Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Innovation in Singaporean Education: More similar to Finland than the U.S.?

CJ Westerberg, July 1, 2013 12:33 PM

Editor's Note: Below is the fifth installment in a guest post series by Bill Jackson, former math teacher who presently provides consulting and teacher training on Singapore and Japanese approaches to mathematics teaching and professional development. 
While this series emphasizes the technology angle in education most expressly, we cannot help but see certain non-tech (and tech) similarities to Finland's much-admired school system and overt differences to the U.S. system, which is troubling to say the least. While this is Part 5, no need to read each installment in exact order.   
 - C.J. Westerberg

"Many U.S. schools are also doing innovative things
but I think the big difference in Singapore is
that there are systems in place that encourage innovation
by allowing for experimentation, critical reflection, tweaking, and scaling up to spread innovation throughout the school and the nation as a whole.

Lessons from Singapore
Visit to West View Primary School

by Bill Jackson

West View Primary School is an average sized school in Singapore serving about 1400 students in grades 1 to 6 (some schools have up to 2000). This school is of particular interest to me because all teachers conduct lesson study, a professional development approach I am very passionate about. It is also a school that is known for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and innovation. The school's vision is "a vibrant school where enthusiastic educators engage independent learners."

When I arrived, the principal, Mdm. Rashidah Abdul Rasip, warmly welcomed me and took a good deal of time to meet with me, show me the school, and explain the school's vision and programs. Mdm. Rashidah took the helm at West View in 2007. At that time she "found a tremendous potential within the school for creativity" but no structured framework to develop it so she formed an Innovation Team (iTeam) consisting of school leaders and teachers. This resulted in a framework for innovation guided by a strategy and protocol that encouraged teachers to experiment in their classrooms in order to "transform teaching from the ground up," and "revolutionize" the way they teach.

" . . .every child has a talent . . . "

Innovation can mean different things so the school developed a common definition consisting of three aspects - improving on what you have, developing new ideas, and transforming teaching and learning. Like the White Sands School, the focus of ICT is to foster self-directed and collaborative learners based on the goals outlined in Master Plan 3 by the Ministry of Education (MOE). At West View School this means helping students become active contributors to their learning, and not just passive recipients. ICT is an important part of this but it's not the only avenue.

In 2007, after they noticed that a mobile computer lab at the school was being underutilized, the iTeam decided to train one teacher in every academic department to be an "ICT champion." The role of the ICT champions is to remind department members about the need for innovation and train other teachers in the effective use of ICT. Initially, 10 teachers were trained as ICT champions and equipped with the necessary skills to use ICT to engage students in their learning each year. Currently, 80% of staff members have been trained as ICT champions. The Champions Program has now been replaced by the MOE's more recent ICT Mentor Teacher Program, which shares the same goals. (For more information on ICT mentors, see my post Technology in Education: Who's in charge? What's it supposed to do?)

In order to foster innovation, teachers are encouraged to submit research proposals for creative projects using ICT. Proposals must include an outline of the project, performance indicators, budget, potential for scalability, and calculated risk of success or failure. Since failure is an important part of innovation, it is not important that all of these research projects be successful. This effort has led to 28 successful projects to date, however, including a rainwater harvesting project in which students collected, cleaned, stored and used rainwater to water plants, clean the school, breed aquatic life, and create innovative green cleaning products. This emphasis on teacher and student research embodies the goal of using ICT to help students and teachers to become more effective learners.

Like all primary schools in Singapore, students at West View are streamed according to ability. At the end of second grade, students are assessed on their English and math skills and placed in one of three groups - pre-level, on-level, or above-level. The pre-level group consists of students who are below grade level. The students are placed in classes with fewer students (classes in Singapore typically have up to 40 students) with teachers who are considered to be among the best. (In Singapore, only the top 20% of graduates are even accepted into the profession.) Personally, I am not a big fan of ability grouping but I find Singapore's approach interesting because in the U.S. the "gifted" students usually get small class sizes and the best teachers and the struggling students are often in the largest classes with less competent teachers. In Singapore it's just the opposite.

West View has always had a strong reputation for helping below grade level students but they felt that the high-ability students were getting shortchanged, so in 2008 they began an effort to improve in this area. This resulted in an approach that aims not to impart knowledge but to equip these students with the skills to they need to acquire knowledge on their own and develop these 21st century competencies. To accomplish this, students can choose three areas of study from from five elective learning modules, such as economics, regional studies and environmental studies. They also learn important values to consider when conducting research such as citing references and not plagiarizing. Following the MOE's current emphasis on "teach less, learn more," no assessment is done during curriculum time. I like this idea because I feel that way too much time is devoted to assessment in the U.S., which takes away from time that could be devoted to learning.

Following the MOE's current emphasis on "teach less, learn more,"
no assessment is done during curriculum time.

Elective modules are not just for above level students. Pre-level and on level students also engage in elective learning modules but to a lesser extent. This usually involves examining a problem at the school and trying to come up with solutions. In one such project, 5th and 6th graders created a solar garden with a greenhouse, biological lamps, harvested rainwater sprinklers, and a photovoltaic power source. Administrators and teachers at West View believe that "every child has a talent" and work to develop these talents through innovative projects such as these.

Another part of promoting innovation at West View is the effective use of ICT tools. These tools include include Smartboard, tablet PCs, iPad, Bamboo Fun Tablet, Interactive White Board at Thinking Tank, and MP3 players. They are also using social media such as Edmodo, e-learning using the LEAD platform, and tools and web sites that students use in their daily lives such as netbooks and You Tube. One ongoing third grade project involves a totally digital classroom where every student has a laptop. The teacher uses an interactive digital curriculum called Time To Know (also being used in schools in the U.S.) to deliver inquiry-based instruction that is customized for every student according to his or her level of ability.

One reason why West View teachers are able to be so innovative is that teachers have many opportunities to learn and grow professionally. Teachers meet in teams for one hour a week to think about how to make school's vision come alive in their classrooms through lesson study. At these meetings they plan research lessons collaboratively in groups. The planned lesson is then taught publicly by one of the teachers in the group, observed by teachers, critiqued and revised.

The planned lesson is then
taught publicly by one of the teachers in the group,
observed by teachers,
critiqued and revised.

In one lesson study, 5th grade Chinese language teachers formed a research group after a curriculum change created a need for them to better understand the curriculum and come up new resources. They developed a lesson around a unit called "Two Letters," in which students had to understand Chinese text, recognize and write Chinese characters, and answer questions posed by the teacher in Chinese. On the day the research lesson was taught, they invited colleagues from outside their team to observe and take notes on the students' thinking and performance. Afterwards, they all discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson and suggestions for improvement were made. The teachers found lesson study to be beneficial because it "values us as professionals and allows us to use our collective talents and experiences to increase pupils' achievement through increasing our knowledge as professionals."

My impression of West View Primary School is that it is a place where teachers are encouraged to innovate and given the opportunity to take risks and even fail, which is a big part of innovation. Many U.S. schools are also doing innovative things but I think the big difference in Singapore is that there are systems in place that encourage innovation by allowing for experimentation, critical reflection, tweaking, and scaling up to spread innovation throughout the school and the nation as a whole. Teachers actively contribute to this process as researchers and as thus become the chief innovators. In the U.S., teachers are not generally encouraged or given the time or resources to innovate. And innovation is often stifled by a narrow focus on test-prep and the dreaded a-word, "accountability." What if instead of test scores, teachers in the U.S. were held accountable for experimenting, conducting research, being innovative, and fostering creativity? What if in this process, they were even allowed to fail and learn from the failure?

To quote John Lennon, "You may say I'm a dreamer . . . .but I'm not the only one."

See other parts of this series, "Lessons from Singapore":

 Part 1 - The Big Questions - Technology in Education - Lessons from Singapore

 Part 2 - E-Learning in Singapore - Where Teachers are Involved with Product Development
 Part 3 -  Q&A with The Daily Riff

Part 4 - Technology in Education - Who's in charge?  What's it supposed to do? 

 Other Related Links The Daily Riff:

What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan

The Finland Phenomenon:  Inside the World's Most Surprising School System

Singapore Math Demystified!

Going Beyond Singapore Math

Why Other Countries Do Better in Math (Race to the Tutor?)

BIO: Bill Jackson was also district wide math coach at the Scarsdale, NY Public Schools, one of the top performing districts in the country.  He is also presently the mathematics staff developer for the Franklin Lakes, NJ Public Schools.
You may be familiar with Jackson's riffs exclusively featured in The Daily Riff which have received wide-spread link-sharing and views primarily about the topics of Math education in America, Singapore Math,  professional development in Japan and Singapore (see links below), as it relates to professional development for educators in the U.S.

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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