kitchen table math, the sequel: On the Singaporean and American classroom environments

Friday, March 6, 2015

On the Singaporean and American classroom environments

I am not entirely happy with the Singaporean education system, for various social, economic and political reasons. Intellectual dissent on the education system in Singapore, I suppose, is like intellectual dissent anywhere -- restricted to discussions in coffeeshops, blogs and online mailing lists, present in environments not unlike this blog. Yet, Americans seem to have the leg up sometimes. For one, Americans have a tradition of organised dissent actually accomplishing something. To Singaporeans, public dissent might evoke a general reaction like, "Ayah, you just sour grapes complaining lah," given our tradition of making public hullaballoos over small things like when a vendor rips us off for two dollars. the "underground" vibe seems more energetic

A "cynical" approach to things taught about National Education

Yet, Singapore's system does have its merits. I am not happy with the American education system either

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With all the talk about Singapore Math, tracking/differentiated instruction, group work and classroom rigour, I just thought I'd chip in from the perspective of a student who used to study in the Singaporean education system, before comparing what I perceive to be the American classroom environment, having experienced both the elementary school classroom and the high school classroom in America.

Firstly, a few caveats. My examples of course will be very anecdotal, and there will be things that would be specific to the schools I attended, the socioeconomic background of the student bodies, and hardly least of all, my opinion of my peers, and so forth. I expect this to colour my accounts. But I also think there are biases and hidden variables worth talking about often glossed over by the "adults" when they talk about the educational strategies of both systems. (A small digression: despite being an 18-year-old first-year college student, I still don't regard myself as an adult.) Having also been to other schools and having friends in other schools in each stage of life, etc., and since a few things universal to each system become apparent through popular culture and national gossip, official procedures that everyone goes through, national competitions and the like, I still think it's valid to make some extrapolations.

After all, when reporters, teachers on exchange programmes, educational certification inspectors, researchers, et al. visit schools and classrooms, I think it's safe to say you often don't get an exactly candid picture of what actually goes on. And while we ridicule at the type of learning that occurs in group work, and discuss in haughty academic reports the statistical p-value probability that "effective group work" occurred purely by random, how does one objectively discuss the impacts of things that resist quantification and are hard to detect from test scores, like "school culture", "peer support", "friendship", or "chilling effect"?

Now, I am neither content with Singapore or the United States' education systems

My primary school math curriculum in Singapore also employed group work, etc. I believe with the abolishment of the EM3 system (and I believe the entire EM system as a whole), math tracking doesn't exist anymore in Singapore as it once did. I am happy with this development. Essentially the majority of the pupils at each level will study the same curriculum with more or less the same pace.

Of course, after they graduate primary school, they'll be sorted into the Special / Express streams (differs only by whether you take a more advanced second language or not), Normal (Academic), Normal (Technical) streams, etc. Of course, secondary schools no longer have the GEP either, though they have the new Integrated Programme for those who get into IP schools and fulfill the entry requirements. (IP programmes, including implementations of the International Baccalaureat, often don't work out exactly as was planned on paper. I still have a major problem with the IP programmes' detection/admission of otherwise qualified students, and the fact that a mugging (exam-focussed) culture predominates over any intellectual one.

But of course, back to the primary school classroom first.

Caveat: I went to a fairly comfortable primary school [for P5 and P6; I was brought up in American elementary school in the American equivalent of Singapore K2 to P5). That is, my school fees were basically were 30 SGD (20 USD) every 3 months, while the government subsidised the rest, my classmates were mainly lower middle to mid-upper middle class (at one extreme), etc. I've heard stories happen in the "neighbourhood schools" with regard to work ethic, behaviour and so forth. I'm curious to know if our neighbourhood schools also have successful educational strategies on an international level, just that they enjoy less prestige and dare I say it, performance, than higher-ranked schools. I believe that if you make an analogy between primary school rankings to American college rankings, if Raffles Institution is the equivalent of Harvard, my primary school would have been like Penn State or something. The neighbourhood schools would of course be the local unis and stuff.

BUT anyway, after all these caveats, we didn't really differentiate kids based on academic ability into different classrooms that much, and I would say we enjoyed a fairly rigourous math curriculum. Of course, you always had the discussions over which class was the "best class", often determined by what kind of kids were in them. 6F / 5A

2 comments:

SteveH said...

Thank you for your inside viewpoint.

Many look to improve education by seeing what other countries do and then trying to model that. This can be good or bad. Many like to point to good PISA countries, except that this is an average statistical criterion and not one that reflects on how well individual students are served.

One cannot easily drop Singapore Math into a US school with teachers saturated in Ed school pedagogy, especially if it's a full-inclusion school. They did that at a private school in our area with very mixed results. You can have the most effective curriculum in the world, but if you don't push and set high standards, you won't get the same results. Then again, if you push too much, things can go wrong. Generally, however, I've noticed that parents who set high expectations and push even a little have to keep quiet about it or they risk backlash.

In the US, the K-6 world is very non-pushy and natural, but that changes in high school where teachers often use rules and grading to stick it to the students. Some give out very low grades and zeroes just to get their attention. Then there is the ultimate reality push of college competition and jobs.

Real world realities and competition drive their way down to high schools, but hit a brick pedagogical wall in K-6. It strikes me that K-6 educators don't realize how much future trouble they are causing students.

The education world in the US changes completely between the years where teachers have little appreciation for content knowledge and skills to the years where they do.

Cassandra Turner said...

Singapore's system differentiates for mathematics in P4. What is most interesting to note about a Singaporean Primary school is that teachers begin supporting struggling students from P1. Singaporean teachers have the ability to get help quickly for students.

In contrast, A U.S. student rarely gets an IEP until they are two years behind their age-level peers. The U.S system creates academic gaps.