Teach less, learn more: more is needed

Look at the tables from the Ministry of Education (MOE) of Singapore’s website on Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) initiative. I almost wanted to rejoin the teaching service when I saw it. The MOE is going to de-emphasize drill and practice, “one-size-fits-all” instruction, grades, tests, and so on. All the things that I believe in.

But wait a minute. Why didn’t they tell us how they hope to achieve this? It is all fine to have all these goals scribed on a (virtual) wall. But how does the MOE hope to achieve this?

I can’t help a reluctance on the part of MOE to move away from the high stakes examinations that has been a permanent feature of the education system in Singapore. The success of students from Singapore in such examinations has been the benchmark used by MOE to laud itself all these years. They have even gone into examinations in a big way by setting up their own Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) to promote Singapore’s examination-linked brand. The iPSLE is now being sold to neighboring countries.

Will teachers bite into this new initiative? A lot will depend again on MOE. It is not enough to say it wants all these wonderful learning and teaching goals but if it still has the high stakes examinations and the related school ranking system. No teacher who wants to continue in the Singapore education service will change from what he has been essentially doing, which is, to teach to the examinations. Teaching to the examinations of course means all those things that MOE wants less of under its TLLM initiative. Teachers will continue to cover the syllabus, push for drill and practice and rote-learning, continue to teach set formulae and expect standard answers. Their teaching mode will continue to be one of dispensing information. High stakes examinations don’t reward teachers and students to do what TLLM wants them to do. Just stick to the examination-type questions and answers. Students, teachers and principals will continue to fear failure.

The MOE must make a clear signal to all. It can’t pretend all the TLLM goals can be achieved as long as high stakes examinations continue as it is today. Even if changes are made to these examinations through the inclusion of project work the way it is done now,with its direct link to the students’ summative evaluation, it will only serve to emphasize that all learning is for the final results at the end of the academic year. Project work should be encouraged not just to see if students can do another type of assessment but more because it is to encourage deeper learning through inquiry. Teachers are not dumb neither are the students. They will see a summative assessment in whatever bottle it appears in.

All the goals stated under TLLM must be accompanied by appropriate changes to the assessment modes. Alternative assessment modes must be used throughout the year rather than on a seasonal basis as it is done today in Singapore schools. The assessment modes should be able to capture the deep learning and understanding that is called for under the TLLM initiative.

It would be nice to hear from MOE how it plans to go about doing all these. Changing the course in education for Singapore involves more than just stating goals. Just how does MOE plan to get there? Right now the clear destination for all teachers, principals and parents in Singapore is to continue holding their course and head for the next end-of-year examinations. MOE needs to reset its compass and chart new routes and take on new supplies if it hopes to get where it wants to go.

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