Both teachers and students are doing well in Singapore schools. But the changing educational landscape means that classroom pedagogy and the culture of learning are evolving. One way they can adapt to such changes is through the introduction of research interventions in schools.
In education, an intervention happens when researchers or teachers introduce a new or different teaching approach in the classroom, and then compare it to a conventional teaching method (Levin & O’Donnell, 1999). Usually, this is done by looking at outcomes that are of interest, such as student gains.
But with over 20 years of experience in working with schools as a researcher, Prof David Hung knows that such gains are not always obvious.
Student Gains from Interventions
The saying of how good things come to those who wait may, in fact, be true. Often, success does not happen overnight for an intervention. Schools, parents and even the researchers themselves need to be patient and wait for interventions to bear fruit in the long run.
“The process isn’t like solving your headache with a painkiller, but more of solving the root cause of your headache!” explains Prof Hung, who is the Associate Dean (Education Research) of the Office of Education Research (OER) in NIE.
This is because interventions delve deep and address the root of existing problems. While the results are not instantly obvious, their effect on learning is long-term.
“It’s not always possible to measure the direct gains in terms of assessment,” says Prof Hung. But research has shown us that a well-designed intervention will lay the ground for conceptual intuitive understandings, and students will be able to “transfer” their learning as they progress to the next level in school.
Such gains, if achieved, can prove to be lifelong as students continue to learn and build on their solid conceptual foundations.
Do Schools Need Interventions?
If we use student performance in standardized tests to gauge how well Singapore teachers are teaching, then they are at the top of their game. Singapore students are known to ace international assessments such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
If both teachers and students are already doing well, is there really a need for research interventions in Singapore schools?
There is cause for change, says Prof Hung. The educational landscape is changing and the emphasis is now on 21st century competencies (21CC). As 21st century learners, students are encouraged to learn more actively and independently.
“If we know what our educational goals are for the 21st century, we can create interventions to address certain needs,” says Prof Hung. “The intent is to shift classroom pedagogy as we move towards 21st century learning.”
Many of OER’s research interventions are about 21CC and inquiry-based learning, he continues. Such efforts include the Critical Web Reader (See “Using Technology for Inquiry-based Learning” in this issue) and the Starling project (See “Bringing Second Life to Geography Lessons” in this issue).
At the same time, MOE has also been giving teachers more autonomy in designing the curriculum for their schools.
“The crux of the matter, really, is how teachers can take the opportunity and be courageous in experimenting with different curricular designs, and yet maintain good student performance in assessments.”
This balancing act is not an easy one. Coupled with the need for them to explore using technology in the classroom, teachers would probably appreciate a little support when they are trying out something new. This is where researchers can lend a helping hand.
The crux of the matter, really, is how teachers can take the opportunity and be courageous in experimenting with different curricular designs, and yet maintain good student performance in assessments.
– Prof David Hung, Office of Education Research
Working with Researchers
Researchers usually think of their role as an outsider who might bring new perspectives to the table, when they collaborate with schools.
“They are very mindful that as outsiders, they will have to go through a process of trust-building with the teachers, to build a partnership in which both parties are equally important,” Prof Hung notes.
From there, they can work together to redesign a curriculum, which teachers then enact during their lessons while the researchers observe and collect evidence of the intervention’s impact.
Should a school take an intervention further and implement it in more classrooms? The answer to this lies in school leaders making an educated decision. Such a move requires more resources and certainly more of teachers’ time.
“You’ll want to ground your decisions on concrete evidence that an intervention does work, how it works, and what kind of students it works better for,” Prof Hung says. “If we scale the intervention from one school to a few schools, that calls for even more substantive evidence!”
Researchers will also act as a sounding board for teachers and provide constructive feedback as they work together to build teacher capacity. But to sustain the intervention, researchers will eventually step back and let teachers take over it.
“Our experience so far has shown us that that’s the way to go. Relying on researchers to sustain an innovation is not a sustainable strategy.”
Instead, a good intervention will rely on teachers who will see it through, year after year.
“Sustainability only occurs when a passionate teacher influences other passionate teachers and brings them to the same cause, and because they realize that by doing it, they engage in a meaningful experience for student gains,” Prof Hung notes. In many cases, teachers become convinced when they witness how low-progress students benefit from alternative approaches.
The intent is to shift classroom pedagogy as we move towards 21st century learning.
– Prof Hung on the goal of research interventions
A Change of Cultures
After more than 10 years of collaboration, OER researchers have learned a lot from teachers and schools. They now have a better idea of what is needed for an intervention to flourish. “We found through our research that it is not as simplistic as just having an idea and just wanting to implement it,” says Prof Hung. “Really, it requires a change of cultures.”
For example, school leaders should try to give teachers more time and space to try out new approaches.
“You need to give the teacher more time to think through, to prepare, to go through a cycle of designing the lessons, trying them out and after that, reflecting on the lessons and retrying it on the same or different class,” says Prof Hung. “This iterative learning cycle needs to be introduced into the school culture and practices.”
In schools of the 21st century, students are not the only learners anymore. Teachers and school leaders are continually educating themselves to keep up with the times. They should embody the spirit of learning, as they take up the challenge of improving the education of their young charges.
“We want teachers and schools to continue to adapt and to develop a healthy culture of continuous learning,” says Prof Hung. He hopes that researchers can try out interventions that let teachers redesign curriculum and formative assessments. This will, in turn, create new classroom practices.
“If we can do so across schools in Singapore,” he says, “we can help to change the culture of learning.”
Levin, J. R., & O’Donnell, A. M. (1999). What to do about educational research’s credibility gaps? Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology, 5,177–229.