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How To Use Technology To Increase Student Achievement Is Not a Mystery!

In 2012-2013, at Nan Chiau Primary School, Singapore, there were more than 700 third- and fourth-grade students using smartphones — Nokia 710s — every day in science and English, and in 2014 NCPS is expanding to math. Test scores, which were high to begin with — this is Singapore, after all — have gone up, especially in the area of 21st century skills: oral and written self-expression, creativity, etc.

In contrast, we read, on a regular basis, that schools buy technology — desktops, laptops and now mobile devices — and experience virtually no impact on student achievement.

Here are the key factors that are enabling the students at Nan Chiau Primary School to use mobile computing devices effectively:

Curriculum: Let’s start at the heart of the matter: Adding technology to direct-instruction, paper-and-pencil-based pedagogy, will have little impact. Add an app here; add an app there; using technology as an add-on supplement can’t ever lead to substantive change.

But, in alignment with Singapore’s Education MasterPlan 3, the curriculum at Nan Chiau was revised, top-to-bottom, to be inquiry-based, to support students engaging in conversations, to support students relating their concrete experiences outside the school to the abstract ideas introduced inside the school. Yes, the students still used worksheets, but they too were changed to be more consistent with the types of reasoning and explanation skills that the students were developing in the inquiry curriculum.

Key was redesigning the curriculum to take advantage of the affordances of the 1-to-1 mobile devices that were being used. The technology was not bolted onto an existing curriculum at Nan Chiau; the technology was not a supplement, an add-on, used once in a while. Rather, the mobile devices (with a complement of appropriate software) were used as essential tools to support the learning tasks called for by the curriculum.

Teachers: The NCPS teachers are adept at direct-instruction, worksheet-based pedagogy. Look at Nan Chiau’s scores before the curricular change. But, in response to the principal’s vision — see below — the teachers changed and they learned new pedagogical practices. They brought in outside consultants (e.g., academics from National Institute of Education, as well as CN & ES), they spent time observing and critiquing each other’s classroom practices, and they developed into practitioners of inquiry pedagogy. Most importantly, they developed into a community of practice — a professional group of educators who work with each other, who support each other, as everyone learns to be more effective.

Leadership: The principal of the school had a vision of where Nan Chiau needed to go: Nan Chiau needed to align its goals and actions with the Singaporean Ministry of Education’s MasterPlan 3. MP3 emphasized inquiry pedagogy along with the development of key 21st century skills such as self-directed learning and collaborative learning. The principal also was an excellent motivator and manager; he was the school’s — and the teachers' — biggest cheerleader. And when problems arose, when missteps occurred, he stayed on course and addressed the inevitable bumps. And the principal was successful at fundraising; but fundraising is much easier when the school demonstrates clear results!

Technological Infrastructure: One-to-one is the only way to go; every child has his or her own device, 24/7 in the palm of their hands. How else can children engage in their own inquiry? The school said that children needed to be connected to the Internet 24/7 with WiFi in the school and cellular connectivity outside the school. And last, but not least, the choice of software was critical; the students used apps that supported the redesigned curriculum. MyDesk provided an initial suite of educational productivity tools, e.g., writing, concept mapping, drawing and animating. Then new software was designed to support new pedagogical initiatives.

Parents: Initially the parents were nervous: Singaporean parents have high expectations for their children’s performance in school, and ample homework — aka worksheets — has been a staple of Singaporean primary school. But, as they saw what their children were producing on the smartphones — concept maps laying out the key characters in a story and their interrelationships, animations showing how plans grow, etc. — they grew comfortable with the changes taking place at NCPS.

Assessment: MCQ (multiple choice questions) as well as short-answer, open-ended questions are key elements to the twice-yearly tests. All schools in Singapore have these sorts of tests. While it might be nice to change the assessments to better assess inquiry skills, that sort of change is longer in coming.

Time: The principal, the teachers, the outside consultants (e.g., academics from National Institute of Education, as well as CN & ES) have been working on these changes at Nan Chiau for the last five years! Problems arose and Nan Chiau addressed them. Problems are still arising — and Nan Chiau is addressing those new challenges! It takes time to change; it takes time to develop a professional community of practice; it takes time to move from science to English to math.

Interestingly, the Singaporean Ministry of Education is supporting, financially and politically, the scaling up of Nan Chiau’s educational change process to five other primary schools. To the best of our knowledge, MoE has never done this before — taken a school’s success and worked carefully to transfer that success to other schools. How that transfer is going will be the subject of another blog post.

In your school rollout of iPads, say, were the above factors addressed?  Please, write in and tell us how your technology (desktops, laptops, tablets) rollout was same/different from the mobile device rollout we have just described.

Since ultimately it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people, we want to thank those who are making Nan Chiau go: Thank you Mr. Chun Ming TAN (principal), science teachers, English teachers, math teachers, technology staff, project administrators @ Nan Chiau; Thank you Ms. Erin Gavin, Qualcomm, Inc., Wireless Reach Project which is providing catalytic funds for the Nan Chiau effort; Thank you Dr. David HUNG, Dr. Horn Mun CHEAH, National Institute of Education (NIE) and long time supporters of the Nan Chiau effort; Thank you Dr. Chee Kit LOOI & his colleagues at NIE and his graduate students at NIE who play a key R&D role @ Nan Chiau.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at