Teachers Learn Just Like Students: A Case Study From Singapore

Background: We (CN & ES) had the good fortune to collaborate with teachers, school administrators, researchers, parents, and students in Singapore’s primary schools from 2009 to 2016 with support from the Qualcomm Wireless Reach Project. We saw the challenges, the struggles and the successes of teachers, school administrators, parents, and students as inquiry pedagogy and as mobile technologies (e.g., smartphones) were integrated into daily learning activities. Yes, yes, Singapore is not the U.S. — Singapore is only 85 miles north of the equator, it is 2/3 size of New York City and has almost 6 million people. But, teachers are teachers and children are children, the world over. Thus, we write this blog in the hope that we can indeed learn from each other. (If we have piqued your interest, read our other blog posts about Singaporean education.)

Note: The events described in this blog post took place in 2017-2018 — and are continuing to take place in Singaporean schools.

Using Inquiry to Learn Science: Since 2008 the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore — like the U.S.’s Departments of Education at the state and national levels — has mandated that an inquiry pedagogy be employed when teaching science. Easy to decree; not so easy to implement:

  • "We have to change the way we teach, the way we view our pupils’ learning and the way we co-construct knowledge with the pupils. … We were required to adjust the way we teach and shift the paradigm from a teacher-directed style to a student-centric one. This was fundamentally different from the way we were taught and had taught. For a few of us, we had to forgo methods that had proven to be effective in producing results for many years." (Comments from two 3rd grade Singaporean science teachers.)

As we describe below, making those substantive changes requires considerable effort on the teachers’ part and requires that considerable support be provided to them during the change process!

Before we describe those efforts and those supports, we need to draw your attention to the last comment by the two teachers — about "forgoing proven methods." At the end of 6th grade, all Singaporean students take the PSLE — Primary School Leaving Exam. From a parent’s perspective, doing well on the PSLE is critically important. Thus, while learning inquiry skills is now required — teachers know that their students still need to do well on the PSLE — and drill-and-practice is the traditional method for producing high-PSLE-scorers. Hold that thought, please.

So, how did Singapore’s MOE help their teachers change? While the MOE does have a prescribed science curriculum, where the student is the inquirer and the teacher is the leader of the inquiry, MOE gives schools latitude on how they support their teachers in changing, in shifting from a "teacher-directed style to a student-centric" style. In what follows then, we describe how one school in Singapore supported two 3rd grade teachers in developing skills in employing an inquiry pedagogy to teach science.

Teachers as Learners: Underlying an inquiry pedagogy is a theory of learning — the social-constructivist theory — that suggests the following:

  • Learners construct their own understandings while engaging in authentic experiences;
  • Dissonances — expectation failures — and knowledge gaps drive the construction of those understandings, and
  • Knowledgeable others provide scaffolds to support learners contending with those dissonances.

So, if students learn science in that way, teachers learn how to teach science in that way. One immediate implication of that observation is that a typical, professional-development, direct-instruction, "sit-and-get," seminar where teachers are told how to teach inquiry is not the right instructional strategy. Indeed, these days PD is out and PL (Professional Learning) is in.

At the Singaporean school, then, researchers (SSL, PS) from NIE (National Institute of Education) and two experienced teachers from that same school came together to serve as "knowledgeable others" and provide the scaffolding support to the two 3rd grade science teachers as the latter developed inquiry teaching skills while teaching their 3rd graders. To anchor these notions of “knowledgeable other” and "scaffolding" read through the dialogue taken from an actual interaction of researchers, experienced teachers and the two 3rd grade science teachers. In the dialogue, we identify the various "scaffolding strategies" employed by the "knowledgeable others."

  • TeacherC: "After all the activities [that we have designed] the students don’t seem to grasp the concept [of what a living thing is]. One of the students asked if cloud is a living thing." 
    • Researcher is listening to the teacher’s reflections and the issues the teacher has faced in class.
  • TeacherA: "Maybe the student is just trying to be cheeky?!" 
    • Researcher is listening to teacher’s reflections.
  • TeacherC: "Can I go and do some frontal teaching to correct them? I feel that I cannot let them continue with this misconception."
    • Researcher is listening to teacher’s reflections.
  • Researcher: "Why do students think that cloud is a living thing?" 
    • Rather than saying no, don’t do direct-instruction, which would have been a direct-instruction response, the Researcher asks an open-ended question, attempting to better understand why the teacher feels the student asked the question.
    • Researcher is trying to help teachers identify gaps in the student’s thinking.
    • Once gaps or dissonances are identified, teachers may design learning activities to address those issues.
    • Listening, modelling, asking open-ended questions, identifying gaps/dissonances, and designing learning activities are all scaffolding techniques. The goal would be for the 3rd grade teachers (TeacherA, TeacherC) to eventually employ these scaffolding techniques when working with their students.
  • TeacherC: "Maybe the student thinks that as long as something moves by itself, it is a living thing?"
    • Researcher is listening to teacher’s reflections.
  • Experienced teacher: "Actually you should be happy if students are able to voice their thinking? Last time, they had misconceptions but they had no opportunity to articulate it!"
    • Experienced teacher is trying to provide a broader picture, another scaffolding strategy.
  • Researcher: "What characteristics must be fulfilled in order for an object to be classified as a living thing?"
    • Again, Researcher is modelling the asking of a question, with an eye towards identifying gaps in the student’s knowledge.
  • TeacherC: "A living thing needs air, food, water to survive. It needs to be able to move without external help and be able to reproduce."
  • Researcher: "Why do you think students say cloud is a living thing? Maybe you can list a few objects in Google documents and gets students to articulate why they think these objects are classified as living and non-living things."
    • Researcher is suggesting learning activities that could help the teachers gather evidence about the student’s underlying knowledge gap.
    • In particular, Researcher is suggesting the use of technology since writing can be useful in making a student’s thoughts visible. And, here the technology is a computer — as students tend to write more and write better when using a computer.
  • TeacherC: "If I take a perspective of a child, this is possibly what I will be thinking about ….Because the cloud floats in the air, it stores water as its food, it moves without external help, and it is able to reproduce rain."
    • Researchers and Experienced Teachers are happy! TeacherC is trying to identify the underlying gap in the student’s understanding.
  • TeacherA: "Aha, so if we gather evidences of students’ thinking, we will be about to see that these are all students’ misconceptions! How can we design learning experiences to show students the differences between living and non-living things?"
    • Researchers and Experienced Teachers are happy! TeacherA is understanding a key scaffolding strategy — and thinking about how to design learning experiences to address student’s gaps/dissonances.

Learning by inquiry is a time consuming, resource intensive process. But, the 3rd grade teachers feel it was worth the effort:

  • "… the project was a great learning experience for the students and teachers alike. ... It served the intent of grooming our students to think critically and beef up their process skills."

And, the learning process is not over! TeacherA, TeacherC, and their colleagues will absolutely be continuing their inquiry into developing inquiry instructional skills.

But before we end… Time to recall that thought we asked you to hold onto — the one about how important it is for Singaporean students to score well on the PSLE. There is a tension, a real tension, between students learning how to carry out an inquiry while learning the content of science — and knowing the content really well for a test. If the goal is just the latter, then drill-and-practice is the way to go. But, important as the PSLE is…

  • "…The world that we live in today is a knowledge society … To develop our students as confident citizens in today’s knowledge society… It is therefore no longer sufficient to help our students achieve only the learning objectives specified in the national syllabi. Rather, learning needs to be broadened to develop students’ competencies in learning how to learn…" (Comments from researchers at Singapore’s Ministry of Education)

We couldn’t have said it any better ourselves.