Monday, January 18, 2010

Moving towards real learning in secondary school

I've always hated looking at my kids' primary school time-tables. It seems to me that the school is trying to cram in as much syllabus and content as possible within a finite number of hours. Simply looking at the subjects squeezed into intensive half-hour blocks makes me feel ready to hyerventilate. Non-core subjects like PE look like they're thrown in as afterthoughts and if that's not bad enough, these are often being usurped to make time for even more lessons. It's one big drill.

I was expecting Lesley-Anne's secondary school time-table to be much of the same, if not worse, particularly as new subjects are being introduced at the secondary school level. Much to my surprise, academic subjects take up just about two-thirds of curriculum time in her time-table. The rest of it is filled with non-academic modules. Apart from the usual art, music and PE, there are (or will be) other interesting periods such as research, IT, culture, even drama and dance. I was struck by how holistic and diverse it was. It certainly had a leisurely feel about it, a complete contrast from primary school.

Naturally it didn't take me long to figure out that reduced curriculum time means that the students are expected to do much of the learning on their own. For instance, with only one history period a week, there is only so much content the teacher can cover. The students are clearly expected to do their own reading and find their own information to supplement their learning, no spoon-feeding of content. With just two weeks of school under their belt (one, if you discount orientation week), the kids have already been handed out written assignments requiring research and reflection.

Fortunately for Lesley-Anne, she is familiar with these independent learning techniques, thanks to the GEP as its curriculum centres around such methods. Since p4, she has learned how to embark on research, how to organise and execute both team and individual projects, as well as how to use a variety of IT tools.

And I feel strongly that this is what learning should be about - not drilling of content but exposure to a wide variety of topics and intellectual exploration through guided and self-discovery.

Everyday, Lesley-Anne comes home from school all chirpy and eager to share some fun or interesting moment in school. I can see that she's engaged and interested, and that makes learning even more effective.

It's early days yet and of course I can't speak for all secondary schools, only Lesley-Anne's, but here's my verdict so far: I absolutely like what I see. Check with me again in a year's time to see if I've changed my mind!


Lilian said...

This sounds wonderful and as you said, is as it should be. But don't mainstream primary kids also do independent research and reflection? They should, cos that's where the most learning is done.

Almost all of Brian's school work overseas is research/project-based. It really takes up a lot of time but it hones the kids' research and oral presentation skills. The difference though is kids here aren't expected to also master the entire syllabus on their own :)

monlim said...

I think at project work and independent learning at mainstream primary level is more limited, and in some schools, done only in the better classes. It's certainly not across the board. I guess it doesn't help that almost 2 years are spent just preparing for the PSLE, which means drills and more drills.

I've always felt the international school systems are more holistic. I don't think L-A's school expects the kids to master the entire syllabus on their own either (do you feel Brian's SG school does that?) but the biggest differences I see between primary and secondary school are the broader base curriculum and the larger focus on independent learning.

Lilian said...

Haha...week 1 was orientation, and week 2 when the real work started, Brian was only in school for a few days. So I don't really know how things are done there.

Actually, in IP schools, there should be less emphasis on covering the old Sec 1/Sec 2 syllabus and more time spent on honing other skills. Cos there's no need to prepare for O levels right? So L-A's school is definitely headed in the right direction.

They shouldn't still pile kids with homework that used to take up 100% time in the past (pre-IP days), and still expect them to hand up multiple individual and team projects, and still excel in CCAs...there's only so much time in a day...something has to give...and for many kids, it has to be sleep.

monlim said...

Haha, you know lah in SG, kids are expected to do everything! It's still manageable now cos only the first month. Just wait till the CCAs and lessons are in full force, then we see what happens!

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