Eighty-five children (four- and five-year-olds) were the subjects of an experiment. They were divided into four groups. Those in the first group were introduced to a novel toy that looked like a tangle of coloured pipes, and the experimenter demonstrated how to make it squeak, twice.
For those in the second group, the adult showed how to make the pipes squeak once, and then interrupted herself like she suddenly remembered she had something else to do, thus giving the impression to the kids that the demonstration was not completed.
“With a third group,” wrote the Economist in its issue of 28 May – 3 June 2011, “she activated the squeak as if by accident.”
As for the fourth group, she pointed to the toy, saying ‘Wow, see this toy? Look at this!’ but didn’t operate it.
The children were then left with the toy. The experiment with each child would end when the children told the experimenter that they had finished playing with it — the children had been asked beforehand to let the adult know when they were done. If the child stopped playing with the toy for more than five consecutive seconds, the experimenter would ask the child whether he was finished.
Independent research assistants, not informed about the purpose of the study, then watched the videos of the children and recorded (a) how long they played with the toy, (b) the number of different actions the child made upon the toy, (c) the time spent playing with the squeak, and (d) how many of the three other functions the child discovered. Indeed, the toy “had a button inside one tube which activated a light, a keypad that played musical notes, and an inverting mirror inside one of the tubes.”
The first group spent the least time playing with the toy; the fourth group spent the most.
As for the number of actions performed, those in the first group tried out four different actions on the toy; the 2nd, 3rd and 4th groups tried 5.3, 5.9 and 6.2 different actions respectively.
The first group also found 0.7 other functions on average. The children in the other groups discovered more of the other functions (1.2 to 1.3 on average).
The results of this experiment, wrote the Economist, supported the theory that “telling children ‘truths’ about the world helps them learn those facts more quickly. Yet, the efficient learning of specific facts may lead to the assumption that when the adult has finished teaching, there is nothing further to learn”.
Prior explanation might inhibit exploration and discovery, concluded the researchers.
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This will strike many Singaporeans as insight that might be particularly pertinent to this place. Our education system is instruction on steroids. I am aware that in recent years, there have been attempts to inject more project work into classrooms, but such efforts are, I suspect, confined to the better classes or better schools, and its benefits pale in comparison with the systemic bias towards instruction and more instruction:
1. With classroom sizes are still approximating 40, teachers find it extremely difficult to adopt a user-driven approach to teaching.
2. With a society obsessed with examination results, too often it’s teaching for testing.
3. With so many school children augmenting their school hours with private tuition, even if schools switched mode to something less rigidly instructional, the fact will remain that a large percentage of learning time from the child’s perspective, will still be heavily instructional in nature, since the very raison d’etre of tuition centres is to get kids to pass exams.
I don’t know where she got the figure, but Teo Soh Lung, a Singapore Democratic Party candidate in the recent elections, called Singapore “a ‘tuition nation’ where 97 out of 100 students have to receive tuition on top of attending school.” (Today newspaper, 7 May 2011, Education the battle cry here, by Cheow Xin Yi)
We should also bear in mind that play is a learning experience too, typically an unstructured, exploratory one. Children learn about other aspects of the world, e.g. the geometry of terrain when zipping around on skateboards, or social skills when interacting with others, in the course of play. Yet by reducing playtime and shoeboxing them into tuition, we once again amplify the instructional over the exploratory.
What emerges out of our educational system? I’ve heard many employers bemoan the fact that Singaporeans, even university graduates, might have depth of knowledge about the subject they’re trained in, but they do not have breadth, do not have lateral-thinking or problem-solving skills, and aren’t very good socially.
From another perspective, as a people, a friend of mine said, we’re a rather uncurious lot. We tend not to question what we see. And adult Singaporeans seem to think that learning is something for kids, not something that is life-long.
And we hope to be a centre for research and creativity?
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Heng Swee Kiat, the new Education Minister, told the media that he would be carrying out a detailed study on a selected number of schools in order to obtain “a deeper understanding of what happens on the ground.” (Straits Times Breaking News, 3 June 2011, School is the right place to start: Education Minister)
Mr Heng wants to find out for himself what is happening on the ground and see how to address the various concerns early.
So, he is planning to visit a mix of schools at primary, secondary and junior college levels, each with different strengths.
He felt this would be the ‘right place to start’.
Mr Heng said the school visits would help him understand what has worked well and what needs to be tweaked.
— Straits Times, 4 June 2011, Minister to visit schools after deluge of feedback, by Leow Si Wan
There’s a risk that he’s only going to get half the picture. He will be told the workload is too heavy, and there are too many administrative tasks. But these will likely all hang on the same paradigm that (a) knowledge is something we impart rather than something kids (and adults) discover, (b) success is measured by exam results. Teachers (and parents) are essentially insiders in the system long conditioned by the demands of state dogma, and it is usually rare for insiders to question the paradigm within which they operate. I suspect that unless we question the paradigm, all that can be achieved is tweaking. No thorough re-examination will emerge of what education means. In other words, the same unquestioning of paradigms that our education system produces will serve to leave the educational paradigm unquestioned.
Heng should look outside his box and ask thinkers not connected with education what Singapore society is like and what it should strive to be. He might get surprising answers.
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I am reminded of someone who told me of his experience in the United States, where he went to do a course in broadcasting. In the early years of the three- or four-year course, he was carefully taught the “how-to” and given project assignments in which he could demonstrate his mastery of the required skills and art. For his final-year project, however, his project had to meet one simple requirement: it must break all the rules. You don’t flout the rules, you don’t graduate.
How’s that as a stab at a new paradigm?