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Today’s Education - Singapore

 

TODAY'S EDUCATION

Food for Thought

Talent Meritocracy or Exam Meritocracy?
 

Dear Friends:
This page serves as the avenue for educators, parents, students and concerned adults to raise questions and express opinions on our education system and the whole education climate. It is also intended to be a platform for all to generate ideas and solutions to some of the most long-standing issues encountered by schools and educators.

DISCUSSION TOPICS

Flaws in our Singapore Education System

New Developments in Singapore Education

Does Your Child Have Difficulty Attempting Vocabulary Questions?

Education Reforms and Leadership

Revamp in Primary Education

Highlights of the New Preschool Curriculum Guide

School Curricula and MOE’s Initiatives – Part Two

School Curricula and MOE’s Initiatives – Part One

Criteria for Preschool Teachers and Principals

Education Reforms in Singapore

What do we want to see in our future students?

Is it better to have all-graduate primary school teachers?

Remedial, Tuition and Enrichment Classes

Early Years Education

Preschool New Curriculum Guide

Does Literacy Equate Education?

Integrated Curriculum with the Holistic Approach

Teachers’ Core Roles


 

DOES YOUR CHILD HAVE DIFFICULTY ATTEMPTING VOCABULARY QUESTIONS? (20 June 2009)

I have wanted to comment on the way schools assess children’s English Language standards for quite some time, but it kept slipping my mind.

Just before the June Holidays, I had a talk with a parent and she brought up her concern that schools tend to emphasise greatly on Vocabulary acquisition. She found the words that children are supposed to know too difficult to learn.

It appears that many of our scholars have held the opinion that one needs to have a great store of vocabulary to be considered as having an excellent command of English. Over the years, too much emphasis has been placed on testing students’ vocabulary. Schools try to outshine other schools by setting more and more difficult vocabulary questions in their examinations. (There is this misconception that having examination papers with highly difficult questions equates having a higher school standard.)

Schools should be aware that vocabulary acquisition is a life-long learning route. It is not a subject that one can acquire fully, not even in college, less so for primary levels.

I am against testing vocabularies in isolated contexts as this usually leads to children having to learn them through rote-memory. Already, it is a norm to have a couple of questions on ‘Vocabulary’ in the ‘Comprehension’ section of the examination paper. There is also a grading for the use of good, varied vocabulary in essay writing.

So, why make learning difficult for children? Why erect this barrier to destroy children’s self-confidence and kill children’s interests in learning?

I am more for a practical use of the English Language.
To me, the primary schools would be considered very successful when all their students are able to express themselves, and explain concepts and situations in clear, good, simple English. And when I evaluate an essay, I will focus on elements such as ‘feelings’, originality, creativity and the ‘flow of the story’, besides grammatically correct sentences, to determine the essay’s grading, rather than on pompous language. A reasonable store of vocabulary is sufficient.

Think about it: Unless we are in Literature-related fields, how often in work and in our daily lives do we need to use those profound words?

P/S: Share with you this interesting ST Forum online letter ‘Spare kids the tough textbook terms’ written by Mickey Chiang whose complaint is, in a way, similar to my article in nature:

 

Young children from low-income families may be doing badly in school partly because of unnecessarily difficult words in Primary 1 and 2 maths textbooks.
For example, in My Pals Are Here, Maths 2nd Edition, 1A, the contents page has terms like 'number bonds' and 'ordinal numbers'. My wife and I hold postgraduate degrees, yet we were not sure what these terms meant. On page 29, the pupil is told to use a 'number train' to solve an addition problem. How many adults know what a number train is?
Logically, the maths vocabulary should go in tandem with that of English language textbooks.
We need excellent and experienced teachers - who teach effectively in simple language - to write primary school textbooks. By all means appoint highly qualified academics as consultants, but please keep them away from the textbook-writing process. For the sake of the kids.

Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/ST+Forum/Story/STIStory_389209.html



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EDUCATION REFORMS AND LEADERSHIP (13 April 2009)

Around year 2000, Dr Aline Wong, then Senior Minister of State for Education, initiated the integrated curriculum with a holistic approach. When she retired from office in late 2001, all in the ministry became unsure of whether the new initiative would be dropped and be gone with her.

Soon after, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam took over as Education Minister from Mr Teo Chee Hean. Fortunately, he was able to assimilate with Dr Wong’s concepts and pushed for the education reform spearheaded by her.

Along the way, Mr Tharman had interestingly created very strong reactions from educators, parents and the general public when he suggested engaging native speakers to teach English, and stated that many teachers in primary schools were not trained to teach EL (English Language).

His first comment showed that he was a ‘greenhorn’ at that time. He seemed to have bought into the idea that lessons conducted by native speakers are of good quality (a distorted fact created by some enrichment centres to promote their programmes). All experienced and well-informed adult Singaporeans know very well that many untrained native speakers can’t teach Standard English.

His second comment caused quite a furore among concerned parents such that his Ministry’s Press Secretary had to explain (in her reply to forum letter):

“What Mr Tharman meant was that many primary school teachers who taught EL had not majored in English or English Literature in university or taken it at the pre-university level. Unlike secondary school EL teachers, this is not a requirement for primary school teachers as they generally teach two or more subjects.” “All primary school teachers are also trained at the National Institute of Education (NIE)”

However, his second comment was true at point of speech.

Having majored in English or English Literature does not translate into being equipped to teach baseline skills, which explains why MOE and schools have not been able to cater to the large group of late bloomers’ needs. And talking about training at NIE, the teachers themselves know deep down in their hearts how much they have been taught.

I personally feel parents should be grateful and respect the fact that Mr Tharman had pointed this out honestly and had led his Ministry to take appropriate actions to solve the immediate problem: Teachers were sent on courses to learn new pedagogies and understand the changing curriculum. The Ministry even provided in-service training to the teachers.

For education reforms to be successful and for the education system to improve, a dynamic team leader who has a special acumen in educational matters is necessary. Mr Tharman possesses the above qualities and on top of them, I could tell that he was appreciative of and open to ideas and suggestions from the ground. Take for example, I believe he had followed up on a letter that I had written to then Education Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, in February 2004. My comments on the unpopular ‘banding’ and ‘streaming’ policies, and my suggestion that primary schools implement the same curriculum as the preschools without delay, were all addressed positively.

I am not a fan of Mr Tharman, just that he is still the best candidate for the post of Education Minister so far. As we know, good communication, co-ordination and synchronisation of policies throughout all departments are crucial in education. Mr Tharman is one who knows how to lead a team to execute these. The key factor is his strong interest in improving the system and also, the degree of his understanding of the new initiatives surpasses all other have-been and would-be Education Ministers.

It is quite obvious to the public that Dr Ng Eng Hen is temporarily holding the post, as he appeared inertia in executing the new initiatives. PM Lee could be considering grooming Ms Grace Fu or Mr Lui Tuck Yew as the next Education Minister (Mr Gan Kim Yong could formally be on the list as well, but he is currently appointed as Manpower Minister). Ms Fu though efficient and productive as the chairperson of the PERI committee, displays a lack of ‘feel’ for the subject (In my opinion, she is more suitable at the Finance Department). Mr Lui, though showing a greater insight of the current education trends, appears rigid and reactive – traits that could affect the speed of education advancement.

If I’ve observed correctly, Mr Tharman should have formulated some plans to improve our education system before he was transferred to the Finance Ministry.

The problem with MOE is that its leader is changed too often too quickly, which is detrimental to the department’s productivity and efficiency, as every new leader requires a long period of time to study and understand the education system and climate all over again.

Seriously, MOE should get Mr Tharman (who already has had a good grasp of the new initiatives) back if it wants to speed up its education reform process.


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REVAMP IN PRIMARY EDUCATION (1 March 2009)

The latest announcement to do away with semestral assessments for Primary 1 and 2 pupils is a long-awaited directive for educators.

To the layman, it is reducing study stress. To educators, it means much more.

Time previously used to prepare exam questions and report books will be channelled to reflective teaching and planning (the most crucial aspect of the teaching profession). Teachers could spend more time to identify and develop students’ interests and strengths, and adjust their teaching and assessment methods to meet individual needs, thus, ensuring that solid foundations are laid.
To achieve this, schools need to place their most skilful and dedicated trained-teachers in P1 and P2 – the foundation laying years.

Like all other initiatives, there are many differing voices. A forum writer questioned the ability of the teachers – ‘will the teachers be able to rise up to the occasion to implement these changes well and thoroughly?’ Another hoped that ‘it doesn't translate into bunching of curriculum for P3-6 onwards’. And some others are worried that ‘MOE will still be slack in seeing that schools abide by the new initiatives’.

On the issue of holistic education: Currently, there are a few batches of novice teachers trained in the holistic curriculum. Even when we take into account existing teachers who have undergone re-training, I think the number is still insufficient. Furthermore, most novice teachers adhere religiously to the doctrines of a ‘play curriculum’ which does not support children’s literacy development adequately (I will elaborate on ‘how to effectively implement the integrated curriculum with a holistic approach’ in a separate issue on my Lesson Planning page in due course).

So, what can our schools do to implement the holistic curriculum fully? Are there ways to 'fill the gaps’ during the transformation?

Since all schools will be going single-session, it makes sense to have an all-round activity-based after-school programme to cater to latch-key children from lower and middle-income families who cannot afford individual and specialised care.
The after-school programme personnel could work closely with the school teachers and parents to exchange/provide information on the students’ progress and development.

On the examinations/tests issue: I anticipate that MOE would announce doing away with examinations and suggest alternative assessment modes for upper primary levels eventually, if it is serious in its goal of providing holistic education to all our students.
Portfolio Assessment, to date, is still the most appropriate assessment method for holistic curriculum. Teachers can include more accurate assessment tools such as Flexible Interviews, Behavioural/Emotional Checklists and Cognitive Responses Checklists in the Portfolio Assessment (See Lesson Planning page for samples of the checklists).

Except for the human resource aspect – resourceful, responsible, passionate, compassionate and knowledgeable educators, which is hard to come by, schools should not be lacking in other resources and facilities to facilitate the teachers in delivering the new curriculum, as our government has announced its continual investment in education.

In all, the revamp in primary education (although a little late) is necessary and in tune with global educational goals of grooming talents who can perform in real-life.


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HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NEW PRESCHOOL CURRICULUM GUIDE (11 February 2009)

This article is written in response to a reader’s request for information on the new Preschool Curriculum Guide.

The new preschool curriculum guide emphasises on Reflective Practice – the most coveted asset of professional educators, to translate the 6 principles in MOE’s Kindergarten Framework: Nurturing Early Learners (2003). The 6 teaching and learning principles are: Integrated learning, Teachers as supporters of learning, Engaging children in learning through play, Ample opportunities for interaction, Children as active learners, and Holistic development (iTEACH).

It explains the importance of each stage of children’s learning process – that children should be:
* Provided with active learning experiences to develop awareness of and interest in new concepts
* Given opportunity to explore
* Facilitated to acquire new knowledge and skills, and
* Encouraged to apply what have been learnt.

You can find practical examples of what should be happening in the classroom; scenarios such as children showing interest in wanting to find out more about the topics taught, children engaging in meaningful learning activities (e.g. collecting and recording information), children making connections between current experiences and prior knowledge, and children demonstrating new skills and knowledge in new and real-life situations, etc.

There’s also a checklist that consists of the ‘Have I…’ reflective questions (Adapted from Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children). This should come in handy for teachers when planning future lessons.

The new guide once again defines ‘Holistic Development’ and lists the 6 learning areas that comprise it:
1. Aesthetics and creative expression
2. Self and social awareness
3. Environmental awareness
4. Language and literacy
5. Motor skills development
6. Numeracy

The Key Knowledge and Skills indicators that spell the learning outcomes of lessons have unfortunately been pared down. The selected lot are too specific for use as general guides. I had feedback this to the relevant authority. Not sure if they have been amended.

The new features – essentials of holistic development, are 6 crucial dispositions.

Learning Objectives on the Dispositions

Provide opportunities for children to:
1. Develop perseverance
2. Develop the ability to reflect (on significant events and controversial issues)
3. Develop appreciation
4. Develop inventiveness
5. Foster their sense of wonder and curiosity
6. (Engage enthusiastically in tasks and activities)
** I’ve modified points 2 and 6 (modified version in brackets) to complement some of my lesson objectives when writing the lesson plans for MOE.

The set of criteria (not stated in the draft) for planning a holistic lesson was raised to include:
Setting questions to extend children’s (critical) thinking, designing Cooperative Learning activities, and providing opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning.

Other requirements to enhance the lessons are:
Providing alternative lesson procedures, suggesting optional/extended activities, and designing tasks with three levels of difficulty to cater to individual groups of children with different learning abilities.
I understand from a head teacher that the criteria are similar for primary school lesson planning.

The Learning Centres concept is missing in the new guide (although I had subtly incorporated some learning centre tasks into the MOE lesson plans). I feel they play a substantial part in active learning, as well as in the ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ philosophy.

A part that is commendable is the packaging of the sample lesson planning on ‘Creepy Crawlies’ with good questioning skills in a table adapted from Kostelnik, M.J. Soderman, A.K., & Whiren, A.P. (2007). Developmentally appropriate curriculum: Best practices in early childhood education. upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
The questions and examples shown are more thorough and comprehensive than those suggested by me in the manual on the integrated curriculum that I had written for PCF kindergartens in 2004.

The recommended assessment mode is that of a portfolio style, which I favour and had also suggested in the PCF’s manual.

Overall, the new preschool curriculum guide dutifully serves as a handy manual for professional early childhood educators.


P/S: The above is merely a review of the draft of the new Preschool Curriculum Guide. I’ve still not had the chance to read the final version.
I could share tips on how to meet all the requirements for integrated lesson planning, propose strategies on designing lesser hassle, but effective learning centres, and provide samples of self-created and improvised assessment checklists, when and where necessary.


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SCHOOL CURRICULA AND MOE’S INITIATIVES – Part Two (2 February 2009)

As we all know, any form of change usually meets with strong resistance at the beginning stages, and change takes time and a lot of effort and energy, as it is most difficult to unlearn and relearn something.

In some instances, people will choose to implement change gradually to allow for adjustment of mindsets and working habits. This strategy is advisable for use generally in organisations to show considerations for those who have lesser abilities to cope with change. But I’m not in favour of this choice for education reforms as it is unproductive and it delays desired outcomes.
We have to bear in mind that children’s time, their growing years, is very precious. The earlier the change for betterment, the more they’ll benefit. Furthermore, educators are supposedly the most resourceful and fastest learners of all professions, so they should not have too much problem adapting to positive changes quickly.

In many other cases, people go for partial change and usually when the fervour died down, they’ll revert back to the old ways.
Total reforms are undoubtedly difficult to implement and adapt to. There’s bound to be inadequate information and resources at the beginning stages. Unfamiliarity will cause new concepts to appear complex and incomprehensible. A lot more effort and determination will be needed in the process, but we should not compromise and opt for the easy way out when it comes to the quality of our education.

In several undesirable cases, change is entertained on the surface with some other hidden agendas. Many school administrators, like the general public, often try to capture the ‘hidden’ messages by our authorities. MOE can initiate and promote learning in non-academic areas such as the Arts, Music and Sports, all that it likes, but occasional contradicting speeches by authority figures often override the advocacy of the new initiatives. Show you two examples:

(18 April 2008) Ng Eng Hen (Education Minister) on ‘Wanted: Singapore’s fourth PM’ -
“Whether we like it or not, the electorate does give a premium to its leaders being intellectually able. It doesn’t mean that somebody without academic qualifications cannot rise. BUT it does mean that intellectually, he has to command respect. That’s just an observation, not a value judgment.”

(4 Aug 2008) George Yeo (Foreign Minister) when answering a polytechnic student’s query ‘Just one MP a poly grad: Is there a ceiling?’ -
“What is important is a good heart and the ability to get things done. BUT educational qualifications are no less important," he was quick to add, noting that they give an indication of the candidates' abilities.

Every time you hear a ‘BUT’, you can’t help but doubt the government’s sincerity and envisage its real emphasis.

Deep down inside, people understand that it would be naïve to believe that non-academic subjects are on equal footing as the academic subjects in Singapore.

However, all true-blue educators should abide by our professional ethics in working towards the best interests of children’s education and not sticking dogmatically onto their old school curriculum to get into the good books of those (prominent personnel) they perceive as academically inclined.

Recent comments by our authorities do provide some new perspectives:

(5 January 2009) MM Lee on why Singapore needs more diversity to cater to different strengths of students:
‘We now have to try and bring up people who do not necessarily do well in the universities, but who will do well in life.’ ‘That's the concentration that we should give because people who go to university (make up) about 25 per cent; poly - about forty plus per cent; and you have special schools, arts, sports schools and so on. You've got to go in that direction.’

(28 January 2009) RADM Lui on the changes in primary education:
‘Most importantly, it is a reminder to all parties, educators, parents, students that we need to shift a little away from this emphasis on assessment to a more holistic development of the child. It is something we have already talked about...but I think the changes we are making here will move us even further along the spectrum.'

 

Now, let’s assume that we’ve weeded out bad practice and everyone is in support of holistic education for the children. What’s next?

Do we have sufficient resources? Are all our teachers clear about the concept? Is the pool of trained teachers big enough? If not, do we have alternative plans to achieve our goals? And the biggest question is: How much PASSION (in pushing for positive changes) do our educators possess?

I shall provide some answers in my next article.


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SCHOOL CURRICULA AND MOE’S INITIATIVES – Part One (22 January 2009)

The video ‘Is Primary School Too Tough?’ from The Straits Times Razor TV vividly depicts the syndrome of ‘the paper chase’ in Singapore. At the same time, it exposes the disparity between the common philosophy of schools and MOE’s initiatives:

It's so true.... it's chain effect... MOE may implement great "teach less & learn more" curriculum, then schools follow but "fine-tune" to make it "tougher" so as to enable ‘A*star ability students’... parents then worry... so tuition-enrichment-drill & drill.... young children have no choice but follow and get stressed... hmmm... poor thing… no childhood like those old days...

Primary school exams getting tougher and tougher every year… Questions not what they were taught or mentioned in textbooks. Current textbooks and workbooks are interesting and children can do them, but with exams nearing students get back more difficult papers… Disparity between the workbooks and the exam papers… Parents get exam papers photo-copied… Do alignment with past exam papers, notice that the tough questions were extracted from some key assessment books… (Realise) schools’ resources are in certain category of assessment books… Get the children to start doing them and will have no problem…

MOE’s Teach Less Learn More – it’s a wonderful philosophy – it theoretically looks good, but when aligned with the schools’ lessons, there is great disparity. Schools compete with one another, parents add to the problem by getting their children into tuition to enhance them further...
Is the curriculum insufficient that parents need to send their children for enrichment?

Lesser time teaching, but who to teach children to think out of the box, to apply what they learnt in a different context? What do the teachers do with the (extra) time?

MOE should look into this so that ‘teach less & learn more’ will not be taken to imply "teaching less by school teachers and learning more at home from tutors & parents through tuitions and enrichment programmes.

* Note: Texts modified to allow for the flow of the contents.

The guests in the interview possess excellent observations and speak for all discerning adults.

I recall my very short, but enlightening experience of working at the HQ of PCF. I was recommended to work as an evaluator (to advise its kindergartens and share my skills, knowledge and experiences on the new integrated curriculum) by the former Head of the Pre-school Unit and an experienced and dedicated education officer from the same unit.

On the first day of my work, I waited for almost an hour for the head of the department, a foreign (Malaysian) talent to turn up to delegate job tasks to me. She handed me a stack of information on the pros of a Skills-based Programme and the cons of a Whole-language Programme for my reading. She mentioned that she did not agree with the principles of the Integrated Curriculum which she interpreted as the Whole-language Approach. She felt that children should be drilled on language-skills from young from her experience of staying in a Western country. She also emphasised that she was not trying to ‘buy me over’, but hoped I could see her point.

I explained that the Integrated Curriculum does include skills acquisition and it uses a combination of the Constructivist and Holistic Approaches that is similar to, but more comprehensive than the Whole-language Approach. Her response to my explanation was aggressive. She retorted that of course she knew what an Integrated Curriculum is as she had obtained a Master's in Early Childhood. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she questioned that if the curriculum is so easy to be implemented, why was I the only candidate that MOE had recommended.

Apart from the above incident, many parents who were aware of the benefits of an Integrated Curriculum with a Holistic Approach had told me their unpleasant encounters with the principals and head teachers of their children’s schools – of how they had debated over curriculum and syllabus matters.
You’ve guessed it – The schools won. Parents were told that if they were to insist that children should not be drilled on contents to be taught at the next levels to prepare them for the exams, they would have themselves to blame if their children did not get good grades.

So, what’s wrong with our education system? Or rather, what’s wrong with the mindsets of our school administrators? Are they so staunchly resistant to change? Or could they have no idea at all on how to implement the change? Do they co-operate only on the surface with MOE? What’s the hidden agenda?
What are MOE’s plans to see that schools comply with its well-researched new initiatives that have been proven to be beneficial to children’s development?


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CRITERIA FOR PRESCHOOL TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS (1 January 2009)

The Preschool Principal and Teacher Training and Qualifications document exposes MOE’s and MCYS’s short-sightedness and inflexibility.

From 1 Jan 2009, new preschool teachers must have:
5 ‘O’ level credits including EL and DPE-T
Those with C5 or C6 in EL must obtain a minimum band 6.5 IELTS / B4 or better within 2 years of registration as a teacher
DPE-T must be obtained within 4 years of registration as a teacher

Here, the authorities seem to be discrediting a credit. If those with a C5 or C6 aren’t qualified enough to teach K1 and K2, it means they feel that the grading standard of the GCE ‘O’ levels is very low. So they should raise the standard of a GCE ‘O’ level credit pass to be on par with the minimum band 6.5 IELTS, instead of requiring the teachers to take another ECS test.

The authorities should also be flexible enough to look at their grades in the ‘Teaching of Language Arts and Children’s Literature’ module of their DPE. If a very good grade in this module from a Diploma course from institutes such as NIE, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, etc. still doesn’t qualify a teacher, then what’s the purpose of spending so much time and effort in upgrading to a diploma level and also, aren’t the grades of those institutions recognised?

The following extract from ST Forum online letter entitled ‘Consider more than academic excellence when recruiting teachers’ by Mrs Lee-Teo Lay Yan summed it up very well:

With mature candidates making a mid-career switch to enter the teaching profession, I urge the Ministry of Education (MOE) to consider other criteria. Perhaps we should look at a candidate's past work experience, relevant skills and knowledge, most recent qualifications and, most important, contribution and commitment to education. It is absurd to assess a mature candidate based on an examination he took 20 or 30 years ago. Yet, at most job interviews, such information is still required.

I cite the example of a mature candidate who has made a mid-career switch to join the teaching profession. She sat for a language placement test recently at the British Council to enrol in an International English Language Testing System preparation course to meet MOE's English proficiency entry requirement. Surprisingly, she attained a rather high score in the placement test. Perhaps MOE should review its entry criteria for mature candidates and assess them on a case-by-case basis. By applying a standard criterion across the board, unnecessary time, effort and money are spent training and getting a paper qualification more for administrative purposes.

The second issue I have is with the prerequisites for pre-school principals. It is stated on MOE’s website:

By January 2006, all pre-school principals are required to have:
Diploma in Pre-school Education - Teaching (DPE-T)
Diploma in Pre-school Education - Leadership (DPE-L)
At least two years of relevant experience in the pre-school sector

MOE’s criteria for managers of private schools used to be: Persons of exemplary conduct, possessing the knowledge, management skills and experience in education related matters. Minimum qualification: Diploma in any discipline.

I contend that an Executive Diploma is as good as a DPE-L, if not better. So, the prerequisites of a pre-school principal should be:
Diploma in Pre-school Education - Teaching (DPE-T)
Diploma in Pre-school Education - Leadership (DPE-L) or its equivalent
At least two years of relevant experience in the pre-school sector

I suggest the relevant authorities review their criteria to avoid missing out on some of the best early childhood educators.

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EDUCATION REFORMS IN SINGAPORE (29 December 2008)

From MOE’s taglines mentioned in my previous article, we can see that since late 1990’s, it has shifted its emphasis on academic to more on-field and holistic education.

In his speech at the MOE Work Plan Seminar 2008, Dr Ng Eng Hen, the Minister for Education, revealed that many educators showed support for the active and holistic approach. Indeed, any experienced and knowledgeable educator will have no qualms over the benefits of such an education reform.

However, I find the primary and secondary units slow in coming up with a new core curriculum as compared with the preschool unit (The Preschool unit has successfully follow-up on its Integrated Pilot Programme and has come up with a new core curriculum where all kindergartens can refer to).

A number of primary schools had implemented a similar pilot programme - the SEED programme around the same time as the preschool pilot programme. Others have engaged curriculum specialists to work on various innovative programmes. It was reported that there are 106 on-going School-based Curriculum Innovation (SCI) projects from 100 schools under the ‘Teach Less Learn More Ignite! Framework’ in one of Dr Ng’s speeches. How’s the progress? Where have they reached? Or are they still groping their ways?

One cannot be half-hearted in decision-making. Once you’ve decided that the holistic approach is the way to go, you’ll need to gather all the resources available to build up the structure – the core curriculum.

Paradoxically, structure is the only way to ‘free up’ time and ‘create’ room for flexibility and diversities.

From the core curriculum, the schools can then choose to focus on their niche areas (e.g. the 5 areas of focus in this year’s theme of ‘Nurturing Every Child For The Future’ – Engaging Students, Harnessing Technology, Embracing Every Child, Shaping Character and Inculcating Global Outlook) that would all still fall within the holistic approach.

The success of the Preschool Unit lies in these three words: ‘Just Do It!’

The pilot Preschool New Integrated Curriculum was written by a group of experienced NIE Early Childhood lecturers and some education officers from MOE (Preschool Unit) within a short period of a year or two. Though it had its flaws in that each writer was too specialised in their own area of expertise and that there wasn’t much co-ordination in the lessons, it was however a very daring and effective move.

Follow-ups:
Observations, reports and feedback on the curriculum were collected from the pilot teachers and parents of the participating children, which were then built into the revised new curriculum. It has undergone the essential procedures of an effective action plan:
Initiate – Design – Implement – Monitor – Review/Adjust – Establish

An important point to note is that there is an obvious lack of communication and channel of shared information within the different departments of the Ministry of Education.
Learning is a progressive process; good communication ensures effective synchronisation of education goals. The primary and secondary school units should tap on the research findings by the preschool unit and fully utilise them, instead of spending huge resources and time to start all over again to embark on their individual research findings.

Expenditure on education reforms should be cost effective as it is tax-payers’ money.

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WHAT DO WE WANT TO SEE IN OUR FUTURE STUDENTS? (1 December 2008)

From MOE’s mission statement ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’ in 1997, emphasis on Innovation and Enterprise Spirit in 2003, focus on Character Development around 2006, and the current ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ slogan, we should be able to identify with what we want to see in our future students (regardless of whether MOE has achieved its goals).

For myself, I hope that our future students will be able to see themselves as leaders. This attribute encompasses development in many areas, such as intellectual (reasoning), physical (action), mental (power) and emotional (control and management). Students need to adopt a proactive attitude, develop an analysing mind to be able to make good decisions, and believe in their worth in contributing to the society at large.

People may retort: If everyone becomes a leader, then there would be no followers. This is not a problem as leaders come in various forms: You can lead the way in a team to agree or disagree. You can lead your peers or co-workers to be proactive in working on solutions to problems. You can lead in your area of expertise and be a model for people in other trades and industries to emulate. You can simply be ‘self-leading’ to excellence and contribute to society.

Thus, it is necessary for schools to provide the environment and opportunities for the students to develop these strengths. What we require is an effective curriculum, flexible, reflective and motivating teachers, and adequate tools and facilities.

Out of the three, teachers’ aptitude is the most crucial.

Teachers must show the way. I’ve come across teachers who sneered at the idea of ‘Teachers as Leaders’ and who remarked ‘Who do we (you) think we (you) are?!’ If teachers do not even believe in themselves and are not the least interested, how do we expect our students to pick up the gumption to lead?

For a start, school teachers should take advantage of favourable situations to work with project co-ordinators when designing lessons. They should follow-up on students’ project works and on-field experiences, and pose related questions for critical thinking (this has been implemented in our New Integrated Preschool Curriculum).

Schools should also encourage the culture of giving opinions, speaking up, questioning policies and brainstorming ideas. Here, teachers need to brief the class on the rules in a brainstorming session, for example, everyone needs to suggest something and nobody is allowed to put others’ idea down, however insignificant they may feel it is. Once students feel comfortable and confident to speak up, they would be able to think better and know what they would like to advocate.

With the right learning environment and mentors, students can be inculcated, if not trained, to build up leadership mindsets and qualities.


P/S: A word of encouragement for fresh graduates in this global economic crisis: LEAD! This is a great opportunity to try out new ideas and solutions! Good Luck!

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IS IT BETTER TO HAVE ALL-GRADUATE PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHERS? (4 November 2008)

During his speech at the MOE Work Plan Seminar 2008 in September, Dr Ng Eng Hen announced three major initiatives to 'take education to a higher level’. Of the three, the ‘All-Graduate Teacher Recruitment for Primary Schools by 2015’ should be the most debatable initiative.

On a superficial level, the initiative appears sound. Yes, you raise the academic standard of the teachers. You are willing to invest more on the graduates. It will reflect well when compared with Korea, New Zealand and Sweden where teachers are required to be degree holders.
Now, the question is: On what basis does the ministry determine that this will lead to raising the quality of teaching?

Just like an author, it takes some talent to be a good teacher. And to be a good primary school teacher who is required to deliver the New Integrated Curriculum with a holistic approach, one needs to possess adequate general knowledge, excellent interactive skills, be highly hands-on (able to put theory into practical use) and be able to bring oneself to the different levels of primary school children so as to plan different strategies to meet individual learning needs, on top of the necessary academic qualifications. Give you a real-life example: There was this novice teacher with outstanding academic results engaged by a top secondary school to teach Add Maths. He was able to solve practically every difficult Maths problem that his students posed to him, but none of his students understood his methods, as he did not know how to explain them.

Teaching primary levels (where a stronger mastery of pedagogy is necessary) is very different from teaching higher levels of learning (where a stronger mastery of content is crucial), unless Dr Ng’s ministry is looking at catering to only the ‘cream of the crop’ among the primary school students. Then, those who go for the jugular would comment: Graduate teachers for graduates’ children?

The announcement to have all-graduate teacher recruitment must have led to much unhappiness and controversy as it was reported that ‘MOE has clarified that 'A'-level and polytechnic students may still apply, but they will have to be qualified for acceptance into the National Institute of Education (NIE) for an undergraduate course’.

The ministry should not be closed-minded in restricting teacher candidates to possessing good diploma and ‘A’ level qualifications, and going for an undergraduate course. I know of this smart sixteen-year-old girl who was at one time very rebellious. Her father reportedly almost ‘begged’ with her to be serious in her studies so as to at least obtain a GCE ‘O’ level certificate, but to no avail. She would have been considered as ‘mediocre’ in terms of her academic performance had she not been lucky to ‘wake up’ after her shock of getting terribly poor preliminary school results. She concentrated in her studies and obtained straight A’s for all the subjects in her ‘O’ levels two months later. She’s twenty-five now, been with A*STAR for a while, and is currently taking her Ph D.

There are always knowledgeable people who do not obtain good grades for whatever reasons. And there are many ways of improving one’s knowledge and literacy besides enrolling in higher institutions of education.

To be rational, graduate and non-graduate teachers (who meet the required minimum qualifications) should co-exist. The two groups bring with them different understanding of teaching and learning, varied teaching/learning experiences and strategies, and complementing areas of knowledge. The most important thing is working together towards the best interests of the children.

Ideally, we want highly qualified teachers with good skills, experiences and dedication. I'm sure qualified, non-graduate teachers with the skills, experiences and dedication will never stop improving themselves, and will pursue their degree when the time and momentum is right.

To sum up the debating point in this article, I quote SM Goh “I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on knowledge and ideas.”

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REMEDIAL, TUITION AND ENRICHMENT CLASSES (1 October 2008)

Studies show there are numerous factors that children fear and dislike. These factors ‘stop’ children from learning. Some of the common factors:

  1. Very fierce teachers / Negative messages and feedback from teachers
  2. No recognition of children’s preferred learning styles / Poor teaching methods
  3. Remedial / Tuition classes
  4. Spelling Tests
  5. Pressure from parents
  6. Expectations that are too high (Tests and examinations, which can be pitched quite high)
  7. Expectations that are too low
  8. Poor language development
  9. Limited preschool experience
  10. Homework
  11. Rigidly enforced school rules
  12. Distracting learning environment (arrangement of class, peer group, etc.)
  13. Effect of peer group
  14. Frequent absence from school

From the above list, we can see that ‘Remedial / Tuition classes’, ‘Pressure from parents’ and ‘Expectations that are too high / low’ are linked. This about explains why children are sent for extra classes although they have negative feelings toward such classes.

Do extra classes work? Are these classes all good or all bad?
Adults need to analyse these points.

I do not encourage parents to send children to tuition classes that are merely repetitions of school lessons. Although some hardworking children may show an improvement in their grades after attending the classes, it is usually due to some experienced tutors’ ‘ability to spot questions’. This way of memorising answers and methods of solution without understanding concepts and underlying meanings is not conducive to future real-life applications. These children will be faced with the same problems when a new topic is introduced. They would never find learning enjoyable.

Enrichment classes, on the other hand, are more beneficial as they target specific aspects of learning. Unfortunately, their charges are often on the high-end range, making them unaffordable and inaccessible to the poor and below-average families.
I think the solution is for non-profit, charitable organisations to implement special enrichment programmes that combine academic with other areas of intellectual development to replace the dreaded tuition classes.

As for school’s remedial classes, teachers in charge must possess great patience and a wide array of teaching strategies.
In some subjects that require memory work and the skill to identify ‘patterned’ or structured processes, ‘drilling’ does have some effect.
For children who can’t ‘catch up’ with the speed of their peers in class, individual coaching is useful. However, as we know, learning is a social process, much of the learning should occur in co-operative groups. Teachers need to stop the classes once the children are on track.

Some school teachers are reported to have ‘advised’ parents to send their ‘poor-performance’ kids to tuition classes. I personally feel it’s pathetic for teachers to do so.

There are many ways parents can help their children at home, even if they do not possess high education. Knowledgeable, skilful and experienced teachers should be able to identify the needs of individuals and suggest appropriate ways to help the parents help their children at home, other than having extra, repeated classes for those children.


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EARLY YEARS EDUCATION (18 September 2008)

Preschool and lower primary education is very important not only because children’s minds absorb fast and learn more in the early years, but also because it is during this period that baseline skills should be introduced.

In Singapore, children are automatically ‘promoted’ to the next grade regardless of their levels of understanding.

Teachers taking the higher grade would usually teach according to the syllabus to be covered for that grade. So a teacher coaching primary six students will wonder what primary five teachers have been teaching when his/her students do not seem to know the basics of a topic that is to be taught in-depth in that grade. And primary five teachers in turn accuse primary four teachers for not doing their part. The list goes down…

Many lower primary teachers, on the other hand, mistakenly ‘prepare’ their students for the next level by frequently testing and giving their students practices on a higher-grade learning material.

This is a vicious cycle that should be stopped.

The big questions are: Did the teachers reflect on why this is happening, how they would teach the students if they were to take on the lower / higher grade, and do they know the skills and methods of teaching the specific topic/subject from the first level to the highest level?

MOE had clarified that all our school teachers are trained teachers when former Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam once commented that many of our teachers are not trained.

Whether we like it or not, the fact is that most of our trained and highly academic teachers possess inert knowledge that lies fallow (not used). They may know how children learn, but if they do not apply and adapt the appropriate teaching methods to meet the students’ levels, they would never be able to close the Taught – Learned Gap (Students do not always learn all that teachers teach).

I like the Chinese term for ‘Teaching’, which is ‘Teach and Learn’ (Jiao Xue). To be a good teacher, one needs to be a good learner. A good learner possesses generative knowledge (knowledge that is used and applied), and is good at problem-solving skills. So good teachers not only need to constantly improve their knowledge, they also need to ‘go down the layers’ to find out how to teach baseline skills, even if they are teaching students in the higher grades (there are always students who have missed something or who learn at a slower speed).

Perhaps school teachers (especially lower primary teachers) could take a leaf from qualified preschool teachers who have the skills, knowledge and experiences in using multi-sensory teaching methods. Older students will also benefit from this as everyone enjoys active and lively lessons.

Skills (teaching methods) should preferably be acquired through hands-on / real-life experiences to be applicable.


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PRESCHOOL NEW CURRICULUM GUIDE (4 September 2008)

In reply to Mr Lin Bao Ming’s suggestion for the need of the pre-school education sector to introduce structured programmes, and to establish teaching goals for pre-school teachers to assess the development of their young charges ('Need to establish assessment indicators for preschool education, 2 Jul'), MOE reveals that it is producing 'a curriculum planning guide which spells out a set of key knowledge, skills and dispositions to guide teachers in the development of appropriate curriculum and assessment that will support and promote children’s learning and development'.

I was fortunate to be given access to the draft of the curriculum guide when I was engaged to write part of its kindergarten lesson plans.

I wish to express my view on its contents (I won’t be discussing the contents as it is not for citation).

The ministry’s preschool unit has done a good job in developing the guide. It shows it is aware that the effectiveness of a good curriculum lies in the abilities of the teachers who deliver it by focusing on the teachers in the guide. And unlike the Kindergarten Curriculum Framework published in 2003 which comprises of mostly theories, the new guide provides a comprehensive set of examples to demonstrate the theories. Another commendable aspect is the emphasis on dispositions, social emotional learning, critical thinking skills and meeting the needs of children of different levels of understanding. I hope it will include some sample lesson plans to show educators how all the above skills and knowledge can be incorporated into the lessons.

Whether you are a preschool or primary school educator, look out for it. You could be enlightened.

* I shall write a review on the guide when it is officially launched.


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DOES LITERACY EQUATE EDUCATION (1 September 2008)

Many people, especially our leaders, often relate individuals who acquire academic excellence to highly educated personnel.

So, does being academic excellent equate being highly educated?
Does Literacy Equate Education?

Literacy is only part of education. In our exam-oriented educational system, students are graded largely according to their ability to memorize theories, definitions, statistics, exemplary works, etc.

Education is holistic and involves a lot more skills and knowledge.
In my case, I received the most and the best education from my parents. From them, I learnt that as a literate person, I need to offer help to those who are illiterate or who have not acquired basic literacy. Help goes in the form of interpreting messages in letters from government offices, filling in application forms, writing request or complaint letters on their behalf, etc. I was also educated to persevere in tasks, learn from failures and mistakes, and overcome all hardships (although there was none comparable with theirs so far) to pave the path for a better life in old age, on top of other traditional values such as courtesy, respect for elders, filial piety, empathy for the less fortunate, etc.

I was never lack of encouragement and advices such as:

  • Be self-motivated and spontaneous in doing good
  • Believe in own abilities
  • Pursue your dreams, but be accountable for things said and done
  • Be resourceful and open-minded (there are more than one way of doing things; look at things from different angles and accept constructive comments)
  • Be courageous – have the guts to do great things, but remember to look into details
  • Never take advantage of others, but remember to build up the intelligence not to be taken advantage of by others (don’t be ignorant)
  • Have a big, kind heart and be happy and healthy
My home education did not come solely in the form of speeches. In my childhood days, when roads in Singapore were not so well-built, I had frequently observed my dad stopping to level uneven grounds with his feet, or looking for planks and stones to cover potholes and puddles of water left by the rain. My mum had explained that although we were too poor to do charitable acts such as building bridges, roads and schools to benefit the society, my dad believed in little kind gestures that could bring safety and convenience to others.

I had witnessed my parents working day and night to support and care for not only us, but also my cousins – five from my paternal uncle (who was widowed) and three from my maternal uncle (who was divorced). The kind of selfless love my parents, especially my dad, showered on us truly commanded great respect from all. (There were just too many things my parents had role-modelled and taught me, to be able to list them all out. I shall not elaborate further so as to keep to the point of the topic being discussed.)

I remember that whenever I avoided a real-life task due to lack of knowledge of it or because of feeling of fear and incompetence, my mum would lecture: “Don’t know, then learn – go find out about it in school. Why do you think I send you to school for?” Or when I was impulsive and rude, “Didn’t you learn good manners in school, too?”
In her mind, school is a place where one gains all forms of knowledge and learns to be a refined person.

For too many years, our schools have focused on academic excellence and neglected the other important aspects of education such as those mentioned above.

I hope for schools to build strong Home-School Partnership with parents, and to provide holistic education, not just literacy, for our children. That’s the reason why I am fully supportive of the new Integrated Curriculum with the holistic approach.


P/S: My dad was illiterate and my mum had learnt to read in dialect from my granduncle. They had passed on for many years now, but I’ll never forget the education they had given me. To me, they were two of the most educated persons in the world.

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INTEGRATED CURRICULUM WITH THE HOLISTIC APPROACH (9 August 2008)

Initiating the Integrated Curriculum in schools is a wise decision by our Ministry Of Education (MOE).

It first launched a Pilot Programme in kindergartens in year 2001 and 2002. Many parents of the participating children witnessed the positive difference in their children after undergoing the programme. Their children were able to think ‘out of the box’, better at problem solving and analysing skills, enjoy learning, and have learnt to build a trusting bond with their friends and teachers. Due to various positive outcomes, the parents requested that the Ministry implement the same curriculum in the primary schools.

The curriculum has since been extended to the primary schools.

The good news is that more and more teachers are undergoing training in the Integrated Curriculum. The flip side: many teachers are put off by the huge amount of work needed to prepare for the integrated lessons.

As a curriculum’s effectiveness depends on how it is delivered, it is therefore necessary to relieve teachers of some work, and to provide them with adequate information and resources.

About the Integrated Curriculum
An Integrated Curriculum provides various learning experiences for children. It is based on the understanding that a learning experience from one domain (subject area) usually leads to another learning experience from another domain. The interdisciplinary activities link knowledge and skills and help children relate them to real-life experiences and situations. Hence, it provides opportunities for total development.

Significant Learning Outcomes(when the curriculum is delivered effectively):

  • Positive thinking
    Positive attitudes and values
    Good learning habits
    Spontaneous and independent learning
    Enhanced imagination and creativity
    Resourcefulness
    Respect for diversity
    Confidence and competency
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TEACHERS’ CORE ROLES

Teachers are known to be the most influential figures, besides parents, in schoolchildren's lives. As such, teachers' core roles should be identified and emphasised, so that they can direct their precious time and energy in assuming the roles well.

What are teachers' core roles?
The American NBPTS (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards) - 2000 for accomplished teachers has defined teachers' core roles clearly and adequately:

  1. Possess Knowledge of Students
  2. Possess Knowledge of Content and Curriculum
  3. Create Effective Learning Environment
  4. Have Respect for Diversity
  5. Create and Adapt a Varied Collection of Instructional Resources
  6. Understand Meaningful Applications of Knowledge
  7. Provide Students with Multiple Paths to Knowledge
  8. Understand Different Assessment Methods
  9. Work to Create Positive Relationships with Families
  10. Reflect and Improve Quality of Practice
  11. Contribute to the Profession

We can see that each and every criterion is important and it takes a teacher immense time and effort to meet them all.

So, what are the non-core roles of today's teachers? What can we do to help teachers gain time to focus on their core roles?

 

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