The Design and Technology (D&T) Department of Teck Whye Secondary School (TWSS) has discovered an innovative way to make students critical problem-solvers, creative thinkers and independent learners. The best part is: They’ve been doing it even before they heard of “TLLM”!
It’s hard not to be surprised when talking to the D&T teachers of TWSS. This is because for all the precision required by their subject, they have chosen an approach that is open to mistakes and exploratory. The teachers were also quite comfortable with leaving students to work on their own.
Before anyone shouts “Teach Less, Learn More!” (TLLM), Head of Department Sean Jalleh begs to disagree. “I don’t think it was a conscious effort to fit TLLM. It just so happened that the model fit us!” In fact, when TLLM was first introduced to their school, they looked at each other and said, “That’s us!”
Keeping it practical
So why use such an approach to teach a subject like D&T? “With our subject, you can’t just use classroom time,” explains Sean. “We only have 1-2 hours with students, then they have to do things on their own. So when we give them something to do, they decide how to manage the project.” This highlights the need for students to be motivated enough to learn on their own.
Of course, students had to learn the skills and knowledge of D&T as well. For teachers, this means ensuring that students are ready for the O levels by the time they reach Secondary 4. Interestingly, these D&T teachers did so by choosing an unexpected solution: not following the syllabus.
Instead of teaching students “a little of everything”, the TWSS programme specialises in one topic per year – from basic electronics at Secondary 1 to structures and advanced mechanics at Secondary 3. This leads up to portfolio-building in Secondary 4, where students need to make use of all their previous knowledge and skills.
Topics are chosen based on the students’ ability to comprehend the lesson. As a result, there needs to be significant planning in segregating these topics and allocating them to the different levels. In a way, this is like saying, “While this is all you’ll learn now, you will learn it well.”
Keeping it interesting
At the same time, teachers also take pains to think of projects that students would genuinely enjoy. “It’s changing perceptions,” says Sean. “So in Sec 1, they enter the class and say, ‘Hey, this is quite fun!’ Then, go on to Sec 2 and say the same thing. By the time they get to Sec 3, they’re already quite excited.”
As a result, TWSS’s D&T students find themselves making toys, designing table tops, and even spray-painting graffiti art on school walls! But don’t think this was just about making pretty objects. Students are also given the opportunity to contribute to the school and society, thereby raising the self-esteem of those who were not doing well academically. For example, tables designed by the Normal (Technical) students were auctioned to raise funds for the Singapore School for the Deaf. “They were really proud,” beams Indra bin Ahmad, a Sec 2 teacher. “They enjoyed it tremendously.”
D&T teachers keep their projects challenging as well. This year, students were asked to design posters to advertise TWSS’s strengths, in line with the school’s 40th anniversary.
There was just one interesting twist: They had to create easels which would be as eye-catching as the posters themselves! This way, students were encouraged to be creative and yet keep a specific purpose in mind.
“It’s important to encourage them to design something really abstract or amazing and then slowly bring them back to what we know they can make. If not, they can end up making a box!” laughs Sean. “It’s very comfortable but they’re not going to learn much.”
The D&T teachers hope that with this type of projects, students are challenged to make imagination the key driver in their approach to the design and eventually, their approach to life.
Teach Less Plan More
Of course, designing such a programme was easier said than done. Currently, the D&T teachers meet weekly just to make sure that everyone is in line with the plan. At times, this means being willing to do extra research.
“We have to be knowledgeable of course,” says Noor Azhar bin Ahmad, a Sec 1 teacher. “We need to come up with new ideas so if we feel limited by the textbook, we have to go beyond it and explore.” True enough, the D&T department has already removed the textbook from the Sec 2 programme and will do the same for the Sec 1 programme in 2007. This allows the department to see the textbook more as a guide rather than a crutch.
Of course, planning a new syllabus comes with its own challenges. “For me, the biggest worry is whether the programme is going to be successful,” admits Indra. “For example, we need to select the kind of mechanism for the students and when you to talk of mechanism, there are thousands! You can do it in 5 minutes but can they do it in half an hour? Those are the questions that go through your mind.” “So maybe that’s what TLLM is,” jokes Sean. “Teach less, learn more, but plan more!”
Prepared for life?
TLLM calls on educators to prepare students for life. For the D&T teachers, this means using giving students practical skills that can be used beyond the classroom.
“We looked at the textbooks and tried to use these to find real-world examples for the students,” says Kok Hian, who teaches Sec 3 students. “We need to ask the question, ‘Can the student really learn what this is about?'”
This extends to other activities as well. D&T students learn software used by professional designers, take field trips to graphic design companies, and solve classroom problems based on everyday objects.
“They get an idea of what’s going on outside the classroom,” says Sean, “and they don’t think that D&T is just going into a workshop and cutting wood.”
Of course, students must also be prepared for workplace, where there won’t always be a clear set of instructions on how to get things done.
“We want them to have a kind of mindset where they are able to know where and how to start solving a problem instead of just thinking, ‘I’ll just go back and do something else’,” says Alvin Tay, a Sec 3 teacher.
True enough, this approach has been successful enough for the teachers to note the difference. “I believe that in lower secondary, they’re a bit more dependent—just a bit,” adds Azhar. “But when they go on to Sec 3, you can see a change in them. They’re more independent and they can solve problems on their own. They’re willing to try different solutions, do trial and error, and learn from their mistakes.”