Could the absence of Mid Years mean a change in the curriculum to better equip students for the 21st century? Could alternative assessments mean the end of excessive tuition? Part 3 of our series discusses the positives that could result.
In Part One of this article, I explained how exams are a security blanket so some may feel a bit more naked and vulnerable without the mid-years. In Part Two, I tried to show how (as any toddler knows) sometimes nude is good so we should embrace the new policy. In Part Three, which you are about to read, I want to explore how giving teachers and students more time and space could result in a curriculum that better equips our children for the future, and how the whole schooling experience could be enriched by deeper relationships and more fun!
I have been banging on about alternative assessments. What on earth are they? Well, they could be anything. That’s the exciting part. Of course, teachers are professionals and need a little trust from us. They are not going to concoct assessments any old how.
There are different educational planning approaches. The one I was trained in is called Understanding by Design (UbD). Essentially, you reverse engineer. First, you figure out the desired learning outcome. Then, you devise a way to assess whether your students have learned what they were supposed to. Thereafter, you plan learning activities that will lead them to be able to do the assessment. Parents should rest assured that alternative assessments do not mean arbitrary tortures for their children or a lack of rigour. If teachers are using sound educational planning frameworks, alternative assessments could help build that utopia where kids are learning by having fun.
Could alternative assessments make Singapore meritocratic again?
Another plus to alternative assessments is that maybe having more of these will kick away the $1.4 billion crutch of the current education system: TUITION. Alternative assessments could help level the playing field for students who don’t have the means to access cram schools, because I doubt any tuition centre would be able to help students hack the wide variety of possible alternative assessments. Make Singapore meritocratic again!
Let me give one example so it is clearer what alternative assessments could look like. Beginning with learning outcomes, teachers could move away from content-based outcomes such as “Students will understand that literary texts are influenced by their sociohistorical context” and move toward 21st century competencies-based outcomes such as “Students will understand how to research the influence of the sociohistorical context on a literary text.” More about 21st-century competencies can be read about here.
The traditional route would be to assess students by setting an essay question like, “The plot and themes of ‘Macbeth’ are greatly influenced by the Elizabethan worldview. Discuss.” If the desired learning outcome is content-based, the teacher may prepare slides to lecture students and give students notes that they can regurgitate. This can be done relatively quickly, but with more time, we can do better by our kids.
How teaching 21st-century competencies could look
If the desired learning outcome is 21st-century competencies-based, (in this case, we desire that students will become self-directed learners by cultivating a curious disposition and gaining competency in research skills), then you could set the same essay, but the learning activities would look very different. The teacher could show students how to find the books they need in the library, demonstrate how to discern reliable websites from unreliable ones, teach them what selection factors to consider so they can narrow down the flood of information sources before really diving into the research, etc. Then, the students will not only acquire the content they need to know, but they will also have learnt and practiced a set of skills that they can use in other disciplines and contexts and in later life.
But if you really want to supercharge students’ learning, enter alternative assessments. In one of my previous schools, to assess if “students understood how to research the influence of the sociohistorical context on a literary text”, we asked Secondary 3 students to come up with a booth for a Renaissance Faire that would give their schoolmates a better idea of what life was like during Shakespeare’s time. Instead of the Sec 3 cohort learning about one narrow sliver of information, students in the whole school gained exposure to diverse aspects of 16th Century English society.
Students who took the assignment seriously gained a sense of accomplishment when their booth was approved of by their peers. This meant more to them than any marks could. The best booth was a haunted house. They had massive queues all afternoon because students of all stripes were curious about the screams emanating from within a classroom. The students running the haunted house let one small group at a time into the darkened classroom that they had converted into a maze. They acted out excerpts of ‘Macbeth’ featuring the witches, complete with terrifying sound effects. They did their own grisly make up and costumes, and successfully reproduced the scare tactics they must have experienced when they visited professionally-staged haunted houses like Universal Studios’ Halloween Night.
Lest you think everybody was having too much fun to have learnt anything, the haunted house actually showed the students’ understanding of ‘Macbeth’ as a horror story of its time. The sociohistorical context was 16th century England, when people believed in a natural order preordained by God called The Great Chain of Being, with the monarchy on top. Macbeth’s ambition for the crown was “unnatural” and resulted in chaotic and frightening imagery within the play. Their choice to perform the witches’ chanting was especially apt. These unruly women who told prophecies stood outside the natural order and were not subjugated by a government or time, unlike schools and syllabuses (haha).
Another hit was a photobooth where students could wear period clothing. Yet another popular stall sold Renaissance-era food – all cooked by the students themselves. Meals and feasts feature quite significantly in some of Shakespeare’s works, so this group fulfilled the assessment requirements as well. Teachers provided some guidance and support, but most of all this was self-directed. Students were enthusiastic and didn’t need to be pushed so much because they were given the autonomy to wed their own interests with the academic requirements.
I’m sure you would agree that the lessons learnt in preparing for this assessment were far more memorable than whatever would have been gained from mugging for an exam. Crucially, the assignment gave students plenty of room to be creative and to tackle real-world problems like how to be resourceful and execute an idea within a budget and a timeline, how to attract attention to their booth and how to communicate what they had learnt to an audience, all key skills that are transferrable to the working world.
On the flipside, there were those who did not buy into this alternative assessment. After the Renaissance Faire, a contingent of parents complained to upper management that their children had wasted an entire afternoon manning a booth that had seen no business. Of course, these students had had no business because their booths were uninteresting and/or offered little insight into life during the Renaissance. And this in turn was because the students behind these booths had not invested enough time and research into the assignment. Talk about a Great Chain of Being. The parents were upset at one “wasted” afternoon, but the successful students had spent many meaningful afternoons on their projects.
I think that even the students who did badly for this alternative assessment could learn an important lesson: if you do not apply yourself, you will fail. In the real world, you have to earn things, and you don’t always get fast results. I hope too that those parents and all parents out there can be more open to accept the legitimacy and benefits of alternative assessments.
Deeper relationships and more fun
That Renaissance Faire was so much fun. It was declared open with the ceremonial slaying of a unicorn (the vice principal dressed up as the queen and smashed open a unicorn pinata full of confetti). Bastion Historical Fencing Academy was brought in to teach kids sword fighting and do demonstrations involving lots of slashed watermelons. A Boys’ Brigade bagpipe band from another school came in for a performance since we were studying The Scottish Play. The parents’ complaint put a dent in the morale of the teachers who had organised the Renaissance Faire as a labour of love, but on the whole, the event was a roaring triumph that the students really appreciated. I hope students can get up to these kinds of shenanigans more often once schools are no longer shackled to exams. There is so much of value that cannot be learnt from books!
One of my previous schools was an IP school, so instead of being devoted to O Level prep, the last two terms of Secondary Four had a format that was more like a liberal arts college, where students could take classes on all kinds of fascinating topics like beatboxing, scuba diving or flying a light aircraft, or they could do work attachments, overseas exchange trips, or pursue projects that they had initiated themselves. This was a well-resourced school, but wouldn’t it be something if these types of opportunities could be afforded to more students in Singapore?
More time could also mean fewer lecture-style lessons. Students often find it easier to learn new concepts when allowed to construct knowledge at their own pace. Just think about how you learnt to tie your shoes. You just had to try and try yourself, didn’t you? If someone was constantly tying your shoes for you, you would have gotten your shoes on faster, but you wouldn’t have really mastered it for yourself. Constructivist pedagogical strategies take time, which hopefully schools will now have more of.
Another benefit of getting rid of the mid-years is that students will be able to pursue their co-curricular activities unhindered. The timing of mid-years is often inconveniently close to or in the middle of sporting competitions and the Singapore Youth Festival. Students who may not have done well for mid-years due to these other commitments are sometimes made to attend remedial lessons over the June holidays and beyond, which is really counterproductive and no fun for anyone.
More time for all-important pastoral care
Anyway, who says time freed up from the scrapping of mid-years needs to be occupied in academic pursuits? One of the things I longed for most was time to get to know my students better and do pastoral care. I would give the whole class an essay to work on quietly, then call up the students to chat one-on-one about how things were going in school and at home. If I gave each student in a class of 40 just 5 minutes, that would take up more than 3 hours. But investing time into connecting with students on a human level and offering a listening ear is so important, particularly in the adolescent years.
A more relaxed syllabus pace could also lead to students developing deeper relationships with one another. Schools could lengthen or add more special events such as Orientation, Outward Bound School, camps, community service, excursions interclass and interhouse competitions, which are so enjoyable and build bonds. In the classroom, more peer teaching could occur, resulting in greater empathy and humility in higher-achieving students. Simply giving the kids more time to chat amongst themselves would make school a much warmer place.
There really is a lot to gain from jettisoning mid-year exams, if only teachers, parents and students would be willing to take less conventional journeys. I believe we call those “adventures”. Bring me that horizon. Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!
You may wish to view a video version of this opinion piece on my YouTube channel here.
Part 1: No More Mid-Year Exams: Former Teacher and Mom Discusses Parents’ Fears
Part 2: No Mid-Year Exams: A Mom’s Plea “Don’t Replace Exams with More Tests!”
Part 3: Time for a Better Curriculum Now That Mid Term Exams Have Been Abolished?