Educating Singapore – Moving Beyond Grades

Educating Singapore - Moving Beyond Grades

The latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results have placed Singapore among the top performers among 65 countries and economies who took part in the fifth assessment of 15-year-olds’ competencies in Reading, Mathematics and Science. We came in second in Mathematics, and third in both Reading and Science.

Not only are we in good company with our Asian neighbours like Shanghai (top in all three areas) and Hong Kong (third in Math and second in both Reading and Science), we have shown improvement in results in both academically weaker and stronger pupils. Our Education Minister is reported to be very happy and very proud of the results but I hope Singapore’s stellar performance at PISA will not undermine the need to improve areas such as equity and creativity.

S’pore can do better in ensuring educational equity

Singapore can do better in ensuring educational equity

A recent news report gave a more balanced assessment of Singapore’s PISA results, where OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher noted that Singapore is “a strong performer in (education) quality, but only an average performer in equity.” Educational equity is defined by OECD in terms of fairness and inclusion – providing all students, regardless of gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin, have similar opportunities to achieving educational potential; and ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all. By that definition, Singapore has progressed very well over the past few decades (from fishing village to global player) and has been considered the “poster child” for educational development (mirroring its economic success story) – see country report by OECD. We have reduced achievement gaps between genders and races, and have refined the process of teaching students according to their abilities.

Nonetheless, the education culture in Singapore is one driven by results of  high-stakes examinations which are the gatekeepers to the next level of education which in turn determine the type and quality of jobs students eventually land. While this is not a culture unique to Singapore, and certainly not as extreme as compared to South Korea and China, such a culture privileges those who have easier access to educational resources (e.g. private lessons, parental coaching, financial support). Furthermore, innovation and creativity take a back seat while grades get all the glory. Despite government attempts to downplay the importance of grades and asking parents to broaden their perception of their children’s success, parents are too pragmatic to give up the paper chase. Exam results continue to be the determining factor at each turning point of a child’s school life.

The Singapore Ministry of Education hails the latest PISA results as an indication that Singapore students “are ready to thrive in the 21st century.” To me, thriving means growing in a supportive environment where students can realise their potential and nurture their talents. To thrive in the 21st century also means having the capacity to change, innovate and look for new ways of doing things. I’m not sure if we can claim that all Singapore students are ready to thrive. Some have more resources to be able to thrive, some have fewer, and many have discovered the best way to thrive is to go to another country where there’s more to school than just getting good grades.

An education system is a product of philosophy, politics and societal values. I don’t believe there is something inherently right or wrong about using exam results to measure success. Neither do I believe that there is a level playing field for all children. What I hope our education system does not do is to reduce a person’s worth to the degree of educational attainment, and by extension, the financial rewards that come from it.

However the education game is being played, we must be critical of our successes and learn from our failures. Doing that will keep my hope alive.

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Although Google Hangouts on Air launched in May 2012, I only recently discovered it when I chanced upon a colleague’s live lecture while scanning my Google+ feed. And what I saw, I liked. Google Hangouts on Air (or HOA for short) broadcasts what happens in a Google Hangout session. In that session, you can choose to have a conversation with people you invite, work on Google docs, or what I thought was the most promising, conduct a presentation via screenshare. The live session is streamed via YouTube and that live stream is automatically saved as a video whenthe broadcast ends.

Google Hangouts on Air

Google Hangouts on Air

Practice Makes Perfect

While the process sounds simple, I had to practise going through the process of setting up a HOA, broadcasting it and checking if the recording of the session matched what I imagined it to be – five times to be exact – before I was convinced I was sure of what to do at the actual presentation. Through the practice sessions, here are some of the pitfalls I encountered:

  • Entering a name for your HOA generates a YouTube link for the live session in standby mode. Hitting the broadcast button makes the video ‘live’. However, if you open the page for the YouTube live session and record at the same time, you will get two sets of audio being recorded. So after checking that the YouTube link has been created, close the browser or tab.
  • There are several options for screenshare – desktop and the various windows that are open. Although it may seem obvious to screenshare the particular application you are using for your presentation, that did not work for me – the slides did not appear to move as I clicked through them in presentation mode. What was more reliable was screensharing the desktop and then activating whichever application I wanted.
  • A mic is necessary for the best sound input. Otherwise the sound quality in the video sounds muffled.

HOA For Real This Time

The use of HOA at my presentation (of my research paper Understanding the Identity of One ELL in Singaporewent fairly smoothly but it was only after the whole process was completed did I realise the finer details of implementation. A few realisations as I watched the playback of my presentation:

  • The screenshare (using desktop) of my powerpoint presentation was exactly what I had on my desktop (presenter mode), but not on the projector screen (full screen mode). Using Microsoft Powerpoint 2013 meant that once the application detects a projector, it goes into presenter mode with the notes of the current slide and a preview of the subsequent slide show at the side of the screen. I didn’t like it but others thought it was cool. Note for future HOA: change the default presenter mode to full screen presentation.
  •  The mic I used was an arm attached to headphones and had a long wire so that I could move around with ease but stay connected to the laptop. While the long wire was helpful for movement, the awkward shape of an arm mic dangling from my neck resulted in inconsistent volume in the recording.
  • I recorded both the presentation and the Q&A which meant a 58 min recording. 58 min is an overwhelming duration for a YouTube video clip. In fact, some friends gave feedback that the video would stall halfway through. Not sure if it’s because the recording is too long or it’s a technical glitch. Either way, I intend to edit the video to include just the presentation portion which would last about 30 min.

More Tech Won’t Hurt

HOA aside, I was also experimenting with the use of Padlet during the presentation for audience members to post their questions, comments, etc. As it was a live audience, I guess few were inclined to post anything since there was going to be a Q&A session immediately after the presentation. A friend who was keen to try out Padlet did a little more than post comments. He posted a related link as well as uploaded a few photos of my presentation to my Padlet wall. I wasn’t expecting photos but this turned out to be a neat way of capturing moments of an event.

Using Padlet during a presentation

Using Padlet during a presentation


The best outcome of my presentation experiment was that the entire event was captured and archived. The YouTube video serves as a reference for me to reflect on how I could conduct a presentation more effectively, on how I could refine my thought process, and provides another avenue for me to share my research ideas with a broader audience. As long as HOA remains free, it will probably become the tool of choice among tech novices like myself to create (and archive) live presentations.

My Last Class – Reflections on the MAT@USC

My Last Class - Reflections on the MAT@USC

“Please hold while I confirm your passcode. Thank you. Your passcode is confirmed.” That’s the automated message to the virtual classroom I’ve attended every week for 6 semesters in the past two years. As I attend my last class today, I know I will miss that familiar buzz through my headphones which welcomed me to a community of learners from various continents including North America, Europe and Asia.

I started the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California in May 2011. It is a wholly online course and like many others, I was skeptical of how learning could take place. But as I examined the course program, comparing it to other education-related Master programs I could take in Singapore, I was attracted to the subjects it offered, fieldwork requirements, and the convenience that comes with online learning. I could access the classroom from any computer with camera and mic and for me, that meant not having to travel to and from classes, and being able to go home for dinner, attend to my kids, and settle them down to sleep before I stepped into my study.

Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) at USC

The most important part of the program was that it was interactive – real time video conferencing lessons and study group sessions was something that other distance education programs did not offer. (Read more about the Adobe Connect platform that the program used.) While other programs had intensive weekend lessons, the MAT program was paced like a regular program with weekly classes. Like most distance programs, students were required to submit forum postings and term papers, but the MAT program  (as opposed to Master of Education programs) also required students to be involved in fieldwork, observing and video recording classes.

Adobe Connect Meeting Room

Adobe Connect Meeting Room

As I started virtual classes, there were technical glitches now and then but overall, the learning experience was the best I’ve experienced. Most of my schooling experience in Singapore followed what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept where the teacher deposits information into us to be remembered and regurgitated. In the MAT program, on the other hand, true to the impression many have of American education, learning depended on peer discussion and in the process, respecting and embracing the diversity of opinions and ideas. It was liberating for me and I valued and enjoyed every opportunity I had to engage in discussion with professors and classmates alike.

Apart from attending classes, pouring over readings and honing my teaching skills, I spent time with 3 or 4 classmates in study group sessions. In our cozy groups, we clarified our understanding of the readings and concepts, worked on our group presentations, and had fun bonding with one another. Study group was key in connecting me to fellow classmates on a more personal level. I have made friends with kindred spirits and while it is difficult to maintain long distance friendships, I have great hope that we will all meet one another at some point in the future.

As I complete my MAT journey in the Spring of 2013, I have already begun another journey to be a reflective educator and researcher. (Read about my Teacher Leadership Project.) To my professors and classmates, thank you for these two precious years. No goodbyes, just good memories.

Me, Teacher Leader?

Me, Teacher Leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to making a difference in the school while the unsuccessful teacher leader is easily defeated by criticism and obstacles.

View Prezi on Teacher Leadership by Sherrie Lee

Teacher leadership is not reserved for the chosen few but a responsibility of all teachers. While school culture dampens the spirit of teacher leadership (Barth, 2001, p. 444), empowering teachers as leaders benefit students, teachers, administrators and the school (p. 445).

Who is the successful teacher leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to a set of beliefs about teaching and making a difference in the school (Barth, 2001; Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006). She leads by example and thus begins to influence those around her. She perseveres despite obstacles (Barth, 2009, p. 447), claiming victories however small, and does not give up pursuing unrealized goals.


The unsuccessful teacher leader, on the other hand, is not focused in fulfilling goals and is overwhelmed by the daunting workload and critical colleagues. Ultimately, the teacher leader is unsuccessful because she finds greater comfort in remaining in her own classroom than stepping out of her comfort zone (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006).

Flickr: Dead End by Benny Lin

Am I a teacher leader?

The initial years of my teaching career were characterized by the traits of the unsuccessful teacher. I was discouraged by colleagues who believed that leadership was reserved for senior staff and administrators. Their skepticism led me to think that I was better off focusing on teaching rather than leading, and that trying to make changes was a waste of time. For example, I suggested compiling video-recordings of student presentations but was quickly censured for creating more and unnecessary work for everyone. Now as I complete my Master of Arts in Teaching, I am convinced that my teaching career is a unique opportunity to be a change agent.

When I put myself in the position of a teacher leader, I am committed to producing excellent work, collaborating with colleagues, and helping our students succeed. While obstacles are real, I am reminded by Barth (2001) to enjoy “half a loaf”, that is, finding success in “incremental change[s] in the desirable direction” (p. 447). One of my weaknesses, however, is that my enthusiasm and energy can easily wear off, especially in the face of difficult colleagues or seemingly futile pursuits. Nonetheless, I must remember that Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

 Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

Problem of practice

One powerful way of developing teacher leaders is through action research where teachers identify areas of concern and begin to take steps to resolve issues to benefit the school community. At my school, the business communication subjects are taken by students with varying English proficiency standards. While all students have received education in English as a first language, there are minority English language learners (ELLs) whose home language is not English and face challenges with using academic language. My action research project focused on this problem of practice and explored student identity and empowerment.

As an emerging teacher leader, I plan on sharing the findings and recommendations of my action research project at department meetings. In addition, the school’s staff development department organizes events where I will have the opportunity to share my research with a wider school audience. Through these sharing sessions, I will need to develop interpersonal skills such as gentle persuasiveness, especially when dealing with experienced yet resistance teachers. As Danielson (2007) notes, “[l]eading change within one’s own department or team may require considerable interpersonal skill and tact [and] the success of such an effort … depends on the teacher leader’s having established credibility and trust with his or her colleagues” (p. 17).

I anticipate most of the audience to be politely lukewarm toward the information I share as the teachers at my school are generally cautious in making changes, especially when there are no immediate and visible benefits. Unfortunately, the issue of student identity and empowerment is one that is complex; it requires effort and time in exploring identity and empowerment issues with students.

Here’s the plan

To counter skepticism among the crowd, persistence is key. First, I endeavor to take up every opportunity within the school, formally and informally, to share the importance of issues of identity and empowerment and how my own action research project benefits students. This entails identifying appropriate platforms to speak, as well as being aware of the barriers each audience brings to the sharing session. For example, if the audience is unfamiliar with terminology, then I will make the effort to modify my presentation in order to be clear, and more importantly, convincing. A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

In addition, I must also show that my work is recognized by other educators, especially those with authority in the education field. Possible actions include publishing the findings of my study in an education or TESOL related journal and presenting my study at a local or regional conference. The process of publishing or presenting requires a keen understanding of the requirements of each, such as intended audience, paper length and writing style. Apart from the detailed requirements, I must also be aware of the approval process be prepared for rejection. As a novice researcher, the best result I expect is to having to resubmit my paper with changes.

Even if I am rejected, however, I view it as a learning experience. I anticipate mixed reactions to my leadership project. Teachers in my school are likely to have varying levels of commitment to address the needs of minority ELLs in our school, even if my study is accepted by a journal or conference. Whatever the outcomes, I aim to be open to feedback and use the experience to inform my next step in leadership. Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006, p. 68).

Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding.

Never give up, never give up, never give up

Thus my desire is to work with the few who are willing and be focused on student success, without losing sight of the bigger picture of greater student empowerment through the actions and leadership of each and every teacher. Even if I end up being alone in my cause, may I continue taking risks “to provide a constant, visible model of persistence, hope, and enthusiasm” (Barth, 2001, p. 447).

Flickr: Rock Climber by Greg Foster


Ackerman, R. & Mackenzie, S.V. (2006). Uncovering teacher leadership. Educational Leadership, May, 2006, 66-70.

Barth, R.S. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappa, February, 2001, 443-449.

Danielson, C. (2007). The many faces of leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 14-19.

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

I present my ideological stance in content area instruction by first providing background information about the students and their goals and challenges regarding attaining proficiency in academic literacy practices. I then briefly summarize my ideological stance regarding teaching students in content area instruction, followed by describing three pedagogical approaches to integrate academic literacy into my instruction so as to provide equity and access for all students to succeed in content understanding.

Background of students

 The classes I teach at the polytechnic (or technical college) in Singapore are heterogeneous – students have wide ranging abilities in academic reading and writing, as well as come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the majority of the students can be said to be passive learners. Asian students have been brought up on a diet of passive reception of information and knowledge, thus many students tend to be quiet in class, not responding actively to teachers’ questions or whole class activities because they are not confident of their ability to do so and would rather wait for the teacher to provide the answers.

Goal: Academic Literacy

Students need to master academic literacy (i.e., academic reading and writing skills) in order to be successful in school. Such skills are important not only to understand content across different subjects, but also to do well in assessments. Furthermore, as many polytechnic students continue to further their studies at the university, mastering academic literacy is important for their educational goals. Gee (2012) defines literacy as a “[m]astery of a secondary Discourse” (p. 173), thus academic literacy of reading and writing entails mastering “distinctive ways of … writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and various objects, tools and technologies[.]” (p. 152). Gee argues that the mastery of a Discourse requires both acquisition through an exposure through models and learning through having meta-knowledge about the Discourse (p. 174). Thus students should not only be successful at academic skills and assimilating its accompanying actions and attitudes, they should also be aware of how they become successful in such a Discourse (p. 175), thus facilitating their cognitive development.

Challenge: Coercive Power Relations

In terms of the teachers’ attitudes toward students’ English language proficiency levels, students whose English language standardized test scores are high are expected to excel at academic reading and writing, while students who have low scores are unquestionably assumed to continue to struggle with academic reading and writing and will have little hope of making any improvements. Furthermore, students’ use of colloquial speech – their primary Discourse, to use Gee’s (2012) terms – in class is frowned upon and is seen as a reflection of their lack of academic abilities.  Thus students’ past test scores and their functioning in their primary Discourse have a deterministic effect on teachers’ expectations of students’ future performance. This reveals the coercive power relations between teachers and students where teachers indirectly prepare students to accept the status quo regarding their academic abilities (Cummins, 2003, p. 25).


My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

View more PowerPoint from Sherrie Lee

My Ideological Stance in a Nutshell

My position is that students need to be weaned off passive learning and engage in active learning because the complex nature of their content area (e.g. business and marketing subjects), as well as the demands of higher education and the workplace in a rapidly evolving social and economic environment. In addition, in order to promote mastery of the discourse of academic skills, teaching must be lead to both acquisition and learning of the discourse. Furthermore, students need to be empowered to master academic skills so that they can succeed in school, regardless of their existing English language proficiency and the beliefs that they themselves or others have about their ability.

Pedagogical Approach 1: Cooperative Learning

I choose cooperative learning to encourage positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction – the four basic principles of the cooperative learning approach (Kagan, 1998, p. 108) – to foster the development of active learning, academic skills and content understanding.

Sociocultural learning theory informs this approach as an important premise of cooperative learning is the social nature of the activities. Complex mental processes begin as social activities and evolve into internal mental activities which students can use independently in the future (Ormrod, 2011, p. 40). Thus cooperative learning influences the cognitive development of students. Furthermore, the use of pair and group work in cooperative learning allows a student’s learning to be scaffolded by more capable peers who offer assistance or co-constructed together with fellow similar ability peers (p. 45). In this way, the use of scaffolding in pair and group work promotes equity and access among the heterogeneous classes that I encounter.

Pedagogical Approach 2: Modeling

According to Gee (2012), “[t]eaching that leads to acquisition means to apprentice students in a master-apprentice relationship” (p. 175) through exposure to models “in natural, meaningful, and functional settings” (p. 174). In practice, this means using content-based instruction where the teaching of academic skills is done through “exposure to content that is interesting and relevant to learners” (Brinton, 2003, p. 201). For successful modeling of academic skills to take place, the selection of content should extend over several weeks. (p. 201). Furthermore, the modeling of academic skills is optimally effective when I am able to demonstrate “not only how to do a task but also how to think about the task” (Ormrod, 2011, p. 330). Such cognitive modeling can be achieved through think-alouds where I make my thinking explicit by verbalizing my thoughts while completing a task (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2011, p. 197), for example, when planning a persuasive essay. Furthermore, according to social cognitive theory, modeling not only teaches students new behaviors and skills, it also boosts their self-confidence (Ormrod, 2011, p. 334).

Pedagogical Approach 3: Using Primary Discourse

I use students’ primary Discourse as a vehicle to mediate their learning of a secondary Discourse. A person’s primary Discourse is acquired as a result of family socialization (Gee, 2012) and for many students, their primary Discourse includes oral literacy in non-standard colloquial speech.

Students’ oral literacy, however informal and deemed unacceptable, is the carrier for their personal perspectives that needs to addressed before teachers can move on less familiar literacies of reading and writing (Kern & Schultz, 2005, p. 384). By narrowly defining academic literacy as a “strict adherence to standard forms and conventions” (p. 389), students who do not meet the standards are viewed as deficient. However, by expanding the notion of literacy through linking students’ primary Discourse to the secondary Discourse of academic skills, I explore and validate how students communicate with the resources that they have, thus empowering all students, especially the low achievers. For example, encouraging students to use informal language to talk or write about their reactions to a reading passage is a way to address their unique or even culturally-specific ways of thinking. By validating their worldview, I motivate them to connect with the academic ways of thinking that I seek to teach (Delpit, 2002, p. 45).


Ultimately, using the three pedagogical approaches of cooperative learning, modeling and using students’ primary Discourse help to combat the coercive power relations that exist between teachers and students. I must first be conscious of such power relations, then explore more collaborative relations of power of interacting with students so as to negotiate the “acquisition of knowledge and formation of identity” (Cummins, 2003, p. 19). In other words, I must be conscious of affirming my students’ sense of identity by allowing them to be confident participants during lessons, as well as in all other interactions with me (p. 19). As Delpit (2002) so eloquently concludes, we must “reconnect them to their own brilliance and gain their trust so that they will learn from us” (p. 48).


This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL program at USC in March 2012.


Brinton, D. M. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English language teaching (pp. 199-224). New York: McGraw Hill.

Cummins, J. (2005). Teaching the language of academic success: A framework for school-based language policies. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (3rd ed., pp. 3-32). Sacramento, CA: LBD Publishers.

Delpit, L. (2002). No kinda sense. In L. Delpit, (Ed.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 34-48). NY: The New York Press.

Gee, J. (2012). Discourses and literacies. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.) (pp. 147-178). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kagan, S. (1998). New cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and inclusion. In J. W. Putnam and R. W. Slavin (Eds.), Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom (pp. 105-136). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Kern, R. & Schultz, J. M. (2005). Beyond orality: investigating literacy and the literary in second and foreign language instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), pp. 381-392.

Ormrod, J.E. (2011). Educational psychology: Developing learners (7th ed.). Boston, MA:  Pearson.

Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. L., & Mraz, M. (2011). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.


Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).


Generation iY – the best is yet to be

Generation iY - the best is yet to be

I had the privilege of being in the audience of Dr Tim Elmore’s presentation on Generation iY when he visited my school yesterday. Tim’s work (with Growing Leaders) is about  instilling values in youth who will be leaders of future generations.

I was informed, moved and challenged to view the Generation iY with different lenses and help them develop values to be leaders, not in the sense of being heads of organizations, but having a leadership perspective, i.e. being personally accountable and having a significant influence on others.

According to Tim, Generation iY are those born in the 90s, a group he categorizes as confident, social, tech savvy, family oriented and influential. With a life paradigm ,”life is a cafeteria”, their life is a buffet and the sum of their life is picking and choosing what they like. This generation is markedly different from my generation (Gen X) and even the earlier Gen Yers who were born in the 80s.

While this group sounds like they have everything going for them, Tim also pointed out that Generation iY are generally self-absorbed, display low empathy and ambiguous about the future at best. Of the seven reasons that Tim listed for this unique Gen iY personality, I strongly identified with two of them: parenting style and media & technology.

Media & Technology – Made for Them

My students are Gen iY and as a whole, their life seems to be always in the here and now. They are particularly emotional (or emo as they call it), taking admonishments badly and making the trivial the highlight of their day. You could call it adolescence, you could call it one generation lamenting about the next, but as Tim pointed out, the Gen iY is the first generation that doesn’t need to ask adults to get information. In fact, with the Internet so firmly entrenched in our daily lives, it has become a part of their living environment, especially since they were born into a world that already had it.

These kids are “always on”, wired up, and they learn lessons from what they consider the wonderful world of the internet. A student of mine said that she learns about life through Tumblr, though inspirational quotations blogged by people she doesn’t know. These catchy observations of life seem to shape her emotional response, never mind that those emotions will surface at some other point in time. By then, there will be another blog post or twitter update to fix that problem. Please tell me I’m not the only one disturbed that the values and attitudes of this Gen iY (or whatever name you want to give them) are guided and molded by anonymous strangers, distant acquaintances and friends whom have been influenced by the anonymous themselves!

Parents, where are you?

I think parents have a part to play in this unreal world of character building. Or to be precise, the absent parent is at least partly responsible for this state of affairs. At least in Singapore, the idea of a stay-home parent or grandparent is becoming rarer and so the kid has no human being, let alone a parent, to connect with at home. Or maybe parents are too tired after a day’s or work to connect with their child who may not be in the mood for connecting with his parents. I personally know of friends with teenage kids who struggle with not being there for their kids, or when they are, their kids aren’t. In fact, I think I’m connecting more with my friends’ teenage kids on Facebook then they are with their own kids at home! But let’s make it clear, I’m not their mum and I can’t parent them. (Anyway, I have my own post Gen iYers to parent!)

Be Intentional & Purposeful

I don’t think we can  confiscate media & technology and ground kids on a permanent basis. You’ll be screaming for your iPhone if it happened to you. So whether you’re a parent or a teacher, we need to focus on the what we can deal with – the young lives of Gen iY – and do so  intentionally and purposefully.

It’s not a 3 minute answer and it’s not something you can buy online. It’s about making use of the teachable moments, modeling positive behaviors and responses and making every effort to have a real (not cyber) dialogue with them. I like what Tim said about being responsive and demanding. We need to be sensitive to their needs but we also need to exercise our judgment and have high expectations of them so that they can grow into  “the best versions  of themselves.”

It’s a challenge I’m taking up. Shall we do this together?


Navigating a new world of e-learning

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Learning points from eLearning Forum Asia 2011

I just finished a 2-day conference (8 – 9 June 2011), the eLearning Forum Asia 2011, held at the National Technological University (Singapore). While there was a variety of topics, my main interests were on e-learning and using social media for teaching. For e-learning, my takeaway was that we need to focus on the design of the e-learning activities. For social media, my takeaway was that we need to engage the students where they were. Ultimately, it was about the learners – what they were like, what they were doing, and how we could cater to their needs.

The following paragraphs, if they can be called that at all, are lists of ideas, jotting them down before this conference becomes a vague memory. I don’t want to end up with post-conference inertia and I hope this post reminds me of what I need to do.


My actual experience with e-learning has been largely i) me uploading stuff and students downloading stuff and ii) students posting superficially on forum threads.

What I would like my experience to be:

i) Students and I do stuff together on something;

ii) Students care about this stuff we do together;

iii) I actually have fun getting all this done!

What I could do in the immediate future:

i) Use Google Docs for group writing for collaboration;

ii) Set specific instructions for students so they don’t get lost in the activities;

iii) Model the actions and behaviors I expect from them.

Social Media

I have recently started to connect with my students via Facebook but not for specific teaching or learning purposes. I use it to make announcements for some of my subjects, encourage students, send reminders and wish them Happy Birthday!

I’m not entirely sure how I could use it for teaching although the Facebook Group Page comes to mind. I’ve just finished a Social Media workshop by the folks from UWM and it was awesome! Some things I’ve learnt:

i) Social Media is here – don’t fight it, join it, manage it!

ii) Twitter is powerful! I’m now officially on Twitter (@orangecanton)

iii) Facebook Fanpages are a great resource for putting up information for courses.

iv) Some challenges include privacy and convincing people who don’t care much for social media but control the approvals and money for using it in education!

v) Students will appreciate it that you are reaching out to them through the very means they live 24/7!