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Top-Down Support for Ground-Up Initiative?

Posted in all posts, education, literature, policy, teaching by coleman yee on October 25, 2006

Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone who used to teach Literature in a secondary school. She was relating about how she engaged her students using drama techniques in her Literature lessons.

Then one day her principal, who was observing her lesson, told her not to waste time doing all that drama stuff, right in front of her students.

That school lost a great Literature teacher soon after.

Then last week, I was chatting with a primary school teacher. As typical of many teachers I’ve talked to, he was griping about the amount of work, the administrative work he had to do, the politics he had to contend with in the school, the difficult people he had to work under – people who were more concerned with everything else other than students’ learning.

One of the classes he had to take was PE (Physical Education). And for his primary 2 class, he had to teach them how to dribble a basketball.

He described to me with much excitement and detail the intricacies of teaching 8-year-old kids how to dribble a ball – the preliminary steps he took to first help them overcome their fear of the ball, then how he helped them understand the mechanics of a bouncing ball, before slowly letting them walk then run while dribbling the ball.

To be honest, his experience of teaching kids how to bounce the ball wasn’t too fascinating to me, but what impressed me was how passionate he was about the whole thing – teaching 8-year-olds how to dribble a ball – which made me a little ashamed of my own lack of interest.

Then he related to me how his PE HOD (Head of Department) threatened to rate him poorly for his class, only because he didn’t adhere to the prescribed methodology for teaching kids how to dribble balls. Prescribed by the PE HOD himself of course.

Our friend was naturally quite incensed, and made it clear to the HOD that he would still stick to his own method of teaching. It certainly helped that his students were dribbling balls better than the HOD’s own students, so he got by, but not without becoming a little less popular with a superior.

Now what really bothers me about these two stories is that they aren’t isolated incidents. I hear such stories from passionate teachers all the time. Primary school teachers, secondary school teachers, Junior College teachers, even polytechnic lecturers. I hear this all the time.

The only consolation, perhaps, is that there have been policy changes within the Ministry of Education to address this.

In a speech on 28 September this year, Education Minister Mr Tharman said,

The quality improvements are not coming in top-down, but from initiatives taken by teachers on the ground – whether it’s a change in the school curriculum, or a new way of teaching the existing curriculum, or a new way of organising students for learning.

He then went on to cite some examples of this “top-down support for ground-up initiative” already taking place in schools.

I mentioned this to the primary school teacher, but he roundly dismissed it. He obviously wasn’t seeing any top-down support for any ground-up initiatives in his school. He was getting jaded, fast.

I have no doubt myself that this “top-down support for ground-up initiative” is the way to go – the best teachers are the ones who need the most space and flexibility to do their thing.

I only hope that these teachers on the ground will get to see this in their own situations soon, before we lose more great teachers.

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Choose the Teacher, Not the Subject

Posted in all posts, teaching by coleman yee on October 1, 2006

Some of my students were asking my opinion on what subjects they should choose to enrol in the next semester. You see, the institution where I work requires students to do a certain number of “interdisciplinary” subjects, subjects which are not related to their course of study. This means a Mechanical Engineering student can also enrol for subjects like Social Psychology, Financial Management, or Basic French, and a Business student can do subjects like Photography, Drama & Poetry, or Literature Appreciation.

The typical advice for students would be to pick the subject which they are most interested in, or at least the one that sounds most interesting, or the least boring one (if none of them seem remotely interesting). If all else fails, pick the one that seems easiest to get a passing grade. For instance, Photography would probably be easier than Social Psychology.

The advice I gave to my students was to pick the subject with the best teacher, regardless of whether the subject seems interesting or not. (Of course, I then had to help them identify the best teachers in the list.)

With a great teacher, any dull subject can be transformed into a meaningful and engaging one, inspiring the student into deep and profound learning. All the student has to do is to step into the classroom with an open mind.

Those who disagree with me on this point probably have never been inspired by a great teacher before. Which, unfortunately, is not too uncommon, because great teachers are a precious few.

And if the student is already interested in a certain subject, but the teacher isn’t a good one, I would still advise that student to choose the subject with the best teacher instead.

Besides not being engaging and inspiring, a poor teacher can even kill whatever interest the student has in that subject, so the student will actually be worse off at the end of the semester.

We don’t have anything on the History of Carpet Weaving in Turkey, but if we do and a great teacher is teaching it, I’d make sure all my students sign up for it. I might even request to join in some of the lessons!