Posts tagged ‘Singapore’

Delivery or design

There is no doubt that globalisation has created a greater demand for quality education and there are pressures to rethink the nature and rationale of our curriculum.  It leads us to ask questions such as how can we continue to confine knowledge within old frameworks? What possibilities are opened up by the availability of new tools for learning? What and how can we teach in a way that offers students a variety of new and challenging experiences?

Earlier this month I was invited to speak at a workshop hosted by the Association of Independent Schools South Australia (AISSA) on how the Australian curriculum could create the capacity for transformation. Also speaking was Rob Randall, CEO of ACARA who provided an update on the national curriculum.

While the national curriculum signals a shift from text book to e-resources and from prescriptive to a more flexible delivery, my point is that it is the teacher and not the curriculum that creates the capacity for transformation.  If we perceive the purpose of teaching as simply delivering a curriculum, then we not only perceive students as passive recipients but we diminish the purpose of education. Our role is to teach students how to think not what to think.

When I was at University I majored in European and Australian history with a minor in English Literature. I trained as a History teacher but my first job was as a full-time English teacher at a secondary school. As you would expect, I was concerned because I was not a ‘trained English teacher.’ On the first day, I met with the English master who told me it didn’t matter because all I needed to know was contained in the English syllabus. The document listed the content, the prescribed hours and the specific texts I was to follow. The syllabus became ‘the bible’ and I wasn’t to deviate from it. These approaches were ill conceived even as we used them.

Dewey said ‘the notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of pre-digested materials.’

When we change the construct of the curriculum from content to learning, we change the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers move from being deliverers to creators, from sages to learners and from cogs to critical thinkers.  If we think about the relevance of a curriculum in today’s world as everything intended to promote wisdom and learning then we give teachers freedom to be creative and responsive to helping students make connections between their lives and the world.

The less prescriptive a curriculum is, the more opportunity there is for experiential learning; giving students space to discern information and construct their own knowledge. Personalising learning means finding out what matters to students and then designing a curriculum that invites them to deepen their understanding, ask questions and importantly fail. Diane Laufenberg, an American History teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia discusses this in her TED talk.

I know I’ve written about Singapore’s skinny curriculum before but we should all be working towards a goal of ‘teaching less, learning more’.  When the curriculum is centred on learning, students become active participants rather than passive recipients.  Their focus shifts from why do I need to learn this to how can what I have learned make a difference.  What better way of empowering students to become active citizens then giving them a voice in their own learning.

Albert Einstein said: “I never teach my pupils; I just provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  I hope the national curriculum is an opportunity for teachers to see themselves as designers and therefore critical to the process of improving education for all students.

‘Sew’ your own success

There is a proverb that says ‘borrowed garments never fit well’.  This is particularly apt for education systems on the journey from good to great.  I believe there are two roads that can be travelled when it comes to school improvement – pay someone to do it for you or ‘sew’ your own success.  One of my favourite quotes is from Richard Elmore and co’s book Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning: We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.

Many education systems from around the world look to Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland for the answers but if it were as simple as borrowing their models, then educational improvement would literally happen overnight.  Countries such as Finland have taken years if not decades to build a high performing education system.  What we can do is look at what works, learn from their success and weave some of these ideas into our own educational narrative.

As Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? acknowledges that “the Finnish school system cannot be transferred anywhere else in the world.  Many of the successful aspects of Finland’s education system are rooted deep in our culture and values.”  He goes on to say that “what we can do…is take a look and learn from one another.”

Earlier this month Sahlberg was interviewed for the Huffington Post – the responses

were ideas worth thinking about:

  1. Primary school teachers put well-being and happiness of their pupils before measured academic progress
  2. Urge parents to take more responsibility for their children e.g giving more time and attention to them at home
  3. Flexible learning pathways that provide personalised options to study what individuals believe will help them become successful in life
  4. A universal standard for financing schools so that resources are channeled to schools according to real needs
  5. Align the vocational schools curriculum to the standards of academic high schools
  6. Elevate schools as places for social learning and development skills
  7. Celebrate national achievements, rather than high rankings in global education league tables
  8. Ensure a universal standard for teacher preparation that follows standards in other top professions

Systems around the world can learn from each other about what makes the most difference and while each system reflects its own political, economic and social context, the key driver I think, is a relentless focus on quality learning and teaching. This learning recognises the needs and capabilities of every student and the critical importance of good teaching and teacher capacity building.

We will never bring about the changes required in building quality schooling  by continuing to use the stale rhetoric of the school improvement agenda. With its narrow focus on high stakes test scores, programmatic of the shelf solutions , driving achievement through competition and so on, this agenda ignores the experiences that do make a difference.

Time to Tinker

The idea of school as a workshop for ‘tinkering’ isn’t new. John Dewey and others like Reggio Emilia, were early exponents of experiential learning and a great believer that schools should be an extension of home-life and society. Dewey writes in the School and Society (1912):

There is little of one sort of order where things are in process of construction; there is a certain disorder in any busy workshop; there is not silence, persons are not engaged in maintaining certain fixed physical postures; their arms are not folded; they are not holding their books thus and so. They are doing a variety of things, and there is the confusion, the bustle, that results from activity. But out of occupation (not akin to work), out of doing things that are to produce results, and out of doing these in a social and cooperative way, there is born a discipline of its own kind and type. But the school has been so set apart, so isolated from the ordinary conditions and motives of life, that the place where children are sent for discipline is the one place in the world where it is most difficult to get experience – the mother of all discipline worth the name.

Some years ago, Gever Tulley created the Tinkering School. It began as a six day program to “explore the notion that kids can build anything, and through building, learn anything”.  Tulley saw that new insights often emerged when problems become puzzles to be solved. It’s a powerful reminder of how capable children are – especially ones with power tools!

The best-selling Australian children’s author, John Marsden, has also created a school, which is philosophically similar to Dewey’s approach to education. Candlebark challenges traditional approaches to learning and teaching by emphasising the importance of experiential learning within meaningful social contexts; where the learner is not an observer but an active and valued participant within the learning community. From its website:

Candlebark believes that children flourish by experiencing life at close quarters. We regard first-hand experiences as generally superior to second hand experiences. We try to say “Yes” as much as possible – yes to new ideas, yes to experiments, yes to innovations. If the school has a motto, it is “take care, take risks”. We encourage an active engagement with the world. According to our assessment of students’ maturity and abilities, we may teach them to use axes, log splitters and chainsaws. During maintenance activities students may be up ladders, on roofs, changing light globes, using hammers, saws, mattocks, vacuum cleaners and electrical tools.

What seems to separate these schools from the traditional mainstream approach to schooling is time. Students at Candlebark and Tinkering School have time to tinker, explore, problem-solve, build and reflect.  These students are ‘learning by doing’ or in the case of the Tinkering School, ‘learning by building’. When students tinker with materials and ideas, ideas develop in a process that begins by being open to ideas and can end in a ‘happy accident’ as the doodle illustration below shows.

Noone knows the importance of ‘tinkering time’ more than the creator of the BlackBerry. Mike Lazaridis has not only been described as the father of the smart phone revolution but is founder of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, whose alumnus includes Stephen Hawking.

In his recent address at the Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, Lazaridis admits that his most prized possession is his education. According to Lazaridis, the basis of a great education is one that provides students with opportunities to tinker with ideas, take risks and even fail. He believes that nothing beats “creating, hands-on learning and teaching” and speaks warmly about his own high school education.

In Singapore, giving students more time to create and innovate was prioritised nationally when, in 1997, the ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation‘ initiative was launched. As a result, Singapore’s curriculum and assessment have been changing; for example, Ng Pak Trak from Singapore’s National Institute of Education explains:

Syllabi, examinations and university admission criteria were changed to encourage more thinking outside the box and risk-taking. Students are now more engaged in project work and higher order thinking questions to encourage creativity, independent and inter-dependent thinking. (Ng, 2008 in Darling-Hammond, 2010).

The results of this national step are evidenced in the example of Ngee Ann Secondary School:

Among other things, students are given seed money to start their own small business, and the funds they make go back into the school. They prepare a concept proposal and a business plan. Those that are selected can use the small stalls lining one walkway to sell their wares, which may include everything from creating and selling baked goods to designing and selling computer or video games. The businesses are licensed; if they violate regulations, they can be closed down for a week, as in real life, so students learn how the world operates (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

Lazaridis believes that while we are now surrounded by very powerful devices, these are just ideas and it will be new ideas that will take us even further in the future. Admittedly these ideas may come to fruition in 20 years from now but we have a responsibility today as educators, to encourage the ideas of students, to promote tinkering and to ensure opportunities for blue-sky thinking that could one day hold the key to solving complex health, ecological, economic or social challenges.

The challenge for schools is to move learners from desks to workshops; from classrooms to learning spaces; from wielding pens to ‘power’ tools. And while we can only imagine what the future will bring, I’d like to hope we are close to seeing every school as a place where children and ideas flourish simultaneously and where there is time to tinker.

Steven Johnson developed this interesting presentation on the concept of ‘where good ideas come from’. In thinking about how to develop ideas in collaboration, it’s worth a look.

From the outside in

I’m in Singapore this week, giving a keynote and doing a workshop for the 3rd International Project Based Learning Symposium. It is easy to see why Singapore is among the world’s top five performing school systems when there is such a strong focus across the education sectors on developing learner and teacher skills such as inquiry, collaboration, deep knowledge and independent learning.

Interest in PBL is growing in schools across our system but it has been a success in transforming the learning for students at Parramatta Marist High. For me, Parramatta Marist’s experience is an example of our broad approach to improving learning and teaching based on the principles of inquiry (ref Timperley’s teacher inquiry cycle).

Inquiry is about open-ended questions – moving from having the right answer to being comfortable asking the right questions. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire believed that:

‘It is impossible to be human without curiosity, without questions. The questions is in the foundation of human existence…One of the sad things, for example, is how we sometimes become accustomed to the absence of the question. For example, pedagogy, as it is generally practiced today, is exactly a pedagogy of the answer….Professors enter the classroom on the first day of the term, for example, and talk, giving answers to questions that have not been asked by the students.’

In the case of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, teachers’ engage in inquiry so that they are better able to teach a curriculum focussed on ‘critical thinking, inquiry and collaboration.’

We are seeing that high performing systems are committed to teacher and student inquiry. Teachers learning about student learning and students learning through discovery.

Last week I attended a talk by Dr Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute on what we can learn from the best school systems in East Asia.  What was interesting but perhaps no surprise is that these education systems have high levels of equity – there is less gap between high and low performing students in Korea, Shanghai and Hong Kong compared to other countries like the UK, US and Australia.  According to OECD figures, the bottom 10% of maths students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10% of students in Australia.  This rises to 28 months in the USA. That is a gap of more than two years.

There are two points to make here. We know that key to overcoming issues of equity is having quality teachers and teaching in every classroom.  This is what is happening in East Asia.  The second is that the business of schooling is big business in the sense that economic growth is contigent on having a highly skilled workforce.

It is the second point that is the focus of the article ‘Rethinking School‘ in this month’s Harvard Business Review.  It’s estimated that if the US had closed its achievement gap with better performing nations, then its GDP could have been $1.2 to 2.1 trillion higher.  The figure is based on the work of Stanford economist Eric Hanushek who found that countries where students had higher test scores also had higher rates of growth in income per person.

This is why China which outranks both the US and Australia in maths and reading is a serious competitor and why the Obama administration has implemented education reforms such as Race to the Top.  The article makes the point that after forty years of research we know what makes the greatest difference to student learning but initiatives to improve the quality of teaching have not yielded the desired results.  In fact, according to the HBR article, ‘it will take 40 years for 80% of New York city students to reach math and reading proficiency, let alone the level of excellence that Chinese students are already achieving.’

I don’t believe that personalising learning using technology is the silver bullet to improving the US’ education system.  As I’ve said often enough, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the teacher.  What the Grattan Institute report shows is that East Asia’s education systems have implemented reforms that provide high quality teacher training, mentoring to continually improve learning and teaching and continual evaluation of teacher practice.

What is evident is the knowledge building that comes from inquiry – the application of new routines of practice explicitly linking learning and teaching.  And it’s the engagement in this collective inquiry that teachers and students will benefit from.

Our biggest investment

I caught an interview on CNN with Bill Gates reflecting on what he would do to change the education system in America.  Gates said if he could change something about the system, he would ‘hire the best teachers’ and get them to learn from each other because the research on the influence of good teaching has ‘become our biggest investment’.

One of the biggest investments we can make is mentoring our beginning teachers.  It’s an investment that needs to be shared by universities and school systems alike.  It requires us to move away from ‘training teachers’ to taking them on a learning journey.

As soon as students enrol in education courses, they should be placed with teacher mentors and given every opportunity to practice the craft and to learn from experienced teachers. Malcolm Gladwell in his book the Outliers: The Story of Success found the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  Teachers learn to do the work by doing the work.

You can’t blame the universities because it requires a complete overhaul of the model and I’m not sure whether we are all on the same page yet.  Linda Darling-Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education that in Singapore, teacher education programs were overhauled in 2001 to increase teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and skills, on top of their content preparation.  Darling-Hammond states that practicum training was expanded and located in a new ‘school partnership’ model that engaged schools more proactively in supporting trainees.

Darling-Hammond points out that all the successful teacher education programs she studied develop new teachers who can teach with assurance and skill of more experienced, thoughtful veterans. The programs that are effective do this by creating a tightly coherent set of learning experiences, grounded in a strong, research-based vision of good teaching, and represented both in coursework and clinical placements where candidates can see good teaching modelled and enacted.

The New York Times  reported on a new model of teacher education at the Relay Graduate School of Education which has no courses only 60 modules, each focused on a different teaching technique. According to the article, there is no campus, because it is old-think to believe a building makes a school. Instead, the graduate students will be mentored primarily at the schools where they teach. And there are no lectures and direct instruction does not take longer than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. After that, students discuss ideas with one another or reflect on their own.

This year, we began a partnership with the Catholic Schools Office Broken Bay diocese and Auckland University to start a mentoring program for beginning and experienced principals.  The program focuses on public coaching and feedback designed to embed and sustain their skill set. The first cohort consisted of five beginning principals and ten experienced principals who entered into an intensive professional learning program which includes participation in workshops, in school and shadow visits, practising in teams and homework.

The more mentors we have in schools, the smoother the transition for beginning teachers and the quicker they move from routine expertise to adapative expertise.

Brick houses to huts

Thomas L Friedman writes that if Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about relentlessly asking – what world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive? “We’re like someone living in a hut without any insulation,” explained Tan Kong Yam, an economist. “We feel every change in the wind or the temperature and have to adapt. You Americans are still living in a brick house with central heating and don’t have to be so responsive.”

How do schools adapt and thrive in today’s world when we are living in uncertain times?  In Europe, leaders are in the throes of avoiding economic collapse. Our Prime Minister is hoping to build consensus among Commonwealth nations for a new global financial model.  It’s time to think and do differently.

I wonder what would happen to the future of schooling if there was an across the board reduction in expenditure of 10 per cent? What would our response if there was another GFC?  We can’t assume everything will stay the same or even expect gradual increases in education funding. And simplistic reforms like cutting staff or reducing class sizes would only work in the short term and do nothing to ensure viability in the long term.

Karen Hawley Miles in Phi Delta Kappan Journal has written about strategies to create higher-performing schools during these challenging economic times. Miles argues that instead of doing less with less during these fiscally challenging times, we need to think outside traditional costs structures and better align the use of people, time, and dollars with vision for the future.

Miles states that powerful transformation needs to happen in schools in order to thrive during these times, and she makes a case for linking priorities to restructuring resources in ways that can reduce spending in the short term while moving toward a new long-term vision. Miles lists seven key strategies for restructuring to free unproductive resources and at the same time move toward higher-performing designs for schools and systems. These are:

1. Restructure one-size-fits-all teacher compensation and job restructure to foster individual and team effectiveness and professional growth

2. Rethink the standardised class-size model to target individual attention

3. Optimise existing time to meet student and teacher needs and extend where needed

4. Redirect special education spending to early intervention and targeted individual attention for all students

5. Maximise use of buildings and land

6. Invest to support and develop leadership

7. Leverage outside partners and technology to maintain or improve quality at lower cost

The shift from brick houses to huts and beyond is inevitable. Until then, our education systems are going to have to heed a common sense approach of doing things very differently.  We need leaders who understand the past, can work with the constraints of the present and have the courage to imagine different futures.

What should we be doing now to support these leaders?

Teachers at the centre

Is student-centred learning a given when we are talking about schooling in today’s world?  Our system’s theory of action has the student at the centre but in recent times, I have begun to rethink whether the teacher should be at the centre.  Without good teachers and leaders at the centre, can you improve the learning outcomes of every student?

A few weeks back I caught a TED talk by Geoff Mulgan about a new model of school called the ‘Studio School’, which aims to reach disengaged teenagers who didn’t see any relationship between what they learnt at school and future jobs. The key features of ‘Studio Schools’ include smaller class size, curriculum centred on real life practical experiences, coaches in addition to teachers and timetables much more like a work environment in a business. The underlying principle of this model of schooling is based on the idea that a large portion of teenagers learn best by working in teams and by undertaking real-world activities. The result was that student performance improved significantly.

The Studio School is one example of the innovations taking place in education today, centred of course around the learner.  But good teaching is the other ingredient in this and I wonder whether we are over-compensating for the deficiencies of an industrial model by not focusing enough on the quality of teaching and the role of the teacher.

We have tangible examples where investment in learning at every stage of a teacher’s careers is having an impact on the quality of learning.  Linda Darling-Hammond states that in Singapore, teacher education is a serious investment throughout a career. Darling-Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education ‘to get the best teachers, students from the top one- third of each graduating high school class are recruited into a fully paid 4-year undergraduate teacher education program, and immediately put on the ministry’s payroll. When they enter teaching, they earn as much as or more than beginning engineers, accountants, lawyers and doctors who are in civil service…during the course of their preparation, there is a focus on learning to use problem-based and inquiry learning, on developing collaboration, and on addressing a range of learning styles in the classroom.’

Countries that have invested in improving teacher quality have seen the largest gains in student achievement according to a recent article by William J. Bushaw and Shane J. Lopez in the Phi Delta Kappan Journal. Their finding was based on the conclusion reached by educators who participated in the International Summit on the Teaching profession hosted by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and data from the latest PDK/Gallop poll which surveyed over 1,000 people about their views on public education.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley in The Fourth Way: The Inspirational Future for Educational Change also concur that high quality learning is dependent on highly qualified teachers and teaching. Finland controls teacher quality at the point of entry. They get high-quality teachers and know how to keep them by giving teachers’ professional status, support and considerable autonomy.

The New York Times featured Relay Graduate School of Education which has no campus, no lectures and graduate students mentored primarily at the schools they teach. The president of Relay, Norman Atkins, claims that vastly improving teacher education is critical in fixing the failure of America’s public education.

We know that good teachers always put their students at the centre and good teaching is what makes the difference.  Perhaps our theory of action requires a rethink or a tweek so that this relationship is clear.  This understanding puts to rest the proposition that you don’t need teachers in an online connected world.

Schools desperately need good teachers now more than ever. Invest in teachers and you’ll see dramatic improvements in student achievement.


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