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Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Metric for Teaching Effectiveness

I was thrilled at the recent announcements by MOE to review some parts of the educational system. I started a thread in the kiasuparents' forum and jubilated about the small progress made in the dialogue between Singaporeans and their MOE. Some other forummer threw a bit of cold water on my optimism here.

Clearly, this Someone has the mindset that MOE will forever be the loser vis-a-vis private tuition (with regards to teaching effectiveness). For me, it seemed odd that anyone would characterize any part of the Singapore government as "loser". As far as my experience tells me, it is a government that actually succeeds in doing what it set out to do, and delivers world class efficiency and effectiveness in a way that puts many a private company to shame.

So why is the MOE losing ground to the tuition centres?

I came to the conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that MOE is in denial. If we don't acknowledge the presence of a competitor, maybe it'll go away. Meanwhile, the statistics show that we're still doing a great job as educators. And because MOE can't or won't see the tuition industry as its competitor, it isn't doing anything to beat the competition. In my opinion, there are so many brains in MOE that if it only decided to, it could regain lost ground very quickly. However, ignoring the issue allows the problem to get bigger.

Meanwhile, career educators at MOE don't suffer for losing ground to a competitor, at least not in the way that jobs in private sector organisations would suffer if a company lost enough competitive ground. Children in Singapore are legally bound to go to school. Yet, someone must bear the costs of the lost ground. Parents and children do. We MUST turn to tuition (or parent coaching or pay $40 a book) to help kids pass exams. The society as a whole will pay the costs. If MOE's quality and effectiveness at teaching loses out to the tuition centres, then children of parents with means and money to buy tuition stand a higher chance of success in school.

Anecdotally, my sensing tells me that we have a world-class syllabus that is heavy on thinking skills but teaching methods and infrastructure have not kept up. Of course, there are uncountable other problems such as teacher turnover... teacher quality... inconsistent quality of Principals etc... but let's cut through all these distractions and look straight at the problem. There is a discrepancy between HOW our children are being taught and WHAT our kids have to do to perform at school. There has been a breakthrough in the development of a syllabus that includes high level thinking skills. However, a similar breakthrough in the development of teaching techniques (and materials) effective for this new syllabus, has not happened.

Thinking skills like cooking skills or gardening skills, need consistent practice and feedback. Someone used to tell me that one goes to university to hone thinking skills, not learn content. In essence, university style teaching methods need to be adapted for our primary schools if we are to teach thinking skills effectively. The one-to-one small group feedback on how to think and write becomes essential. Primary school is no longer about learning content anymore. However, there aren't enough teachers to go around, so classes are just as large as before. This precludes any attempt to teaching thinking skills effectively. There simply is not enough resources to give frequent practice and feedback.

It devolves to the parents and the tuition industry to fill this gap.

One possible solution to reverse this trend is to develop a metric that will allow some visibility into the relative effectiveness of Teachers' Teaching VERSUS Tutor Teaching. If, for example, it were possible to determine that tuition accounted for 20% of 1000 students' exam results and Teacher's teaching accounted for 80% of the exam results, then all the naysayers (like me) would have to shut up. The numbers would show that parents who spend tons of money on tuition are just wasting money. IF, however, the numbers show that tuition accounts for 80% of 1000 students' exam results and Teacher's teaching accounted for only 20%, then these numbers alone would motivate career educators to devise ways to improve their metric. In this way, we could harness a ground swell of innovation relating to teaching methods. What gets measured, gets done.

We have a syllabus like no other in the world but our teaching methods have stayed quite conventional indeed. And unless we have numbers to show otherwise, educators will always be pointing fingers at kiasu parents, and parents will point fingers back at educators ... and in the ether of words, words and words... no one will ever be the wiser. And meanwhile, the MOE has decided to forge ahead with character development. Now, imagine a situation where parents and tutors shoulder the larger part of the teaching load whilst schools do more and more character development.

Having some numbers to statistically model the extent of MOE’s dependence on private tutors to help children perform at school, would be helpful, I think. Still, who am I to say? One can only sincerely make a suggestion from the heart, and blog about it. And wait. If others disagree, they may have good reason. After all, Petunia does not hold the monopoly on wisdom. So one waits. If Petunia is right, the blogpost is right here and 10 years down, when matters have reached an untenable state, then I would have the satisfaction of knowing I was right and somewhat clairvoyant. Equally, 10 years down the road, someone could point to this blogpost (perhaps Petunia herself would) and note that Petunia wrote utter nonsense.

In any case, if we wait long enough, time usually gives some answers even without numbers nor metrics to help.


Anonymous said...

I always learn when I read your thoughts Petunia!

Perfect World said...

I totally agree. Something is seriously wrong when Parents are accountable for a child's grades in school and for teachers to be accountable for poor character development of a child.

petunialee said...

Perfect World - Yeah... the world on its head.