Life. Education. Books. Films.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

O Teachers, What Are You Really Teaching?

Shaheed Salim's Teacher Training Programme In Pattani, Thailand, In December 2017

I have just finished training some 50 to 60 Thai teachers on the art and science of teaching. One of the things I emphasised in the training is why we teach. Is it enough to teach our kids languages, science and mathematics and religious subjects? Is it enough for us to give them information that they themselves can get from the internet? I believe in transformative teaching and training. This means that by the end of each teaching/training course, participants must be transformed positively, at least in a small way. It may be a new paradigm learnt, the motivation to try something new and many other things, too many to list. This transformative aspect of teaching may have been overlooked by many teachers and trainers.

Below are some videos I showed the participants, videos that those interested in education, teaching and learning anywhere in the world should watch, especially teachers. Do take the time to watch them before reading further. Each video lasts between 1 to 3 minutes. These teachers do not only teach subjects prescribed in the curriculum. They do more than that.

Mary Kurt Mason

Chris Emdin

Stephen Ritz

Jeffrey Wright

Dear readers, realise that great teachers teach more than information or facts or what the syllabus dictates. They change lives and they are conscious of what they are doing. Although, like all other teachers, they teach Math, Science, English or whatever subject, the difference is that they see the subjects they teach as a platform to teach, demonstrate and disseminate something far greater than the subjects. Each teacher has an agenda, some hidden motive when teaching and interacting. That hidden agenda or motive becomes the strategic thrust of his lessons. In fact, if you think deeply about what impactful teachers do, you will realise that the subjects they teach have become the context and stepping stone for achieving their motive. Listen carefully to what Mary Kurt Watson, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Ritz and Chris Emdin say. You will discover their real motives, hidden agendas and strategic thrusts. These are far more important than the expertly-designed curricula. In fact, these are the curricula of these wonderful teachers.

So if you are a teacher, what is it you are really teaching? What is your agenda, your motive, your strategic thrust? Do you have any? Have you thought about your real motive for teaching? What is it that you are trying to really achieve by  teaching your students tirelessly? I once thought that I could not have these – my agendas, real motives and strategic thrusts – when teaching in Singapore. I was wrong. I now realise that you can have them wherever you are, in whatever type of class you teach, whether it is in a school, classroom, tuition centre or home or anywhere else. It is the teacher that must be enlightened. It is the enlightened teacher that makes the difference.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Carrots And Sticks: Why Singapore Malay-Muslims Can And Must Bridge The PSLE Math Gap

I sincerely believe that if the Malay-Muslim community of Singapore put their hearts and minds to the task of bridging the PSLE Math gap, we can do so within 5 years. This gap has existed since the PSLE began in 1960. We improved in our scores until about the mid 1990s, and then for some mysterious reason, we stagnated at the plateau of producing a pass rate of about 60% at Standard Math. For the last 20 years, we have not shown any improvement. As a Malay-Muslim in Singapore, an educator and a tutor who has helped many weak students excel in Math, I cannot accept the PSLE Math gap; it is ridiculous. I do not blame anyone outside the Malay-Muslim community of Singapore for our state of affairs. It is the fault of our Malay-Muslim community.

The following is a list of reasons, some carrots and some sticks, why we Malay/Muslims must pull up our socks immediately. It is also a message of hope that we can solve this problem within a few years.

Reason 1: Don’t Pull Down The Singapore Math Score

Singapore students have so scored well in international studies from the mid-1990s that it has been categorised as the top country for Mathematics or one of the top-scoring countries for Mathematics. Since our Malay-Muslim students’ scores are way below the national average, we can therefore infer that our international Math score would have been significantly higher if our community’s scores were not included, Singapore would probably have fared better. The point? Don’t pull Singapore Math downlah. Malulah.

Reason 2: Don’t Kacau (Disturb) Singapore Exports
Singapore has exported its Primary Mathematics programme overseas. In USA alone, some say that more than 2000 schools have adopted Singapore Math. This is more than 10 times the number of primary schools in Singapore! How is it possible that on one hand we are so good in Math as a nation that we are exporting our Math overseas, and at the same time, our community is trailing far behind the national average.

Reason 3: 20 years have passed!
In the mid-1990s, about 60% of the Malay-Muslim cohort passed PSLE Standard Math. As of 2016, the percentage of passers is still stagnant. What have we been doing these 20 years? 20 years is not a short time. Are we even discussing the problem and finding solutions? Or have accepted it as a reality that failing Math is our fate as a community?

Reason 4: There are thousands of Malay-Muslims working in the education industry
There are so many teachers in the Malay-Muslim community. If we draw our family trees, I am certain that most Malay-Muslim families will have teachers listed; they may be our siblings, cousins, aunts or distant relatives. The point? How can it be that we have thousands of teachers in our community, and we still cannot solve this problem? Maybe we are not trying hard enough.

Reason 5: How much more must our government do for us?
When I started teaching at a primary school, I was really interested in a programme that is still run today – the Learning Support Programme (LSP). As highlighted by our government, it has been highly successful. When I walked past the Learning Support Coordinator’s room, I could help but estimate the number of Malay-Muslims involved in the programme. Although we are only about 15% of the population, we are an over-represented clientele in the LSP. It seemed at that time, and I have no problem believing it today, that perhaps 40% to 60% of the students were Malay-Muslims. Hasn’t the government done enough for us? The LSP was conceptualised and managed to help weak learners in lower primary Math, and we Malay-Muslims are the community with the largest number of weak students attending the LSP.  Yet we are still over-represented in the number of failures at Standard Math in the PSLE. What is our excuse for not excelling in Math after the government has spent millions to help us? 

My brothers and sisters, the government has done enough to help us. We must help ourselves. We can’t go on like this. We can’t just leave this issue to the Malay-Muslim leaders and forget about it. They need help, whether they admit it or not.

Reason 6: Intelligent Malay-Muslim Leadership
The Singapore government appoints very smart people to leadership positions. In fact, if you were to count the number of Degrees, Master Degrees and PhDs among the Malay-Muslim leadership, I am not surprised that today, the Malay-Muslim leaders can be said to be the most academically qualified when compared their their previous counterparts. This simply means that perhaps we have the best minds to solve our community’s problems. So, where is the master plan for solving the PSLE Math problem? 

Being intelligent is not enough to solve this problem. I worry about 2 things about the Malay-Muslim leaders. Firstly, I worry they are not even discussing this issue and producing real solutions. If they are, where is the masterplan? Our government produces masterplans when they intend to introduce key changes and improvement. Where is our masterplan? Secondly, worse still, I worry that they may believe there is no way out of this problem. I fear that this is why we are no longer hearing this issue being discussed. I know many attempts have been made to close the PSLE Math gap. However, these attempts were arrows shot in the dark, neither addressing the root causes of the problem nor carrying the antidote to rid ourselves of this disease.

It is because of these 2 worries that I am coming out into the open and saying openly – please discuss the PSLE Math gap and prioritise solving it because solutions do exist. It won’t take us another 20 years. 5 years will do. I am sure about it, if we get our act together.

Reason 7: Resources and money are not a problem
Some people have said that Singapore ranks among the world’s richest countries. I have no problem believing this. Is money really a problem for social organisations here? I doubt so. I am sure we have lots of savings in Mendaki, the mosques, and many other Malay-Muslim entities. In fact, if we are serious enough, the whole nation (not only Malay-Muslims) will contribute to this cause. 

Reason 8: Let’s break the psychological barrier
The stigma of the unintelligent Malay has been around since colonial times. Although I think it is a load of rubbish, I cannot help but accept the reality that there are members of the Malay-Muslim community who actually believe that the Malay-Muslim community cannot excel at Math. I have taught Chinese, Indian and Malay students who are weak in Math. I see no differences between them at all.

Take a different perspective. Imagine for a moment that the Malay-Muslim community can bridge the PSLE Math gap. Can you imagine what would happen? I believe a new spirit of confidence will be breathed into us and this phenomenon will cause world champions to emerge from our midst. I am dreaming of course. But you never know how great and positive the effect will be. Break this glass ceiling and I am sure some of us will soar the skies.

Reason 9: An exciting new vision for the Malay-Muslims of Singapore
It is not only the Malay-Muslim community of Singapore that is weak in Math. Many other countries, like those in North and South America and even many of our Southeast Asian neighbours, suffer from poor Math scores. Can you imagine the potential we would have as a community if we successfully pull ourselves out of this diseased state? Do you know that we can lead millions of people from all over the world out from their diseased state too? 

We should see the PSLE Math gap as an opportunity. See it as our passport to play an active and leading role in the world around us. Whether we share the solutions to our problem (when we do solve it) with the world free or as a business, know that there are many out there who are awaiting solutions, waiting for people to help them. I have spent the last few years training teachers in the region and I testify that Singaporean teachers have a role to play in the region, if they choose to see a bigger role for themselves.

Reason 10: The Solution Is Already Here!
Our challenge is not finding the antidote to our disease. As I explained earlier, (please see my article here), the solution is already here. And you do not need to hear it from me. I have even told you how to find the antidote and I inferred that oversight is the reason why the Malay-Muslim organisations could not find the antidote. For me, the solution is clear, and we need only 5 years to solve this problem. 

There you have it – 10 reasons why we can and must bridge the PSLE Math gap. As I write this article, I wonder whether I am the only one who believes that it is that easy to solve this problem? Anyway, I will leave this article in cyberspace  and hope it will bring some good to our nation.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Math Structured Ceiling For Autistic Kids

Mr M and I chatted over the phone and he was very concerned about his son, E. He wanted to know my thoughts about his son. That was how it all began. When I received scans of his son’s SA2 Math paper, the name of the school and the unique ways the answers and corrections were written made me feel that I was not discussing about a common student. This one was different. Sensing the father’s deepening interest and dedication to his son, I needed to meet his son to know for sure whether my gut feel was accurate.

E and I met before my talk. Within 30 minutes, I knew what the problem was. E was autistic.  It brought me back to almost 2 decades ago when Mr and Mrs Y entrusted JY to me. However, the couple did not tell me that their child was autistic. They had told me about some of his problems but never once did they say he was autistic. I knew then and now why the Ys and Ms do not tell tutors about their child’s autism. They do not want the thick limiting ceiling to be there at all. Perhaps in my positivity, I could help their child break through the structured academic ceiling.

The parents M and Y diligently taught their kids as much as they could about Math. Their kids could attain a Pass score (a C grade) but nothing more than that. They cannot seem to cross an invisible academic ceiling. Is there really an academic ceiling for autistic kids? Yes, there most certainly is.

But is this ceiling imaginary or real? Let me explain this clearly. So far, the 2 kids I have interacted with, and a few others I have observed, have no problems doing Math sums that are computational. This means the sums are repetitive and follow clear structures. When the sums, especially word problems sum deviate from the clear structures, these students become lost and are unable to solve the problems. This is the invisible glass ceiling autistic kids face when doing Math. Can autistic kids do Math problem sums that are unstructured in nature? Well, read on.

Mr M was persistent. He wanted to know how to break this ceiling. He had approached an educational psychologist who had carried out a series of tests on E. Then she recommended a specialist teacher to coach his autistic son. After about 24 lessons in 3 months, Mr M highlighted to the specialist that his son had failed his termly test. The specialist was surprisingly shocked and she surrendered, according to Mr M. Hopeful parents like Mr M become lost too in finding a solution. But is there a solution?

Mr M consulted me and I told him I am not a specialist in special needs, but I believe in the power of the human spirit. There have been cases where I myself had thought that a child I tutored could not improve (but I never showed this and tried to fight this thought) but the child passed the exam – I told him and reminded myself that we do not know the limits of the human heart and mind. Very weak students can pass and even excel. But we must first believe in them. They are kids. If we do not believe in them, how will they develop a positive self-concept?

After a week of tutoring E in a group, Mr M asked me  about his son’s progress. I told him that E required one-to-one  tuition. Group tuition would not help him. I explained that he had pushed his son to the limits of successfully solving structured problem sums. What was needed now is a breakthrough? To attend my Breakthrough Math classes would not really help. This is because I am not teaching students with special needs in my Breakthrough Math classes. I am teaching students with low self-esteem and negative self beliefs. E does not suffer from low self-esteem. His challenge is finding a structure in the less structured world of Math. I told what I thought is the solution, and if your child is like his and has reached the boundaries of structured Math, then you may want to think about this next phase. However, before I explain the next phase, let me enlighten you on the kids' journey.

There are 2 phases in mastering PSLE Math for the autistic child, and this is only my perspective (although I am sure my perspective is accurate and correct).

In Phase 1, the child needs to experience and excel the basics of structured Math. I believe this is what tuition centres which specialise in teaching autistic kids PSLE Math do – they focus on only structured Math through whatever means until the kids master the basics and attain at least a C grade. Mr M has sent E to a couple of centres but there is no improvement. He has even tried a specialist teacher recommended by an educational psychologist, and again no improvement.  To me, as I have explained to him, what is now needed is something new, perhaps.

The Next Phase: In Phase 2, Math problem sums get tough and the thinking involved to solve these sums is no longer simple. So, in Phase 2, the autistic child enters a world of less structured Math sums and I believe he needs to use a new strategy to get the right answer. But without a clear structure, how can he find the solution? I think a new procedure of thinking need to be introduced to E. How? What are the steps in this thinking procedure? I do not know yet. However, I believe it is a series of steps which guides the autistic child to look at the unstructured Math problem in a new way. What are the steps? I do not know yet. Do write to me if you have new insights or questions. May your journey in helping your child be a fruitful and blessed one.