I've hugged my family, unpacked my bags, given my kids gifts (which included a Singaporean version of Monopoly), run a few loads of laundry and am now settled in to write a bit about my trip during this past week to Singapore. Thanks to my friend, fellow Apple Distinguished Educator colleague, and now Apple employee, Pav, I was first invited to work with a new class of Apple Distinguished Educators for the Asia region back in 2008. That was a life changing trip in itself..... I had the opportunity to visit several Singaporean schools, including the School of the Arts and Singapore Sports School, and also to work with amazing Singaporean and international school educators for a week during the 2008 Asia Apple Distinguished Educator Institute. A year later, educators and students from Maris Stella High School in Singapore came to Chicago over the course of two visits to the U.S, intent on forming foundations for global collaborations. I was priviledged to spend time with Maris Stella teams on both visits.
Consequently, I've thought a great deal about Asia, and specifically Singapore, and was really pleased to be invited to return again this spring. On this visit, the city/country itself seemed to not have changed much, although it did seem like it was more populous. There were still many buildings under construction as evidenced by a plethora of construction cranes, established buildings and streets were in pristine condition, and the weather was still hot, and perhaps a bit more humid. Two huge Singaporean projects were finished since my last visit.... the Universal Studios theme park on Sentosa Island where I stayed last time, and the amazing Marina Bay Sands casino complex with a ship-like structure and pool on its roof. I stayed near Orchard Road, a main high-end shopping district, and again, was amazed by the mass amount of attention devoted to brands and shopping. Marina Bay Sands also sported a very high end mall which was astounding huge. To me, the focus on consumerism was a bit overwhelming, but also a sign of a vibrant economy. We also drove by Singapore's port which reportedly is the largest in the world and never closes. Not much is made in Singapore and it is a gateway to the rest of Asia. Human capital is its best resource and this is evident in the careful planning that pervades this society.
As an aside, I think Singapore would make an excellent topic of study in a interdisciplinary global studies program in middle or high school. Studying its very intentional government would lead to fascinating debates regarding how much control governments should or should not have. Singapore is also a go to country for many financial institutions, so studying its economic forces and impact on the world's economy would also be of interest. And, examining its highly competitive educational system would also lends itself to thinking deeply about the purpose of education.
Continuing on with details on my visit, I spent four days holding workshops for Asian educators, mostly focused on the iPad. For the first two days, there was an emphasis on accessibility and our third day focused more on general use of Apple technologies. The format of the workshops really worked well and kept participants busy and engaged. Pav served as an emcee extraordinaire and kept the mood light. He's really come into his own working for Apple, and I was so impressed with his leadership and knowledge. Working with me on various days were several ADEs including Jane Ross, Jane Harris, Dawn Hallett, Tyler Sherwood, and Rob Newberry and Greg O'Connor of Australia's Spectronics which runs this conference on inclusive learning technologies. This team was absolutely delightful and I learned a great deal from our conversations. I'm excited to have made some new friends!
The daily format of these workshops usually started out with various welcomes followed by a keynote and 5 25-minute breakouts on various topics. My topic was on planning for 1:1 success, and I'll talk about that more in a follow up post. This speed dating style of presenting was challenging, but it really helped me to gather my language on this topic. Afterwards, reflection time was given to participants and then lunch. After this break, we kicked things up a notch and offered 15 minute app sharing time. Each group of 5 or so educators moved from table to table to learn about our recommendations. I chose to focus on content creation apps, and again I'll provide more details on this in a follow up post. After this activity, another keynote followed and participants were given a short amount of time to present a rough plan for next steps. These plans were presented to the larger group, and everyone left with a sense of where they wanted to proceed. I really admired the schedule as it promoted colleagiality, discussion and movement. Instead of talking at people all day, we were truly engaged and better able to understand their concerns and needs.
I visited some extraordinary schools for these workshops, Pathlight School and the School of Science and Technology, Singapore. I couldn't take pictures at Pathlight due to privacy concerns with its special needs population, but I did take a few of SST and other places visited. More importantly, I met many extraordinary educators and it seems like counterparts in this part of the world are very thoughtful and knowledgable about best practices in education. This was particularly evident in their final presentations to the group at large. While I haven't had the opportunity to work with a majority of Singaporean and international educators, it seems like they are all on the same page with a committment to teaching inquiry as foundation to learning subject matter. Interational educators largely subscribe to the thematic International Baccaleareate curriculum and the Singaporean educators seemed better versed in various approaches to learning and will travel to learn more about best practices. For instance, one vice principal mentioned that his colleagues recently traveled to Chicago to attend a Lesson Study conference. If you're not familiar with this Japanese approach to teaching, check out this Wikipedia entry.
Interestingly, I had many conversations with educators over the course of the week of the competitiveness involved with Singaporean schools (and a bit around the international school world as well). The national exams are paramount in Singapore and basically determines the future paths of students. Students, parents and schools all feel the pressure, and each group thinks the pressure comes from each other. The parents think the schools are pressuring them and many turn to outside tutoring agencies and after school programs for extra support. The schools believe that pressure comes from the parents as well.
In order to understand all of this in its proper context, I think it's important to read material on the Ministry of Education's web site that explains its vision. Yes, standardized testing is incredibly important in this society, but they support and invest in their schools and teachers in order to provide their students with the best possible teaching force. Everyone understands that human capital is their only and best resource and they seem united in their quest for excellence. Would this approach work in the U.S? I honestly don't know, but I think our own national agenda is not shared by all constituencies, is fairly negative in its approach to attempting to get results, and does not do enough to support teachers and build effective and engaging learning environments.
On the topic of learning environments, make sure to take a look at my photos of SST. I wish I had photos to show you of Pathlights, but I'll attempt to tell you what I saw. This school had a traditional Singaporean school footprint... sort of shaped like the letter E, with various cooridors branching out from. There was air conditioning in the rooms where we worked, but generally, Singaporean schools do not necessarily rely on A/C. Lots of fans and ventilated windows and doors seem to be the norm. Pathlights had student art work exhibited and even sold some pieces, and generally provided support for their students in the form of extra signage (whiteboards by the bus loading area indicated who was to take the bus that day and who wasn't). Their library looked inviting, and they even had a room set aside as a design studio.
The School of Science and Technology was even more amazing as it is a recently completed campus costing around $49 million dollars (Singaporean dollars). It is the most state of the art STEM school I've had the opportunity to visit, and it provided incredible work spaces for both students and faculty. Teachers had individual cubicles in a large office area that was adjoined by an open faculty lounge with several meeting spaces. Rooms for every purpose you can imagine were present including professional development spaces with flexible walls, science labs equipped with high end equipment, a huge theatre, and a studio for film production activities. The overall look was very modern with bright, bold colors, inspiring phrases were painted on walls, and modular configurable lockers in the halls. One detail that I especially appreciated were the long unobtrusive power strips embedded in lab tables where multiple students could share power. Most importantly, this school had a vision clearly understood by its principal. Over the course of his tour of the building, it was clear that he understood what it took to provide a 21st century (and beyond) education to his students. In hindsight, I'd like to know more about what Singapore does to cultivate its leaders because this gentleman certainly got it, and I believe that we should be focusing more on leadership in the U.S.
On Friday, I capped off my week spending time at Chatworth International, a for-profit international school led by a team that includes Tyler Sherwood, Mark McCallum and Rob Newberry. They have a common set of a values and are incredibly colleagial. While at Chatworth, I worked with the English department, discussing topics for infusing technology into their curriculum. These teachers asked great questions, shared their own knowledge and were able to experiment with various tools as I led the way. I think they were probably overwhelmed to a certain degree by the possibilities, but hopefully, our session will inspire them to explore ideas and tools of interest as they will soon be on summer break. The kids at Chatsworth were lovely, too, asking me interesting questions when introduced and I'm glad I got to see where kids were present... most of the Singaporean students were on holiday from their schools as was the case when I visited in November 2008.
Friday night included dinner with the Chatworth leadership team and I plied them with questions about international school life. It intrigues me, and perhaps one day, I'll take the plunge. They definitely have a unique culture and set of challenges, quite different from US public and private schools. Generally, I think there's more accountability involved (sometimes applied fairly and not so fairly) as many of these schools are for profit and they have an excellent and large pool of teachers from which to hire. There is an intentional revolving door of students and teachers as both educators and families in these schools tend to move fairly quickly for a variety of reasons. I'm also very interested in learning more about the International Baccalaureate curriculum, and would love to get trained in this one day as I think it would benefit my work.
Thanks for reading my ramblings thus far. My intention was just to get a few of my thoughts down abou this trip before the whirlwind of the June conference season fully takes effect. Many, many thanks to everyone who helped with my trip and with whom I interacted. I'm so grateful for this opportunity and I look forward to continuing conversations over social media, etc!