Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Learning from Singapore: Part 2

My first visit in Singapore was to the Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST), where I met with history Master Teacher Andrew Anthony. Unlike the U.S., Singapore has decided to increase their focus on inservice professional development. In 2010, AST was established by the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) to be the backbone of that effort. It is currently housed in a former high school building, but one day it will be relocated to the Ministry of Education. The purpose of AST is to coordinate the professional development of teachers and offer enriching inservice courses. My wife (a science educator) and I were able to sit in on course for elementary teachers on students' alternative conceptions of science (which in many ways paralleled the work being done by the Science Department in the Boston Public Schools). In our conversation, Andrew explained to me that in Singapore, a teacher is never prevented from attending professional development by their principals and their principals are always given adequate support with substitutes. Teachers are entitled to at least 100 hours (during the work day) of professional development a year. This includes a mix of full-day and half-day PD sessions. Teachers are also encouraged to attend PD outside of the MOE, as well as attend and present at international conferences.

Another goal of the Academy of Singapore Teachers is to help teachers integrate the curriculum (which they refer to as syllabi) into the teachers' classrooms and support reflective practice. In 2001, Singapore revised its history syllabus and associated assessment to focus more on inquiry-based history. To be honest, what I heard from several Singaporean sources is that while the syllabus and assessment changed, much of the teaching has not. Although more teachers in Singapore are using more primary sources because the assessment requires it through a document-based question, many are still not having their students engage in inquiry in the classroom. While many of the newer teachers and some of the more open-minded experienced teachers have embraced the change, AST is part of that puzzle to help Singapore's history teachers truly start to integrate inquiry-based learning in their classrooms.

Singapore's has chosen to have a strong focus on pedagogy as a means for improving their education system. Over the past two decades many education reformers in the U.S. have focused heavily on content knowledge (which was essentially the focus of Singaporean education in the 1980s and 1990s) and lambasted schools of education for their practices around teaching pedagogy. However, it was clear from my visit to AST (as well as other segments of the education system in Singapore) that they do not want teachers to only think about content, but more importantly, how to teach that content to their students.

While the U.S. continues to marginalize history and the other disciplines in social studies, it appears that Singapore has decided to increase social studies education. They have separated history, geography, and social studies into separate subjects, and increase their teaching of civics. While the Common Core in the U.S. only includes social studies standards related to literacy and only for grades 6-12, Singapore's elementary social studies curriculum is extensive.

Finally, an interesting idea that the U.S. should consider adopting from Singapore, perhaps at the state level, is subject chapters and meaningful career ladder options for teachers. To support inservice teachers, AST has created subject chapters, where teachers can collaborate or share ideas through a professional fraternity. Andrew Anthony is the head of the History Chapter. Although the U.S. has many professional organizations (i.e. NCSS, MCSS), a government-sponsored organization that allows for teachers to share their ideas and collaborate on a regular basis seems to offer a real innovation in professional development. Beyond the subject chapters, Singapore has created three tracks fir advancement (teaching, leadership, and senior specialist) and in the "teaching track" there are four levels of advancement (see below). The teaching track allows teachers a career ladder, while helping keeping them in the classroom. Although this track is relatively new, it allows some teachers to work as master teachers (such as Andrew Anthony) or principal master teachers, where others may become senior or lead teachers, all supporting other teachers.

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