Teachers must buy into new MOE initiative

Teachers listening to the keynote address by Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat at the Ministry of Education's workplan seminar 2013, held at Ngee Ann Polytechnic on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, around the same time that Education Minister Heng Swee Keat was announcing several new initiatives for schools, I received a text message from a young friend in Secondary 1 questioning the necessity of study.

He was in the midst of a science lesson and, rather than learning "boring" concepts, the frustrated youngster said there was more value in quitting school and finding work. This, he added, would provide him some money to buy the latest smartphones and tech gadgets. It was a feeling I could identify with, having experienced it as well in my younger years.

After all, Bernoulli's principle and tectonic plate shifts can sometimes be far removed from the world of a student.

The new initiative by the MOE to make topics in the classroom relevant, through introducing an applied learning programme in all schools by 2017, is a step in the right direction.

It aims to bring real-life application to what students learn in science, mathematics, humanities and languages, and has been a long time coming.

Schools, depending on their students' interests and aptitudes, can develop the applied learning programme in areas such as business and entrepreneurship, engineering and robotics, literary arts, simulation and modelling.

In a Physics class, teachers could explain that Bernoulli's principle, which involves speeds and pressures in fluid flows, will be relevant for those hoping to become engineers, especially in the airline industry.

During a lesson on tectonic plate theory, geography or science teachers can tell their charges that this phenomena can help to explain how earthquakes and other natural disasters take place, and why they occur disproportionately more in certain regions of the world.

After these lessons, students can then spend time on projects that will show the relevance of what they have learnt. One school, for instance, has a niche in robotics and as part of its interdisciplinary project work curriculum, gets students to design gadgets like a robot that tests pH levels.

In the past, some teachers may have taken pains to explain the relevance of such concepts.

But MOE's move to make it compulsory puts the onus now on all teachers to ensure that they relate what they teach to the real world. It will set them thinking on how they can make the theoretical practical, and make for much more engaging sessions in the classroom.

It will also prove to students that the time spent in school has value, and remove the perception among many youngsters that they are mugging for the sake of mugging.

Still, some questions arise as to how this initiative can be accomplished.

First, are teachers currently equipped with the skills for such applied learning to take off? It will involve tweaks to how teachers conduct their lessons. They will also have to expend effort in ensuring there is a seamless transition between theory time in the classroom and practical time later, so that students can see the relevance of what they are being told to do.

Applied learning must kick in at all schools by 2017 and between now and then, the National Institute of Education will have to relook how it prepares young graduates for a teaching career. For a start, it could get trainees to start thinking about how they would link theory with practice, and provide short courses for existing teachers to pick up skills and suggestions on how to make learning for their students relevant.

Second - and this is a much bigger hurdle the MOE needs to overcome - teachers, and even principals, might question the need to devote time to a curriculum that now incorporates practical issues.

In Singapore's grades and exam-centric academic system, they would point out that those hours could be better spent if student were attending remedial classes, especially if tests are still scored on theoretical knowledge.

Also, teachers, already swamped with curriculum planning, marking, co-curricular activities, and other administrative tasks, will now have an expanded job scope. Can there be a mindset change among them such that they also buy into this important effort, which will provide students greater motivation for learning?

This is where Mr Heng and his team at the ministry come in. The MOE will now have to reach out and convince principals and teachers of the necessity for this change, as the successful implementation of this heartening initiative lies in these educators' hands.

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