Students turn tutors

Sec 1 Normal Technical students at Shuqun Secondary School demonstrating to principals and teachers how they tutor their classmates in maths.

SINGAPORE - Damian Ng is a chatty 13-year-old boy. Sabrina Kamaruddin, 15, was shy and afraid of public speaking.

But these students transform into serious and confident individuals when they take on the role of a tutor to their classmates.

These students from Shuqun Secondary School have been part of a pilot project here called tutorial relationships (TR).

For the past year, a Secondary 3 art class and a Sec 1 maths class from the school have been conducting their lessons in this way.

First introduced in Mexico, TR is a new way of learning which enables every student to be a tutor and a learner.

The class is split according to a theme.

For instance in a maths class, half of the class will learn about fractions while the other half will study algebra from their teachers.

Paired up, the "fractions" group will then teach the "algebra" group and vice versa. The teachers will be around to facilitate the one-on-one exchanges.

Ms Ng Meixi, 25, spearheaded the movement here last October, after spending a year in Mexico.

After she returned to Singapore, she shared the concept of TR with the principal of Shuqun Secondary, Mr Chia Hai Siang. They had been colleagues earlier, when she taught at NorthLight School in 2011 and he was the vice-principal there.

Mr Chia agreed to try it on a group of 18 students.

After three months, the results were promising and Mr Chia introduced it to a Sec 1 class and a Sec 3 class, both Normal Technical.

But there were challenges.

Mr Chia pointed out that besides changes in terms of timetabling and teacher deployment, the teachers also had to play an important role.

"Most critically, it requires teachers who are strong in curricular understanding and teaching skills. In a TR class, teachers need to facilitate the many different conversations (as many as 20) that the students are having at the same time when they are tutoring each other," said Mr Chia.

Initial reservations

Although they had initial reservations, the teachers have been impressed by the change in their students.

Mr Faizal Abdul Aziz, subject head for art, said: "I was amazed by their willingness to share and how professional they become when they become the teacher."

He shared the story of a quiet student, who usually does not speak in class, but was able to open up when he tutored a classmate.

"It improves their communication, reinforces their skills and builds confidence," said Mr Faizal.

The students, too, said they enjoy their classes and they have their ways of convincing their peers to pay attention to them.

In a typical session, the "tutor" has a worksheet that he has prepared with answers and a set of questions to help his classmate understand the lesson.

"I tell them nicely that they don't just copy from my worksheet. You won't learn anything and it's just wasting time," said Damian.

"I make sure I hear something from their mouth before I tell them the right answer. Then we can chat," he added firmly.

Art teacher Rafilah Idris said with a laugh: "The students now know what the teacher has to go through. They learn about respect as well."

And it is not just their peers. They have even tutored principals and teachers of other schools who wanted to learn more about this new method of learning.

"I used to be afraid of speaking up in front of strangers. But I think I can do it now, confidently," said Sabrina, who now counts art, which is a TR class, as her favourite subject.

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