Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Technology in Education: Who's in charge? What's it supposed to do?

CJ Westerberg, May 9, 2012 8:34 AM


Editor's Note:  NEW Guest post series.  Bill Jackson, former math teacher and presently math helping teacher, provides consulting and teacher training on Singapore or Japanese approaches to mathematics teaching and professional development, and regularly speaks at national and international mathematics conferences. 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, education and teacher professional development in Japan and Singapore (see links below post). 

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, along with a post or two of Q&A's from moi and viewers.

We hope you find this newest travel journal thought-provoking and insightful.  As usual, let us know what you think.  - C.J. Westerberg

"To develop self-directed learners,
 teachers are encouraged to give students opportunities
to think about and
choose what they want to learn,
conduct research,
and share what they have learned with their classmates.
- Bill Jackson

A Visit to White Sands Primary School
Lessons from
Singapore - 2012
Part 4

by Bill Jackson

White Sands Primary School is a typical neighborhood primary school (grades 1-6) in Singapore and like all the schools I have visited there, it's large and spacious (schools typically have 1500 or more students); clean and brightly painted with green spaces, gardens, a large playground and sports field; and well-equipped with the latest technology. The school's vision is "a vibrant school where character shines and talents soar." The vision is clearly displayed around the school in bright colors for all to see. Contrary to what many may think, Singapore schools are not all about academics and there is much emphasis on sports, music and the arts.

" . . . teachers at White Sands do not use print textbooks. Instead,
they develop their own technology-based lessons and
use them together in a blended approach

Staff members at White Sands work together in a clearly defined way to bring this vision to life in the school. A large staff organizational chart near the entrance to the school shows photos of staff members and their various positions such as Principal, Vice-Principal, Head of Department, Mentor Teacher, Subject Head, and Level Head. In Singapore, teachers must be on a track towards professional advancement such as "teaching track," "leadership track" or "specialist track." As they move up the ladder based on experience and evaluations they can transition into leadership positions that have greater responsibility, higher pay, and less student contact time. Teachers meet weekly in professional learning teams to further the vision and goals of the school and make them come alive in the classroom. (For more information see my post - The Professional Lives of Teachers in Singapore via The Daily Riff).

Five "strategic thrusts" support the vision of the White Sands School:
1) innovation and excellence in teaching and learning,
2) pervasive Information and ICT culture,
3) effective partnerships,
4) character and talent development, and
5) staff well-being and professional development.

I am visiting White Sands to speak with the mathematics teachers and the ICT Mentor Teacher (more about that later) about the second one because the school is known for its effective use of technology in learning. The following is a brief summary of what I learned.

Acronyms such as ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and the more familiar IT (Information Technology) conjure up different ideas for different people, including teachers. Teachers across Singapore, however, have a common understanding of ICT thanks to three "master plans" for integrating technology in schools begun in 1997 by the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE). The purpose of these master plans was not just to incorporate technology, but also to use it in innovative ways to help students learn content through inquiry.

The two main ICT (Information and Communication Technology)
initiatives in Singaporean schools
are Self Directed Learning and Collaborative Learning.

Who's in Charge?
In Master Plan 1 (1997-2002), infrastructure and basic plans were put in place for use of technology in schools. This included providing computer labs and internet access for schools, giving teachers basic instructional tools such as laptops, projectors and document cameras as well as training to raise their competencies in the use of ICT, and a push towards using technology to promote active and independent learning. Teachers were (and still are) required to incorporate technology in at least 50% of every lesson, although this has been relatively easy to comply with since any use of technology qualifies.

The goal of Master Plan 2 (2003-2008) was to use ICT to further develop active learning, strengthen the connections between curriculum, instruction and assessment, and help teachers to grow professionally and personally. Schools were given the task of experimenting with technology on their own to determine how it can best be used to enhance teaching and learning. Teachers were encouraged to conduct research, try out new ideas, and share their results. Schools that incorporated ICT well were identified, encouraged and rewarded through recognition and grants to further their research. Infrastructure was also enhanced, and wireless networks were installed in schools. Several "pioneer schools" began experimenting with the use of Tablet PC's and digital learning to promote student-centered instruction.

In Master Plan 3 (2009 - 2014), the focus shifted to using ICT to develop competencies for the 21st century, practice-based teacher professional development, and innovation. The MOE brought in an international review panel composed of top experts from around the world, including the United States. Infrastructure was enhanced, including high speed wireless internet, shared mobile laptop carts that can be wheeled into classrooms, computer bars in hallways where students can access computers and the internet between classes or after school, and in some cases interactive whiteboards, albeit usually just a few for the entire school, not one in each classroom. (I asked the White Sands teachers why they don't have interactive whiteboards in every classroom as is increasingly becoming common in the U.S. and they basically said that they couldn't justify the expense given that most of what you can do on an interactive whiteboard can be done either on a laptop, a Tablet PC, or a regular dry-erase whiteboard. In some schools in Singapore, however, every classroom does have an interactive whiteboard.) As part of Master Plan 3, the MOE provided ICT mentor teachers at every school and educational technology officers that act as a link between schools.

What are the goals of Technology in Singaporean Education?
The two main ICT initiatives in Singaporean schools are Self Directed Learning and Collaborative Learning. To develop self-directed learners, teachers are encouraged to give students opportunities to think about and choose what they want to learn, conduct research, and share what they have learned with their classmates. To develop collaborative learners, they provide students with opportunities to work together, solve problems, understand different perspectives, and learn from each other. The idea behind both is to prepare students for the 21st century workplace where they must use technology to work productively with co-workers, investigate and learn on their own, and share their work.

"The purpose of these master plans was not just to incorporate technology, but also to use it in innovative ways to
help students learn content through inquiry."

While some schools are at forefront in using technology in the classroom, many schools are still using ICT at a minimal level. Schools are allowed to proceed at their own pace but to ensure that the ICT vision is implemented nationwide the MOE has developed accountability tools and support, including ICT Mentor Teachers in every school. ICT Mentor Teachers have a reduced teaching load and go to the to the Ministry once a week to receive training in the use of technology in the classroom and peer coaching. Then they go back to their schools and share what they learned with their colleagues using a "1-2, 2-4, 4-8 approach." This means that the ICT Mentor Teacher mentors two other teachers, who then each mentor two more, who also each mentor two more, resulting in 8 teachers who are highly trained in the use of technology in the classroom in one year. Using this method year after year, eventually all the teachers in the school will be trained.

The style of lesson teachers are trying to develop using ICT is called a "blended lesson." This means that technology is not the main focus of the lesson but it is blended with traditional teaching to enhance learning. In other words, they are not using technology just for technology's sake, but trying to use it in ways that enhance learning. This also means thinking about when technology does not enhance learning. Since this is not easy to do and teachers cannot be expected to just be given technology and know how to use it well, classroom teachers are supported through shared resources and collaborative professional development.

Teachers throughout Singapore share best practices through an online teacher portal called Edumall where among other things they can access a repository of lessons that effectively incorporate technology. The lessons are created by classroom teachers and scrutinized and approved by MOE officers for quality to make sure they reflect the initiatives outlined in Master Plan 3. By downloading and using the lessons on Edumall, teachers can try out well-designed, classroom-proven lessons to get a sense of what effective use of technology looks like in actual practice.

Another important way that teachers are supported is through collaborative professional development. Teachers at White Sands meet in monthly professional learning teams to engage in various forms of collaborative professional development to improve the use of ICT and further the school's goals. One of the main professional learning activities is lesson study, where teachers work together to plan, teach, observe and discuss actual classroom lessons. Through lesson study, teachers actually can see technology being used in a live lesson instead of just getting a workshop. Afterwards, they can discuss the good aspects of the lesson and also make suggestions for how to improve. Other professional learning activities include action research, and weekly "timetabled time," where teachers share and develop best practices in the classroom. The ICT mentor teacher attends all of the professional learning team meetings in order to provide expert advice. These professional development efforts have helped place White Sands at the forefront of innovation and ICT in Singapore.

One of the difficult things about using technology in learning is that technology changes quickly. White Sands teachers are concerned about how to keep pace with students' every day experiences using technology, such as smartphones, iPads, and social networking. Schools are often out of touch with this reality. It is important that teachers think about how to connect students' everyday use of technology to learning and White Sands teachers often discuss how to utilize these technologies in the classroom.

Teachers at White Sands not only talk about what technology can do, but also what it cannot do, keeping the bigger picture in mind of developing collaborative self-directed learners using a blended approach. They also examine emerging technologies, look for and share useful web sites, develop lessons that have been tested in the classroom through lesson study to submit to Edumall, and explore how to use ICT to make learning interesting, engaging and interactive. Increasingly, traditional textbooks are being used less and digital resources more. Instead of just following a textbook, teachers at White Sands develop their own technology-based lessons and use them together in a blended approach. They are also piloting interactive, digital science textbooks.

High-Tech, High-Touch go Hand-in-Hand

At the close of our meeting I asked the White Sands teachers if they were worried whether technology might someday replace teachers and traditional schooling. They said that although they believe in using technology in the classroom, they do not believe it will ever take the place of live teachers because teaching and learning "need a human touch." It reminded me of a story a colleague of mine shared about a Japanese principal who asked a group of teachers, "What is the most important quality a math teacher must possess?" They answered many things such as "strong content knowledge" and "good teaching skills." The principal replied, "No. The most important quality a math teacher can have is love for the children."
Now that's an innovative idea!

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

Go to Part 1 - The Big Questions - Technology in Education - Lessons from Singapore
Go to Part 2 - E-Learning in Singapore - Where Teachers are Involved with Product Development 
Go to Part 3 -  Q&A with The Daily Riff

Note: 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.

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It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
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