Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 13, 2010

Test Less Learn (Teach) More: A New TLLM?

The Teacher and High-Stakes Test situation in a Canadian province

In an informative and interesting British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF Canada) video presentation, members of the teaching force commented on how high-stakes testing has become a deterrent in students’ learning.[1] Some of the key issues raised in the video were the following:

“Teachers are being forced to teach to the test” – Due to the increasing prevalence and dependence on high-stakes test in the Canadian province, teachers felt less empowered.

“Trust teachers’ ability to pick and choose what works for them in their classroom and their particular students” – Some members of the BCTF felt that there was a need for key stakeholders in education to put more “trust” on the “teachers’ ability” to teach.

“Science should be exciting” – BCTF teachers reiterated that due to the emphasis on high-stakes testing, some felt that teaching subjects – science for example – has become less exciting. Teachers are limited by the demands of satisfying the high-stakes test and no longer have the opportunity to prepare creative and stimulating subjects for their students.

These candid and honest comments from teacher colleagues in a North American setting could be starting points for reflection for the Singaporean teacher:

1.      Do our Singapore teachers feel that they are “forced to teach to the test”?

2.      Do our Singapore teachers feel empowered and trusted by other key education stakeholders?

3.      Do our Singapore teachers have the “space” to make the teaching of their subjects come alive and make these exciting?

The Teacher and High Stakes Test situation in Singapore

High-stakes tests and the issues of authentic learning, teachers’ reactions and impact to students continue to be a hotly-debated topic in Singapore.[2] However, with the inroads that have been accomplished by the bold vision encapsulated in the Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) policy, assessments or “testing” seem to be undergoing encouraging modifications:

Evaluation of the TLLM effort has shown that teachers are now more able to customise the curriculum, apply a variety of pedagogies, and use more varied modes of assessment. By the end of this year, a total of 266 (74%) schools would have leveraged on resources and expertise offered by MOE to embark on their school-based curriculum innovations.[3]

Additionally, the latest report from McKinsey and Company has stated that Singapore’s education system is one of the most successful in the world. One of the reasons for this achievement is that Singapore manages to “attract and retain” the “top-third graduates to careers in teaching.”[4] This glowing affirmation about the high quality of Singapore’s teaching force should be suitable starting points for deep reflection:

1.      Given that Singapore’s teaching force is top quality (one of the best in the world), shouldn’t stakeholders allow teachers more empowerment and afford them greater trust in teaching, in other words giving them space to teach what they think would be best for their students?

2.      Would it be possible for teacher empowerment to exist alongside a culture of high-stakes testing?

3.      Since Singapore teachers are known worldwide as belonging to the “top third graduates” – shouldn’t we encourage them to manifest their talents and creativity?

4.      Would it be possible for Singapore teaching that strives for authentic learning to be “de-coupled” from perceived limitations brought about by high-stakes tests?

Confident that our teaching force is highly-competent, why don’t we encourage our teachers to “Test Less and Learn (“Teach) More”?


[1] BCTFvids (Oct, 2009) One test does not fit all [Electronic version] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSIgmSKH8vc

[2] Gregory, K., & Clarke, M. (2003). High-Stakes Assessment in England and Singapore. Theory into Practice, 42(1), 66-74.

[3] Lateef, F. (2010). Teach Less Learn More: Response by Dr. Fatimah Lateef, MP for Marine Parade GRC. Singapore: Ministry of Education. [Electronic version] http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/parliamentary-replies/2010/04/teach-less-learn-more.php

[4] Auguste, B., Kihn, P., & Miller, M. (2010). Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching, An international and market research-based perspective (pp. 48). Sydney: McKinsey & Company., p. 5

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Responses

  1. As educators, we are mentioned from the very beginning that children are highly creative , imaginative individuals. But slowly, but surely, they are growing out of these creativeness due to the highly-structured education system we have here, the famous paper chase. No qualifications- do not expect any highly paid salaries or to work in a comfortable air-conditioned office. We are guilty of driving this message to them. A child suffering from dyslexia – will have difficulty passing /her exams. Teachers are always on the lookout for non-performance academically. But really, have we ever paused to think and see if the child is exceptionally brilliant in other aspects? Why can’t we hone them? The fact is – we cant. Not in our education system. I myself find myself to be very artistically inclined but over the years , I grew out of it and became very practical. High paying jobs pays the bills.
    Teachers are trying very hard to do lots with their children. Being creative will be the last on the list. I also feel that as they grow, they tend to have the fear of making mistakes – due to their creativity-thinking out of the box-not the norm and unfortunately, teachers stigmatizes mistakes.
    It is difficult to allow a class to immerse in creativity all the time – we need to finish the syllabus, prepare them for exams! But surely, we should try to slot in lessons that allow them to express their creativity and not to totally undermine them.

  2. I agree that teachers should be given the liberty to teach the students to their fullest potential. That being said, if we allow the teachers to teach whatever they want, students of different classes might be learning different things. How then are we going to grade/assess the students if there are no similarity in the topics/subjects taught?
    I feel that it is important to have a guide/curriculum for the teachers to follow. Teachers should then make use of their skills and knowledge and engage the students in learning. The methods of teaching should vary and based on the society we live in today, teachers should tap on the different methods to allow the students to have the room to explore and make observations.

  3. Being forced to teach to the test does have its pros and cons. However, how much does creativity matter in our education system? Teachers these days are too inclined to be creative in their lesson plans – so much so that we lose the essence of teaching itself. I personally don’t see the need to push my 5 year old son to learn to be creative – YET. During my time we were never taught to be creative, but did we learn less? I doubt so. And i dont believe i am any less creative than the children of today. From what I see, it is them who can’t complete a simple assignment without relying on Microsoft Word document for spell checks. I know of a Sec 1 student, Ben, whose school gives their teachers the authority to customize the curriculum. Ben tells me that he loves his Home Economics lessons as they are so “fun and exciting; and the teacher allows me to be creative.” However, looking through his workbook and test papers (which, of course, were designed by the teachers as well), i realised they were lacking in substance, while some information were incorrect (and irrelevant), and when asked, he admitted that he does not really understand the theory much. Is this what our teachers are doing to our kids? Teaching them creativity at the expense of their knowledge? It’s time we truly reflect on their NEEDS instead of focusing on what WE want. Test Less – may not necessarily result in Learn More.

    • A lot of it depends on what you mean by creativity. If we are to enable our teachers to be creative, we need first as a society to give them time to come out of a system which has, by and large, required them to put creativity and the teaching of it on the back-burner. Like it or not, the assessment system we have in Singapore has a significant impact on the way teachers teach. Some of the comments here suggest that ‘creative’ interpretations are rather below par because there seems little structure and substance. I agree that there is room for improvement, but that the improvement can only happen if teachers are given the space to experiment, fail, re-work and re-do. Let’s remember that as an educational initiative, TLLM came into a long-standing system where results decided one’s social and economic standing. To move the country and its education away from the old mindset to one that suggests it is possible to do less and gain more is an uphill task. For a reform to be deep-rooted and count for something, time is an essential element. We’ve seen changes come and go – this one has stayed for a good while, morphing along the way, and I for one would like to keep it going.

      I daresay we have many teachers who have yet to venture down the path of creative teaching because they went through a system without much emphasis if any, in this area. Without sufficient models, it would be difficult for them to manage creative interpretations on their own. So I urge that we give them the room to try, to question, to experiment. I might even go so far as to say they need not necessarily succeed, but if they can model this for our children, then there is hope that as we move ahead, the next generation will get better at it, and do something that will make a difference for the one after.

  4. This article puts in black and white what educators in Singapore feels inside.
    It is very difficult for an educator in Singapore to make learning fun and exciting for their students due to the constraints of the syllabus as well as the need for students to perform well in their examinations.
    Educators are constantly rushed for time that they teach students to be exam smart because eventually, exam results are what matters at the end of the year.
    Shouldn’t empowerment be given to teachers to plan their lessons to suit the vast needs of their students? Should educators be penalized when they cannot finish their syllabuses in time? And shouldn’t differentiated learning be emphasized when educator plan their lesson?
    I personally feel that educators also lose their enthusiasm as the years go by as they are too preoccupied with finishing the syllabus or the numerous worksheets that have been assigned by their department heads.
    As I seek to enter the education industry, I can only hope that my enthusiasm to make learning fun for my students will not fade and that I can continuously bring meaning to my students’ learning.

  5. This post managed to portray my feelings toward TLLM. Indeed, even though “white space” has been given to the teachers to incorporate the idea of teaching beyond text, it seems impossible for them to be given the entire say to teach what they deem as “best for their students”. Many changes have been made to Singapore’s education system to instill in the students passion and hunger for learning, and that students are not supposed to be learning for the sake of learning. However, at the end of the day, it is not the teachers, but MOE who will be deciding the learning outcomes of the syllabus. With this requirement to be fulfilled, it makes it difficult and almost impossible for teachers to be given the full empowerment to teach what they think is important albeit being granted the “white space”. At the end of the day, academic criterion is what will be reflected on students’ certificate – therefore, it is important for teachers to ensure that students do well academically. But having said that, I still hold on to my belief that school should be a loving and friendly environment to nurture and develop the students holistically.

    Indeed, we ought to encourage Singapore teachers to manifest their individual talents and creativity. Teachers might not have the empowerment in deciding what to teach, but they can decide how they want to go about teaching the students. The many different teaching approaches and strategies which teachers employ nowadays are what make learning different as compared to the traditional method of teacher-directed activities.

    Teo Si Ni (TG04)

  6. From my teaching experience I feel that teacher are given to a certain extent freedom in designing their lesson. Not all schools are the same and each school as it’s own goals and aim. Thus the teachers have to adapt their lessons accordingly. But at the end of the day from the school , parents to students feel a compulsive need to perform well in test thus the focus shifts the children’s learning to the children’s test results.

    Due to this issue the teacher cannot be teaching according to the children’s learning experiences, but according to what they expect the teacher to teacher, to teach the test.

    With cooperation and understanding between the school, teachers ,parents and students I believe lessons can be planned to focus on the children’s learning. With support from the school, parents and students the teacher can have the space to apply the different pedagogies they have learn accordingly to enhance the students learning.

  7. I feel that being forced to teach to the test is something that we educators cannot avoid. In this reality world of ours, we are always being constantly assessed from the performance that our students produced at the end of the day. Therefore to weigh between finishing the syllabus and allowing students to learn through creative lessons, which should be the priority?

    The fact is creative lesson often requires a longer time to conduct and yet time is always not on our side. Take the subject science as an example, many times students should be given hands on experiment to allow for self-exploration to being able to understand what really happens and thus allows them to grasp the concept. Yet, because of time constraints, teachers are always the one doing the experiment and allowing students to see how things happen. In this way, a two period’s lesson will allow the teacher to show and teach 2-3 experiment and concept instead of allowing students to experiment on their own and yet at the end only one concept is taught. I have to constantly remind myself that I have to finish a certain syllabus on a particular timeframe; slowly it made me realized that bringing in creative learning becomes very unrealistic and inefficient. Yet, I have the struggle that I will like to let my students to learn with fun. So once in awhile I will still try to squeeze in creative lesson but the priority still lies in finishing the syllabus which I hate to face but I have to.

  8. From my point of view of being a student teacher, I feel that teachers are not deprived of being creative in their lessons. Teachers are still able to deliver what the Singapore Education requires with creativity. They can certainly work around it.

    I think the teachers should just teach what is expected but with added effort to make the lessons meaningful and engaging. By the end of the day, the high stakes tests are the real deal in determining where and what career the students land into. Living in Singapore today, it is enevitable to not get a proper job without certain levels of qualification.
    Being employed by the government, I think we should just abide to their requirements.

  9. Singapore being a competitive and knowledge-driven economy, aims to prepare a future generation of thinking citizens who are well-equipped with the necessary knowledgs and skills.

    As such, there is a pressing need for all students to excel academically, so as to achieve high educational qualifications and to secure themselves with prominent careers, in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

    Due to this, academic excellence remains as one of the key priorities of many schools in Singapore and as a result, I believe Singapore teachers feel that they are forced to teach to the test.

    However, as a student-teacher, I feel that although there is a need for teachers to cover the syllabus and prepare students for tests within a tight time schedule, teachers could implement and conduct lessons that makes learning more enagaing and meaningful for the students. For instance, teachers could conduct lessons to teach topics in the syllabus by providing the students with opportunities to learn through hands-on activities and collaborative work. In this way, teachers allow students to develop creativity and critical thinking skills along the learning process.

    In conclusion, although it is evident that teachers are forced to teach to the test, they are given the right and opportunity to explore different ways of teaching and crafting lessons in a creative and engaging manner for the students. As such, I believe that a competent teacher is one who is able to organise lesson acitivites to equip students with the necessary knowledge in addition to the development of creativity while preparing them for the tests. In this way, it’s like killing 2 birds with one stone.

  10. It would be good if teachers are given the space to decide on what they want to teach and how they want to teach the content of the subject. However, it is also good to follow along the lines of the provided syllabus as not all teachers have the competency to decide on the curriculum and how else the students can learn better. And it is only possible for teacher empowerment to happen when the importance of tests and examinations are reduced. But I believe high-stakes testing will remain in the Singapore educational landscape as the driving motivation for our students’ learning. It has become the learning culture in Singapore.

    There should be a balance in everything. Before the students manifest their talents and creativity, they should first get their fundamentals right. Assessment modes should change as well, as since creativity is being brought into teaching and learning, the examinations should be tested along that line. If not, students will only memorize their work and reiterate them during tests and examinations.

    I like the idea of “Test Less and Learn (Teach) More” as compared to “Teach Less Learn More”. However, for “Test Less and Learn (Teach) More” to happen, the learning environment in schools must be less results-oriented. I do not think there is any way authentic learning can happen if high stakes tests continues to be the greatest importance in Singapore education.

  11. yes, i agree to a certain extent that empowerment should be given to our educational officers, when the stakes of education is at an high expectation level, the ways in which lesson are catered to students can get affected in many aspects.

    As key stakeholders in education system, parents tend to be really concern on what their child is recieving at the end of the classroom. Due to this aspect at times teacher maybe subjected to minimality of their deliverence.

    Whereas, when a teacher is given much of the liberty of empowerment the overall scheme of work and the rest of the aspects may get affected. Different individuals have various approach of setting out things.

    Yes there is both pros and cons to this issue, this maybe subjective when it comes to releasing their talent and their creativity as educators. to what extent do the parents or the government allow this emergance of creativity and talent among out teacher?

  12. I kind of like the idea of “Test Less and Learn (“Teach) More” and for that to take place, the school culture itself must not be too result oriented. As teachers, we should not measure a student’s success through the results that he/she produce from the examinations. I believe that a child must be left to explore his/her own strengths and we as teachers, guide them and help them to stretch their potential.

    As a student-teacher, I do understand that we have syllabus to cover in a specific time given and also prepare students for the tests and exams. But what we can do is to design lessons which are engaging and meaningful. This is to help create a more relaxed environment for the kids to learn. Teachers can make use of the multiple intelligence to design their lesson activities.

  13. The idea of “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM) is an ideal state that all teachers want to strive towards. Many of us enter the profession because of our love for the subjects we teach and because of the fact that we want to have an impact on the lives of children.

    When I entered teaching, I envisioned myself bringing students on Geography fieldtrip and opening their eyes to the wonders of Geography that is all around us. When students are able to see for themselves what they learn in textbooks, they will be more engaged and this leads to better understanding, and so they say.

    But in real life, with a high stake exam at the end of 4 or 5 years, many teachers spend their time chasing the syllabus, because at the end of the day it is the results that matter. This may sound sad but the reality is that what gets measured gets done and since exam results is such an important measurement, it is no surprise that teachers teach to the test.

    In the attempt to TLLM, teachers look for creative ways of teaching to stimulate the students interest and alternative assessment so as to give the students authentic learning. However, all these are thrown out of the window in the months nearing the exams and teachers go back to the trial and tested method of drilling for the exams. If TLLM is so effective, why stop TLLM efforts when the exams are nearing?

  14. I think in a way, the move towards Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) has allowed teachers more employment. Schools have embarked on school-based innovations that allow teachers to modify (modify is the key word here as the exam syllabus is still the focal point of all school-based innovations) and design the curriculum based on the learning needs of their students. Teachers are given the freedom to decide which parts of the curriculum they want to innovate. Most of the time, they are given free play on the approach and programmes they want to roll out. Support is given in the form of time off for a research assistant who will be trained in various aspect of curriculum design and evaluation.

    My department has taken this opportunity to try out the inquiry approach and fieldwork in the teaching of Geography. In this project, we felt empowered as we were given the autonomy to design the curriculum to teach the students using the inquiry approach. So yes, I would say that this is a step towards taecher empowerment.

  15. One of the issues that I noticed or experienced from different schools O have visited or came in contact with when TLLM was implemented was that the interpretation(or lack of) of the policy was inconsistent both across schools and maybe even within school. In the early years of the implementation, teachers and some heads misinterpreted that TLLM meant the reduction of content or workload of teachers and coupled with more support for administration. So TLLM simply is less work for teacher so than can focus more the time spent on the learning of the kids.

    However this apparently was not the case when more initiatives(with regards to TSLN and TLLM) were implemented. Teachers beliefs on TLLM became more skeptical on the motives behind TLLM.
    It is not until a few years back that the real intention of TLLM was cascaded down to the teachers.

    Lesson learn form this, communication is crucial when implementing key initiatives so that intentions and directions are clearly defined.

  16. There appears to be a widespread assumption that high-stakes tests necessarily “force” (perhaps a better word is “incentivise”) teachers to teach to the test and that teachers would feel less empowered and trusted and have less space to teach creatively as a result. This assumption surely doesn’t hold water.

    I think we can agree that high-stakes tests are here to stay, as they serve useful purposes other than assessing student learning, e.g. the allocation of scarce educational resources. A lot depends on the form of these high-stake tests. If these tests are more “creative” in themselves and take non-pen-and-paper forms, then even if teachers teach to the test, they can do so in a more engaging and authentic manner. And if the tests contain an element of unpredictability, both in terms of format and content, then teachers would not be able to teach to the test even if they want to! Of course I don’t mean that there should be completely anarchy – there should still be a prescribed syllabus and some element of predictability in the paper format which should allow students to obtain a decent grade by being conscientious. But students should be given space to demonstrate some “extra” in order to achieve the very highest grades.

    And I don’t think teachers should take high-stakes testing personally and feel that they are not empowered or trusted. The tests are not about whether teachers are able to teach; they are about what students have learnt! We are all too painfully aware that no matter how capable teachers are, it is humanly impossible to reach out to all students; teachers are powerful and exert a lot of influence, but not that much. Also, the performance of students depends on many factors other than teacher input. So we should recognise that high-stakes tests cannot possibly tease out the contribution of the teacher and see them in a less antagonistic light.

  17. The notion of “teaching to tests” was presumably a common practice in many schools in the past. With TLLM, schools are forced to shift their gear from “teaching to tests” to “teaching for understanding”. Thus TLLM has a good intent for a start. On the surface, the initiative of TLLM may seem to call for a change or innovation in pedagogies. When probe deeper, it is actually about a change of the mindsets and attitude of our teachers, and students too. The true spirit of embracing learning for the passion of learning as the purpose rather than for a secure future.

    In my opinion, there are many cofounding factors affecting the successful implementation of this policy. Firstly, how much are our teachers prepared to teach for understanding when they are so used to the success of teaching to tests. Are the teachers willing to persevere through their innovative pedagogies, especially when it does not translate to tangible results? How resilience are our teachers to continue with the search for pedagogies that suit our students’ profile? Will the flame die down when TLLM hype dies down? To search for innovative pedagogies is never an easy task, it requires silkfulness in teaching, pedagogical knowledge and understanding of how students learn. In view of this, I suppose it is helpful to recruit top third graduates as teachers for a start. However, a teacher needs many years of practices and training in order to be skilful in his/her profession. Thus, the effect of TLLM may require a long period of time to be evaluated with accuracy. It is possible that the recent MOE’s TEACH Framework is meant to address the sustainability of TLLM.

    Secondly, TLLM will never thrive if school leadership continues to link teacher’s performance to tangible students’ results such as high stake examination results. This could be made worse if the school leadership does not trust and believe that teachers are creative being rather than just doer. Teacher empowerment is still an issue of struggle by many of school leadership. How much of freedom and trust to be given to teachers? Even if the school leaders are willing to empower the teachers, how much of responsibility and accountibility are our teachers willing to bear. In the teachers’ perspective, it may be a big risk. I think that PLC as a platform for collaboration among teachers may possibly provide an avenue for empowerment and accountability as a group rather than as an individual.

    Thirdly, we cannot ignore the views of the stakeholders such as the school advisory and parents on TLLM. It is important to educate the stakholders of the intent of TLLM and enabling them to understand how TLLM will prepare the youngs for the 21st century.

    In true, TLLM does not bring about less work for the teachers and school leaders, it brings about more thinking and questioning about what we are doing, why we are doing and how we can do it better. Thus it is more work but a meaningful one.

  18. Do our Singapore teachers have the “space” to make the teaching of their subjects come alive and make these exciting?

    Why not? To me, the classroom is every teacher’s stage. The teacher determines what he/ she teaches in class, the way it is taught and the atmosphere and culture in class. It is the teacher’s job to make the subjects he/ she teach alive. Policies provide structures and a skeleton for us to follow in class. It is our job to translate these into bite size learning for our pupils in class.

    Why even the question of whether we have “space”? Space is created by the individual teacher. Underlying this must be a strong belief that as teachers, we have the responsibility to make our subjects come alive and to make them exciting and digestible. As teachers, I think we should stop blaming all other factors for the lack of “space”. Are we doing something in our own classrooms to move towards our ideal state of education?

  19. coming from a special education background..perhaps i’ve to manage less of “high-stakes testing” but i still like to emphasise to “Trust teachers’ ability to pick and choose what works for them in their classroom and their particular students”

    because we are working with students with special needs, all the more we have to grant teachers opportunities to “prepare creative and stimulating subjects for their students.”

    i sense that mainstream teachers are somewhat restricted in their methods, manner and ways of teaching because they have a responsibility of accounting towards “high-stakes testing”. because of this, there is already a mental limitation
    of their empowerment caused by their educational environment, atmosphere and key stakeholders.

    Singapore teachers ought to and should be greatly encourage to “have the “space” to make the teaching of their subjects come alive and make these exciting”. we don’t try, we’ll never discover what goodness may be the outcome for both students and teachers. They could’ve have more enriching experiences and learning thereafter, whether in their professional development or other aspects.

    let’s weigh “high-stakes tests” and “authentic learning” on a scale. What’s the balance or is it obviously slanting lob-sided. so who are the real beneficiaries of
    “high-stakes tests”, teachers or students? or are we risking the impact of students-centred learning.

    since ‘TLLM’ coming into the picture, perhaps it has only started to open slightly more opportunities for flexibility for teachers towards customising curriculum, pedagogies, assessment and school-based curriculum innovations.

    see the bigger picture, we hope teachers have more empowerment that exist with a culture of high-stakes testing and a greater trust from stakeholders, to be able to teach what in their opinion, is best for their students through their own-earned talents and creativity, so that their teaching can strive for authentic learning and not limited by high-stakes tests. believe that our teachers have the quality to do so – then we can truly achieve “Test Less and Learn (“Teach) More.

  20. I believe the notion of ‘teachers being forced to teach to the test’ stems from several factors. Firstly, the performance of a student on such high stakes tests determines his/her progress in venturing differential educational pathways. Secondly, teachers have a strong sense of responsibility in preparing their students well. This is undoubtedly linked to the fact that our education system places emphases on academic qualifications. Thirdly, in assessing teachers, therein lies a component on how much they value add to their students’ academic journey.

    In view of the factors listed above, teaching to the test seems almost inevitable. I see that there is nothing inherently bad or wrong in doing so. Gain in knowledge of the content for or through a test is valuable. The negativity sets in when over-preparation for the test deters student learning. In the case of over-preparation, material or information repeatedly drummed into a student may only bring about marginal increase in knowledge. The pool of knowledge may even remain status quo and there is minimal stimulation should teachers over-teach and students over-prepare.

    The other issue should be the drawing of a distinction between the content and the mode through which lessons are carried out. The same content can be taught through different approaches. Thus, high stakes testing may largely dictate the what in the lesson, but teachers have the autonomy to decide on the how. Teaching to the test does not mean that they should be subjected to boring lessons. The content covered can be done so in exciting, efficient and effective ways. So are high stakes tests invisible chains confining the teacher to conducting less exciting lessons? It is the teacher in the class who decides if that has been the case.

  21. In my opinion, teachers’ beliefs towards teaching and learning are shaped by the value society places on performance at high-stakes examinations and teachers’ personal experiences as students. Invariably, the level of success of an individual is always associated to his/her performance at high-stakes examinations where even till today, it provides a convenient means to assess the aptitude of our students. This is manifested in many ways such as in the promotion of students from one level to the next; in the selection and posting of students to secondary schools/colleges/universities; in the award of scholarships for students to pursue higher study and at job interviews and selection in companies.

    With education being seen as a means for upward social mobility, schools and teachers are accountable to their customers and key stakeholders to teach in a way that will prepare their students for success in such high-stakes examinations. The struggle to meet rising expectations of key stakeholders may pressurize schools and teachers to teach to the test, neglecting other important aspects of education in the broad sense. Many people often comment that our focus on high-stakes testing has produced a society of passive learners who are less willing to challenge norms and more adverse to risk-taking.

    With the turn in the century and the challenges of a globalised world, there is increasing recognition for the need to develop pertinent skills and values sets that will see students through their life, rather than narrowly focusing on high-stakes testing alone. Recent educational policies, in particular TLLM provide a basis for teachers to reflect and relook at the way we teach, both individually and collaboratively with our peers. Personally, I feel that our stakeholders do provide the space for teachers to teach creatively and make their subjects come alive. It is how teachers and school leaders interpret and negotiate this space to balance a culture of high-takes testing with holistic education and assessment.

  22. My two cents worth of observation of Teach Less and Learn More

    I agree with Peggy and many others that Education in Singapore has become loaded with meaning for the different stakeholders.

    1. At a national level, development of human capital is top priorty, because the current trend of thinking(which I may be wrong) on a global perspective for the growth and development of a nation is not about survival, it is a about being about to compete with the first world nations. To just survive for a nation would equate to the status of Africa. What then must be done to compete on such a basis?

    2. At a ministy level, if you examine the DOEs of education and the DOEs of other education system, it is somewhat similiar, but the key difference is this. MOE through it stakeholders has largely delivered on these outcomes. The key question is what must be done to ensure that education remains relevant, meaning meeting the needs of the work place, family, society and nation. I think if we take this perspective, we can understand a little the rationale of current MOE initiatives.

    3. At the school level, the school has to deliver the DOEs according to the context in which it is operating in. I think we have to think through carefully as HoDs what programmes should remain, what should be thrown out, what should be modified etc. The tendency here for most people when examining the workload of staff is to say:’MOE wants us to do it one, not my fault, I have to report these figures at the end of the year.’ I think it takes moral courage to think through carefully how we should audit and then streamline our programmes. This approach then can help teachers find space and time for professional development and achieve work life balance.

    4. All in all, moral courage is a concept that is easier said then done. However, I would like to point out that as Heads if we do not audit and streamline our programmes, the workload will just be impossible after a period of time and it will be a downward spiral for school culture and teacher morale etc. It is just not plausible to keep on loading on programmes without rethinking what is important and foundational to keep and what are the programmes that have become redundant due to changing needs of students.

    Just my two cents worth

  23. 1. “Forced to teach the test”

    This is true to a certain extent as especially for the P6 teachers. When I was asked to teach P6, my utmost concern was how students can score high marks so that they could move on to good secondary schools. Likewise, I believe that parents and the school management expect that we teach to the test.

    However, at other levels, teachers are not evaluated solely based on the class exam achievements. The performance evaluation is done is such a way that achievements beyond the exams are recognised and well appreciated by the parents and the management. For example, when I taught a P5 class at Maris Stella High, I encouraged my students to participate in numerous, Science, Math and IT competitions and exhibitions. We spent a lot of time training and preparing for these competitions, which could be spent instead to teach to the test. I believe that the skills and knowledge that my students acquired in these competitions would eventually translate into higher achievements in exams. More importantly, they acquired important life skills such as communication, leadership and interpersonal skills that cannot be acquired by solely preparing for the exams.

    In schools, there are many programmes that are not examinable but equally emphasised in its importance such as PE, NE, Music, Arts and IT. The School Excellence Model (SEM), a tool used by schools for self-evaluation does not look at schools’ achievements only in exam results but a holistic and comprehensive assessment based on the SEM framework. The Masterplan of Awards initiative by MOE also recognized schools achievements in various areas such as in Health, NE, etc. With the SEM, schools are compelled to promote various programmes that look into the various spectrum of education, not just the exam results.

    2. Empowerment for teachers within the culture of high stake exams

    I believe that MOE teachers are given sufficient powers and support to be creative in delivering their lessons as long as the syllabus are covered. MOE has introduced many initiatives over the years to ‘encourage’ teachers to infuse them in their lessons. E.g. IT, I&E, NE, project work, multiple intelligence etc. In fact, you would really need a very creative and competent teacher to be able to infuse all these initiative and yet be able to meet the lesson objectives.

  24. Empowering teachers will indeed create variability in teaching techniques. Are we ready for this? From a parents perspective how will I then gauge the school? What if one teacher’s variability is more effective or interesting than the others? Where will the baseline be? This will pose to be a real challenge for the school’s leadership. A subject like science can be made so interesting and it can pop creativity, critical thinking and the ability to ask WHY in children. However this doesn’t seem to assist as there is no practical examination at the PSLE level and most stakeholders will view this as a waste of time. The key to this is perhaps not the empowerment of teachers. It will need an external reform to ensure that empowerment which is a product of decentralization works. Distributing power may mean that individuality sets in and this in turn may mean that mass economies are not possible. Schools may be forced into sourcing private funds to fuel authentic learning pedagogy that is not supported by the ministry at a particular point.
    Empowerment is a sure means of horning the skills of our already very good teachers as it provides them with experiential learning as well, however it could also prove to be a barrier in the collective movement of the National Education Curriculum.

  25. It is difficult to make a comprehensive comment on this subject as the assessment system is highly inter-twined with other component systems of the education system such as placement of pupils, economic outcomes, subject-based banding with ability-driven education policies and evaluation of teachers performance.

    From the responses I read, there is general agreement that teachers in Singapore can teach creatively if given the space and time. Teachers in Singapore are required to produce the critical exam results and yet are tasked at the same time to keep the students engaged.

    To achieve these KPIs, teachers are ‘empowered’ to work around the system. Teachers use their individual initiative and resourcefulness to work around the system in various ways. Due to a lack of time or ‘chasing the syllabus’, teachers often use white spaces (such as off-curriculum afternoon supplementary classes) or utilise non-core periods such as Music, Art & Craft, Social Studies and Health Education to gear students up as exam period approaches. Often, teaching creativity and innovation is mostly (and sadly) put on the back-burner or assigned to post-exam activities or enrichment classes unless it has direct bearing on the syllabus or exam content.

    Assessment plays a major role in the evaluation of teachers as it is tied to students’ exam performance (although under EPMS, other areas are assessed too). As students’ exam performance is clearly documented and made available for easy statistical comparison, this is weaved into the process of teacher’s work review, evaluation and ranking. In this way, structure and work flow drives employee behaviour. There are pros and cons to this system of teacher evaluation obviously but we need to recognise that it has a large bearing on teacher’s behaviour.

    In addition, we cannot deny that stakeholders in society (parents and employers) put a high-premium on test/ exam results. Hence, there is a thriving ‘shadow’ education system such as tuition centres that provides education to supplement the efforts of our formal education system.

    History plays a large part too. The British Educational system and the Chinese Imperial Exams have left their mark on the social-cultural landscape of Singapore. Essentially, assessment will still play a prominent role in our educational system.

  26. Does creativity yield results? I guess this is one question that many will ask in this result oriented society. Parents are looking for results in their children and will be concerned if teachers are given the autonomy to be creative, will their children’s results be at stake. Trust is what teachers need when it comes to innovation. We are in a society that does not allow failures. In schools we have KPIs to ensure we do not fail. Parents do not allow their children to fail and as teachers, we are still answerable for their results. Results also play a part in teachers’ ranking in school. When we talk about ceativity, we should be able to tolerate failures.

    Teachers should be given the liberty to decide how they want to teach. However, they should be still a standard curriculum as to what they have to teach. There is no way can we allow the teachers to choose what they want to teach if the high stake tests are here to stay. High stake tests are still valid as it give a good gauge of each student’s performance. As much as the teachers want to be creative in their teaching, with the high stake tests, teachers will still tend to teach for examinations.

    One problem that I see is that teachers are still teaching the way they were taught. Though times may have changed, but we are still very result oriented. TLLM is a good move to allow teachers to explore innovative ideas to better engage the students and thus increasing their interest. However, not all teachers are involved in TLLM. Even if we were to make TLM compulsory for all teachers, do they have the competencies to innovate their teaching approach? We do not want to end up with students having ‘fun’ in class and are engaged but learn nothing. I think this will end up with teach less, learn less, teach even more.

    In short, to encourage creativity, we have to have trusts in the teachers. We should also allow them to fail but there should be some back up plan. Teachers should not be penalised for being creative and for failing as ‘failures’ in such cases are not really failures as per say. They are results that give the teachers an idea of whether their creative approach works or not and give them the chance to better their ideas.

  27. I wonder if teachers are really ‘forced’ to teach to the test.

    It is very human to like the comfort zone of the predictable assessment items. After all, when we acquire these ‘expertise’, it makes our job a lot easier and less uncertain. The voices of reform may threaten one’s claim to being an expert of training students to do well in a certain paper in the O levels.

    Of course, this is not to say that the ‘fault’ lies primarily on the teacher. Expectations of stakeholders like parents and learners’ perception of these high stake tests, together with teachers’ mindset, form the tripartite fortress to any attempt to lower the stake in these tests.

    I feel the way to go in Singapore is for educators (including the policymakers and teachers), stakeholders and learners to understand the importance of the 21st C competencies and at the same time to build these skills into the tests.

    Other than incorporating the proficiency of these skills into entrance requirements of higher institutions and scholarships, schools and teachers who successfully promote the learning of these skills should be given due recognition.

  28. Yes, I think we should empower teachers more and we have done a lot to promote creativity amongst teachers. Initiatives like PLCs, Action Research and staff suggestion schemes all work towards promoting a more innovative culture amongst the teaching staff.

    It is not difficult for one to see the underlying assumption that innovative teachers will lead to innovative learning and therefore innovative students.

    However, is this assumption rock solid? Having done so much to promote creativity amongst teachers, I think we need to look at ways to directly intervene directly with our students.

    It is heartening to know that MOE is setting up a CCE unit to consolidate efforts that directly affect student outcomes. Some areas I feel are overdue are:
    1) How we promote creativity in uniform groups
    2) How we encourage students to be creative in solving problems at the school level, and so on.

  29. Many people seem to suggest that creativity is compromised if one teaches to the test. I have strong doubts about this; I think there is a misguided belief that both are incompatible. I remembered a class on Shakespearean sonnet where we began by learning the strict rules of a sonnet (the 3 key ones being: 14 stanzas, each one uses an iambic pentameter, the 14 stanzas observe a particular rhyme scheme such as a,b,a,b, c,d,c,d, e,f,e,f,g,g). We were then given an assignment to come up with our own sonnet. It was very challenging and my literature professor commented that the irony was that writing a great sonnet, with all its structural constraints, required a lot of creativity. And, he added, that ability to reproduce in a creative way, is first built on a mastery of the subject-matter. The point I would like to make is that creativity requires a good understanding and appreciation of the rules of a system or body of knowledge. Boden (1994)* argues that the study of creativity requires asking the question that involves the structure of a generative system, such as ‘Is that a sonnet?’ Generative systems are that which lays down the rules for systems of knowledge in areas of art, physics, language etc… According to him, constraints are necessary for creativity – dropping a constraint can transform a concept altogether. For example, if for the sake of creativity, I choose to write 16 stanzas instead of 14, and I drop the iambic pentameter altogether, then I am no longer writing a sonnet. Worse, if I think that by doing that, I am being creative with the Sonnet structure, then I am being anarchic) In teaching and learning creatively, especially in very technical subjects like physics, and advanced Math, our teachers face the constant tension between drilling and training in concepts, as well as fostering fluency and ability to play around with concepts and definitions. Because being creative pre-supposes mastery of the subject, I would like to argue that the extent to which a teacher can afford to “set the rules” and “be creative with the rules” differ from classroom to classroom and subject matter to subject matter– somehow, each teacher must know when and how to strike the right balance. While it is true that higher-ability students who can grasp concepts faster are therefore able to innovate more, slower learners can also be creative when thinking about a particular topic if teachers know how to design the lesson in such a way that it fosters their engagement with the subject matter. For example, I remember a lower-academic ability class winning the drama prize in my school because their literature teacher realized that they were able to express themselves very well through dance, and so, she encouraged them to use dance movements as a tool to animate a part of the play which called for greater emotive expression. A higher ability class chose to read the text using their voice as the main tool, and they did it beautifully because they read very well. So, looking back, I think it was how the teacher capitalized on different types of intelligences. Whatever it is, all the competing classes had to stick to the internal meaning of text and be faithful to the playwright’s intentions. Boden (2001)* argues that ‘Creativity is not the same thing as knowledge, but is firmly grounded in it. What educators must try to do is to nurture the knowledge without killing the creativity’ (p. 102). In preparing for the drama competition, all the students (including those who danced) had to memorize scripts, we had to read and understand the playwright’s intentions very well, and we had to put our heads together to interpret the play accordingly, so that in itself prepared us for the final examinations. This is just one example, but I am inclined to think that if teachers find ways to engage pupils with the subject matter – that is, using methods that demand a qualitative (conceptual) response and as well as motivate their students by capitalizing on the types of intelligences that their students have- , then arguably, there should not be a divorce between creative learning/teaching and learning to the test.
    Cited in Rowlands , S. (2011) Discussion Article: Disciplinary Boundaries for Creativity Creative Education 2011. 2(1), 47-55

  30. First question which needs our “honestest” honest answer: Do we know what to teach if we are given the freedom? If our answer is yes, we know what to teach – what determine what we teach and to what level do we teach what we teach?

    Second question which needs our “honestest” answer: What seriously is the purpose of education? How many of us are doing courses for the sole reason of “interest” and “passion”, and not how our academic qualifications will help us in our career in future?

    Final question – we are responding with comments on this blog, isn’t it not because our comments here are part of the grading for our course that we are doing? Would we make our indicators here if this is not part of our continual assessment? Test less? Learn more?

    Understandably, education serves many purposes, from the national agenda of economic survival to whatever is our respective private agendas, one can get confused, lost and wondering why we are doing what we are doing. However, putting aside all other “noises, some louder than other”, what is our purpose and agenda as teachers?

    TSLN, TLLM, I&E and SERI are not new policies and initiatives from MOE but timely reminders of our spirit and purposes of why we become teachers in the first place. These are also timed to reflect the necessity to refocus ourselves practices so as to prepare our pupils for the challenges in the mid future. We need to recognise that the pace of change has quickened much and the importance of knowing that our pupils are ready seems to hang in the air. We need to recognize this paradigm ourselves. It may be naïve to pinpoint the middle managers squarely for this as there are other factors influencing the practices, especially the social pressure – but we are professionals in education and as managers, we need to sustain the spirit, purpose and outcomes of education beyond grades.

    We have to take the lead and walk the talk so that our teachers are encouraged to follow us in our journey. It would be an uphill battle, but this battle could be won if each and every one of us continued to stand firm professionally; the critical mass to shift the tide will come sooner.

  31. Test Less Learn More – A Way Forward?
    According to former Education Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) is the “way for education in Singapore to go forward”. It is about “transforming learning from quantity to quality.”(Ng, PT, 2008). This initiative had intended to encourage innovative teaching methods that are tailored to the students’ needs. Consequently, in schools, teachers are increasingly reflecting on their practices; either through documenting their lesson processes and outcomes individually or via Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Correspondingly, their form of student assessment is also changing, albeit at different rates across schools and with the ever-looming presence of national exams. Teachers are beginning to explore different assessment modes that are most appropriate for different student profile groups.
    TLLM does not necessarily have to mean Test Less and Learn More. Instead, we might want to consider this – with less didactic teaching, there possibly might be a need for regular, specific formative modes of assessment. This is of course steeped in the belief that for learning to be affirmed, assessment (including high-stakes testing) would be integral. This is where some may argue that a move towards formative assessment might inevitably lead to increased stress levels among the students. The main issue then should be the extent of emphasis placed on formative assessments in schools.
    With TLLM, less testing in terms of high-stakes national exams may be the way forth in our education system. This could allow teachers time to dwell on topics in depth and students to learn for the sake of the value of the various disciplines. Perhaps in the future, national exams may be more encompassing of multiple intelligences and holistic. Truly TLLM – Test Life, Learn Meaningfully.

  32. With the demands placed on teachers and schools to ensure our young have the skills and competencies to meet the challenges of 21st century – the question arises again as to the role of education and of teachers. Some think that the neo-liberalisation of education has reduced education to mere skills training, losing its broader end of nurturing the young to become better people. Others feel that education is useless if it doesn’t help people to become useful and productive workers in the new economy. Whichever side one takes, both have implications on the teaching profession. In this regard, what the British educational philosopher David Carr has to say is worth considering. He argues that there is legitimate place for skills training, in teaching and learning, but at the same time, there’s a need to distinguish between teaching and education. “Teaching refers to a kind of activity. We might say: “please do not interrupt me while I’m teaching,” but it seems odd to say: “not now while I’m educating.” On the other hand, education and educating are not “activities”. For example, one does not say, I am educating my class in mathematics, but one can say,” I am teaching my class mathematics.” Carr argues that the talk of educating or education as a process follows from a popular confusion of education with schooling. Unlike the activity of teaching or the process of schooling, which are sequences of acts or events, education has more the quality of a state with no clear beginning or end. (That’s why famous quotes like “Education is the work of a lifetime”) Hence, it may be better to regard education, like teaching, as a human enterprise or project which we undertake and schooling as the process we undergo in order to achieve (amongst other things) the state of education via the activity of teaching. In other words, schooling is but one dimension (but certainly no less important) of one’s educational experience. In this sense, teaching can be regarded as one of the means by which education is often achieved (which depends on how teachers understand their profession). If one accepts this line of reasoning, then it becomes perfectly legitimate to understand the remit of schooling as a process where students pick up skills and knowledge, but at the same time, through the help of good teachers, realise other broad educational ends – such as becoming a better person, and developing character. Understanding this might help to close the conceptual gap between the role of schooling and teaching, education and educating. *
    David Carr’s excellent treatise, where he extends his argument further on why teaching is therefore not just a profession, distinguishable from other professions, but a vocation with a moral dimension, read Carr (2000), Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching, Routledge: London

  33. Our education system comprises of selection based on meritocracy. The high stakes assessments such as PSLE, GCE ‘O’ levels and GCE ‘A’ levels serve to select students based on merits into schools of higher learning. The creativity demonstrated by our teachers in teaching and learning do play a part in the foundation studies of our students. It helps to generate interest through engaged learning and hopefully through self-directed learning, the learning process would propagate. As teachers, we also part the role of imparting knowledge and skills to help our students aattain their fullest potential, which of course includes the best results that would place them in a school of higher learning. The creativity demonstrated through our students learning, it would be difficult to measure. On the surface, we observe that most students would thread on the safe, tried and tested routine of doing things. This could be the influence of the many top-down approaches from the policies set by MOE influencing our school leaders and teachers. This may result in a vicious cycle of our teachers beind borught up in our old education system and influenced by similar safe social and economical environment when they were students. Hence the need to create and innovate is not imbibed in our teachers as well. It may take a serious crisis or social issue breakdown to test our students resilience and their creativity in dealing with adversity.

  34. Teacher empowerment can exist alongside the culture of high-stakes testing. For example, in Social Studies, in the teaching of the skill of Comparison, students identify the common threads or factors from case studies pertaining to a particular theme in the syllabus and categorise the threads and explain their choices. This thus demonstrates that teachers put learners in direct contact with the phenomena being studied and then ask students to explain the sense they are making. So instead of explaining things to students, the teacher joins with the student in making sense out of their developing conceptions. Teacher is therefore not teaching to the test but in fact, teacher redefines learning to be experiential, allowing students to incorporate their own experiences and background knowledge, and the teachers facilitate learning from there.

    However, when high-stakes testing is imminent, we often reorientate ourselves to suit the teaching to the test. Singapore teachers are very good at this. Leave the Sec 4s out, leave the primary 6 out of any attempt at innovation in teaching and learning, perhaps for the fear that they may not have met certain standards yet. But whose standards?

  35. Under the system level perspective, ‘Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM)’ is a move that Ministry of Education has taken to transform quantity to quality learning. My thought in this move is to tune the teachers’ mindset of following a structured way of teaching and learning (T&L) to a mindset of having richer interaction with students and engage them in quality thinking so that national survival can be attained in the long run. In my point of view, both the above mentioned mindsets have their significance and specifically, I think the mindset of the former leads to the latter. The purpose of having a structure in place is to direct the teachers deliver effective teaching rather than letting them “hovering in 360 degrees” and in the end, they carry out activity with no pedagogy. On the other hand, I understand that a structure should not always be available for any programme or curriculum teaching as it can become stipulated and not much innovation and creativity can be observed in the lesson delivery. Therefore, there should be a turning point from having a structure to an openness of ideas with higher level of independence, so as to shift the mindset from teaching in a pseudo world to a real world.

    • In our previous tutorial, Dr Reyes showed us a ppt slide showing the actual (infamous) 2004 National Day Rally ‘TLLM’ Speech by PM Lee. Here it is:

      “The most important gift that we can give to our young and to prepare for their future is education. It’s not just preparing them for a job, but learning to live a life, learning to deal with the world, learning to be a full person, what in Chinese, they say, “xue zhuo ren” (学做人) and in schools, there are plenty of opportunities to learn to be a person […]
      We have got to teach less to our students so that they will learn more. Grades are important, don’t forget to pass your exams but grades are not the only thing in life and there are other things in life which we want to learn in school…”

      Wanting to find out more, I looked up and read the entire speech – it was interesting because it was PM Lee’s first National Day Rally Speech as PM, and also because I realised how well the speech was written (with common sense and humour).

      Anyway, the point I want to make is that I feel teachers / schools always focus and fret over assessment and the seemingly impossible-to-bridge disconnect between ‘Teaching less’ yet expecting students to perform well in examinations.

      If anything, the data which Dr Reyes shared with us about what Singaporean students value in life and how / what they value in education suggests that teachers / schools should also turn their attention to the first paragraph quoted and consider what schools must do to ensure students ‘Learn more’ of what is truly important in life.

      My argument is that I believe MOE is now attempting to redress Singapore students’ and teachers’ disconnect with schooling and TLLM respectively by emphasizing 21st century competencies and values education.

  36. In response to the rhetoric on “Test Less and Learn (Teach) More”, I would like to draw on my personal experience in MLS. In contrast with a degree programme, there are no high stake examinations that quantify our performance. Instead the participants are required to submit a series of reflections to encapsulate their learning experiences and how they relate it to their work. No doubt it is a professional development course, but the nature of its knowledge delivery is not much different from that of a degree programme. Participants have to attend lectures, tutorials and complete project work. The main evaluative process lies in assessing the quality of learning by the participants. This is facilitated through reflections which the participants document their thoughts, insights and applications of new knowledge. There is hardly any requirement to memorise facts and figures to be regurgitated in an examination. By freeing the brain from memorizing information, it is allowed more working memory (short term memory) to rehearse and make meaningful connections between the synapses. In my previous tertiary education, I would always be jotting down information from the lecture slides. In the MLS course, I am jotting down thoughts and ideas which I had inferred or implied and would like to think deeper. By the end of each lecture, I would have internalized most of the knowledge or rejected it because of disagreement in values. While in the past, I would have just merely saved all the information on my short term memory after the lecture and struggle to transfer them to the long term memory as the examinations drew near. There is a vast difference in the way knowledge is acquired and internalized. In the notion that high stake examinations having an adverse impact on the quality of learning, I highly suspect that the crux of the problem lies in the nature of the assessment. If it is clear to the learner that the expectations of the examination is skewed towards assessing deeper understanding and not superficially on recollection of facts and figures, I think high stake examination have its place in education still.

    • Simon, you wrote, “In the MLS course, I am jotting down thoughts and ideas which I had inferred or implied and would like to think deeper.” I totally concur. The absence of exams enables me to enjoy the learning process more here. It is the regional visit that stretched me a little and I am glad for the experience. I think we have been operating in a system so full of structures that we have taken them for granted. We are so used to being told what to do that it has slowly but surely killed our initiative and robbed us of autonomy. The scary part is that we do not even realise it. Hence, the ‘self-organised’ aspect of the trip was great for me in that it brought this sudden realisation. We experienced the true essence of ‘working in a team’ and we do not just pay lip service to it. Maybe we should all aim to be SLIM- ‘Structure Less and Immerse More’.

  37. As mentioned during one of Dr Kelvin Tan’s lectures on Assessment, there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test> As long as the test is a good one.

    The problem currently lies with the mis-alignment between school based curriculum,national syllabi and national assessments. What we have been told, during the MLS, is that schools should develop their own school-based curriculum, and sensing from the recent developments, the syllabus should bring out 21st century competencies (21CC) in the students. However, national examinstations such as the PSLE, O and A levels remain; the extent to which these assessments test for 21CC is questionable. Hence, what we are teaching and what we are testing are mis-aligned.

    There is still hope, however, for 21CC assessment to become part of Singapore Education. Where I teach, SJI Junior, the P4 and P6 pupils go through rotational leadership appointments in the context of mini-missions. The appointed leaders lead their group through planning, execution and reflection stages, and are given both a quantitative (based on rubrics) and qualitative assessment as feedback on their leadership competencies. Leadership assessments, together with other inter-disciplinary project assessments, can form the basis for authentic and holistic assessment of 21st century competencies.

    This mode of assessment alluded to above is based on the Singapore Armed Forces Situational Test (SIT test) used to select future military section and platoon commanders. The SIT test, used in conjunction with peer appraisal and fitness and marksmanships scores, forms the basis for holisitic and authentic assessments.Similarly, in the fields of medicine and aviation, there already exist modes of assessment that are authentic and holistic.

    Once we have figured out good and relevant 21CC assessments and fully implemented them in our education system, we could then resume teaching to the test.

  38. When we were growing up as babies, I don’t remember we learnt by taking examinations. Learning to talk, crawl, walk and eventually run was learnt naturally. I have a two-year-old son who attends a playgroup. There was no homework but he can remember almost everything when we asked what he has learnt in class on any particular day. What is my point? We need not be taught just for the sake of assessment. However, as we grow older, we are “forced” to learn for assessments so that we know where we stand against our cohort (i.e. PSLE, GCE “N”, “O” and “A” levels). In a way, it is threatening but on a positive note, it can be said to be fostering healthy competition.
    We know very well what “Assessment of Learning” is. Recently, we have heard of another mode of assessment for our students being emphasised more (it does exist in our context and teachers were and still are using it in one way or another) in Singapore for the purpose of aiding our students and at the same time creating a non-threatening environment while assessing them. It is called “Assessment for Learning”.
    Assessment for Learning, unlike Assessment of Learning (which is usually accompanied by a score or a grade and only occurs at the end of the learning), can be based on a variety of information sources (e.g., portfolios, works in progress, teacher observation, conversation). There is no grade given and the teacher checks on students’ understanding and adjusts his instruction to keep students on track. Usually, there is verbal or written feedback to the student which is primarily descriptive and emphasizes strengths, identifies challenges, and points to next steps. It occurs throughout the learning process, from the outset of the course of study to the time of summative assessment.
    I believe that with a more balanced mode of assessment, students will benefit and be more willing to take up ownership of and for their own learning.

  39. As quoted from MOE’s bluesky website, ‘Teach Less, Learn More is about TEACHING BETTER, to ENGAGE OUR LEARNERS and PREPARE THEM FOR LIFE, rather than teaching more, for tests and examinations.’

    But let’s take a step back and see where we are at right now in terms of TEACHING BETTER, to ENGAGE OUR LEARNERS and PREPARE THEM FOR LIFE.

    How then, do we define TEACHING BETTER?
    Which of these equations apply to what it means by teaching better?:-

    TEACH BETTER = MUST HAVE TECHNOLOGY IN LESSONS
    TEACH BETTER = MUST HAVE LOTS OF GROUP WORK
    TEACH BETTER = ONLY FRONTAL TEACHING WILL DO

    It all depends…

    Teaching better doesn’t necessarily mean that it is imperative for us to make use of gadgets and technology in our lessons, nor does it mean that there must be group work every day for every lesson, nor will teaching better work only with just frontal teaching. It’s a combination of all of the above and at times, a standalone of one of the above equations, depending on the topic to be taught and when and to whom it will be taught to. Teaching and learning is not a one-way direction neither is it a point of no return. Students don’t just learn from teachers, but they also learn from their peers. Similarly, teachers also learn from pupils. These interactions are important in guiding us to shift our gears on how we want to formulate teaching combinations in the classroom.

    Teachers and students are interdependent. If one fails to learn and see what the other needs, then both parties don’t benefit in the process. Remember the times when we were first beginning teachers and dutifully wrote our lesson plans over the weekend and faithfully following them? And as the years went by, we viewed writing lesson plans as a ‘chore’ as we grew more accustomed to the realities in the classroom – for what we had planned, we were unable to deliver them as to how we had ideally planned for it to be. But does that mean that we have failed in delivering our lesson objectives at the end of the day? The teaching that takes shape in the classroom depends on how our students respond and how we respond to them. There were AHA! moments and OH NO! moments that could be beyond our control. As a teacher, almost every day, we are challenged to think on the spot and react to both minor and major things that happen in the classroom. We should thus not constrict ourselves to the plans that had been laid out for us. That’s when the value of teaching and learning starts to form. No matter how much we had planned, there will always be that percentage whereby we can’t always anticipate all the kinds of questions students may pose to us during our lessons where sometimes, we, ourselves can’t answer them on the spot. So instead of saying to the pupils ‘I will get back to you once I get the answers’, how many times have we been bold enough to stop the lesson and instead ‘throw’ back the difficult questions to the students and give them the time during that same lesson to find out more for themselves rather than waiting for the answer from the teacher the following day? It has always been the issue that we have to finish this by today or else we can’t continue what we want to teach the next day.

    We must remember that SOWs, unit plans, etc are tools that are there to guide us, but we shouldn’t take it that because these tools are there, therefore it doesn’t allow us to be creative in the delivery of our lesson. As teachers, we should also be able to justify for ourselves and to the department as to why we are doing what we do and yet at the end of the day, rich learning has taken place. Critical and reflective thinking need not necessarily all the time, be drawn out from textbooks or worksheets, but should also come from simple real life events. That’s when the real value of learning comes in and in which engages students to think and thus preparing them for the future – being able to think on their feet and having to make rational decisions. So, does having a paper qualification at the end of the day guarantee one’s future in totality, if, even when having to make simple moral judgments, is already a difficulty that the young adults face?

    So it’s now back to these key elements:-
    • remember why we teach
    • reflect on what we teach and
    • reconsider how we teach
    as pointed out in the goals of TLLM.

  40. I fully support Thuhaila’s points above because TSLN and TLLM are initiatives that take us back to the heart of teaching.

    TLLM is an ambitious initiative no less because its end is less measurable and more ambiguous than any of our previous policies. This implies that we need a lot more time and perseverance in order to be able to come close to the vision espoused. Let’s also not forget that TLLM comes under the larger umbrella of the Thinking School Learning Nation reform. As its title suggests, the reform can only work if the system as a whole is involved. If only some of the parts take it on, and others refuse to try to make sense of it, there can be no real growth. Schools need to give their teachers the space to experiment and fail so that they can build a deep understanding of what creative and critical thinking entails. Middle managers need to help their teachers make sense of how existing policies and the demand of academic excellence (read results) can work alongside experimentation and risk-taking. Teachers need to take ownership of their own learning and live the 21st Century outcomes in order to be able to fulfill the mandate of the reform. Parents need to have a better understanding of what the policy aims to achieve so that they do not react from the narrow perspective of how their child may ‘suffer’ as a result of the experimentation. And most importantly, our students need to see models at all these levels in order to be able to believe in such a future.

  41. I think one of the things that we may have not seen is that education exhibits aspects of being a social science. It is of course inconceivable to think that high stakes accountability tests are not necessary. These tests have its place.

    Data and measurables may be the most visible form of accountability. But it cannot be used as the sole measurement of accountability. It is not an exact science and we have to note that to teach and to learn is a human process and our students are all of different.

    Mayhaps it is more pertinent for us to revisit the spirit of TLLM, not reinvent a new TLLM and come to a new understanding of our journey so far and move on from here.

  42. When I first heard the phrase TLLM, I associated it with how teachers need to change their teaching strategies that will empower students to be self-directed in the way they learn. As I read through articles, discuss with fellow colleagues and learn from our school leaders, I begin to understand that TLLM is just not about changing teaching strategies, reducing content or educating students to be self-directed but it is a collection of initiatives that will enhance the educational system that will provide quality education to our students. Quality education can also be viewed as holistic education of the pupils. In Singapore schools, we do have highly-competent teachers and school leaders not all believe in holistic education. Recent events such as abolishment of ranking of schools and MOE level awards show how “competent” and “effective” we have been in providing that holistic education. The turn to value-based education, more emphasis on teaching and learning and partnering stake holders now is the talk of the town. It clearly shows that such competent teachers have been directed to achieve these awards rather than placing more emphasis on holistic education. Again, there needs to be shift in the thinking and I hope these incremental changes will happen to direct our efforts to provide a comprehensive and holistic education to our students.

  43. In the implementation of TLLM in Singapore, many schools have adopted the Tight, loose formula. The school leaders are “tight” in demanding faithfulness to specific TLLM principles and practices to prevent surface interpretation of the implementation. At the same time, they are “loose” in terms of the implementation. Teachers are empowered in the freedom to choose widely and wisely on how they will teach what so the students learn more, faster and deeper. As a result, the teachers would be clearer of the strategic direction and yet have the autonomy to make their own contributions to the change. One of the visions of the TLLM initiative is a collaboration among teachers where professional learning communities are formed among teachers so that the teachers are empowered to address 2 essential concerns: what to teach and how to teach? What to teach refers moving from quantity to quality while how to teach refers to the delivery methods teacher employ. Despite there is a existing core curriculum for various disciplines, teachers are committed to TLLM, feeling a sense of urgency about renewing their teaching approaches by seeking appropriate theoretical models to better their students’ learning. As a system, although we have not really fully tapped on the many opportunities that assessment for learning can offer, however, there is gradual move of teachers adopting various ongoing assessments to monitor students’ level of understanding of ideas and skills and empowering students to be beneficiaries rather than the “victims” of testing. For instance, there is a heavier focus on formative assessment of students as teachers work towards multiple points of assessment such as performance tasks, patchwork assessment or portfolio in their classrooms.

  44. This post is a response to the question ‘Do our Singapore teachers feel that they are forced to teach to the test?’ The industry is increasingly lamenting the quality of fresh graduates that join the workforce every year. Some major complaints I hear from friends in the industry are, fresh graduates lack tenacity and endurance to last in the job, they are highly dependent on tried and tested structures as compared to attempting to problem solve on their own and they have vastly different perception of performance from their employers. ‘Where did you go wrong?’ asked my friends from the industry, obviously referring to the education system. We brandish our education system as world class and churn out Math Olympiads year in year out, so how do we address the concerns of the industry? These are more character issues as opposed to academic ones so the solution is to enhance the character education programme by making it more comprehensive and providing more resource support for the teachers to carry out these programmes. Enter the 21st CC and the resulting CCE toolkit. The 21st CC has laudable intents and major kudos must go to the developers of the CCE toolkit which is nothing less than a herculean effort on their part. However I have a hypothesis that is based purely on intuition, which basically readies it for cruxification as it is groundless and void of any empirical justification. I believe that the emphasis on high stakes examination at the end of primary and secondary education inevitably shifts the teacher’s focus to that of academic achievement at substantial cost to effectively imbuing students with the ‘software’ needed to thrive in the 21st century world. The highlight of any school’s calendar is always the release of national results and that hints a lot about the disproportionate emphasis on academic achievement. Although the EPMS document does spell assessment of how the teacher nurtures the child as a whole, academic performance still stands out as a key indicator of a teachers’ performance. There are some teachers who despite being forced to teach to the test, have been able to lead their students well in developing the software aspect of their holistic development. However I believe majority of the teachers feel the pressure of teaching to the test and it is increasingly a zero sum game in terms of satisfying academic expectations and meeting the needs of the industry.

  45. Your first three questions set me thinking.
    1. Assessment has high stakes in Singapore, not just for the students, but also for the teacher as well. It would be difficult not to teach to the test in that regard. Because of the way assessment has been linked to learning, I experience a scenario of assessment ‘driving’ learning in my school. It is a reality, though a sad one, how we have conditioned students to learn when it matters. In this regard, I feel forced to teach to the test.
    2. Whether our teachers feel empowered and trusted really depends on the unique circumstances of the school. But while there can be a certain level of autonomy enjoyed by the teachers, there must still be accountability for students’ learning.
    3. It is not a question of whether we have the space to make our lessons come alive or not. We HAVE to, while still ‘covering’ what is to be tested. If coming alive means spending 4 weeks to ‘cover’ a topic that can be done in 2, then clearly the teacher has to strike a balance due to limited resources.
    Performance appraisal does have its flaws. It may not adequately capture good teachers who choose not to play along with the appraisal system and over-reward others that play the appraisal game. The assumption here is that incentives drive behaviour. Indeed, we have linked incentives to performance so deeply that to remove the system would need a mind-set change as well.

  46. This post is a response to the following three questions:

    1.Do our Singapore teachers feel that they are “forced to teach to the test”?

    In my opinion, the teachers’ profession is expected of us to be competent in our teaching area. This is not just to serve as effective facilitators to help our students to develop an inquiry for learning but also to prepare them for the high stakes examination. Hence, the core teaching competency in EPMS also requires that educators should always keep abreast of latest developments in education trends to cope with the demands of education. In short, Singapore teachers are likely to feel that they are “forced tp teach to the test”. Assuming that all educators are committed to keep learning and teaching to help students develop a love for learning and there are no high stakes examinations, would the quality of education improve from the current reality to teach to the test to one we hope that teachers can teach for the love for learning and the teaching experience an enjoyable one? Or will there still be complaints that students don’t know how to use creativity and don’t know how to learn. Often, we also forget that to help students to cultivate the love for learning and enjoy the process also require the necessary skills and knowledge of the teacher to facilitate the process. If the facilitation process is effectively in place, will teachers feel that they are “forced to teach to the test” especially when there is recognition that the space is required and accounted for with a reduction in syllabus content lately?

    2.Do our Singapore teachers feel empowered and trusted by other key education stakeholders?

    With the increasing concern of teachers being “replaced” by tutors is nothing short of a finger pointing that teachers are not doing their jobs effectively. While MOE pumps in a commendable amount of learning and teaching resources and branding to the teaching image, all teachers must also protect one another’s’ image when we share our challenges with other key education stakeholders, especially non-teaching professionals. The challenges we face are real and many of us have made many sacrifices for this profession however, we must also not forget that how we convey our grievances might not be taken very positively by “outsiders”.

    Perhaps, maybe perhaps if we can abolish tuition agencies in Singapore can teachers truly feel empowered and trusted provided if all teachers also display the tenacity to learn and the commitment to improve teaching in a student-entered nurturing environment and teachers are equally protected and respected in a healthy way.

    3. Do our Singapore teachers have the “space” to make the teaching of their subjects come alive and make these exciting?

    This ‘space’ is subjective. If we are looking at the inquiry process of investigation for learning whereby time is crucial for teachers and students to explore and discover new skills and knowledge, we may be challenged since we will not be able to take away the focus on high stakes examinations and the fact that these high stakes examinations may not exactly align with the pedagogical strategies such as an inquiry investigation. In this context, Singapore teachers may not really have the space to make teaching their subjects come alive and exciting. Nonetheless, it is appreciated that MOE is increasing aware of this constraint which contradicts the philosophy of TSLN and has taken the initiative after reviews of the need for content reduction. The many pathways in education such as the IB and IP routes are also changes in the education landscape to provide that “space” for quality teaching and learning. What is to be observed henceforth is perhaps the quality of learning as a policy outcome from such implementations.


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