Find out how one research study is helping Normal (Technical) teachers plan and design a better curriculum for their students
Much has been said about Singapore’s lowest stream – the Normal (Technical) or NT stream – so much so that a movie has even been made about it! Yet, meeting Professor James Albright and Dr. Mary Anne Heng gave me a distinct feeling that I was going to hear something new.
Both researchers had agreed to a short interview on their project, Building Teacher Capacity in Curriculum and Pedagogical Design in Normal (Technical) Classrooms, an intervention project that aims to help NT teachers plan and teach in a way that caters to the needs of their students.
Like other efforts to bring research into practice, the project definitely has its share of sceptics. Yet, with 21 teachers from 4 neighbourhood schools now taking part in the intervention, a positive impact on the teaching and learning in the NT classroom seems possible. Jim and Mary Anne are careful not to make any promises. Still, it’s interesting to hear what they think can be achieved.
How the project came about
In a nation-wide study by the Centre for Research on Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP), classroom data showed that there was little difference between the way lessons were taught in NT classrooms and in those from Normal (Academic) or Express streams.
This was surprising, given that a review of the NT curriculum in 2004 had emphasised the need for more “practice-oriented” approaches and curricular links to daily life. For the research team, this data was one indication that teachers needed to plan their lessons more and teach in a way that would cater to the needs of NT students.
Jim believes this is not something that can be done with worksheets and lectures alone. “For some kids, studying hard to beat the exam is sufficient because in a sense, they’ve been captured by school well enough for this to motivate them,” he says. “But for the kids in the NT stream, it’s like ‘I’m going to ITE – It’s The End.’ The exam doesn’t hold quite the same attention.”
In need of a plan
Jim admits that the task of planning a curriculum is easier said than done. “So many of our teachers are still getting used to the idea of planning. And this goes beyond just thinking about the lesson. It’s about how a unit builds learning for the next and how lessons should work towards some essential learning.”
A good plan includes not only how to teach the subject matter but how to overcome other challenges as well. “If you walk into an NT classroom, you see a lot of kids just trying to mediate the language,” explains Jim. “Sometimes a teacher would say, ‘Yeah, they have a hard time with the language.’ But they don’t see the implications of that in terms of designing lessons or choosing the particular activity or task they’re planning.”
The task of planning is also affected by the fact that most teachers have low expectations of NT students. “Frequently, you get a teacher saying, ‘Oh, I need to dumb it down more,’ or ‘I have to make it easier and easier and easier’” says Jim. “There are confronting views that children who are underachieving don’t have the capacity to deal with a thinking curriculum so teachers are often surprised during the planning process where a lot seems to be possible,” adds Mary Anne.
According to Jim, low expectations, as expressed through “deficit ways of talking”, are associated with poor student achievement. This correlation has been proven by over 40 years of international research findings and is not just a problem in Singaporean classrooms.
Understanding by Design
To help teachers become curriculum designers, the research team chose Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (UbD) as a basis for the intervention. While UbD is not new in Singapore, it is the first attempt to use the framework with students who are not performing well in the classroom.
Still, the research team is confident that NT teachers will also find it useful. “UbD has a reasonable perspective on all sorts of things,” says Jim. “It would say direct instruction is fine in reasonable amounts. It would also say certain forms of assessment like quizzes are perfectly all right as long as they are set within an overall framework of student learning.”
UbD also focuses on helping students understand the purpose of what they’re learning. For Jim, this was a question that many NT teachers must consider when planning their lessons. “Can students tell me what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how it connects to what they did yesterday and what they’re doing tomorrow? It’s a pretty simple kind of thing to do but if kids can’t do that, then they should want to know why and they should be able to tell you,” he says simply. “Basically that’s UbD in a nutshell: Do your kids know why they’re doing what they’re doing?”
Tell us something new
Dozens of professional development theories have long been proposed and yet made little change in the classroom. Is UbD yet another Western “solution” being forced on the Singaporean teachers?
“The idea of having a Western expert come in and lay down a kind of Western pedagogy on Asian kids is not quite the case,” says Jim. “I think UbD encourages teachers to have a wide repertoire and not just be one-trick ponies. The more you can do, the better you can do.”
Similarly, Mary Anne emphasises that UbD is not simply another “learner-centred” approach. “I think UbD reminds us of the fundamental questions and issues that we should be focusing on in relation to teaching and learning. What’s meaningful? What’s relevant? It takes us further than questions on activities-based learning and student-centredness. It’s about what’s appropriate and meaningful.”
Does it work?
To help teachers translate UbD principles into practice, Jim and Mary Anne assembled a team of researchers who are not “outsiders” in the classroom. “Our research associates have experience, subject knowledge and familiarity with the Singapore school curriculum so I think that provides encouragement for teachers in terms of what’s possible,” says Mary Anne.
The research team conducted interviews, administered interviews and observed classroom discussions. A unique “process of moderation” was also developed to see whether the intervention was helping teachers plan their lessons better. For each teacher participating in the project, the team collected works from 5 of their students over a 3-week period. Experts were then invited to look through these for “signs of understanding”. The process is repeated at the end of the project.
“I think this process gives us a certain degree of confidence, along with all the other data, in saying, yeah, in a relatively short period of time, this seemed to affect the kind of work students were doing,” Jim says.
Of course, the question at the back of our minds remains: Does this mean better test scores for the students’ N-level examinations?
“Now, we cannot say that their scores in the common exam are going to go up or anything like that. There are just too many variables. I mean, you can make the claim but no one will believe you,” jokes Jim.
“I see the project as planting in terms of an awareness of what might be possible when groups of committed teachers come together,” Mary Anne says pragmatically.
And in the end, perhaps one of the project’s biggest achievements cannot be measured by test performance at all. As Jim says, “Part of this work is getting teachers to think, ‘Who are these kids?’ Not simply, ‘Are they going to be the people who fix my aircon?’ but who are they in terms of my neighbours, the people I ride the MRT with, who vote in elections and participate in civil society. A teacher should be cognisant of those kinds of things.”
> Click here to find out more about this research project.
> Want to know what teachers think of UbD? Click here.