Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Technology in Education: Lessons from Singapore - New Series

CJ Westerberg, June 7, 2012 11:47 AM


Editor's Note: Bill Jackson, former district-wide math coach and educator at Scardale NY public schools, one of the top performing districts in the country, now also provides consulting and teacher train about Singaporean and Japanese approaches to math teaching and teacher professional development and regularly speaks at international conferences.

Here we are featuring a new multi-post series from Jackson's most recent Spring 2012 trip to Singapore during the
International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (ICTLT), and the Ministry of Education (MOE) Excel Fest.  
- C.J. Westerberg

"But how much of what we call 'technology'
really improves learning?"

-Bill Jackson

Technology in Education: Friend or Foe?
by Bill Jackson

For better or worse, technology has become commonplace in education. Increasingly teachers use electronic interactive whiteboards instead of chalkboards, and iPads or Tablet PC's instead of textbooks. But how much of what we call "technology" really improves learning? And what aspects of technology help, don't help, or even detract from learning? These are difficult questions that in my mind are not being addressed adequately in public debate on education.

I have always been interested in technology, especially as it relates to the teaching and learning of mathematics. I remember watching an 8th grade Japanese mathematics lesson from the 1995 TIMSS videotape study. The teacher used a television monitor with geometry software to help students solve a complex problem involving dividing the area of a plot of land. I was impressed how the use of technology was so seamlessly infused into the lesson. Any computer software I had used was mostly behaviorist in nature; e.g. kids play a computer math game, if they get the answer correct they are rewarded with a nice message that says, "Good work;" if they are wrong they get an unpleasant message, "Try again." When I first visited Japan in 1999 I noticed that every classroom had monitors and computer software.

In 2010, I visited the National Institute of Education in Singapore - one of the premier teacher training institutions in the world. I was astonished to hear a speech by the head of the education department that began with the statement, "There is no research evidence that technology improves the learning of mathematics." This made me wonder, "If this is true, why are we spending so much money on technology in education?"

I have worked with teachers in public, private and charter schools across the U.S. and have seen technology used in ways that I believe enhance learning. But more often than not I've seen it used in ways that either have no discernible effect on learning or even detract from it.

Let's take the use of interactive whiteboards or "Smart" boards for example, which at $2000+
a pop (plus maintenance) represent a sizeable investment for any school district. This technology has been heralded as a way of moving away from the so-called "chalk and talk" method of teaching by lecture. In my experience, however, electronic whiteboards are mostly used in teacher-centric ways as electronic chalkboards or glorified projection screens. So instead of "chalk and talk" we now have "electronic pen and talk." Used in this way, the interactive whiteboard has little advantage over a regular chalkboard.

In fact, there are even certain disadvantages compared with "chalk" technology; e.g. reduced board space for students to write multiple solution methods, washed out resolution making it difficult for kids to read due to ambient lighting, and frequent technology glitches.

I believe that when used in the right way these tools can be very helpful. But it makes no
sense to spend thousands of education dollars on such devices unless they actually transform teaching and learning and not just electronically replicate the same tired methods that were ineffective before. No doubt there are effective ways to use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to enhance learning, but the problem of achieving this, at least on a widespread basis, in U.S. classrooms is complicated.

Since school systems in the U.S. are so diverse, some schools are at the forefront of technology and innovation while others are too busy dealing with basic needs like a safe environment, adequate facilities, and sufficient supplies. Some schools have money for technology. Some do not. And because of our fractured and inequitable educational system some schools are doing a good job while others are doing a very poor job.

It is inarguable that the U.S. is at the forefront of ICT. But in the U.S. there are 50 states each of which has its own education agenda; a U.S. Department of Education with limited control over what states do with an agenda sometimes at odds to states' wishes; and a myriad of organizational structures that include public, charter, and private schools, all with different agendas still. To make matters worse, there is minimal communication among the parties involved.

Whatever the benefits this entrepreneurial system may produce, it makes it difficult to set educational policy that results in consistent and effective use of technology (or anything for that matter) in education. Even in U.S. schools that are quite innovative, the innovation rarely spreads beyond the school district, in spite of best efforts. This has led me to seek answers to some difficult questions that many in education are avoiding in in the name of technology such as: How can technology be used successfully to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom? Can it (or should it) be used on a widespread basis and if so, how? (After all, I learned how to read just fine with Dick and Jane, no Kindle required.)

Has technology become the new sacred cow that will lead us on another race to nowhere, or does it really improve teaching and learning? And if technology is the unavoidable way of the future, how can we help children learn to use it productively and not destructively for themselves and others?

In order to answer these and other questions, I decided to go to a country that is world renown for innovation in education - Singapore. Singapore consistently scores at or near the top of the world in mathematics and science and the last time I was there in 2010 I learned that there is a big push, backed by heavy investment, to effectively implement technology in schools. Furthermore, since Singapore is a relatively small country with a highly centralized education system, looking at Singaporean schools offers a lens into how technology can be used effectively, and how we can shape policy in the U.S. so investment in technology brings a positive return. This last consideration is extremely important as we struggle through the current economic recession, especially given the fact that the U.S. has the highest per pupil expenditure in the world, a little more that $10,000, while top scorer Singapore spends a little over $5000 per pupil, about half of what we spend.

To achieve my mission, I contacted my friends from Marshall Cavendish Education, the largest textbook publisher in Singapore and the publishers of Singapore Math textbooks in the U.S. They arranged for me to visit schools that are renown for use of ICT in education, interview teachers, administrators, and officials, and visit with tech industry executives. The timing of my visit also allowed me to attend the largest educational technology conference in the region, the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (ICTLT), and the Ministry of Education (MOE) Excel Fest, a yearly event where schools showcase innovative teaching and learning.  Together these experiences will provide me with an unprecedented opportunity to hear from experts from Singapore and around the world about how to further teaching and learning using technology and help us as a nation to think about how to shape the future of our schools.

Continued . . .
Go to Part 2 - E-Learning in Singapore - Where Teachers are Involved in Product Development

Go to Part 3 - Q & A with The Daily Riff  (Lessons from Singapore)

Go to Part 4 - Technology in Education - Who's in charge?  What's it supposed to do? (Lessons from Singapore)

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