Educating Singapore – Moving Beyond Grades

Educating Singapore - Moving Beyond Grades

The latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results have placed Singapore among the top performers among 65 countries and economies who took part in the fifth assessment of 15-year-olds’ competencies in Reading, Mathematics and Science. We came in second in Mathematics, and third in both Reading and Science.

Not only are we in good company with our Asian neighbours like Shanghai (top in all three areas) and Hong Kong (third in Math and second in both Reading and Science), we have shown improvement in results in both academically weaker and stronger pupils. Our Education Minister is reported to be very happy and very proud of the results but I hope Singapore’s stellar performance at PISA will not undermine the need to improve areas such as equity and creativity.

S’pore can do better in ensuring educational equity
Singapore can do better in ensuring educational equity

A recent news report gave a more balanced assessment of Singapore’s PISA results, where OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher noted that Singapore is “a strong performer in (education) quality, but only an average performer in equity.” Educational equity is defined by OECD in terms of fairness and inclusion – providing all students, regardless of gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin, have similar opportunities to achieving educational potential; and ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all. By that definition, Singapore has progressed very well over the past few decades (from fishing village to global player) and has been considered the “poster child” for educational development (mirroring its economic success story) – see country report by OECD. We have reduced achievement gaps between genders and races, and have refined the process of teaching students according to their abilities.

Nonetheless, the education culture in Singapore is one driven by results of  high-stakes examinations which are the gatekeepers to the next level of education which in turn determine the type and quality of jobs students eventually land. While this is not a culture unique to Singapore, and certainly not as extreme as compared to South Korea and China, such a culture privileges those who have easier access to educational resources (e.g. private lessons, parental coaching, financial support). Furthermore, innovation and creativity take a back seat while grades get all the glory. Despite government attempts to downplay the importance of grades and asking parents to broaden their perception of their children’s success, parents are too pragmatic to give up the paper chase. Exam results continue to be the determining factor at each turning point of a child’s school life.

The Singapore Ministry of Education hails the latest PISA results as an indication that Singapore students “are ready to thrive in the 21st century.” To me, thriving means growing in a supportive environment where students can realise their potential and nurture their talents. To thrive in the 21st century also means having the capacity to change, innovate and look for new ways of doing things. I’m not sure if we can claim that all Singapore students are ready to thrive. Some have more resources to be able to thrive, some have fewer, and many have discovered the best way to thrive is to go to another country where there’s more to school than just getting good grades.

An education system is a product of philosophy, politics and societal values. I don’t believe there is something inherently right or wrong about using exam results to measure success. Neither do I believe that there is a level playing field for all children. What I hope our education system does not do is to reduce a person’s worth to the degree of educational attainment, and by extension, the financial rewards that come from it.

However the education game is being played, we must be critical of our successes and learn from our failures. Doing that will keep my hope alive.

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Although Google Hangouts on Air launched in May 2012, I only recently discovered it when I chanced upon a colleague’s live lecture while scanning my Google+ feed. And what I saw, I liked. Google Hangouts on Air (or HOA for short) broadcasts what happens in a Google Hangout session. In that session, you can choose to have a conversation with people you invite, work on Google docs, or what I thought was the most promising, conduct a presentation via screenshare. The live session is streamed via YouTube and that live stream is automatically saved as a video whenthe broadcast ends.

Google Hangouts on Air
Google Hangouts on Air

Practice Makes Perfect

While the process sounds simple, I had to practise going through the process of setting up a HOA, broadcasting it and checking if the recording of the session matched what I imagined it to be – five times to be exact – before I was convinced I was sure of what to do at the actual presentation. Through the practice sessions, here are some of the pitfalls I encountered:

  • Entering a name for your HOA generates a YouTube link for the live session in standby mode. Hitting the broadcast button makes the video ‘live’. However, if you open the page for the YouTube live session and record at the same time, you will get two sets of audio being recorded. So after checking that the YouTube link has been created, close the browser or tab.
  • There are several options for screenshare – desktop and the various windows that are open. Although it may seem obvious to screenshare the particular application you are using for your presentation, that did not work for me – the slides did not appear to move as I clicked through them in presentation mode. What was more reliable was screensharing the desktop and then activating whichever application I wanted.
  • A mic is necessary for the best sound input. Otherwise the sound quality in the video sounds muffled.

HOA For Real This Time

The use of HOA at my presentation (of my research paper Understanding the Identity of One ELL in Singaporewent fairly smoothly but it was only after the whole process was completed did I realise the finer details of implementation. A few realisations as I watched the playback of my presentation:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPO8943kD3M&w=560&h=315]

  • The screenshare (using desktop) of my powerpoint presentation was exactly what I had on my desktop (presenter mode), but not on the projector screen (full screen mode). Using Microsoft Powerpoint 2013 meant that once the application detects a projector, it goes into presenter mode with the notes of the current slide and a preview of the subsequent slide show at the side of the screen. I didn’t like it but others thought it was cool. Note for future HOA: change the default presenter mode to full screen presentation.
  •  The mic I used was an arm attached to headphones and had a long wire so that I could move around with ease but stay connected to the laptop. While the long wire was helpful for movement, the awkward shape of an arm mic dangling from my neck resulted in inconsistent volume in the recording.
  • I recorded both the presentation and the Q&A which meant a 58 min recording. 58 min is an overwhelming duration for a YouTube video clip. In fact, some friends gave feedback that the video would stall halfway through. Not sure if it’s because the recording is too long or it’s a technical glitch. Either way, I intend to edit the video to include just the presentation portion which would last about 30 min.

More Tech Won’t Hurt

HOA aside, I was also experimenting with the use of Padlet during the presentation for audience members to post their questions, comments, etc. As it was a live audience, I guess few were inclined to post anything since there was going to be a Q&A session immediately after the presentation. A friend who was keen to try out Padlet did a little more than post comments. He posted a related link as well as uploaded a few photos of my presentation to my Padlet wall. I wasn’t expecting photos but this turned out to be a neat way of capturing moments of an event.

Using Padlet during a presentation
Using Padlet during a presentation

Conclusion

The best outcome of my presentation experiment was that the entire event was captured and archived. The YouTube video serves as a reference for me to reflect on how I could conduct a presentation more effectively, on how I could refine my thought process, and provides another avenue for me to share my research ideas with a broader audience. As long as HOA remains free, it will probably become the tool of choice among tech novices like myself to create (and archive) live presentations.

My Last Class – Reflections on the MAT@USC

My Last Class - Reflections on the MAT@USC

“Please hold while I confirm your passcode. Thank you. Your passcode is confirmed.” That’s the automated message to the virtual classroom I’ve attended every week for 6 semesters in the past two years. As I attend my last class today, I know I will miss that familiar buzz through my headphones which welcomed me to a community of learners from various continents including North America, Europe and Asia.

I started the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California in May 2011. It is a wholly online course and like many others, I was skeptical of how learning could take place. But as I examined the course program, comparing it to other education-related Master programs I could take in Singapore, I was attracted to the subjects it offered, fieldwork requirements, and the convenience that comes with online learning. I could access the classroom from any computer with camera and mic and for me, that meant not having to travel to and from classes, and being able to go home for dinner, attend to my kids, and settle them down to sleep before I stepped into my study.

Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) at USC

The most important part of the program was that it was interactive – real time video conferencing lessons and study group sessions was something that other distance education programs did not offer. (Read more about the Adobe Connect platform that the program used.) While other programs had intensive weekend lessons, the MAT program was paced like a regular program with weekly classes. Like most distance programs, students were required to submit forum postings and term papers, but the MAT program  (as opposed to Master of Education programs) also required students to be involved in fieldwork, observing and video recording classes.

Adobe Connect Meeting Room
Adobe Connect Meeting Room

As I started virtual classes, there were technical glitches now and then but overall, the learning experience was the best I’ve experienced. Most of my schooling experience in Singapore followed what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept where the teacher deposits information into us to be remembered and regurgitated. In the MAT program, on the other hand, true to the impression many have of American education, learning depended on peer discussion and in the process, respecting and embracing the diversity of opinions and ideas. It was liberating for me and I valued and enjoyed every opportunity I had to engage in discussion with professors and classmates alike.

Apart from attending classes, pouring over readings and honing my teaching skills, I spent time with 3 or 4 classmates in study group sessions. In our cozy groups, we clarified our understanding of the readings and concepts, worked on our group presentations, and had fun bonding with one another. Study group was key in connecting me to fellow classmates on a more personal level. I have made friends with kindred spirits and while it is difficult to maintain long distance friendships, I have great hope that we will all meet one another at some point in the future.

As I complete my MAT journey in the Spring of 2013, I have already begun another journey to be a reflective educator and researcher. (Read about my Teacher Leadership Project.) To my professors and classmates, thank you for these two precious years. No goodbyes, just good memories.

Me, Teacher Leader?

Me, Teacher Leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to making a difference in the school while the unsuccessful teacher leader is easily defeated by criticism and obstacles.

View Prezi on Teacher Leadership by Sherrie Lee

Teacher leadership is not reserved for the chosen few but a responsibility of all teachers. While school culture dampens the spirit of teacher leadership (Barth, 2001, p. 444), empowering teachers as leaders benefit students, teachers, administrators and the school (p. 445).

Who is the successful teacher leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to a set of beliefs about teaching and making a difference in the school (Barth, 2001; Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006). She leads by example and thus begins to influence those around her. She perseveres despite obstacles (Barth, 2009, p. 447), claiming victories however small, and does not give up pursuing unrealized goals.

mountainjump

The unsuccessful teacher leader, on the other hand, is not focused in fulfilling goals and is overwhelmed by the daunting workload and critical colleagues. Ultimately, the teacher leader is unsuccessful because she finds greater comfort in remaining in her own classroom than stepping out of her comfort zone (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006).

Flickr: Dead End by Benny Lin

Am I a teacher leader?

The initial years of my teaching career were characterized by the traits of the unsuccessful teacher. I was discouraged by colleagues who believed that leadership was reserved for senior staff and administrators. Their skepticism led me to think that I was better off focusing on teaching rather than leading, and that trying to make changes was a waste of time. For example, I suggested compiling video-recordings of student presentations but was quickly censured for creating more and unnecessary work for everyone. Now as I complete my Master of Arts in Teaching, I am convinced that my teaching career is a unique opportunity to be a change agent.

When I put myself in the position of a teacher leader, I am committed to producing excellent work, collaborating with colleagues, and helping our students succeed. While obstacles are real, I am reminded by Barth (2001) to enjoy “half a loaf”, that is, finding success in “incremental change[s] in the desirable direction” (p. 447). One of my weaknesses, however, is that my enthusiasm and energy can easily wear off, especially in the face of difficult colleagues or seemingly futile pursuits. Nonetheless, I must remember that Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

 Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

Problem of practice

One powerful way of developing teacher leaders is through action research where teachers identify areas of concern and begin to take steps to resolve issues to benefit the school community. At my school, the business communication subjects are taken by students with varying English proficiency standards. While all students have received education in English as a first language, there are minority English language learners (ELLs) whose home language is not English and face challenges with using academic language. My action research project focused on this problem of practice and explored student identity and empowerment.


As an emerging teacher leader, I plan on sharing the findings and recommendations of my action research project at department meetings. In addition, the school’s staff development department organizes events where I will have the opportunity to share my research with a wider school audience. Through these sharing sessions, I will need to develop interpersonal skills such as gentle persuasiveness, especially when dealing with experienced yet resistance teachers. As Danielson (2007) notes, “[l]eading change within one’s own department or team may require considerable interpersonal skill and tact [and] the success of such an effort … depends on the teacher leader’s having established credibility and trust with his or her colleagues” (p. 17).

I anticipate most of the audience to be politely lukewarm toward the information I share as the teachers at my school are generally cautious in making changes, especially when there are no immediate and visible benefits. Unfortunately, the issue of student identity and empowerment is one that is complex; it requires effort and time in exploring identity and empowerment issues with students.

Here’s the plan

To counter skepticism among the crowd, persistence is key. First, I endeavor to take up every opportunity within the school, formally and informally, to share the importance of issues of identity and empowerment and how my own action research project benefits students. This entails identifying appropriate platforms to speak, as well as being aware of the barriers each audience brings to the sharing session. For example, if the audience is unfamiliar with terminology, then I will make the effort to modify my presentation in order to be clear, and more importantly, convincing. A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

In addition, I must also show that my work is recognized by other educators, especially those with authority in the education field. Possible actions include publishing the findings of my study in an education or TESOL related journal and presenting my study at a local or regional conference. The process of publishing or presenting requires a keen understanding of the requirements of each, such as intended audience, paper length and writing style. Apart from the detailed requirements, I must also be aware of the approval process be prepared for rejection. As a novice researcher, the best result I expect is to having to resubmit my paper with changes.

Even if I am rejected, however, I view it as a learning experience. I anticipate mixed reactions to my leadership project. Teachers in my school are likely to have varying levels of commitment to address the needs of minority ELLs in our school, even if my study is accepted by a journal or conference. Whatever the outcomes, I aim to be open to feedback and use the experience to inform my next step in leadership. Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006, p. 68).

Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding.

Never give up, never give up, never give up

Thus my desire is to work with the few who are willing and be focused on student success, without losing sight of the bigger picture of greater student empowerment through the actions and leadership of each and every teacher. Even if I end up being alone in my cause, may I continue taking risks “to provide a constant, visible model of persistence, hope, and enthusiasm” (Barth, 2001, p. 447).

Flickr: Rock Climber by Greg Foster

References

Ackerman, R. & Mackenzie, S.V. (2006). Uncovering teacher leadership. Educational Leadership, May, 2006, 66-70.

Barth, R.S. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappa, February, 2001, 443-449.

Danielson, C. (2007). The many faces of leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 14-19.