Teach Less, Learn More

April 2, 2015 / By

We Americans have a great deal to learn from Asia, as they have demonstrated by adopting our technologies and integrating them into their daily lives. In Singapore, when I am on public transport, it is the exception that someone is sitting without some device attached – texting, chatting, watching a drama, or playing some game. Technology has become an essential appendage wherever one finds oneself. Is this attachment to technology positive engagement or a passive addiction? Do we as users actually critically digest this constant message flow? How are we preparing our youth so that they are not just “dancing” to these message strings?
In Singapore, there is an acronym for an important change that WeVideo is helping to catalyze: TLLM. It stands for “Teach Less, Learn More.” Students need time to process and explore their understanding of the content. Multimedia and collaborative tasks which enrich the curriculum by providing constructivist challenges are seen as a positive addition to the time-constrained students and teacher alike.
As one of the very few American Singapore public servants, I have spent the last six years deeply embedded in the Ministry of Education as a facilitator of change, for embracing change is recognized as a 21st-century imperative. As Thomas Friedman points out in a New York Times op-ed piece, it is curious that Singapore has learned much of what is required to be successful from the United States. The difference is that Singapore practices what America preaches.
Like the U.S., Singapore prides itself on its multi-racial population. Being a global cosmopolitan island city-state at the end of the Kra Peninsula means that for hundreds of years new ideas have continuously flowed in with each docking ship. This has resulted in stress at times but mostly in appreciation for innovation. Despite some initial resistance, if a new idea makes sense and if it works to promote success, it can be quickly adopted – or adapted – to meet the demands of Singapore’s multi-ethnic identity.
It is, however, only with independence fifty years ago that the maturation of that diversity evolved into what some call a “miracle state.” When it comes to education, Singapore, like Shanghai, is ranked at the top of the OECD lists, to which WeVideo referred in the previous blog post. I would suggest this is not a miracle but more the pragmatic application of several currents of ideas, some simple and others much more complex.

The Secret Behind the “Miracle”

There are five key factors that drive Singapore’s education:
1. Centralization
In Singapore, the Ministry of Education has been the engine of development. Central authority calculates desired outcomes. Systematic oversight and accountability for pathways to success are built into the schools. Standardized examinations generate results, and those results are analyzed by central mainframe computers, to which all teachers and administrators have access. Successful outcomes are rewarded; failures are reworked, not punished. This desire can be seen in the United States with No Child Left Behind and Common Core movements, where the federal government is encouraging a more unified national structure, with mixed results.
2. Coordination
Close top-down coordination from educational leaders to local administrators to teaching staff brings what is happening in classrooms into alignment with national goals. Everyone is looking for successful and measurable outcomes, creating a competitive ethos.
3. Meritocracy
Teacher salary and student upward mobility are based upon success. Success is determined by outcomes. Results are calculated on competitive examinations rooted in Chinese Confucianism. In the society, all teachers are accorded high respect. In three years, a successful first-year teacher can move into an administrative position.
Student success follows a similar trajectory. Presidential scholars can become school leaders rapidly if their performance is equal to their promise as pupils. Doing well on examinations results in one having the freedom to choose a desired stream. The salmon’s struggle comes to mind: driven to make it to the higher pools, only the strongest and most worthy make it. As a student, how hard you work and how well you do on these examinations results in personal success. But humans aren’t fish; we must consciously choose our journey, yet too frequently we school as though we were fish.
4. Innovation
The central political authority has realized that change is required and that there is more to learning than memorizing. What can one do with all the information that is too often crammed and forgotten once the examination has been completed? Is one able to ask those addictive technological devices the right questions to solve real-world problems, or does all that “schooling” resulting in fish-tank thinking? Additionally, does all this content from texts and teachers have much to do with a world where one can access the very same information through those ubiquitous technologies? Can one use their knowledge to help society?

singapore_students Teacher observers, videographers, and students collaborate to improve learning. After the class activity, each group discusses and reflectively writes about their observations. This process is the method for each English Language curricular element and is in preparation for WeVideo podcasting that brings together all the requisite components of the learning of English into one product.

The Ministry looks to the future and is not so sure, so it rewards experimentation with the curriculum. Innovative Learning Projects (ILTs) are required of all teachers each year. Some projects are selected for presentations with a stipend to colleagues and others are rolled out to the nation. This is what I did with WeVideo during 2014, and in the future series of blogs you will see the result and read from a teacher’s perspective how video creation helps students to learn more.
5. Whole-Child Approach
Much as in America over the last two decades, the new mantra in Singapore is looking at the child holistically. Innovations are needed which address problem-solving/critical thinking, teamwork/collaboration, Information Communication Technology (ICT) application, and the most difficult to “teach” – creativity.
I believe after a year of experimentation with WeVideo that we have begun to see a tool that opens the structured examination, rote-learning environment to one that stimulates creative 21st-century skill development and a willingness to step out of the 20th century boxes in which education confined us.
WeVideo is more than a video editing tool; it is an opportunity for students and teachers to practice their learning, to collaborate in resolving problems, to construct media into an expression of that understanding. Human brain activity, especially in school settings, revolves around five desirable outcomes: sensing – critical processing of cognitive intake; believing – understanding of faith-based acceptance of that sensory input; knowing – the prime function of the Common Core content; understanding – less common in the fast-paced world, where reflection upon what we think we know is rare. Mastery of each of these hopefully leads to the fifth outcome – creativity – which makes for more imaginative contributors to society.

As with any collaborative project, planning and shared discussion about the process is required. Here teachers assess a lesson series to determine if curricular learning objectives (LOs) are being addressed. Specific focus here is ORAL skills. Each student is examined orally each year prior to the national O Level oral exam in the fourth year of secondary school (age 16). Mind-mapping and use of interactive communication technologies (ICT) such as WeVideo play an increasingly important role both in engaging the student and implementation of TLLM.

Singapore has learned from America, as Friedman points out, that student-centered education is a desirable component of schooling. Like Nemo, children need to explore out of the fish tank. In this blog series, I will try to show secondary students jumping out of the traditional box, collaboratively learning to problem solve and in the process becoming more aware of how living in a multimedia world requires critical thinking in order to be successful.

The New Land of Opportunity

To amplify point four from above, if Singapore is doing so well on global education comparatives, why change the system? Answer: Singapore recognizes that to remain competitive in a global marketplace, they must become innovative problem solvers. Singapore’s success on the PISA tests is a reflection of the disciplined memories of the best and the brightest… but ask these same students to solve a problem not existing in that box and they flounder.
Singapore education is stressful, and the meaning of the oft-quoted “all work and no play” is widely felt and recognized. It is the number one complaint amongst students and parents alike. So much rests on exam results that children have become robotic and unhappy. In fact, this past year Singapore ranked among the least happy countries on Earth.

Teacher as silent observer, students collaboratively analyzing a passage about which they will eventually write. Students enjoy not sitting in rows listening to the teacher, the common situation in Singapore. Reading, writing, creating collaboratively is more fun and hence more engaging for these students whose WeVideo products will be highlighted in this series of blogs.

The Ministry understands this and by various means is stimulating curricular change which addresses a more holistic student development. “All schools are good schools,” says Minister of Education Heng. All public schools do have identical facilities – sort of clones of each other – but some schools have traditions and an ethos that would be the envy of any of the high-end international schools I have evolved from. Rarely in public education does the state make such an effort to be uniform in its largesse as Singapore. (20% of the country’s GDP is invested in education.)
While some schools are still trapped in the past’s rigidity, others take chances with innovation. The school where I was posted, Bukit Panjang Government High School, is one such school. One of the oldest public schools in Singapore, it has matured to the point where it values innovation. Make a rational proposal and funding will be found; and if positive results are demonstrated, these projects will continue.

So why is the title of my first blog TLLM?

TLLM is an acronym that refers to the idea that the holistic students’ needs must be addressed; that there is more to education than the examination results; that rote learning is less important in a world where sixty percent of the occupations of the current secondary student have not yet been created; that what is required are the 21st Century Skills that tools like WeVideo can add to the curriculum.
Singapore has recognized that a 21st-century success story requires people who can think, innovate, and be creative contributors to society. Singapore has achieved its current level of prosperity because of the hard work of selfless “pioneers.” The transition from a fledgling state to a global player requires a new kind of worker and a new kind of student.
In Singapore, I was tasked with introducing new ideas to tweak the system. Colleagues then observed, filmed, tested, analyzed and have now adopted and are adapting these innovations – a significant one was WeVideo. And I found that students, who completed video projects on their own time out of school, had fun learning.
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About the Author

Robert Puffer