April 17, 2012
One might say the young Singaporean teacher that I critiqued in front of her colleagues was being stoic, but it didn’t feel that way. In Singapore, teachers critique each other’s work regularly and dispassionately. My EdTechTeacher Co-Director, Justin Reich, and I experienced this dynamic first-hand. During our first workshop in Singapore, Ministry officials came up to us at the break and told us how we could improve it. (My immediate reaction was similar to Justin’s: “I just flew half-way around the world for a small stipend and this is how you how treat me?”) I was a bit taken back, but their calm, matter-of-fact, and reassuring approach convinced me that they were not disappointed with my performance, but rather acutely focused on helping me make it better.
From the beginning of our stay, it was clear to Justin and I that one of the many strengths of the Singaporean educational system is its focus on continual instructional improvement. It manifests itself in classrooms, in school leadership, in professional development, and in other ways. Not only does the Academy of Singapore Teachers provide in excess of 30 hours of ICT (Information, Communication, Technology) training per teacher, the Singapore Ministry of Education regularly sends teachers overseas to conferences and workshops so that they can improve their craft. I rarely met a Singaporean educator who had not traveled to the United States, Australia, Canada, or Europe for at least one educational conference or event. The Ministry continually looks for effective professional development opportunities and extends generous financial support to its teachers.
In Singaporean schools, everyone who extends constructive criticism speaks from classroom experience. Principals are true instructional leaders and not business executives from “turnaround” companies. In the Singaporean education system, teachers have the option of pursuing a leadership track, whereby teachers can climb to department or (grade) level leader, to vice principal, and then to principal. So, by the time they become principals they have acquired a considerable amount of on- the-ground curriculum and pedagogical experience and expertise. Furthermore, all Academy of Singapore Teachers professional development providers and curriculum specialists are experienced classroom teachers. There is experience, expertise, and professionalism pervading the entire system.
As such, conversations about technology in the classroom are firmly and consistently grounded in pedagogical issues and practice. When we sat around discussing the young Singaporean teacher’s lesson, the word “technology” hardly came up. Instead we were discussing “instructional objectives,” “Instructional strategies,” and “evidence of learning.” Every observer in the room understood the specific learning objectives (“Self-directed learning” and “collaborative learning) driving the lesson in question, and we were able to identify and discuss ways in which learning objectives were being met – and ways they weren’t.
So, what can we in the United States take away from Singapore’s focus on instructional improvement? Justin has posted some important questions to ponder. Let’s start here: How much better would our schools be if every principal was an “instructional leader” whose overriding duty was to improve instruction? Could we not provide teachers more opportunities to learn from other school systems beyond our shores?