Monday, June 1, 2020

Why School Closure Will Badly Hurt Students And Teachers

Previously, I wrote about how classroom-type of learning isn't productive for every student, and how e-learning is a long-awaited shift in education that should have been done years ago.

In short, we are witnessing a revolution in education. Woo hoo!

Still, there are many skeptics out there who don't share my optimism. Indeed, e-learning is not without its pitfalls - from technical to psychological. The fear that digitization of education may widen the gap of inequality between the rich and poor is not far-fetched at all. After all, richer parents can afford cutting-edge technology, private tutors, and more personal time and attention to check their kid's homework. For many poorer kids, school teachers are all they're got.

The problems associated with e-learning are merely part of a larger looming issue: school closure.

Expectation (every kid has Mac)

Photo by Julia M Cameron
* * *

At the outset, there are some important points I need to stress. E-learning is NOT mutually exclusive to physical learning. Reduction of classes does NOT mean school closure.

When I say cut down on lectures, what I mean is that the hours saved from lectures can be better invested on smaller tutorials, extra-curricular activities, or even internship. I certainly don't mean students should just stay home and study all day - that's counter-productive to learning.

Now, I know that COVID-19 is still stalking our lands. Some say that schools should remain close until a vaccine is found - when the coast is completely clear. I disagree. That's just lazy thinking. Precautions can be taken. If businesses can be allowed to open, there's no reason why schools can't too. Education is essential, and there's even more reason why we should find innovative ways to keep schools open and physical activities running - staggered hours, smaller classes, temperature checks, and so on. And this applies to education at all levels - from pre-school to university.

University of Cambridge has even announced that all face-to-face lectures have been scrapped for the whole next academic year until mid-2021. Other universities may follow suit.

E-learning is a great idea. But if executed poorly, both students and teachers suffer.

* * *

I dislike attending lectures. Either I'm dozing off or reading something else at my own faster pace. But that's just me. Some students learn more in a classroom environment. They can absorb information easier through audiovisual aids. Note-taking is a way of revision. Group discussions spur ideas and interest. Point is, many students may struggle if e-learning is enforced fully. Humans are social creatures. Students thrive through collaboration.

Next, extra-curricular activities. Societies. Sports. Arts and culture. If schools and universities remain closed for a semester or a year, all these will be halted as well. Students' resumes will be thinner, that's for sure. As much as we ridicule against some of these activities for being purely box-ticking and resume-padding, there is still much intrinsic value in most of them. Hackathons for coders. Pitches for business. Mooting for law. Soft skills. Building connections. All gone, no more!

Then there's the facilities. Library. Laboratories. Sports centres. Recreational spots (canoeing out on a lake). Bunch of friends just chilling out at late night mamaks. Nothing academic here, but they're all part of the campus experience. Networking. Learning new skills. Enjoying new experiences.

Lastly, there's the loss of personal interaction. Yes, we can easily migrate to video calls - I'm already doing that. But the atmosphere lacks warmth. Voices crack or go soft. Speaking and listening becomes an incredibly taxing exercise. Frustration sets in. My laptop has died mid-call a few times, leaving others hanging. We end up saying as little as we can, and move on.

Such doom and gloom is not speculative at all. According to a World Bank paper, school closure for 4 months will reduce the lifetime earnings of students equivalent to 15% of a year's global GDP.

Reality (every kid wears a hat)

Source from SCMP

* * *

What about teachers?

Many are unhappy with the extra work required of e-learning, and coming up with alternative forms of assessment besides exams. Many are strongly opposed to schools reopening due to fears of infection, such as teachers' unions in the UK.

At the same time, they expect to be paid. And they seem to care little that their students' education are being delayed. Honestly, they want to have their cake, and eat it too.

Everyone else is at risk of being retrenched, so why not teachers? There's nothing wrong being fearful of your health - but that's not enough a reason to put a pause in the lives of students whose future lies in your hand. If you don't want to bear the risk, then just quit. You're not irreplaceable. There are plenty of hungry (and likely even better) teachers itching to take your spot.

As a teacher, I'm more than ready to get back to teaching at the university. I'll take precautions, of course. Less meetings, smaller groups, and so on. Do I run the risk of being infected? Of course. But it's a risk I'm willing to take. Teaching is my job, my responsibility. Life goes on. Life finds a way.

For teachers eager to get going but insistent that schools should remain close and everything be taught via e-learning - you're just being selfish. Learning is being compromised, and you know it. It's just a cop-out solution.

But the irony is that they're signing their own redundancy package. If lectures and tutorials can be fully virtual, what's stopping lessons from being out-sourced in future? If exams are all switched to open-book online tests, why can't the examiners be a centralised independent panel? If extra-curricular activities and campus experience are unnecessary, how do you justify collecting expensive fees that allows employment of full-time teachers? The slippery slope is this - the more schools compromise on 'learning' experience', the more they become irrelevant. Yes, it's an existential crisis. So be careful what you're advocating!

* * *

For me, the path is clear. I'm all for e-learning - to complement schooling, not replace it entirely. E-learning is merely a means, not an end itself. Teachers still play a big role in a student's learning curve - live AND virtual. And when I mean 'schooling' and 'education', I'm not talking about classes and exams. I mean the whole package, including extra-curricular activities and personal interaction.

To shut down schools indefinitely is just... cruel. You're killing the dreams and hopes of an entire generation. You're sacrificing the needs of the young for the needs of the old. Worst of all, you're treating 'education' like some kind of video-game that can be plugged and unplugged.

As a teacher, I'm more than willing and able to go the extra mile even as the COVID-19 rages on. I'm young and have a clear bill of health. I can cover for my senior colleagues. I can pick up on new subjects. I can 'parachute' into rural areas to have intense 2-3 week workshops with students.

Point is, both teachers and students can make education work during this difficult time. We don't have to take a break. We don't have to scale down to edu-lite. We don't have to stop living.

Life itself is a learning process. If we can't learn how to live through this temporary pain... well, then, we haven't learnt much about life, have we?

You know what's the biggest lesson about life? That life will always find a way...

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Schools Without Classes, Learning Without Limits

One of my fondest memory during my final year of high school - in Sixth Form during STPM - was getting kicked out of History class and banned from attending future classes.

The teacher had every reason to exile me - not paying attention, and frequently dozing off in class.

My defence? None, aside from the fact that I'm easily bored, more productive studying on my own, and have been reading up on History since forever on stuff that's not even in the textbook...

You can even say I 'pleaded guilty'. I accepted my punishment. I stayed away from class. I didn't appeal.

In fact, I was happy being kicked out of class! I could save 4-5 hours a week. I didn't have to pretend I was listening (not that I was doing a good job anyway). I didn't have to sit through an absolutely bore of a teacher. Punishment? Hah! More like a reward! 😎

Sleep is for the strong
* * *

Unfortunately, my exile was rather 'short-lived'. My class teacher - of whom I respected - took me aside a few days later.

"Raphael," he sighed. "You have to say you're sorry. And that you'll behave in future. So that she'll let you back in."

Wait, what? Apologise? And give up the best thing that ever to happen to me in school?"

I responded politely: "It's fine. I did wrong. I deserve to be kicked out. Better I stay out, save her from more grief..."

My class teacher sighed again, louder this time. "Look, she's really hurt. She knows you're smart. But she's trying her best. Just say sorry. She'll let you back in. Just do it, okay? For me."


In the end, I gave in. I caught her outside of class, later that morning. I said sorry. With as much sincerity as I could muster. She smiled, and replied she would consider my 'request'.

WTF? Now the b**ch is playing hard to get... Fine, better for both of us then...

When she walked in for the next class (and as I was walking out), she declared that she had accepted my apology and request.

And that completed my humiliation. To be kicked out class, only to beg to be let in against my own will. It's like being kicked in the balls and begging to be kicked again (slightly higher this time, where it hurts even more)...

So why did I concede? She was hurt. My class teacher wanted me, a 'smart' student, to make her feel 'smart' too. I swallowed my pride, forced myself to stay awake during History class, and sacrificed my own optimal studying routine... just to make an insecure teacher feel good about herself.

See, I'm not so heartless after all...

* * *

So what's the moral of the story?

Two lessons. One for teachers, one for students.

Let's start with teachers - this one is easy.

Your students are just kids. Cut them some slack. It's fine to exert authority and enforce rules, but don't go overboard. Don't take things personally. Some students will like you, some students won't. You're not a superstar (even Taylor Swift can't please everyone). Your job is to make students learn, and not teach - there's a subtle but clear distinction. Teaching - following the syllabus, ticking boxes off the checklist - is NOT the priority. Making sure your students learn what they're supposed to learn (and maybe even more) is your ultimate goal - even if that means deviating from your prepared lesson plan, going the extra mile to help struggling students, and yes, loosening your grip on authority. Be flexible. Be creative. Be kind.

Moving on to students, here's where things get interesting. What I'm going to say next is true as a general rule, but especially so during this difficult period of COVID-19. To be specific, I'm focusing on university - that's what I'm more familiar with and qualified to talk about (as opposed, to say, early childhood education). Most universities have turned to e-learning, which is actually a great thing for students in many ways...

1. Class - Seriously, who actually enjoys attending lectures? Notes can be disseminated via email. Lecturers typically read out their Power Point slides almost in verbatim. Sure, there's the odd lecturer or two who gives inspiring talks and takes on challenging questions. Some super technical course can only be properly explained orally. But by and large, most lectures are redundant and dispensable. To teach a hall of 100+ students effectively, the lecture has to be 'dumbed down' for the average student to follow. Students ahead of the curve don't gain anything, but rather lose precious time and energy that could be better invested elsewhere. When I was student, I can read 4-5 times faster than what's being taught in class. The point is not to abolish lectures altogether, but to cut down to minimum (maybe an hour a week or two hours a fortnight).

2. Exams - No more final exams! Continuous assessment! YIPPIE! Standardised exams may be most effective in testing younger kids. But at university? No way an exam of 3-5 essay questions that barely scratches 10% of the syllabus can truly test the depth of one's knowledge and critical thinking. We're all aware of the flaws in rote learning, so let me share some personal anecdotes. In law school, drafting (assignments) and advocacy (mooting) also form part of the curriculum - the core practical skills of a lawyer. It is incredibly rare for a student to master all three different skill-sets. In fact, there's often minimal correlation between them - a First Class degree does not guarantee an excellent drafter or advocate. The skewed emphasis on exams invariably weakens students in the other two areas - simply because more time and energy are wasted on acing exams. So the reduction of exams due to social-distancing constraints is truly a game-changer. Grading is more balanced now.

3. Tutorials - Students prepare questions in advance. Some write answers down painstakingly, some just blabber stuff on top of their head. Tutors are instructed to grade students based on (a) attendance; and (b) quality of answers or contribution. The fact that the tutorial questions are recycled every year and students are smart enough to be nice to seniors makes this an even worse assessment method than exams. There are better ways to run tutorials - live or online. Smaller groups of 5-8 students. Switch things up - presentation, debates, or quizzes. If we're cutting down on lectures, then tutorial can be the platform for students to ask questions. Students can even be graded based on Q&A - a tutor can easily judge how much homework a student has done by the quality of questions. Tutorials should be fun and engaging. If the size is too large and time is too limited, tutors should go the extra mile by checking on written answers - especially for students lacking strong connectivity or courage.

I didn't get a Happy Teacher's Day card last week

* * *

Some students learn a lot during class, some don't. Some students suck in exams but excel in real practice, some vice versa.

Ultimately, the point is simple. Schools shouldn't be rigid. Learning is limitless.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many teachers and students will struggle to keep up and be left behind. But in time, we will adapt. We have no choice. Education has changed - and will keep changing - faster than ever. This is not the new normal. This is how education should have been 10 years ago.

So what happened in History class for the rest of term? Nothing much. I got better in staying awake and faking attentiveness. She left me alone and kept teaching as passionately as she could. I scored an "A' for History in STPM, and got into law school - where I continued dozing away during lecture... 😴

Now, as a teacher, I care little about my students staying awake or liking me. So long as they keep learning and learning, my mission is done.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Feeling Good, Like You Should (Stay Safe, Stay Sane)

It's been a strange week or so.

Many things happened that shouldn't because many things that should happen didn't.

In other words, the world is spiraling into chaos - politics, economy, education, etc. I don't even know where to start. I don't even want to start. I could go on ranting and ranting till the coronavirus goes away.
It's pointless complaining, anyway. So many variables remain unknown. So many things are beyond control. Best to mind our own business, our own work, our private lives.

Sadly, that didn't go too well past week either. Trivial matters blow up into conflicts. Talk turns toxic.

But let's not go there either. Venting publicly at people - even on an anonymous basis - just seems immature. Yes, it's one way of de-stressing. But the better way is just to let it go, don't think about it, and focus on happy thoughts.

In the end, I managed to get through this tough week not breaking anything or screaming at anyone. I'm proud of myself. How did I do it? By feeling good, like I should.

Every day is Sunday

It's the virus getting into our heads. I really think so. We're isolated in our homes. We fret about the future. We can't do things that we really, really want to do. Our patience is fraying. Frustration is boiling.

I keep wishing people on Zoom calls and emails to 'stay safe' during this whole lockdown period. And most people have been holding up well. But I think I'm missing the bigger problem, the bigger danger...

"Stay safe, stay sane."

Yes, that's what we should be wishing each other more. It may not be the nicest and politically correct thing to say. But it's important reminder we should keep telling ourselves and our loved ones.

Yes, I really think we're starting to lose our sanity. Stress. Depression. We're not thinking straight. We're not behaving rationally.

It's called 'cabin fever'. People go 'loco' after prolonged isolation. Happens a lot in horror movies. Some person starts killing everybody else in sight (typically starting off with a poor doggy). Scary shit.

Stay stay, stay sane.

Me? I'm fine, thanks for asking. I'm used to dealing with disappointments. I know how it hurts seeing our well-laid plans crumble to dust by a random snap of ill-luck. I understand that people we care and trust have their own set of issues and may sometimes not live up to our expectations.

Others? Well, that's who I'm worried about. The virus has really poisoned our hearts. We're more restless than ever. We're taking offence and hitting back quicker than usual. We're so caught up with our broken dreams and failed plans.

When the world is in chaos, that's really when we need to keep everything together. Watch what you say. Don't act on impulse. Keep calm. Don't lose hope.

I don't know when all this chaos and craziness will end. I don't how much longer our suffering will last.

But what I do know is that we should keep living. Keep trying. And above all, keep feeling good, like we should...