Saturday, September 7, 2013

Learning from Singapore: Part 3

My second visit in Singapore was the National Institute of Education (NIE), where I met with their humanities and social studies teacher education faculty members Mark Baildon, Ho Li-Ching, and Chelva Rajah. Mark, Li-Ching, and Chelva are my counterparts in Singapore and our conversations were thought-provoking.

The NIE, located at Nanyang Technological University, houses the only teacher preparation program in Singapore. This allows Singapore to have greater curriculum consistency across their teachers' preparation. Like many universities in the U.S., the NIE has two tracks for entering teaching, a 4 year bachelor's program or a 1 year master's program. Singapore is a nation of 5.3 million people in 225 square miles. It is relatively comparable to Massachusetts, which has a population of 6.6 million (however, that is across 7,800 square miles). Throughout my visit to the NIE, I was envisioning what this would look like in Massachusetts. Even with 80 institutions and organizations that prepare teachers (a number that has risen in recent years with the increasing number of non-university entities, such as Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America), could Massachusetts ever have the same consistency in teacher preparation as Singapore?

Much like some of the social studies teacher preparation programs in Massachusetts, NIE's faculty has increased their emphasis on inquiry-based teaching. However, three differences struck me about their program. First, the social studies program houses both teacher educators and disciplinary educators. The floor was comprised of professors that taught courses in social studies pedagogy, but also social studies content. For example, a history educator's office is located across the hall from a historian's office. This appeared to allow for regular conversations between those who teach content and those who teach pedagogy, and acknowledged that both groups need to teach both content and pedagogy together. It seemed to help break down the traditional divide between schools of education and colleges of arts and science, which is quite common in U.S. universities. It made me think about the rarity of social studies education professors and history and social science professors collaborating in U.S. Since history and social science professors usually teach future social studies teachers, bridging that divide through unified purpose, location, and regular department meetings could be helpful.

Second, as part of their faculty, the NIE has Senior Teaching Fellows and Teaching Fellows. These are experienced teachers who work with the preservice teachers in their programs. This model allows for experienced educators with significant practical knowledge of teaching to be working along side traditional teacher educators with significant knowledge of research and theory (and who sometimes may have less practical knowledge).

Third, NIE's teacher education programs, through the Ministry of Education, pay teachers at entrance to the program. Preservice teachers are considered teachers from the moment they enter the program. Moreover, the Ministry of Education pays students' tuition with a requirement that they will teach in Singapore. This allows teachers to not become saddled in debt (Singapore also pays their teachers well) and ensures that teachers who are being prepared will most likely find teaching positions upon graduation (two problems preservice teachers face in Massachusetts). During my visit, I was imagining how this could look in Massachusetts or other U.S. states. It seems quite difficult with the current free-market system of teacher preparation. In some fields there are too many teachers being prepared, while other fields have shortages - in both cases the lack of coordination is clear. Would a central agency to manage that help? At minimum, could the state (or local municipalities) recruit teachers before their are prepared, then pay them and their tuition during teacher preparation, with the assurance that they will teach in a district for their career? There are programs that have attempted to create this, such as Teach Next Year or Boston Teacher Residency, but can it be done on a larger scale and with state government-university partnerships? Do alternative-route programs like Teach for America, with high turnover and short-term teacher commitments, make this type of teacher pipeline more difficult?

Finally, while at the NIE, I learned about two new ideas that the NIE had recently begun to implement. The first was their brown bag series, where students come to listen to short talks on social studies-related topics that may not be typically taught in coursework. Second, is the new release of their own publication on teaching and learning called SingTeach, which this month features the work of Mark and Li-Ching. Although our conversations about these new initiatives were brief, I am curious to see if either add a new dimension to the preparation of Singapore teachers.

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