Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pushing all the wrong buttons

It's been a troubling week on the whole. Upon reflection, I'm starting to see a pattern emerging that I am not comfortable with. The kids and I are approaching our tutorials with very different expectations and from very different perspectives. They want playscripts, I'm teaching them the rules of improv. Complete mismatch.

I've come to realize that the kids have no confidence answering questions if they haven't been taught what the answers were beforehand. It doesn't matter that I'm teaching them to answer questions through logic and problem-solving techniques. Skills that have to do with question deconstruction and response reconstruction are completely going over their heads, and it all makes no sense to them.

They simply won't try to figure things out on their own because they haven't got a model or a pre-approved answer to match and plug-in. No wonder group-work is something they dread, 'cos everybody feels stupid in a group. How can they contribute if they haven't already got an assured answer to the problem? And when they realize an answer is not forthcoming, they get upset, they rebel, and think the worst of the one trying to lead the discussion. You know who you are.

The kids often complain of being treated like human Xerox machines. I wonder, at this age, whether we can turn them back into human beings again, or if it's already too late? As it is, I seem to be pushing all the wrong buttons these days and, like actual Xerox machines, they're breaking down all too easily.

But whatever could have made our teenagers this dense by the time they reach JC? I think we can make some inferences looking at the letters in the ST Forum page of this morning, such as this one and the rest (minus the roadkill ones, although they do tell us something of our operate-to-instruction culture as well).

Now then... Education is rotting the brains of our young. Discuss.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Unplug and engage

I still want to believe in the hype about all these newfangled methods of engaging students in the classroom. Whether it's by using infocomm tools; or peer teaching; or new methods to engage the "21st Century learner"; or this discovery approach (it's not a bad way of looking at the TLLM stuff we keep hearing about, actually); I'm grateful for them all. I cannot imagine how I could possibly do my job if I were a teacher 20-30 years ago with no reliable access to the 'net.

But there are times when you really have to get medieval. Whatever we believe of the "guide on the side", always leave the door open for the sage to take back the stage. Rawr!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Whoa, sounds like a kindred spirit has marked one too many deplorable GP essays and is venting on the ST forum. Yeah! Right on, babe! The kids are so not reading enough and are becoming so, like, y'know... what she said.

I was with Ms Ng right up until she started blaming computer games. -_- Y U NO like Skyrim??? Don't think I'm gonna look her up on Facebook any more. :'(

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New wine into old wineskin

As we grapple with ideas of how to encourage self-directed learning and foster collaborative learning, two unrelated studies are revealing that the necessary trigger mechanism still eluding us is a combination of biology and psychology.

Biology encodes in us human beings a natural tendency to collaborate. We are social animals (some more so than others, it seems) and our success as a species is directly related to our heightened abilities to organize ourselves and work together for our common good. Compassion for the less able (to contribute) is also hard-wired within us, so by right there should be no difficulty in creating social networks of mutual assistance and partnership from within the microcosm of the classroom.

And yet in my discussion with the 'expert' and in the classroom experience I had yesterday; the expert said that the classroom as it exists today is not ready for such a pedagogical paradigm shift, and the debacle that ensued in the classroom confirmed it (yes, I was trying out another experiment which again failed miserably).

So something else is happening in the classroom that is subverting our natural biological impulses. I believe I've identified what it is: the psychological side-effect of our current teaching-and-learning model itself. Though Haidt is not specifically writing about classroom practices, we can scale down his national politico-economic analysis and see how it operates in small communities (of say 20-40 kids).

In the experiment he draws his conclusions from, there is a machine that rewards the subjects for their effort. In short, the subjects are more likely to equalize their rewards (i.e., act in a more egalitarian manner towards each other) if the mechanism rewarded collaborative effort. Even if the rewards between two subjects were unequal, as long as it was obvious that without working together neither would have been rewarded, the subjects were more likely to even out the reward between themselves.

But the willingness to share the reward significantly diminishes when 1) the two subjects start out with an unequal distribution of reward even before any effort is made, and 2) when individual effort determines the reward allocation (i.e., work harder, get more; work less, get less).

This is all starting to sound familiar. The motivation for being in the classroom for practically all our students is a reflection of condition 1. What each student brings to class in terms of economic wealth and cultural capital is a lunchbox that isn't meant to be shared with others, but a personal advantage to capitalize on and get ahead of the pack.

The idea of working for what we deserve is condition 2. The end-of-year exam is seen purely as the result of individual effort. We promise the kids who work the hardest and sacrifice themselves the most the 'A' grade; sucks to be everybody else.

Although we encourage collaboration in Project Work, we all know the exercise is problematic because it, likewise, is graded competitively as an end-of-process exam. So although we say the process is more important, we still end up assessing the product anyway.

We failed to see this scenario when we went on course a couple of weeks ago. We collaborated nicely and had some fun working with our group members, and we thought it would be the same when we tried it out in class. Nope. We collaborated because we knew we could gain something from each other, and we didn't have to take an end-of-course exam. The kids, however, do.

As one of the ICT guys on campus, I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. We're working towards two opposing ends and our job is to make East and West meet in the middle. We desperately need to figure out how to turn our flat world into a globe. What have we gotten ourselves into now?

Monday, February 20, 2012

One step forward, two steps back

Days like this are when I'm facing brick walls of resistance and yet being unable to prove myself due to the utter failure of silly things like wi-fi in the classroom despite boasting of costly upgrades galore. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the highest level of technology our schools would ever reach is the trusty biro and fooslcap pad.

Why won't I just be like everybody else and not try so hard to be different?

Whatever. Enjoy the music.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The 'now' moment

One of the reasons why Singaporeans tend to be so dissatisfied with life is because we think too much of the future. The worries and anxieties that we have are not about today, but tomorrow. And mostly about not having enough money to survive, let alone enjoy tomorrow.

So we work ourselves to the bone. We fret and we stock up what we can get, like squirrels preparing for winter. Some of the more enterprising of us invest, in hopes of bringing a windfall sometime down the road, but until then our hearts sink as we watch our stock values plummet.

Perhaps our parents and teachers and our government have been telling us the same grasshopper vs ant story too often. It's become the driving force behind Singaporean thought and action. Work hard now, because the winter is coming and when it arrives, no one will help you if you haven't stocked up enough for yourself. We are taught to look down on the grasshopper and accept that he deserves his fate because he enjoyed summer too much.

But life isn't lived in the future. We live life in the here and now. What will sustain us is not the money we've accumulated per se, but rather the wealth of experiences we have been able to gather as we live life from day to day, moment to moment. Work is important, but so is every other aspect of life; and our generation is fortunate enough, affluent enough, to enrich ourselves in so many ways. Question is, are we willing to spend our time building up a variety of life experiences, or are we just going to fritter it all away chasing the money?

Sometimes, a different perspective of life can help us see the beauty and value of the 'now' moment. Meet Joel Cooper who writes for The Ex-Pat Files, Sunday Times: "Tea, cats and a new hunger", 19 Feb 2012.