receiver.

This particular bank provided the option of leaving my contact number so that I would receive a call-back in four hours. That must have been some really high call volume!

I received one shortly before the four-hour mark and explained how I did not receive SMS verification for Apple Pay from that bank’s system. I also mentioned that I had done the verification for another bank’s card quickly and seamlessly with the same process.

The customer service representative (CSR) was puzzled, checked the messaging records, and told me that SMS had been sent to my phone. I wanted to reply that I was not an idiot, but I bit my tongue. I repeated that I did not receive any despite several attempts over two months.

The CSR then advised me not to use my bank-issued security dongle. I told him that the dongle was irrelevant because it was not a verification option in Apple’s Wallet app. So he said he needed to look into my case and asked if he could call me back in an hour.

As soon we disconnected, something connected. A long time ago, I blocked a few of the bank’s SMS numbers because I kept getting marketing messages despite telling them I did not want any. I wondered if the SMS verification shared one of those numbers.

I figured out how to unblock the numbers and tested the SMS verification for that bank card. It worked as quickly as my first card.

The was not the fault of the bank. It was mine for blocking numbers, irritating as their messages were.

I reminded myself of two lessons on teaching:

  1. You should not just stick to a script. It is important to first listen to the learner’s problem before suggesting a learning solution. The CSR’s advice to not use the dongle was obviously part of a recommended script, but it was irrelevant in this context. Mentioning the dongle not only did not help matters, it added to my frustration.
  2. Thinking out loud is one of the best ways to learn. I knew what the symptom of my problem was (no SMS from the bank), but I did not know its root cause (I had blocked some SMS numbers). Speaking to someone helped me pull thoughts to the surface and helped me find my own solutions.

When the CSR called back, I explained how I had solved the problem myself. He was relieved. I was relieved.

Right after we disconnected, he triggered an SMS to me to rate the customer service by text. It was like being pranked.

Bank SMS.

I did not respond to the SMS because the ratings were too coarse: Below, Meet, Exceed.

The phone service took place over more than one call and had multiple components. Averaging the experience was not meaningful. Detailed feedback on what was good or not good about the experience and analysing a recording of the exchanges are more tedious but better options.

I thought of two lessons on assessment:

  1. The administrative need to collect and collate data drives such bad practice. Just because you collect these data does not make the data meaningful or help CSRs improve. Administrative needs should not drive assessment.
  2. The average rating approach is a hallmark of summative assessment. It is grading an experience. If the CSR received “Exceed”, did he get a pat on the back? If the feedback was “Meet”, would he just keep reading from scripts? If the grade was “Below”, what can he do with that information? Good assessment is based on quality feedback, not just grades.

It does not take special events, teacher observations, prescribed professional development, or even a personal learning network to learn how to teach or assess better. The lessons and reminders are everywhere, even in the Apple Pay card verification process. You just have to pay attention.

The news that caused ripples in Singapore schooling last week was the official announcement from the Ministry of Education (MOE) of the new scoring system that will be implemented in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in 2021.

There was a slew of news following the announcement. Some people made tsunamis out of the ripples, some rode the waves as they were [small sample of both].

Beneath the surface was an undercurrent that did not get much attention, but was the most significant change in terms of education. According to STonline, one of the changes was the switch from norm-referenced testing (NRT) to standards or criterion-referenced testing (CRT).

PSLE2021: From NRT to CRT

What are NRT and CRT in layman terms? Why is the switch an important driver of change?

In NRT, the results of a cohort of students are reduced to scores — T-scores in the case of PSLE — and lined up from the highest to the lowest (or vice versa). The result is a bell-shaped curve of scores: There will be a few very low and very high scores, and many somewhere-in-the-middle ones.

Reviewers of these scores typically use this distribution to create an even curve (a normal distribution, ND), and to rank and sort. In the adult world of work, this method might help determine who gets promotions or bonuses, what appraisal grade you get (if you are in the civil service), or who gets fired.

For example, a large organisation can first rank the performances of all its employees. If an ideal ND does not result, it can statistically massage it into an ideal bell curve. So if there are too many A-graders, some will be pushed into Bs, and as a result Bs become Cs and so forth. Once there is an ideal bell curve, someone can decide cut-offs and consequences, say, the top 5% get promotions and the bottom 15% are let go.

If this seems unfair to working adults, then what more for the 12-year-old children who take the PSLE but have no idea what is going on?

The core problem is that people are compared one against the other with or without their knowledge. If with, this can result in unhealthy competition because they want to be on the right part of the ND curve. If without, the people become victims of processes not transparent to them and circumstances beyond their control.

Is there a better way? Yes, it is called CRT (standard-based assessment and/or evaluation).

Modern corporations like Accenture are abandoning the outdated practice of norm-referencing [1] [2] and embracing comparisons of one. The fundamental principle is this: How one improves and contributes individually over time is more important than how one is measured against others.

For example, a worker might show evidence of specific skills that indicate that he or she is a novice, intermediate, or advanced worker. There is no comparing of all the workers regardless of their skill group or even comparing within each skill group.

To make this work, there must be standards or criteria that identify each skill group, e.g., skills A to J for novices to master; K to R for intermediates; S to Z for advanced plus five potential managerial markers.

Back to PSLE 2021. The switch is from NRT to CRT. It is more about the standards or specific criteria that indicate the test-based achievements of the child, and less about the comparison of one child with another.

This is a fundamental shift in mindset from sifting and sorting to measuring performance. The former is about what is good for the system and how to feed it; the latter is about where the learner is at and what is good for the learner.

However, this piecemeal change of the CRT system of academic levels (ALs) still falls short. I share thoughts on these in more reflections on PSLE2021 over the next few days.

Read Part 2: The Dark Side.

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