Five teachers from MacPherson Primary School show us what it really means to “facilitate” change in the classroom.
When teachers at MacPherson Primary School first found out they would be given the chance to facilitate their own Learning Circles (LC), it was hard not to be a little worried.
Led by the Teachers Network, an LC is a professional development tool whose success is dependent on having teachers talk, reflect and work together in solving a particular issue. Therefore, an LC facilitator is not only expected to lead discussions but also to motivate, inspire and guide the participants as well.
“It was kind of funny because some of us are introverts,” chuckles Herda Suleiman, a Primary 1 teacher. “So when we were chosen to facilitate an LC, we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to live up to their expectations.”
Apparently, a lot has changed since then. Having completed a whole Learning Cycle in 2005, Herda and her colleagues Latha Balakrishnan, Constance Chia, Yer Lay Keow and Sharleen Chong don’t seem to be either anxious or introverted. All five teachers are confident, frank and even a little philosophical as they share the ups and downs of teacher research and what it really means to “facilitate” change in the classroom.
Choose and Eliminate
The first important role of an LC facilitator is to help the teachers decide what problem the LC should focus on. An easy task? Not really – especially if you’re dealing with 5 to 8 different teachers, each handling a class of at least 40 students.
“When we choose a problem to be solved, it has to be for the whole level,” explains Herda. “It must be relevant from the first class to the tail-end class. We prefer that everyone will benefit from the LC.”
Of course, this begs the question: Isn’t this easier said than done? As it turns out, finding a common problem was something that came naturally. In Latha’s LC, Malay and Tamil teachers collaborated in helping students improve their oral skills. “We realised that pupils were not using the proper vocabulary that needed to be used in the classroom context,” says Latha. “We also felt it was a very timely issue. Since 2006, the weight given to oral skills in the PSLE is very high. It is almost a quarter of the total marks.”
Similarities surfaced not only within but across levels as well. As each LC completed their action research studies, teachers realised that a good number had chosen to focus on improving the students’ oral communication skills. They then found themselves comparing strategies and different speaking activities. Making the effort to find common ground then proved to be extremely beneficial.
“We do have common worksheets but some classes need more help in a particular topic,” explains Herda. “One teacher may prepare extra worksheets to help her students without knowing that other classes are also facing the same problem. Two teachers then end up making extra worksheets for the same issue!”
“In one way or another it actually saves time,” agrees Lay Keow, whose LC dealt with improving English speaking skills among Primary 5 students. “If your class and my class have the same problem, we don’t have to do the same thing separately. We can share.”
Dealing with the data
Once the problem is identified, the LC then embarks on an action research study to determine the effectiveness of the strategies they have chosen. For LC facilitators, this means ensuring that all teachers take part in gathering and analysing the research data.
“The time was really tight. Teachers had to meet and do research, so that cut into the time they used for teaching and marking,” recalls Constance. “Still, I think they were really cooperative. They were trying their best given their limited time.”
“We definitely had to work within a time frame,” agrees Latha. “We couldn’t just drag on and on; so from the start, we had to decide how long we were going to work on the research. Is it going to go on for 10 weeks or 6 weeks? We had to draw the line first then see how we were going to progress.”
As it turns out, all five action research projects facilitated by the teachers showed a considerable improvement in student performance. Sharleen, a Primary 3 teacher, is especially proud of her LC’s study on using the buddy system to help students who were weak in Mathematics.
“We paired up the weaker students with the ones who were stronger in Maths and did a pre- and post-test,” she says. “We even did a subsequent test later on to check on how they were doing. At the end of the year, the students did tremendously well.”
Not extra work
Ironically, the most difficult task of an LC facilitator is not part of the research process at all. Rather, it has to do motivating fellow teachers to see the benefits of the LC in spite of the effort and time it requires.
“The first thing we have to do is convince them that action research is not additional work,” Sharleen says. “Knowing our busy schedules, it’s very important to let them know that it is something that will make their work easier.”
Of course, in order to achieve this, LC facilitators have to believe that action research is not extra work for them as well. For Herda, it’s all a matter of seeing it as part of the teaching profession. “We believe that anything that can help us improve our students’ learning is good. Therefore, it’s not extra work because it’s our job to make them better pupils. If action research works, why not?”
As another school year begins, all five facilitators are hoping to see more LCs in their school. “Teachers will probably be facing different issues from those faced in the previous years. Other colleagues will probably think of better strategies,” says Herda.
Although action research has definitely boosted the teaching at MacPherson Primary, the LC facilitators hope that teachers will be able to take away something as individuals as well. Says Constance, “This whole experience was meant to help teachers grow and meet the needs of the classroom. Now, they can say, ‘What can I do to go about improving and learning on my own?’”
> Want to learn more about Learning Circles? Click here.