“Pupils fired with a passion” – Two schools in Singapore

Aspirant screen stars aim for Cannes, motor racers steer towards Monaco, but for those of us charged with teaching Mathematics to primary school children, the ‘Mecca’ is Singapore.

The opportunity to make the trip became a reality during the April 2011 holidays for a group of us from Waterkloof House Preparatory School. With the help of Singapore’s High Commissioner in South Africa, Bernard Baker, our Foundation Phase team of Tracy Lewis, Geraldine Hargroves, Naomi Williamson and this writer visited the city-state. Our primary objective was to learn more about Singapore’s world-beating method of teaching Mathematics. However, we came away with a far greater lesson; nothing less than a paradigm shift that changed our thinking about teaching and learning.

Carefully crafted programme, courtesy of Ministry of Education

Our programme was very carefully crafted by the Singapore Ministry of Education. It included visits to St. Andrew’s Junior School and Temasek Primary School. We were briefed by Marshall Cavendish Educational Publishers on the Singapore education system, focusing on Mathematics and interactive software. Ms Loh Mei Yoke, the Senior Curriculum Specialist in Mathematics at the Ministry of Education gave us a presentation on curriculum management. Educare, a co-operative of the Singapore Teachers’ Union, demonstrated their professional development programmes for educators, focussing on how Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) can be an enabler for effective teaching and learning.

We looked at the classroom of the future at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, catering to children who have made the leap into new technology. Singapore teachers’ grasp of this new world makes the traditional chalk-and-talk teaching methods we were schooled in, as meaningless as the wooden-framed slates our grandparents carried to school.

Team work in action at Temasek

At Temasek Primary School the classes we saw were filled with productive noise and discussion. Pupils were engaged in simple research projects, collaborating with each other across pairs, groups and teams. We were told by the principal Ms Magdalene Chin that: “Being able to work in teams and relating well with people are seen as important aspects of leadership and social development”. After watching these classes in action, we were very impressed by Singapore’s approach to teaching Maths.

At St Andrews Junior School we saw boys involved in Maths trails and a plethora of outdoor activities. They are encouraged to engage in relevant learning experiences that are fully connected to their real lives. For example, they measure floor space and fields and count windows and doors. Their work is also on display all around the school – even pinned to makeshift washing lines. “We try to make education relevant: using the outdoor environment, we offer all pupils interesting opportunities to solve meaningful Maths problems,” says Mrs Wong Bin Eng, Principal of St Andrew’s Junior School.

Creative thinking and sharing

In a nutshell, Singapore Maths is about students solving problems, thinking, sharing their ideas, and learning from one another. Singapore Maths presents specifically designed computer and internet lessons as part of the curriculum. Mr Khairi Abdullah, Assistant General Manager of Marshall Cavendish Education told us: “This approach, rated as one of the best in the world, allows students in Singapore to consistently achieve top ranking in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests”.

Professional development par for the course

The teachers we spoke with at St Andrew’s Junior School have studied more than merely the methods of teaching children. They seem to have an intimate understanding of the needs of modern children and what makes them tick. In our discussions we learned that all their teachers are required to read Minds of Boys by Michael Gurian; Character Matters by Thomas Ickona and Intellectual Character by Ron Ritchhart as a matter of course.

Ms Loh Mei Yoke, a senior curriculum specialist at the Ministry of Education, explained that becoming a teacher in Singapore starts immediately after high school and before the tertiary phase. The Ministry of Education recruits and employs trainees as untrained teachers. They are sent for preservice training, with full pay for up to two years. In fact, all their tuition fees are paid. Once trained, teachers are required to do 100 hours of professional development every year. Schools must allow this and it’s paid for by the Ministry of Education.

Home-based learning model tested regularly

Our time with Marshall Cavendish and Educare showed us that Singaporeans are constantly solving problems, thinking ahead and discovering potential challenges in the future. They incorporate technology into every aspect of their lives. The currently used home-based learning model, for example, was developed in response to the relatively recent threat of pandemic outbreaks of Swine ’flu. Schools needed contingency plans should they be forced to stop formal classes to control community outbreaks. As a result, Singapore schools now close periodically to test their home-based learning systems.

These virtual workspaces help teachers extend the delivery of teaching and materials online to remote students through realtime interactive sessions. This means pupils can learn anytime, anywhere beyond the confines of the classroom supported by new age devices and wireless technology. Already present in some South African schools, we were intrigued to see the DynaMice application that runs on Multipoint developed by Microsoft being used at Educare. It involves multiple ‘mice’ ‘attached’ to a single computer. This application allows every student to participate in class activities at the same time.

Responsible and versatile individuals

Our abiding impression is that Singapore’s education arena has evolved into one that emphasises collaborative work and critical thinking skills. At both the schools we visited, we saw pupils exposed to a questioning learning approach, which involved team work and communication at every level.

Temasek Primary School’s mission statement reads, in part: “Our mission [is] developing our pupils into responsible and versatile individuals who are fired with passion for lifelong learning and who are able to contribute effectively to society.” Given what we saw, evidently they are very close to realising their goals.

Elaine Cornish is the Junior Primary Department Head at Waterkloof House Preparatory School in Pretoria.

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Category: Winter 2011

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