Monday 7 October 2013

Bridging the education gap

School is very different from 20 years ago when the current parents were pupils. Goh Chin Lian and Tessa Wong look at how to get everyone on the same page for the new-era reforms.
The Straits Times, 5 Oct 2013

LIKE most parents, dad Vincent Chia wants to help his son Josiah, 11, when he struggles with his mathematics homework.

The trouble is, school - and learning - has changed a lot since he first went to school nearly 40 years ago.

Pupils in primary schools solve maths problems these days by drawing diagrams, known as the models method.

Still, as the well-meaning Mr Chia, 46, says: "I can't help but use the method I learnt". His boy is in Yew Tee Primary School.

While parents want to help, for teachers it is a hindrance.

"It just confuses the pupils," says Ms Elaine Tan, 42, a teacher at Xinmin Primary School, who has had to ask parents not to step in and teach their kids algebra.

This school-parent disparity is what researchers at British think-tank, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), and more recently, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, call a 40-year conceptual and communication gap.

School is no longer the rote-learning, notes-copying and lecture-style experience parents went through 20 years ago. Education reformers, meanwhile, are thinking 20 years ahead.

Parents such as Mr Chia are in the dark, disconnected from their own children's learning, as Singapore's education system switches from training exam-smart children to preparing today's youth for an uncertain world in which critical thinking and problem-solving are prized.

Even as that gap looms wide, others need bridging, too. Why change, when the system clings to the old framework of grades to be a grad? Could schools do more to educate parents about the new-era approach? And are teachers up to the task?

Grade obsession

MR HENG, referring to the recent Our Singapore Conversation exercise, was struck by the gap between what schools think they are doing - to develop every child to the best of his ability - and what parents perceive to be going on in schools.

For many parents, that still boils down to grades and exams.

Take CHIJ St Theresa's Convent. Its 21-year-old Education For Life programme takes learning beyond the classroom, training students in research, communication and problem-solving through camps, overseas trips and community service. Past students told Insight what they learnt has had a lasting impact and relevance to them at university and in their careers.

But Ms Maggie Lee, 46, an English teacher at the school, says: "Parents want to look at assignments and homework and how their children score in comparison with other people.

"When we try to do something more flexible, we are sometimes met with scepticism. Parents ask, 'How does it help in exams? Is this going to be tested?'"

This ingrained attitude reared its head when the school arranged for Secondary 5 students to visit homes for the abandoned elderly last month, one month before their O levels.

Principal Pauline Wong, 52, wanted the students to take a break from studies and to remind them that the goal of their education is to work for the good of others and not just to get a good score in the exams for themselves.

However, 40 per cent of students did not sign up. Parents wrote in to say they wanted their child to focus on the exams.

It is their loss.

Madam Brenda Lee-McColl, 56, a director of sales and marketing, let her daughter Claire, 17, go. As a result, Claire says she found herself asking: "'Would I leave my parents in this state?' It made me reflect on how I should not be like that, that my generation should change."

But who can blame parents for being fixated on grades and exams, given that tertiary institution admissions - and the ticket to a good job - are based on grades?

Education expert Jason Tan, an associate professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE), notes that the system has always been geared towards "identifying the cream of the crop and the future elite" with high-stakes exams and streaming.

Hence, parents who grew up in this system cannot shake off the belief that "not all pathways in life are of equal worth", even as the ministry is promoting its "multiple pathways of success" concept, which is that no matter which school a student goes to, he or she can still succeed in life.

The pervasive tuition culture feeds on this belief, and in itself creates problems which the changes in education are trying to solve, educators say. They observe that students who have had tuition are less motivated in class as they feel they have already learnt the lesson. They have also been spoon-fed by their tutor, rather than trying to figure out the answer on their own - the very skills they will need for the future.

Parents as equal partners?

SCHOOLS say they do try and engage parents by holding talks that explain the latest changes.

Increasingly, however, the more educated and informed parents want to have a greater say in their child's education, especially if they feel a learning difficulty or particular needs are not being addressed sufficiently. But are schools willing to work with them at this level?

Retired principal Belinda Charles, now the dean of the Academy of Principals, says candidly that educators are "acting as if we know better than the parents".

"We haven't quite learnt how to do it in a way that is constructive to both, because we fear they will try and 'interfere' too much."

Schools may point to their parent support groups as proof of deeper, more sustained engagement, but Ms Charles says these groups are just about "support" and the resources they bring.

Parents could contribute more as part of a school community - "not there just to criticise and give the money, but to work alongside us", she says.

There is certainly no lack of desire by some parents, as seen in their zeal to learn about new education methods. Dissatisfied with talks she attended at her children's schools, parent Tina Chua, 45, attended seminars organised by enrichment centres and read books to learn more about maths' models method.

While schools typically use parents as volunteers or to give career talks, could they give insight into the changes being rolled out? There are parents such as Ms Esther De Cruz, 33, who is a trained psychologist and whose daughter is in Primary 1. When her child came home and said someone in her group "didn't work well with me" even though the teacher was there, she thought: "Are they supervised or left on their own? I would like to see how this group work is done."

Ms Charles notes: "Maybe one day we might have to see parents as equal partners who bring in as much, and we discuss with them. While we are doing this in some way, the initiative always seems to come from the school."

While schools are engaging these parents, they also have to look after another group who may not speak up so much: Those not engaged with their child's education or unable to teach them, who require more than just explanations about changes.

They need more hand-holding, like how Yishun Primary School invites parents, who include hawkers and taxi drivers, to a maths workshop or a session with their child on making "mind maps" on iPods. Principal Chan Kwai Foong, 62, says about 70 per cent to 80 per cent attend.

The veteran educator even gives parents tips on parenting, and gets them to bond with their children in school activities. Assurance is a key part, and she tells them the teachers will do all the remedial lessons, and all they need to do is to check on their child's work: "We tell them, 'If you see a lot of crosses, don't panic, just come and see our teacher.'"

Teaching the teachers

NO MATTER how well thought out the changes, successful implementation rests with the teachers. Their readiness to embrace change can make or break the reforms.

Teck Whye Secondary principal Ong Kong Hong, 40, says: "Teachers are the ones imparting the skills and knowledge. They must believe in it. If they don't see any value in doing it, they are just going to teach it mechanically, then students will not fully appreciate it."

Parents say they have come across teachers who do not seem to be on board with the reforms, such as telling pupils not to complete open-ended questions on their own because the correct answers will be given to the class.

While such cases should be the exception, they illustrate how much teachers also have to adapt to the changes, especially those who grew up in a different era.

Ms Alice Poh, 62, who has taught for 40 years and is a senior teacher at CHIJ St Theresa's Convent, is aware that times are different but recalls with nostalgia those old days. As a geography student, she was made to memorise the positions of cities and draw the map of the world freehand.

Students were more respectful of teachers: "We used to have girls who would wait at the carpark for the teacher's car to come up and help carry the bags. And when it rains, they will take umbrellas. I don't think the kids do it now. They must be thinking that this is out of this world.

"That's part of character-building and it was intuitively done. I suppose the world has changed, and the background has changed, maybe that isn't taught at home."

Principals say they have had to assure teachers who fear not being able to keep up with the changes, amid having to bear an already heavy workload.

New teachers, meanwhile, are being trained to be adaptable - thinkers who can "reflect on their roles, think systematically about their own practice, draw on theories and research to deepen their understanding and adapt and innovate their teaching", says NIE.

Cultural gap

ANOTHER disparity lies in whether the education reforms, which often draw on Western-style approaches, are compatible with traditional Asian values.

The new approach promotes independent critical thinking and speaking up to give different opinions. Such skills are seen as necessary to nurture creative people who push the boundaries and seek new frontiers.

But how does this sit with societal values that emphasise obligations to respect authority, give face to others and maintain social harmony? And how will the change from relying on the teacher as the sole provider of information, to students learning on their own and among their peers, influence society's tendency to trust in a single authority that knows best?

Dr Tan of NIE says when new teaching methods and education systems are imported from abroad, studies have shown that "culture morphing" usually takes place, where "parents and teachers morph the reform to suit their pre-existing cultural norms".

One example is how experiential learning methods tend to take a back seat for students in their key examination years, such as in Primary 6 and Secondary 4.

"A lot of progressive teaching and learning approaches tend to get sidelined for rote learning and repeated exam practice, because parents want that," he says.

Teck Whye Secondary's Mr Ong agrees that there will be some tension of different values, so it is important to complement, say, the teaching of critical and creative thinking with character and citizenship education, where students learn about respect and responsibility in the context of managing impulsiveness in speech or commenting online or on Twitter.

And while he sees students speaking up a lot more now in class, he thinks teachers have been fairly adaptable to tap this liveliness, instead of telling them to seal their lips.

Didactic teaching has changed to group-based learning, but respect for teachers has not been compromised, he says.

He adds: "Respect is cultivated in a very different way from the sage-on-the-stage concept. We build student-teacher rapport: We are here to help you and facilitate your learning. We may not have all the answers. At least we give you the suggestions to find the right answer.

"With strong rapport, the respect will be there and the student will naturally listen to their teachers."

On target for the future?

THE Education Ministry itself is the first to admit that there is no certainty about what kind of technical knowledge a child needs to do well in 20 years' time.

So whether the changes that parents are coming to grips with - or at least are aware of - will work or can keep pace with the developments in society and the world is not a given.

In Singapore, education reformers have since the 1960s gone from getting youth off the streets, to training them for jobs in industries that require fewer workers but higher level of skills, to introducing greater flexibility and choices in learning.

And so far, it has been a success story. Singapore's education system is highly regarded internationally for its academic results. But it is not a perfect record: It has also had to make adjustments to long-held policies such as streaming, bilingualism and ranking of schools.

Education policymakers in the past few decades were arguably facing relatively more predictable times and less complex situations compared to now, given how quickly technology is advancing, how much social structures are changing and how the world is more interconnected and fraught with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Their response now is to focus on nurturing values, character, social and emotional abilities, life skills and a curious mind - qualities they hope will enable the new generation to keep learning and navigate future challenges.

Meanwhile, parents such as Mr Chia can only hope this will be sufficient to prepare their children.

He says: "It's getting harder for me to grasp all these new teaching concepts, and frankly I am not sure whether they will work. But they are at least worth supporting because such qualities and soft skills will be the most important assets for my child when he grows up and goes to work."

From 'chalk and talk' to blowing bubbles
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 5 Oct 2013

IT IS a Tuesday morning at Xinmin Primary School, and eight-year-old Lois Lim is learning English.

There is not a textbook in sight. Nor is the Primary 2 pupil in class.

Lois and her fellow pupils are outside, blowing bubbles in the school garden. Later, they will head inside and write about it.

It is a far cry from English lessons before the recent education reforms. The subject was taught in a more formal fashion with grammar drills, textbook exercises and lessons on essay structure, recalls Xinmin's principal, Ms Cheah Poh Lian.

These days, the "chalk and talk" style of teaching familiar to parents - where teachers dictate at the blackboard - is increasingly complemented by alternative teaching methods.

Little Lois declares: "It's more fun than just sitting inside all the time, and it makes it easier to write." But there is a serious side to this playtime.

Teachers are recognising that children tend to learn better by interacting more with their environment and other pupils.

Ms Cheah says: "Their learning needs to be very hands-on, they need to touch and feel things."

So these days, an English lesson for lower primary school children may see pupils taking part in various activities before sitting down for a class discussion and writing down their thoughts.

And there is a strong, underlying structure. Take Lois' class, which kicks off with a song about bubbles to "grab their attention, as children need to feel engaged in every step of the way", says Ms Cheah. The children then read a simple story - also about bubbles - to improve their reading skills and learn new words.

Then it is off to the school garden, where the pupils gaily wave bubble wands. It is not all play though; their teacher Nur Amilia Fendy tells them to observe what happens as they blow their bubbles.

The pupils share their observations later in a class discussion and then separate into small groups to write short compositions.

Upstairs, a Primary 3 class learns fractions using educational toys, or "manipulatives", in educational parlance. Here, they are colourful cardboard triangles and semi-circles which children fit together.

It is different from the old days, says Xinmin's maths department head, Ms Teo Ai Lin, who is in her early 40s. She recalls: "When I was learning fractions, all we had were worksheets where you would draw circles and shade in the parts."

There is a greater emphasis on pupils applying knowledge learnt in the classroom to real-life situations, too.

Pupils at Xinmin, for example, learn about fractions using the dividing up of portions of pizza - which they could eat at the end of the lesson - and have been taken to the supermarket to practise counting skills by shopping to a budget.

With a bigger emphasis in schools these days on holistic education, teachers are also on the lookout for "teachable moments", or opportunities to impart values and soft skills.

Ms Nur Amilia, for instance, sought to teach perseverance with her bubble blowing activity.

She did this by getting pupils to make the soap solution - they had to experiment several times before they had the right mix to create bubbles.

Similarly, a music class later that day doubles as a lesson on teamwork and self-reflection, as a class of Primary 2 pupils learn about percussion and rhythm with tambourines.

Pupils are divided into groups to come up with tambourine routines - so that they can learn to work in a team - and compete to win points based on their performances.

To encourage participation and discipline, extra points are given to those who exhibit good behaviour and volunteer answers when the teacher asks questions.

The second half of the lesson sees pupils writing or drawing what they learnt in a journal. Each child is given a booklet, called Xinminite's Journey - in that the pupils periodically log their experiences in class or on excursions.

Such reflection is important, says Ms Cheah, because "they learn to be more articulate and expressive, and it helps reinforce lessons and values they have learnt".

Teachers are also trained to ask questions during such sessions to get pupils to think about their actions and recognise their own feelings and those of others.

This uses a method called social-emotional learning. Studies show it cultivates a desire among children to strive to do better, says Ms Cheah, who adds: "When the child is motivated and self-disciplined, the academic results come naturally."

Not all parents understand the need for this. Some parents - especially those with children in Primary 6 - have asked if instead, teachers can spend more time preparing their children for tests and exams like the PSLE.

Ms Cheah says teachers thus have to continually persuade parents that "academic results are a result of the child being developed holistically, in terms of discipline, thinking and being able to articulate well. So that when they go to secondary school, they are well-prepared".


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