Saturday, October 02, 2010

Book run gone west

Funny how the library keeps sending us to Jurong on our book delivery runs. We still can't get around without the help of our trusty street directory, but this time we didn't get lost.

First recipient refused delivery but instead suspended further deliveries because she had to study for her year-end exams. She might have called the library earlier, but we suspect it was her mom who made that decision for her. Anyway, we collected the books she was returning from the previous run so it wasn't an entirely wasted trip.

June went alone to meet the second recipient. I had to stay in the car because the parking lot was full. Never did get a lot. June found me where she'd left me. No other problems.

Two drops, run done!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A cat may open a door

Achieving a new milestone for feline intelligence, Maui has learnt to open the bathroom bi-fold door from the inside! The bi-fold door is designed to be opened by human hands only. It requires fingers to grip the embedded handhold in order to pull the door open. The handhold is too high for Maui to reach and even if he could touch it, he doesn't have any fingers to grip it anyway. And pulling a door open is quite an alien concept to a cat used to applying his body weight to push doors open instead. See for yourself in the vid below:

Oh, a note about the accompanying music: YouTube makes it difficult for us to distribute material containing copyrighted music. With apologies to KMJ, I used her one of her original compositions for a Drama Night of years long past. It was the only piece of non-copyrighted music I had.

'Small is better' debunked?

As in my previous post, today we see another example of learning taking place in desperate circumstances. NYT reports that a school with a huge population and low grade scores has recently made an amazing recovery, thus proving that the 'small is better' rule is wrong.

I think it proves more the exception than the rule. No offence to Brockton High's achievement, but the headline oversimplifies matters. Brockton made circumstances work in its favour. It recognized that reading and writing, speaking and reasoning (in English, I assume) were the very basic fundamental skills forming the bedrock of any kind of higher learning. Thus, it insisted that every subject factored in some component of reading and writing regardless of how 'relevant' literacy in English was to the subject, even gym class. Any subject having problems implementing this odd new component got immediate support and assistance from the committee heading this initiative.

There were the usual teething problems but it worked, mostly because there was nothing further to lose anyway. The other thing was that everyone agreed to align themselves to prioritizing reading, writing, speaking and reasoning over their specific content subject area, and so allocated the necessary time and emphasis on the same during curriculum time. Needless to say, the kids got a lot of practice in these basic skills which went a long way to boosting their overall academic performance over time.

I can't imagine an already successful school pulling off such Instructional Programme alignment among their staff. Every successful Department will want to focus on it own syllabus, maintain its own reputation and see such cross-departmental cooperation as a waste of time and effort. Why risk sacrificing our good grades to help another department pull up their's?

Selfishness aside, class size may not matter if what is being taught is basic literacy and reasoning skills. Everybody teaches the same thing, everybody learns the same thing. It's teaching that caters to the lowest common denominator. But class size does begin to matter when we're teaching higher, more specialized skills and content -- when a small mistake can result in grave consequences to the final result, closer supervision is necessary.

Time to get personal. Consultation season is about to recommence. At this level, one-to-one and small group meetings are still the best form of teaching.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Learning from a hole in a wall

I think Sugata Mitra's TED Talk in it's entirety is worth the link. Mitra has been experimenting with kids and computers and is now proposing that even without a trained teacher, kids with a computer and broadband Internet access can organize themselves and learn what they need to learn.

Now, wait. If what he has observed is true, then S'porean kids should be freakin' geniuses! Many of them are carrying around their own personal Internet devices in their pockets. Those who don't still have lots of free (or cheap) access to the 'net almost any time they want. Plus they have the added advantage of having access to us, trained teacher professionals who are ready, willing and able to mould the future of our nation. But, sad to say, to call the majority of our kids 'geniuses' is somewhat of an exaggeration. And I'm not trying to be modest here.

Worse still, why is it that when we come across students who are struggling with one subject or another, our first line of attack is to cut him or her off from this very key learning tool in our wired age? In some countries, Internet access is a human right, so this approach could in some circles be considered an atrocity!

In our case, Internet access is a major advantage that we have yet to exploit properly. What we haven't come to realise yet is that access to fast information at our fingertips will only work to help us become smarter people if certain fundamental premises are already in motion. According to Mitra's findings, kids are self-organizing and they learn according to what they as a group are interested in learning. Also, kids learn collaboratively and cooperatively. Information is shared among kids freely, thus when one makes a discovery or arrives at an understanding of a concept or whatever, very quickly this new knowledge spreads to the rest of the group. Result: smarter, more motivated kids who understand what they are learning and can recall their learning much better than our exam-smart text-bookish S'pore students who 'slog their guts out' and have had no fun with their learning process whatsoever.

Unfortunately for us, the ones standing in the way of our kids actually learning and enjoying their learning is... us. Teachers. We don't let them self-organize. We organize EVERYTHING for them; their materials, their time, their tests, their co-curricula activities; inside school, outside school we manage them and continue treating them like unweaned breast-fed babies regardless of their physical age. I wonder if that's why we feel so sucked dry sometimes?

But the worst thing is that because of what we are doing, because of our lack of trust in our kids, we instil in them the idea that they can't trust anyone either. Not their friends, not their classmates, because everyone is competing for a limited number of university places. Competition is the biggest killer of collaborative and cooperative learning, and without this fundamental pillar of learning our job teaching individual selfish information hoarders can actually be quite a futile one, a joyless one and a thankless one.

This sort of competition-is-good (or at least inevitable) attitude goes right up to MP level, so making the necessary changes to the way we teach to maximize our latest tech assets will be 1) difficult, and 2) will have to start on a very small-scale, perhaps within one's personal sphere of influence, no more.

Who's with me?