S'pore teacher explains why teaching students higher level concepts may actually be demoralising

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | October 05, 2019, 12:58 PM

A Teacher's Race Course: Ruminations and Reflections is a collection of perspectives on Singapore's education system by the late Sie Siok Hui, a teacher whose career spanned more than 30 years.

In the book, Sie reflects on her personal experiences as an educator and examines issues surrounding the education system, along with its effects on teachers and students.

A Teacher's Race Course is published by World Scientific and can be purchased here.

Here, we produce an excerpt on why Sie thinks it may not be a good thing to expose students to questions beyond their grade, as well as the need to refine the role of exams.


By Sie Siok Hui

How to tell if a student is genuinely unsure or just wasn't paying attention

Having learnt so much from the writers of textbooks, whenever I teach a new concept, I would design a worksheet that covers the key points.

The last 10 minutes of the lesson would be set aside for students to attempt the worksheet. They were permitted to refer to their notes or to me, but not to their friends.

Some questions were just exact replicas of the type of question taught in the lesson. The idea is to check if learning takes place.

When a student stares at it and can hardly write, there are two reasons. The student was not with you at all in the lesson, or the student is so paralysed by inertia and the lack of confidence, that he cannot start.

You can read the many different states of mind from the way the students attempt the exercise.

So-called "creative" and "innovative" approaches have not really helped students

I must confess that I have very often found the “creative” and “innovative” stance in lesson design of recent years has not helped in laying a firm foundation for a strong conceptual approach.

It is not unusual to see challenging questions appearing mid-way in the scheme of work since the “basic” concepts are supposedly easy to grasp. Many teachers make the mistake of designing tough worksheets which defeats the purpose of this instrument.

In the interests of time, rather than creating their own questions, some teachers extract challenging questions from textbooks because they are trying to expose their students to as many types of questions as possible.

The intent is laudable—in the likelihood that any of these questions appear in the national examinations, the students would know how to solve them.

Basic concepts need to be taught in a proper sequence and reinforced

However, textbook writers, especially for Mathematics, tend to sequence content in a manner that builds new understanding on prior knowledge.

Without the prior knowledge which the textbook writer had in mind when he set a question, the students are unlikely to have competency in the subject matter, much less mastery of the concept, to produce an acceptable answer.

Concepts must be layered in and connected to help students learn during concept-building.

Unless students master basic concepts well, requiring them to work at a higher level too early leads to a weak foundation, and worse, develop negative perceptions of not only the subject but of themselves as inept in Maths.

I personally would rather spend more time reinforcing basics again and again before moving on.

I wish teachers who draft teaching worksheets would realise that this craft is important; no matter how experienced a teacher is, every worksheet must be planned with careful thought.

In designing the worksheets and even tests, the teacher must be highly aware of the concepts to be assessed.

But what about higher-ability students?

Nothing comes naturally. I acknowledge that personally, I was far more successful with weak students than with students in the top classes.

The reason is because it is much harder to pitch and pace for higher-ability students. The actual differences among high-ability students are much wider and disparate in this spectrum and one tends to raise the bar high.

This leads to inevitable discouragement and frustration among good students. It is this phenomenon I see in this present day, particularly in the Integrated Programme (IP) curricula.

Not helpful to give students content from a curriculum beyond their grade when they are not ready

The argument for teaching “A” Level material to Year Three or Four students with the intention to “stretch” their learning potential may sound challenging and innovative but for students who have difficulties, this is again, unduly demoralising.

Having observed the curriculum designing process in various schools, I realise that standards are very often set arbitrarily.

There was no evidence that the curriculum was pegged at the students’ cognitive level corresponding to their age.

My concern is that when the bar is set too high, the confidence and self-esteem of “normal” students will be inordinately affected, should they fail.

Practically speaking, it is a more efficient use of time if a difficult concept is taught at the appropriate older age, when it can be grasped more easily.

Teachers do need to reflect if the rush to teach more and more difficult material to younger and younger students is really benefitting them.

I strongly believe that more harm can be done to the morale of students, who feel that it is some deficiency within themselves that caused them to fail, when in reality, the subject matter was pitched (without diagnostic assessment) at a level beyond their cognitive readiness.

Teaching and learning are not synonymous

Speaking of assessments and learning, I would like to offer my take on examinations at this point.

Education is a favourite topic for debate and discussion all over the world. Everyone has their two cents’ worth of opinions because everyone is a by-product of an “education system”.

In the heat of debate, what most do not realise is, there are distinct differences in the terms that are often used, such as “education”, “system”, “school”, “teaching” and “learning”.

These terms are not synonymous. Lots of resources may be poured into “programmes” in “education” for “outcome-based” purposes, but they may miss the mark for teaching and learning to take place.

Measuring convoluted “education outcomes” with figures, statistics and rankings has little bearing on teaching and learning as well.

These two elements, teaching and learning, stand apart from the system; they may or may not even be in a system!

Examinations are still needed but their role can be refined

The most common reason for doing away with examinations is that these are unnecessarily stressful for the children.

People who hold this view often fail to recognise the immensity of the role that examinations have in the development of the child.

I believe that examinations are needed as a means for cognitive engagement.

In preparing for an examination, students are exposed to very consequential thinking skills such as those required in inductive and deductive reasoning—critical thinking skills such as identifying, comparing, discriminating, assimilating, analysis, organising, synthesising.

These are intricate and complex skills which form a “natural” set of skills needed to function effectively in the work environment.

The students who are most able to master this skills set are the ones who are most ready for higher-order work. Besides, examinations also train the child’s resilience, tenacity as well as other affective domains, which are much-needed qualities for personal and character development.

In my opinion, the removal of examinations at key points is therefore totally unwise. Teachers can attest to the great difference to learning when a child can bring his prior knowledge to the lesson as it will help him to be actively involved in the process.

Memory work is still a must

A key component needed for active learning is memory work.

Without activating the use of the memory early in their learning journey, I believe that students may find themselves handicapped in the assimilation and application of concepts later at the higher levels.

I strongly feel the lack of emphasis on memory work is impeding the progress of especially, the average student. Memory is an important component of the mind that can be trained and sharpened, which would then contribute to agility in thinking.

There must be a balance between exploratory experiential learning and the active commitment to memory of essential facts that will build a foundation for whatever profession one chooses later in life.

I am in favour of national examinations as it is an objective standard to measure if students have acquired the requisite knowledge, skills and techniques.

But a system that is too exam-oriented is not healthy either

Having said that, I detest a system that is overly focussed on examinations. Many times, the teaching of higher-order thinking and learning must be compromised because resources need to be devoted to delivering results.

Therefore, my view is that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is a necessary albeit blunt tool of assessment to guide students to the next phase of learning.

Perhaps other assessments in the form of subjective observations of the students’ curiosity, enquiry and participation should also be considered.

No system is perfect and we must reflect on how to help our students better

Finally, I think we can agree that there is no perfect system.

I believe those who are concerned about the “system” and “exams” tend to rely on subjective observations and experience.

I feel that in Singapore, the need for exams at certain levels outweighs its removal. As professionals, teachers should master the art and science of their craft to facilitate learning.

Performance targets, rankings and the sheer volume of work sometimes distract teachers from honing their skills, but if they are committed to helping their students learn, they must reflect on their craft.

How do they bring out the best in each child? How can they be more sensitive and perceptive when it comes to the invisible development of the mind? How can they elevate the thinking to a higher-order perspective?

Top image from Ministry of Education Facebook