At the Teachers’ Conference 2016, NIE Director Professor Tan Oon Seng gave a humorous but enriching keynote address on how learning should be like for students of the 21st century. Here, we feature a summary of the key points from his speech “Learning: Fast and Slow; Big and Small”.
My keynote is a collation of some ideas that I thought would be helpful for us: some from research; a little bit from wisdom; and some from learning from teachers like you.
Educational journeys don’t always have a clear direction. Are we doing more of the same things? Is there a superficiality of knowledge? Do we look for instant answers or instant learning that doesn’t come with the intrinsic motivation? Is there too much learning and number crunching? Do we study only for tests? Is there too much noise and too much hurry?
Education is not just about preparing the young today. Education is about inventing the future for all of us.
The Three Values of Teachers
In NIE, we often talk about values, and I always like to reinforce this: The reason we’re professionals is because we have a wonderful set of values.
The number one value of teachers is that the teacher, more than anyone else in the world, cares, believes and is truly an expert on helping learners. That’s the value of the teacher. You, more than any other professionals, care deeply and believe in the learner. And because you have the expert knowledge, you can help the learner.
The number two value is what I call the teacher identity, which I also describe as teacher symbolism.
In Japan we have the sensei; in China we have lao shi; in India, the guru. The society that recognizes teacher identity is not just respecting the teacher. As teachers, we also symbolize the importance of learning. So, I hope we’re very happy with our identity.
The last value is that, as teachers, we don’t walk alone! The teachers belong to the community. Professional Learning Networks are the way to go, and I’m so glad that in Singapore, it has taken off so well. The concept here is that all of us here are always mentoring or being mentored.
M.A.D about Learning
Today, education is in need of what we call multiple perspectives. We need to inject in our lessons the practice of taking perspectives. Another thing is, lessons need to be authentic. I’ll introduce a Greek word, Aletheia and tell you what it means later on. And the D is, we have got to shift, not entirely, but a little bit more, from what I call didactics to Dialogos – in the other words, from teacher talk to student conversations that are meaningful for learning.
Multiple Perspectives in Education
In the early years, people thought that multiple intelligences mean we must incorporate all the intelligences together in the classroom. That’s not what it’s meant to be. Multiple intelligences mean that we understand there’re multiple talents in kids, and there’re multiple ways to learn and to know. It’s our role to draw out some of these multiple talents.
You’ve got to have this paradigm that all the students that come to your class want to learn. Even the most destructive kid in your classroom wants to learn something.
Multiple perspectives and multidisciplinary learning also means that as teachers, we learn from people in other fields and not only from the education fraternity.
Learning is not just for the now and then. There are many ways to arrive at an answer. You can do more of this in the classroom. We need to ask ourselves: Can we overcome unwarranted constraints? Can we overcome premature closure? We have to move from singular perspective to multiple perspectives.
A is for Aletheia
Now, I come to the A. Aletheia is for authenticity, reality, experience and facts. Meaning is key to learning, and meaning comes with intentionality and the ability to get the students to reciprocate. Meaning must be transcendent, meaning that it’s not just for this instant. It is always applicable to something else.
Meaning is key to learning, and meaning comes with intentionality and the ability to get the students to reciprocate.
– Professor Tan Oon Seng, Director of NIE
So just spend a little bit more time, stretch the lesson and tell your students how the contents can be applied. We’ve got to be able to find stories, real situations, and you’d find that the students would get it.
Research in neuroscience also supports this. When people learn with meaningfulness, and in context, the brain connects things better.
Neuroscience also shows us that memory is increasingly not just about simple association. Memory is about connections. So when you provide context, when you provide the big picture, learning happens in a powerful way.
We need to make our tasks rich and make them real-work tasks, which many of you are presenting and sharing at the conference. It’s great work. I congratulate you and we need to know and inspire each other with more of that. Knowledge shared is knowledge doubled.
So that’s why the “why” becomes very, very important. If you tell students that education is about empowering them to improve their own lives and the world, it is a good starting point.
From Didactics to Dialogos
In the classroom, we have to shift from didactics to Dialogos. NIE research has shown that talk in classrooms is largely teacher-centric. There is a lot of good teacher talk, no question about that. When you explain something, it’s clear. I see a lot of clarity of explanation from teachers nowadays.
But it’s only one side of the coin – not good enough, especially for today’s complex world because we need to create good conversations among the students – student-centric conversations for learning.
B.I.G in Learning
B is for big-picture thinking. One thing we can learn from Finnish teachers is that while they teach to the curriculum, they also teach in a thematic way. If they talk about fish such as salmon, they’ll tell students that consumption of salmon has gone up and they’d talk about its nutritional value to explain why people are eating more fish. And there’s a whole science on how they keep fish frozen and transport them around the world. Give students more context – it will only help them broaden their perspective, and even stimulate their interest.
Inventive Approaches to Learning
We all need to learn to see the world anew. In his early years, Albert Einstein was actually not very good in Math. The time when he really flourished was when he started to use a visual perspective to learn Math.
My NIE colleague Associate Professor Toh Tin Lam is now using comics to teach Math to students. Sometimes, when you give a word problem, students cannot solve it. But when you create a picture about it, students start to converse about it.
Sometimes, it’s good for them to explain to one another. We have to create a context where kids can really learn. We have to find new ways to make kids learn.
Einstein’s ideas have really changed the way we view the world today. So, in order to support kids like him in our schools, we need to support more imaginative time, more immersion activities (that build upon each other over an extended period of time).
And sometimes, kids think slow. But teachers would say, “You’d want to think fast.” Some primary school kids are very visual. When teachers ask them a question, they try to visualize the Math problem. You’ve got to give kids the time to think. Even till today, I’m still learning a simple thing like wait time. Give them the right wait time and create activities that give students the time to think.
A sense of play is important. Many schools have innovated and created environments of playfulness. Playfulness is key in an innovative culture. For inventive thinking to happen, students have to tinker with things.
The writer HG Wells was still playing with models and miniatures when he was very old. When he was a student, he asked many questions. Why happens if man were to become invisible? What happens if there were aliens? That’s how he imagined and wrote his stories.
We need to give kids time to imagine and to play with ideas. The Nobel-Prize winner Richard P. Feynman said he developed his key ideas by playing with ideas. We need more of that. We need to understand the epistemology of play, and that play can be very powerful.
And I want to close this session by saying that teaching is fun, and that we’re all in it together.