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Strengthening Teachers’ Professional Development is the First Step Towards Becoming a Good School 加强教师专业培训是学校成为好学校的第一步 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Thursday, 05 December 2013 05:57

An article by Thomas L. Friedman, “The Shanghai
Secret”, was published in The New York Times on
25 October this year.
Mr Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and
author of The World Is Flat, possesses a keen sense of
observation. Together with a number of established
educators from the United States, Mr Friedman visited
some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in
China to discover its secret — how is it that Shanghai’s
public secondary schools topped the world charts in the
2009 Programme for International Student Assessment
(PISA) examinations that measure the ability of 15-yearolds
in 65 countries to apply what they’ve learned in
Maths, Science and Reading?
After a survey of the schools Mr Friedman came to
the conclusion that, “There is no secret. When you sit in
on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers,
what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics. These
are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-topeer
learning and constant professional development, a
deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning,
an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest
standards and a culture that prizes education and respects
teachers.”
Mr Friedman writes that, “We need to focus on the
basics that we know make for high-performing schools
but are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire
school system.”
I have a personal experience of the great emphasis
placed on the professional development of teachers in
Shanghai. On their own initiative, teachers will come
together to learn from one another. There is a master
teacher for each subject, and he or she will lead a group
of young teachers during discussions to learn and improve
together. Separately, each district also has its own teacher’s
institute to provide teachers with regular professional
training. I was invited to present at one of these institutes,
and I took the opportunity to introduce the teachers
to Singapore’s primary school Science syllabus and the
International Competitions and Assessments for Schools
(ICAS) Science assessment developed by the University of
New South Wales in Australia.
This article will elaborate on the professional
development of teachers, and talk about the importance
of teachers in helping students achieve good results. It
is through an ever improving grade in a stress-free and
fun environment that a good and professional teacher
can influence students’ attitudes. The quality of teachers,
especially in a day and age where there are many things
to distract students, therefore directly influences both the
ability of students to master new concepts as well as their
learning attitudes. Below are a few examples where the
teaching of primary-level Mathematics in Singapore can
be improved.
One example is the generally weak ability of primary
school students to calculate — many Primary 6 students
cannot work out the multiplication and division of decimal
by decimal in vertical form. This is primarily because it is
not a requirement in the curriculum, and therefore it is not
emphasised by schools. Poor calculation skills lead to longer
periods of time spent on homework and more mistakes
made. If a child has to spend an unusually long time
completing an assignment, and making plenty of mistakes,
will he enjoy the experience? Eventually the child will be
reluctant to do Maths assignments, and gradually lose
interest in the subject. And the root of this problem can be
very simple: the lack of a strong foundation in calculation.
Another illustration is the over-emphasis on the model
method and the deliberate avoidance of algebra.
The model method is one of many methods which
can be used to solve Maths problems. It is a visual way to
find out the relationships between different quantities,
thereby simplifying the questions. This method is also
used in China, but is called the line method, and used
only sparingly for certain types of questions. In Singapore,
however, the model method is expanded to cover topics
from integers and fractions to ratios and percentages.
The initial implementation might have originated from
wanting to help children understand the concept of
fractions, but its use was later incorrectly promulgated.

 

Using a visual way to express abstract Maths concepts
has its advantages, and is especially useful for students
who aren’t strong in Maths. However, too much of it results
in the inability of students to build up abstract thinking
skills. Singapore schools start students on the model
method from Primary 2 (those who are kiasu start from
Primary 1) and use it up until Primary 6. Teachers spend
copious amounts of time teaching it to their students, and
schools even hold workshops to teach it to parents. The
model method thus becomes the only — or the first —
method to solve problems. However, when the students
graduate and go on to secondary schools, they stop using
it altogether, and it will be another two decades before
they need to use it again — i.e. when they become parents
themselves and teach it to their own children. Is this choice
the right one?
In fact, the difficulty of Primary 5 and 6 Maths problems
already surpasses the visual model method, and this
therefore ought to be the stage at which elements of
algebra are incorporated into the syllabus. The second
semester of Primary 5 could be an ideal time to teach the
topic, and other topics can then be adjusted accordingly.
The introduction of algebra in Primary 5 will also help
students in the transition from primary- to secondary-level
Maths. Also, the Primary 1 and 2 syllabi already contain
elements of simple algebra (illustrated below), so why are
we deliberately shunning this method?
Lastly, I will use two personal examples to illustrate the
impact of higher grades on a child’s learning attitude, and
its longer-term effects. My son was enrolled at one of the
brand-name local schools via the Direct School Admissions
(DSA) exercise. He was placed in the top class, but because
of teenage rebelliousness, and an unprofessional teacher,
his classroom experience was poor. His lower secondary
school days were a nightmare, and he was subsequently
streamed into the lowest class for Secondary 3. Fortunately,
he then had an excellent Maths teacher who was both
professional and serious, and who was well-liked by the
entire class. My son’s performance swiftly improved until he
was scoring well over 90 per cent. In Secondary 4, too, he
had an exceptional Form and Physics teacher. From then on
his attitude towards learning changed, and he developed
a proactive and positive attitude towards many issues.
Another example is one of my students in Primary 4,
who scored 34 marks for a Maths examination. When his
parents approached me for help, this child had absolutely
no interest in the subject. After a term’s worth of hard
work, he scored 68 in his next Maths examination. One day,
he told me, “Teacher, I asked a classmate why he scored
only 18 marks for his exam. If he wasn’t paying attention
during class, why did he go to school?” His words surprised
me. His serious attitude towards learning came about
only after his grades improved. I’m sure he now has that
positive attitude in all his subjects.
Therefore, strengthening the professional development
of teachers will have a positive impact not only on
students’ grades but also their attitudes towards learning,
and even their values. To make every school a good school,
enhancing the professional development of all teachers is
the first, most basic step.

 

you can also view this article at EduNation issue 6.

 

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