The Singapore education system is designed with the consistent goal of leaving no child behind. This means it is crucial that schools recognize and acknowledge that every student is different and requires varied teaching methods in order to attain their maximum potential. One NIE Research Scientist also feels that much more could be done for students in the Normal (Technical) stream, especially in the development of their 21st century competencies. He shares more about how his current research study hopes to empower lower-tracked students with these competencies in ways that are accessible for everyone – all through putting digital literacy in their hands.
“When my research team and I think about students from the Normal (Technical) (NT) stream, we find that they seem to have fewer learning opportunities in school compared to students in other streams,” Dr Roberto de Roock , a Research Scientist with the Office of Education Research at NIE.
The reason for this observation is simple: The NT curriculum is much more remediated and constrained in that it is much more simplified, he explains. As such, Roberto wants to investigate the extent of these students’ learning potential when they are presented with the appropriate and relevant experience in (and out of) classrooms.
Defining Digital Literacy
Being a former secondary school digital literacy teacher himself, Roberto embarks on a research project that studies digital literacies as 21st century competencies among NT students.
“We think about literacy as less of a technical skill but more of a social practice and as something that is embedded in day-to-day life,” Roberto explains. “In terms of digital literacy, we look at it as an additional way of meaning-making. Building digital literacy in these students will allow us to look at the potential that they can have.”
Digital literacy is increasingly being identified as a formal educational goal. It is a broad and holistic concept that embraces much more than the functional information technology (IT) skills that students need to survive in a digital society. Digital literacy is not merely about making digital tools available. It’s about creating an authentic learning context using digital devices which students can make meaning from.
This authentic learning context may almost immediately also encourage creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and learning independence, to name a few. These are the skillsets which we often refer to as 21st century competencies.
Building Students’ Confidence with Digital Literacy
Roberto’s project aims to provide mentorship to lower-tracked students and opportunities for them to create things that they see value in through the use of digital tools. However, Roberto again stresses that building digital literacy is more than just about providing them with the physical tools.
“It isn’t so much about giving students the tools,” he shares. “It is really about giving them the mentorship and opportunities to create things that they feel are important to them. So, along with the right tools, I leave the creative options and possibilities open to them. One group of students took this opportunity to advocate for their rights through creating a video.”
The research team further observes that when these students are provided with the right space and opportunities, they are enabled to do more creative, collaborative and critical work. Citing another example, Roberto shares the story of a student who has failed the PSLE examinations twice.
“This student is seen as the ‘kid failing in school’ but in the span of an hour, he managed to create a very nice video that could be posted online immediately,” Roberto adds. “When this student is placed in the right context, he is actually very capable of creating things that are valuable to his life and the community.”
“It is really about giving [students] the mentorship and opportunities to create things that they feel are important to them. So, along with the right tools, I leave the creative options and possibilities open to them. One group of students took this opportunity to advocate for their rights through creating a video.”
– Roberto, explaining that building digital literacy is more than just about providing them with the physical tools
Shifting Mindsets and Syllabus
During the span of his research study which is set to be completed in June 2020, Roberto found that this group of students not only has potential to excel in school but is in fact also capable of critical and creative work much like their higher-scoring counterparts.
He believes that this is mostly due to the nature of the school he was working with in particular. “This school specializes in lower-achieving students,” he shares. “The syllabus is very well thought-out and it encourages independence and self-directed learning through a non-structured and non-didactic curriculum.”
For Roberto, this finding is important and powerful in that it suggests a need for other schools to consider a shift in their Normal (Technical) syllabus to provide their lower-tracked students with the space and opportunity to do more creative and critical work through digital literacy. However, one of the challenges in this is the mindset shift that is required for it to happen.
“It is crucial that we re-look at the way we structure the curriculum in order to allow these students to progress in terms of creative, collaborative and critical thinking,” he explains. “But when teachers think that their students cannot gain from it for a number of reasons, such learning opportunities may not be possible to implement at all.”
Beyond a mindset shift, Roberto adds that for a school to successfully support their lower-scoring students, there must also be strong leadership support. This is even more so for schools that tend to focus on student discipline over dynamic teaching, and academic excellence over 21st century competencies development.
“This gives teachers more teaching constraints and as such, it is vital that school leaders provide them with the support they require in order for shifts to happen. In the case of the school I am working with in my research, there is no way their students can benefit from the curriculum if not for the school principal’s strong support,” Roberto concludes.