Many countries, especially developing ones, are faced with increasing economic and social strains as the world battles against COVID-19. What are some important lessons that educators can take from this global pandemic? For one Head of Department (Gifted Education Programme) from St Hilda’s Primary School, the crisis has reinforced his belief that inculcating a love of learning in young children can help them see unknowns as learning opportunities instead of crippling challenges. Mr Andy Ng shares how he does this through knowledge building.
Valuing Students’ Curiosity and Ideas
As seen vividly from responses to the pandemic, what will allow people to thrive in this increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world will be their ability to navigate a continuous stream of unknowns, and to rise above the challenges that follow. The recent national “Learn for Life” movement by the education ministry aims to imbue in our future generations not content knowledge which will be obsolete, but dispositions and skills that will be enduring amidst changing circumstances.
“Our young must have a love of learning in order to see unknowns as learning opportunities as learning opportunities instead of crippling challenges, and future-ready skill sets that enable them to translate their passion for learning to action,” Andy says.
At St. Hilda’s Primary, Andy shares that one of its core values is “Learn Continuously” in which the school hopes to instill in students an intrinsic motivation to learn and with the competencies to do so successfully. “In other words: a will and a way to learn. I would argue that knowledge building addresses both,” he adds.
As children are innately curious and full of ideas, the concept of knowledge building will naturally fit right in because it focuses on those ideas – the questions, theories and explanations students have about a particular topic, supported by those provided by teachers or textbooks.
“This shifts the locus of control over to students, increasing their sense of autonomy to explore what they want, instead of what they have to. When this curiosity is complemented by the autonomy to explore, it grows into a deep love of learning because simply, it is a joy to learn!”
Teachers Must Also Love Learning
Surely nurturing a love of learning in students is sufficient for a successful knowledge building classroom to occur? To Andy, it definitely needs more than just that.
“While knowledge building has the potential to foster in students a love of learning by harnessing their motivation to learn and empowering them with competencies to pursue that learning, it would be almost hypocritical if we as teachers do not possess the same love for learning,” he explains.
Knowledge building provides teachers an opportunity for them to rethink what it means to teach, or rather, what it means to effect learning. A traditional way of learning would be that knowledge is something that is “acquired” by students. “This ‘thing’ is usually provided by the teacher, who then finds means and ways to help students retain it, hopefully for posterity,” he adds.
However, undergirding knowledge building is another way of knowledge – that it is an object that students can create and improve on with their peers and teachers. The role of the teacher here then is to facilitate the process of knowledge creation, instead of forcing the product of learning into students’ memory.
This change within a teacher’s personal beliefs of knowledge and learning will open new horizons for his or her professional development. Lessons are designed not to focus on a destination of learning, but the journey. As such, they will celebrate not how close students are to a predefined goal, but how far they have come from where they started; “I used to think… Now I understand…”.
“Success criteria might no longer be about whether students are able to mechanically reproduce what they need to know, but quantified as the extent students are captains of their minds, steerers of knowledge creation and agents of their own learning,” Andy says.
Supporting the Translation of Theories into Practice
“Teachers are free to explore designs involving relevant theories, either by themselves or in teams.”
– Andy, on how he supports teachers in their teaching practice
The Gifted Education department Andy heads is still in its early stages in terms of knowledge building practices. In navigating this phase, Andy provides support to his teachers through exposure, experimentation and experience.
Andy first tries to share with them theories that solve existing issues that they face. “For example, if teachers are finding it difficult to facilitate students’ creativity in writing, then the theory of Idea Diversity and how to promote it becomes relevant,” he explains. “This provides an organic opportunity to expose teachers to knowledge building theories, as it starts with a gap they feel they have in their own practice, instead of implementing a programme from a top-down approach.”
After he exposes some theories to the teachers that they feel might be relevant to their teaching needs, Andy continues to support them through encouraging and supporting experimentation. “Teachers are free to explore designs involving relevant theories, either by themselves or in teams,” he shares.
This means that Andy has two roles to play: pedagogical leader and technical support. The former requires him to ensure some form of integrity in the application of theories to practice while the latter evolves him into an adviser on certain ICT tools and functions that can help teachers support the pedagogical vision for their class.
Learning from Failure
“We adopted a ‘fail fast, fail mindfully, fail forward’ approach.”
– Andy, on how his team of teachers view failure as an opportunity
The successful adoption of knowledge building at St. Hilda’s Primary is not one without setbacks. After exposing teachers to relevant knowledge building theories and encouraging experimentations, Andy believes it is in the third and final aspect that shows teachers what has been done correctly or what needs more improvement.
“Experience, the final aspect, comes in two forms: success and failure, and my role is to facilitate both. Several of our teachers have made leaps in terms of innovation with KB and KF.” However, there are also times when it is not all rainbows and butterflies but with the team’s positive outlook towards failure, they picked themselves up and started all over again.
“We adopted a ‘fail fast, fail mindfully, fail forward’ approach,” Andy shares. “I remember one experience very clearly when we implemented a knowledge building lesson based on real ideas and authentic problems, and it failed spectacularly!”
According to Andy, students did not have the knowledge building netiquette and posted unproductive things on Knowledge Forum, an ICT platform that facilitates knowledge building lessons. It resulted in massive frustration from teachers. Instead of seeing the failure as an end-point, the team viewed it as an opportunity to fail mindfully.
“The team reviewed the failure thoroughly and honestly, and figured out that it was because a knowledge building culture was not yet built in the class before we moved on to the technology,” Andy explains. This impeded students’ productive use of the technological tools that were supposed to be a digital extension of their knowledge building skills and dispositions, which they were not yet equipped with.
Andy concludes: “Therefore, at this early stage of our adoption of knowledge building we have tasted some success, borne out of failure and forged by our teachers’ courage to try and resilience to challenges. So far, my role is akin to a compass, not a map: pointing teachers to a theoretical, pedagogical, technological and professional direction while teachers themselves are the ones directing and redirecting the entire voyage toward actualization.”