From 'chalk and talk' to blowing bubbles

It is a Tuesday morning at Xinmin Primary School, and eight-year-old Lois Lim is learning English.

There is not a textbook in sight. Nor is the Primary 2 pupil in class.

Lois and her fellow pupils are outside, blowing bubbles in the school garden. Later, they will head inside and write about it.

It is a far cry from English lessons before the recent education reforms. The subject was taught in a more formal fashion with grammar drills, textbook exercises and lessons on essay structure, recalls Xinmin's principal, Ms Cheah Poh Lian.

These days, the "chalk and talk" style of teaching familiar to parents - where teachers dictate at the blackboard - is increasingly complemented by alternative teaching methods.

Little Lois declares: "It's more fun than just sitting inside all the time, and it makes it easier to write." But there is a serious side to this playtime.

Teachers are recognising that children tend to learn better by interacting more with their environment and other pupils.

Ms Cheah says: "Their learning needs to be very hands-on, they need to touch and feel things."

So these days, an English lesson for lower primary school children may see pupils taking part in various activities before sitting down for a class discussion and writing down their thoughts.

And there is a strong, underlying structure. Take Lois' class, which kicks off with a song about bubbles to "grab their attention, as children

need to feel engaged in every step of the way", says Ms Cheah. The children then read a simple story - also about bubbles - to improve their reading skills and learn new words.

Then it is off to the school garden, where the pupils gaily wave bubble wands. It is not all play though; their teacher Nur Amilia Fendy tells them to observe what happens as they blow their bubbles.

The pupils share their observations later in a class discussion and then separate into small groups to write short compositions.

Upstairs, a Primary 3 class learns fractions using educational toys, or "manipulatives", in educational parlance. Here, they are colourful cardboard triangles and semi-circles which children fit together.

It is different from the old days, says Xinmin's maths department head, Ms Teo Ai Lin, who is in her early 40s. She recalls: "When I was learning fractions, all we had were worksheets where you would draw circles and shade in the parts."

There is a greater emphasis on pupils applying knowledge learnt in the classroom to real-life situations, too.

Pupils at Xinmin, for example, learn about fractions using the dividing up of portions of pizza - which they could eat at the end of the lesson - and have been taken to the supermarket to practise counting skills by shopping to a budget.

With a bigger emphasis in schools these days on holistic education, teachers are also on the lookout for "teachable moments", or opportunities to impart values and soft skills.

Ms Nur Amilia, for instance, sought to teach perseverance with her bubble blowing activity.

She did this by getting pupils to make the soap solution - they had to experiment several times before they had the right mix to create bubbles.

Similarly, a music class later that day doubles as a lesson on teamwork and self-reflection, as a class of Primary 2 pupils learn about percussion and rhythm with tambourines.

Pupils are divided into groups to come up with tambourine routines - so that they can learn to work in a team - and compete to win points based on their performances.

To encourage participation and discipline, extra points are given to those who exhibit good behaviour and volunteer answers when the teacher asks questions.

The second half of the lesson sees pupils writing or drawing what they learnt in a journal. Each child is given a booklet, called Xinminite's Journey - in that the pupils periodically log their experiences in class or on excursions.

Such reflection is important, says Ms Cheah, because "they learn to be more articulate and expressive, and it helps reinforce lessons and values they have learnt".

Teachers are also trained to ask questions during such sessions to get pupils to think about their actions and recognise their own feelings and those of others.

This uses a method called social-emotional learning. Studies show it cultivates a desire among children to strive to do better, says Ms Cheah, who adds: "When the child is motivated and self-disciplined, the academic results come naturally."

Not all parents understand the need for this. Some parents - especially those with children in Primary 6 - have asked if instead, teachers can spend more time preparing their children for tests and exams like the PSLE.

Ms Cheah says teachers thus have to continually persuade parents that "academic results are a result of the child being developed holistically, in terms of discipline, thinking and being able to articulate well. So that when they go to secondary school, they are well-prepared".


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