The COVID-19 pandemic is a large-scale catastrophic event that has caused widespread disruption to almost every industry known to us. When the outbreak first happened in early 2020, it brought about the most abrupt changes in the way many of us live. While adjustments had to be made to our daily lives, the extent of these changes greatly differ from one to another. In The Big Idea article, we look at the kinds of challenges and changes the education sector in Singapore faced and had to make in order to allow students continuous access to learning.
The Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) announced on 27 March 2020 that all students in primary and secondary schools, and junior colleges will have one day of home-based learning (HBL) a week. However, a week after the announcement, the country implemented the Circuit Breaker measures that lasted almost two months. Despite the struggles and challenges that accompanied this transition, our teachers adapted to online teaching and learning. What does it take for our teachers and learners to be prepared and well-equipped to adapt and readapt in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world?
Preparing Teachers for the VUCA World
As Singapore slowly regains her footing months after the virus outbreak, much of our current situation is uncharted territory and almost everyone is still learning as we go. This is the same if not more so for our education sector. What will this mean for the future of teaching and learning? And how will this impact teacher education in Singapore?
“Teacher education has never stood still,” Director of the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore, Professor Christine Goh says. “As a nation, we have created many educational pathways for our children and youths, and we continually address societal and individual aspirations for educational outcomes. This calls for nimble and innovative education of teachers at all levels.”
In 2020, NIE celebrated its 70th anniversary. “In these past 70 years, we have seen many changes and transformations to the way we educate teachers for the nation,” Professor Goh shares.
One significant transformation more than a decade ago was the NIE Model of Teacher Education for the 21st Century (TE21) that places the 21st century learner at the heart of NIE’s teacher education goal. In 2018, NIE also introduced a learning framework to further build on the strengths and achievements of TE21. “It aims to develop and nurture teachers who are not only strong in their knowledge, skills and values, but who also have the cognitive flexibility, wisdom and empathy to educate learners for an increasingly unpredictable future,” Professor Goh explains.
Teachers must also have the personal drive to learn and improve continually as it gives one the confidence and skills to manage the rapid changes in our world. But beyond that, what are some of the most important competencies or skill sets our teachers must have to be able to effectively cope with changing conditions?
“Teachers must acquire skills to manage themselves well and learn productively and harmoniously with others,” explains Professor Goh. “Self-care, resilience, adaptability, willingness to collaborate, keeping an open mind and the ability to communicate clearly and empathetically are all-important attributes to develop, as they can help anchor an individual in the face of disruptions and unpredictability.”
“Self-care, resilience, adaptability, willingness to collaborate, keeping an open mind and the ability to communicate clearly and empathetically are all-important attributes to develop, as they can help anchor an individual in the face of disruptions and unpredictability.”
– Professor Christine Goh, Director of the National Institute of Education
Educational Technology to Support Teaching Practices
For many teachers, the COVID-19 situation presents an opportunity for them to relook, rethink and redesign their pedagogical models to best meet the needs of the learners. It also further reinforces the flexibility and benefits afforded by the blended learning approach – one which mixes both online and face-to-face teaching.
It is without a doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption and acceptance of technology as a useful tool for teaching and learning. As we recover from the pandemic, what learning points do we take from this experience?
According to Mr Suraj Nair, Director of Technologies for Learning Branch (Educational Technology Division at MOE), technology can never replace the in-school experience despite its many affordances. “Classroom interactions are valuable for building student-student and student-teacher relationships, socio-emotional learning, and the development of 21st century competencies such as collaborative skills.”
Suraj also adds that for some segments of the student population, being in school is essential for their learning and overall wellbeing. As such, while the use of technology in teaching and learning is anticipated to grow exponentially in the years ahead, such technology serves to further support, complement and enhance teaching and learning.
With educational technology increasingly integrated into Singapore’s education system, it is even more crucial that we also ensure access to these technological advancements for every student.
Making Learning Accessible for All Learners
With the advent of technology and the appropriate government support, the transition to HBL during the Circuit Breaker period was a success for most, albeit with some struggles to readjust to the change at the beginning. However, it is also important to acknowledge and understand some issues that surfaced because of this technological transition.
“From our conversations with some of our research project participants, we learnt that the access to technological devices could be a challenge for some children,” Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Child Development at NIE, Associate Professor Kenneth Poon, shares. “However, the issue is not necessarily only one of access to technology but also sometimes related to other aspects of technological use.”
These include the degree to which the child is able to access HBL lessons independently and the degree of adult supervision that is needed. In all cases, there is a requirement for there to be higher levels of collaboration between schools and families, and perhaps other social service agencies.
It also becomes more pertinent for the teacher and caregiver of the child to collaborate for an effective HBL to occur for students with learning needs. “In general, with children who have learning needs, it becomes more critical to work closer with their caregivers during remote learning since the caregivers are now the primary means through which young children access learning,” explains NIE Research Fellow Dr Yang Xueyan who, with her team of research assistants, recently interviewed more than 40 parents of children with special needs as part of Kenneth’s research study that looks at the transition and adjustment of these children across primary and special schools.
For both Kenneth and Xueyan, one of the many lessons that they have learnt from COVID-19 is that supporting students at risk or who have special needs requires coordinated efforts among various stakeholders, including the school, teachers, and parents.
“This was critical when implementing remote learning and still holds true during regular school periods,” Xueyan explains. “To do so, we would need to develop or strengthen the relationships between teachers and parents, and among teachers, therapists, and administrators.”
“In general, with children who have learning needs, it becomes more critical to work closer with their caregivers during remote learning since the caregivers are now the primary means through which young children access learning.”
– Dr Yang Xueyan, on the importance of working with caregivers when educating children with learning needs
Lessons from the Pandemic
As the nation picks itself up through an unprecedented period, it certainly reveals the strength, motivation and resilience that our education fraternity have to ensure that learning never ends, not only for themselves as educators, but also for their students.
Even in the middle of a pandemic, teachers continue to deliver quality education despite the challenges that come with HBL. “The COVID-19 crisis presents many major opportunities for learning. Everyone learns to adapt to the constantly evolving situations,” Director-General of Education Mr Wong Siew Hoong says. “Learning to adapt to constantly evolving situations helps to build resilience, not just for this pandemic, but as important life skills for future challenges.”
Mr Wong also shares the reason why the ministry prioritized the reopening of schools when the pandemic began to stabilize within the country. “Teachers need to be adaptable and innovative. Managing and adapting to the crisis, and maintaining a sense of normalcy allow students to learn many important 21st century competencies.”
Beyond the reopening of schools, the pandemic also further highlighted and reminded everyone that every student matters. “This professional value has become more pronounced as more students struggle to cope with the crisis and with continuing their learning during the crisis. Our efforts to reach each and every student is therefore imperative,” Mr Wong adds.
As MOE strives to create an environment where educational technology is an even more integral part of our students’ schooling experience over the next 5 to 10 years, it is hoped that our students will emerge as future-ready digital learners. Teachers would also become increasingly skilful designers and facilitators of meaningful technology-mediated learning experiences.
Mr Wong remarks: “Our teachers have done admirably well. Keeping teaching and learning as un-interrupted as possible was really important during the Circuit Breaker as well as when physical schooling resumed with safe-management measures. The professional ethos to keep going despite the challenges must be commended. All in all, we thank all our teachers for doing their professional best to look after our students very well under the most challenging of environment.”
As we look forward to a post-pandemic future of teaching and learning, it is only rightful that the credits be given to the unsung heroes – our Singapore teachers.