It is with some excitement that I read about the Singapore Student Learning Space (SSLS) developed by the Ministry of Education (MOE). The online platform will enable students to learn and revise at their own pace anywhere by logging in with a username and password.
If the noble aim of education is to help every child develop his or her potential to its fullest, the portal is a step in the right direction. Students do not learn at the same pace. Putting a diverse group of students through a common programme and expecting the same level of results from every one of them can lead to a disinclination towards learning for those who are falling behind.
How times have changed. I recall teaching English to a class of Secondary 4 students with very different capabilities 40 years ago. You cannot help everyone, I was told, so focus on the few you think can be saved.
It was harsh reality in an environment obsessed with success. For many of the students, it would seem help came too late, yet any teacher wanting to make a difference, no matter how small, should never submit to that belief. It would be defeatist, if not unconscionable. I devised a reading box made up of picture stories cut out from discarded magazines, colour-coded and graded for different levels of difficulty. It was not part of the syllabus, but a primitive construction before computerisation made an impact on our lives.
There were three key elements in the design. First, to be able to engage the students’ interest in a certain subject or point of view, and pique their curiosity so that they will want to ask questions and be motivated to want to find out more. This is because engagement creates a positive bias towards the content or material being studied.
Second, to provide a gratifying sense of achievement, which will in turn motivate the students to continue learning. This, in a way, puts wanting to learn in the hands of the students instead of forcing them to learn. Experts have said nothing beats self-motivated learning. Third, to allow the students to progress at their own pace.
FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in 2012, when he was Education Minister, that “we must be student-centric in our delivery ... creating opportunities for all regardless of their family background”.
The principle gives a more inclusive approach to learning in that every child deserves the opportunity to realise his or her potential and none should feel any worse off by comparison.
Understandably, in the early years of nation-building, it was critical that a sturdy and robust system of education be put in place.
Over the years, the education policy has progressed from promoting systemic efficiency to nurturing creative thinking and lifelong learning, and allowing greater flexibility in engaging students, preparing them for life instead of teaching them for examinations.
Singapore has produced many students who have gone on to top classes at reputable universities overseas. However, while we continue to push the bar higher, we must remain aware of those others who are finding it difficult to make the grade.
Both goals need not necessarily be mutually exclusive while noting the sensitive balance that is easily skewed by how we allocate our limited resources.
A Financial Times report last year on the state of education in Britain is worth some reflection: “We do well in educating the elite. In world university league tables, Oxford and Cambridge appear regularly in the top 10. But we do much less well, and always have done, in educating those whose skills are technical and vocational rather than academic. We focus too much on those already advantaged rather than on those who need more help to realise their abilities.”
Singapore would do well to avoid heading in the same direction. It therefore behooves us, as suggested by Mr Heng, to be more student-centric.
It redefines the relationship between the teacher and his or her charge, every one of whom is a unique individual with different interests, talents and strengths.
The teacher today facilitates learning and fosters growth, helping the child along the path towards fulfilling his or her aspirations, in line with the MOE’s policy launched in 2004: “Teach less, learn more.”
The SLSS will be a valuable tool for the teacher as a facilitator. A big plus is that the portal may be accessed “anytime and anywhere”, so learning doesn’t need to be confined within the walls of a classroom or during a specific time slot.
The proliferation of online learning means the teacher is no longer the authoritative or only source of knowledge but plays an important role as guide and reinforcer — to clarify doubt, correct errors, reinforce learning and suggest what next or where else the students may explore to expand their horizon of learning.
The SLSS also spells new challenges for teachers. The top-down approach in an exam-based system can stifle the inquiring mind, and teachers will have to be trained on how to handle the explosion of knowledge and views online to which their students are exposed.
They — and school administrators — now have to keep up with different ideas, perspectives and changing mores, and learn how to handle difficult questions without seeming to be biased, rigid or unaccommodating.
An example is the discussion of the changing view of sexuality that can cause a lot of conflict, confusion and tension if not handled with discretion and sensitivity. In other words, teachers and school leaders too will find the need to keep on learning.
Self-motivated learning should be cultivated at an early age and developed as a life’s skill.
The MOE is taking a big step forward introducing the SLSS to primary schools through secondary schools up to junior colleges.
The SLSS is not designed to help only slow learners. Its success will be testament to an early vision of MOE of a “thinking school, learning nation”. Ultimately, the greatest gift that any teacher can give his or her students is the motivation to never stop learning, inside or outside school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Leo is a published author who started work as a teacher. He wrote about the reading box in his novel “Shakespeare Can Wait”.