Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

NEW GUEST POST . . . "teachers are seen as the driving force behind educational innovation in Singapore"

CJ Westerberg, July 12, 2012 4:19 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.
- C.J. Westerberg

"Principals, department heads, mentor teachers,
classroom teachers, students and parents
are all involved in this effort.
- Bill Jackson

Surprise. Surprise.

by Bill Jackson

The culmination of my trip was the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (ICLT). 2012. Organized by the Singapore Ministry of Education, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the Singapore Academy of Principals, the ICTLT brought together over 1400 delegates from schools and educational institutions from Singapore and 36 other nations this past March to explore the theme "Do It! Transform Learning. Shape the Future."  There were many excellent sessions with speakers from Singapore and other countries including the U.S., Finland, and China but I will limit my comments to some of what I learned about educational technology and innovation in Singapore.

As part of Master Plan 3 the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) wanted to develop technology "trailblazers" who could spread best spread practices for effective use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the classroom. One way they are pursuing this is through a program called FutureSchools@Singapore--a collaborative effort between the MOE and an industry group, the InfoComm Development Authority (IDA).

The goal of the future schools program is to develop "innovative teaching approaches that use ICT tools such as immersive virtual environments and educational games, and the re-designing of physical space to improve learning." In 2008, primary and secondary schools throughout Singapore were invited to submit proposals to become future schools, and 8 schools were selected, with 7 more to be added by 2015. The MOE, industry partners, and institutes of higher learning provide resources and expertise needed for the future schools to experiment and conduct research, and translate this research into classroom practices that can be replicated in other schools. This research often centers on how to use ICT together with student-centered teaching methodologies to "empower children and prepare them for the future."

An important aspect of this is project based learning where students seek solutions to real world problems by identifying a problem, setting individual and group learning goals, collaborating on the project, reflecting on their experiences, and translating these experiences using video, social networks, mobile devices, and online sharing. (See VIDEO below via Edutopia about innovation and technology at the Ngee Ann Secondary School.)

Schools even have cyber-wellness student ambassadors
and other student-led initiatives
. . .

In order for technology to truly enhance teaching and learning it must be used in conjunction with (not instead of) a competent teacher, so teacher professional development is a big part of the technology initiative in Singapore schools. This does not mean just showing teachers how to do something and then hoping they will replicate it in the classroom, but allowing teachers to be the innovators.

In fact, teachers are seen as the driving force
behind educational innovation
in Singapore,
and new ideas are developed
from the ground up in classrooms.

In fact, teachers are seen as the driving force behind educational innovation in Singapore, and new ideas are developed from the ground up in classrooms. As future schools develop innovative technologies, promising innovations are identified and systematically spread to other schools by ICT Mentor Teachers, professional learning communities, lesson study, and collaborative interschool networks and partnerships. So far, at least 12 innovative teaching methods have been identified, over 50 apps have been developed by teachers, and over 250 teachers have shared their research findings through journals and conferences such as this one.

There is also a concerted effort to safeguard students from risks associated with the use of technology. Civic and moral education programs must include a cyber-wellness component to instill proper ICT values and skills, develop "astuteness" in cyber space, and enable students to use technology ethically and responsibly. Schools even have cyber-wellness student ambassadors and other student-led initiatives to help them to feel more comfortable in reaching out to each other, teachers and parents if they feel threatened. Schools also hold talks with parents to provide tips to monitor computer use at home. Industry is also involved in this effort and government and industry groups recently announced a five-year $10 million joint effort to promote the responsible use of media.

In addition to many excellent presentations and workshops, students from several schools gave performances in dance, traditional Chinese music, Marshall arts, and other performing arts. Contrary to what many may think, Singapore schools do not just focus on academics. Schools choose niche areas of focus, usually in the arts, and compete for honors in nationwide competitions. (See my post The Creativity Initiative in Singapore for more on this, along with a related series.)

In addition to the ICTLT conference, I was also able to attend the ExCel Fest, an annual event sponsored by the MOE where schools across Singapore share their innovative practices. Schools set up booths in a large exhibition hall at the SunTec Center to showcase interesting ideas and initiatives at their schools. Smiling students dressed up in colorful costumes eagerly took me by the hand, sat me down, and explained in great detail the projects their schools are engaged in. One fifth grade boy enthusiastically walked me through a very difficult percentage problem using a four-step bar model method developed at his school.


I came to Singapore to find out more about how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning. Initially I thought that this would involve new technologies that I could incorporate in my own practice, and although I did learn about new technologies, what really caught my attention was something much deeper - something at the very heart of innovation - the empowerment of teachers and schools as innovators.

In Singapore, schools are networks of educational laboratories where educators can experiment, innovate, and spread successful practice. Teachers regularly interact with industry experts and learn from each other. Principals, department heads, mentor teachers, classroom teachers, students and parents are all involved in this effort. Teachers are required to participate in 100 professional development hours per year through seminars, workshops and professional learning communities, and systems are in place where like-minded professionals can share and scale up best practices across schools.

Teachers are required to participate
in 100 professional development hours per year
. . .

It makes me wonder where we're going in education in the U.S. Compared with the systematic and concerted effort to improve teaching and learning I witnessed in Singapore, U.S. education seems like a ship without a rudder. The overemphasis on "accountability" has dumbed down teaching to its lowest common denominator - teaching by telling, stuffing children's minds with useless "test-prep" items and strategies, and holding teachers and schools accountable for one narrow-minded measure - standardized test scores. When will we wake up and realize that this is having the opposite effect on what we want to produce - children who can think creatively, solve real-world problems, engage productively, responsibly and civilly in an increasingly technological society, and make our country and world a better place?

When I shared with one principal that in some large U.S. cities teachers' names were published in the newspaper and ranked according to test scores, she told me "nothing good can ever come out of shaming teachers." Of course, everyone knows that teachers need to improve their practice, but how can we do this if systems are not in place to facilitate professional learning; collaborative systems where teachers are encouraged and given the space to experiment, conduct research, and innovate; and systems where best practices can be scaled up and spread to other schools?

Part of the problem is that education has become politicized in the U.S. and people who don't know much about it seem to be running the show. If we want to improve political institutions, then politicians may be the right ones to consult.

But if we want to improve education we need to hear from and empower the real experts - teachers


Related posts The Daily Riff:

Technology in Education: Lessons from Singapore (NEW Series) by Bill Jackson

Can Problem-Solving Liberate our Fear of Math? by Bill Jackson on Singapore Math (series)

A Definitive Guide for Developing a Technology Vision Statement for your School by Kim Cofino

The Finland Phenomenon:  Inside the world's most surprising school system

The Chinese Curse - Is America Next?

Yong Zhao Takes on Standardized Test Scores + Weighs In on American and Asian Education

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