Bernadette Lim was pleasantly surprised when, as she approached her Secondary 2 class juggling a heavy load, a student quickly jumped up to open the door for her. She was equally impressed when one of the girls, of her own accord, took the effort to replace a broken seal on a package of felt markers.
While these may appear to be insignificant to most, these small acts of thoughtfulness have come to mean a lot to Bernadette and her colleagues at St. Margaret’s Secondary School, because these are just some of the skills they have been seeking to impart to their students.
Over the years, the teachers at St. Margaret’s had noticed that these seemingly little things were becoming increasingly rare. To redress this problem, the teachers decided to relook and rework their school’s lifeskills programme, called DOT (Daughters of Tomorrow).
“We felt that the current lifeskills lessons were not really achieving what we wanted to do as a school, to instil certain key values that we wanted the girls to have,” explained Mrs Karen Tay, Head of Student Development. “We wanted to develop lifeskills lessons that would be more meaningful for the girls, and something that they would really learn from rather than just sit through.”
This realisation started them on a challenging process of redesigning the lifeskills curriculum and crafting a new set of lessons – all from scratch.
In May last year, Karen and her team of student development officers – Bernadette, Lee Kar Hiang and Lum Ying Lee – began brainstorming the possibilities. They decided that the main problem they wanted to tackle was apathy.
“The two key skills that we wanted to impart to our girls was the need for care and concern, and also the need to take initiative, to combat this problem of apathy,” shared Karen. “But we had to first and foremost decide how we wanted to go about doing it. We were working on a blank sheet, and we didn’t know how the girls would take it and all that.”
The team decided to take a different approach to the design of the lessons – that of cogenerative dialogue. Kenneth Tobin, who writes extensively on the use of cogenerative dialogue, recommends it as a valuable means of involving students in research, teacher education and curriculum development.
According to Tobin (2006), “the use of a conversational format allowed teachers to get beyond lists of needed improvements. Interactions could allow deeper probing of classroom life and a meeting of the minds” (p. 128).
For these teachers, it involved getting student input before the lessons were piloted, as well as after the lessons were conducted. They selected a representative mix of enthusiastic, neutral and indifferent students from two classes to be involved. “We found that the use of cogenerative dialogue allowed us to hear from them,” said Karen, “and we used their feedback along the way to help us to refine our programme.”
“I felt that it was actually a very good idea to actually really hear from students,” added Kar Hiang. “In fact, during the interviews, I was actually surprised at some of the comments that students made. I think as teachers, we would never think along those lines, so they helped to provide the perspective.”
Lessons for life
After close to 4 months of hard work, the team came up with their first module – 4 lessons on the subject of apathy – which was piloted last year Secondary 2s.
The lessons they designed reflect the same belief in actively engaging their students in the process of learning. “What we wanted to do was to throw it back to the students to identify the problems,” said Karen. “We didn’t want to prescribe to them the problem, and we didn’t want to prescribe to them what to do to solve the problem either.”
For example, the first lesson on apathy began with a shocking dose of reality, as the teachers showed pictures that had been taken around the school. The girls began to realise for themselves that there was a problem, and were asked to consider if it was good or bad, right or wrong.
“It becomes a thinking process for the students, and it comes from them that there’s something not quite right about apathy, and there is really a need for they themselves to do something about it, and not because their teacher tells them to do something about it,” explained Karen. Added Kar Hiang, “Only when they believe in something, then will they want to change.”
The process has been a learning experience not only for the girls, but also for the teachers, as they became more aware of their students’ struggle with peer pressure. Through the cogenerative dialogue sessions as well as their students’ journals, they realised that it was not enough to teach their students the right thing to do. They also needed to arm their students with the strength to do it.
This sent the teachers back to the drawing board, which resulted in a second module on mental resilience. A third module on self-discipline is in the works, and will be ready for next year batch of Secondary 2s. In the meantime, encouraged by the students’ positive response to the first module, the teachers decided to run it again with this year’s batch of lower secondary classes.
Armed and ready
While it is still too early to say that the new lifeskills programme has been a definitive success, Karen and her teachers have been encouraged by the small changes they have observed in their young charges.
Another factor that has spurred them on is a conviction that they are doing the right thing. “From our sharing sessions with several schools, we realised that these problems were not just particular to our school, but it’s a common problem among all the different types of schools,” noted Karen.
Karen and her team believe that values education is an important part of education today, particularly in view of the influences of the mass media and Internet in today’s global economy. “I think it’s very important for us to instil certain core values and certain core lifeskills to actually help our students along, because they are faced increasingly with a lot of negative peer pressure,” Karen explained.
Likening values to ammunition, she added, “Without students being grounded in good and strong values, they will not be able to know or to discern for themselves what is right and what is wrong, and what are good and bad influences… At least we know that we have done our jobs as educators, not only in the academic sense, but in preparing them to be proper adults, to be good human beings.”
Tobin, K. (2006). Learning to teach in diverse and dynamic classrooms. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 1(2), 123-133.