For too long, the teacher has taken on a central role in the classroom. What happens when a teacher decides to direct the focus to the students and their ideas instead?
The possibility of having knowledge-building classrooms in Singapore has always intrigued Dr Teo Chew Lee, a Lead Specialist at MOE. Starting out as a Physics teacher for Normal Technical students some 12 years ago, Chew Lee faced what most other teachers face – difficulty getting the students to understand scientific concepts.
While doing her Masters at NIE, Chew Lee was introduced to the knowledge-building approach to teaching. She tried it out on her students, and was pleasantly surprised by the positive results. Seeing the change in her students got Chew Lee all excited about the possibilities of knowledge-building classrooms in Singapore (Read about her project with Associate Professor Tan Seng Chee in “Creating Idea-centred Classrooms” in ReEd, Volume 8) . We talk to Chew Lee about her views on knowledge building and why an “idea-centred” classroom is the way to go.
Q: What is knowledge building about?
Knowledge building is about putting the students’ ideas and questions in the centre of the classroom. When you adopt an idea-centred approach, you focus more on understanding the students’ thinking and ideas. An idea-centred teacher might try to ask the student about the idea and where he gets it, and whether other people have ways to build onto his idea so that the whole class understands. The students become your teaching resource.
Q: Did your knowledge-building project involve intervention in the classrooms?
Yes. We called it the principle-based approach to teaching and learning. Teachers have to understand the principles that underline these classrooms. Knowledge building has 12 principles. One of them is to get students to bring in constructive use of authoritative sources to bring about an improvement of their ideas.
To the teachers, these are very technical terms. But we encapsulate the principles into key ideas. We don’t change what the teachers do immediately. In my work with the teachers in Singapore, they are very passionate about their craft. But the problem is usually time constraints, and teachers stop short of the most exciting part. For example, teachers will set up very nice demonstrations, and when the students start asking questions, they would stop there.
Knowledge building starts when the students start asking questions. When I introduce this intervention to the teachers, I hope to let them understand the principles underlying it. The intervention I do is also about embedding knowledge-building theory, pedagogy and technology within the complexity of the classroom. This means that I have to understand everything the teacher has to deal with while making sense of this approach.
Knowledge building starts when the students start asking questions. When I introduce this intervention to the teachers, I hope to let them understand the principles underlying it.
– Teo Chew Lee, MOE
Q: You mentioned about designing the intervention for the complex nature of the classroom. Can you give us an example from your own experience?
Let’s say you look at a natural classroom environment and its curriculum coverage. If you want to construct an idea-centred classroom, you’ve got to help teachers see the big ideas within the curriculum in order for them to allow the ideas to come into the classrooms. So you’ve got to deal with curriculum issues. Once you allay that fear, teachers are able to focus on students’ ideas in the classroom and you get very good knowledge-building practice. If you just go in to focus on knowledge building and not the curriculum, it may not turn out well.
You need to also understand what the teachers are most concerned with – the curriculum, pedagogy, classroom environment and so on. Of course, the last bit that everybody worries about is assessment. So in order for your intervention to work in the classroom environment, you’ve got to be able to explain your intervention and the outcome in relation to the kind of assessment that the schools are looking at. Seek for ways where you can even redesign some of the questions in the exam. We had a Math teacher who used the knowledge-building approach and put in a very difficult question in the Primary 5 exam and found that the student was able to tackle the exam.
Once you get a hang of these broad areas, you can explain your design to the schools, identify the limitations, and work out a compromise. This shouldn’t compromise the rigour of the research, but rather, shows the respect you have for the school.
Q: What is key to a successful intervention?
I think the whole design has to be really teacher- and student-centric. By choosing to work on knowledge building in the schools, you have to design it based on the natural school and classroom environment. You have to find creative ways not to disrupt that natural environment, and yet, be rigorous enough to understand the impact of your study.
It is important to also look at the trajectory of the students at each cycle. For example, in the first term, you can analyse their scientific literacy based on discussions in class. Then, you can assess the development in their literacy skills in the second term, and so on. In other words, we look at the trajectory of the students at each cycle instead of comparing them to another class.
I find that schools right now are very advanced in their thinking, and our principals are very willing to embrace innovative practices. By partnering with the schools in these intervention projects, we have allowed trust to be built up quite naturally over time. My experience with the Singapore teachers and principals has also been very positive. Also, the support I received from NIE through my collaboration with Seng Chee on the knowledge building project has helped make this possible.
I find that schools right now are very advanced in their thinking, and our principals are very willing to embrace innovative practices.
– Chew Lee on working with schools
Q: Are there any instruments to evaluate the students’ learning gains from this approach? Are these gains only in terms of assessment?
There are ways to translate motivation and engagement into constructs for measurements. But my focus is not so much on those. Most of the time, the teachers know it. For me, the focus has very much been on measuring the knowledge-building activity that has been captured on the Knowledge Forum (an electronic group workspace designed to support the process of knowledge-building). This forum offers an online platform for students to share information, launch collaborative investigations, and build networks of new ideas.
We will look at the collaborative indicators to ascertain how much a student has contributed to knowledge building in the classroom. For example, for self-directed learning, we look at the students’ vocabulary and writing ability growth. In scientific literacy, we do coding against the quality of the questions and their explanations, and the “scientific-ness” of their ideas. Then, we formulate this composite picture of their knowledge-building activity, and analyse this against their school results.