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  • Writer's pictureOw Yeong Wai Kit

Paying It Forward @ Learning Forward 2019

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Why would a bunch of Singaporean educators fly for 17 hours, travelling halfway around the world, just to attend a conference? It was of course a rare opportunity to establish contact with teachers, administrators and other education professionals from across the United States and beyond. Our Singapore delegation, led by officers from the Academy of Singapore Teachers, attended the Learning Forward conference held in St Louis, Missouri, in December 2019. Before the conference, our delegation also made a pit-stop in San Francisco, California, where we visited Stanford University and other educational institutions in the area.

At Stanford's

Our first stop was Stanford. The tour at the university’s renowned ‘’ introduced us to how design thinking could be usefully applied to educational contexts. One key takeaway for me was that students should not just rely on interviews (which can be a little transactional) as part of the information-gathering process but also observational empathy work. For instance, if students are designing a wheelchair, they need to spend time not just interviewing wheelchair-users but also experiencing what using their product would actually involve, besides simply observing users (like a fly on the wall). Prototyping (including storyboard prototyping) and constant testing are also critical. Design-thinking-based assessment rubrics further need to be integrated into traditional assessment protocols.

The's 'Safe by Design' course

Most of all, I was particularly impressed by the successful case study that our guide mentioned. This was about the Title 1 school (i.e. a school with a student base of which at least 40% come from low-income families) in Oakland, CA, that had a problem with student safety: through design thinking (i.e. workshopping with teachers, interviews, and observational empathy work), the school found that the place where students felt least safe were the hallways. That was where bullying was a problem. The teachers would never have known about that without interviewing and observing students. So the school decided to ‘hack the hallways’: they introduced teacher monitors, and put up pictures of not-so-visible students on the walls (with teachers nominating two students each time to be featured), so that students would feel more visible and more protected. I’m wondering whether more schools in Singapore could also enact similar processes to ensure that students feel heard and valued; perhaps design thinking could be a useful tool to promote more effective solutions to problems that we face in school today.

The presentations we attended were also illuminating. Michele Reinhart, Professional Development Associate and Instructional English Coach at Stanford’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, presented on “Leveraging Practice-Based Professional Development to Support Teaching & Learning”. She highlighted the importance of transformative professional learning, explaining how the gap between research and practice can be bridged (the metaphor of the Golden Gate Bridge, which we just visited the day before, was especially memorable!). Given that I’m serving as a Professional Development (PD) officer at the Academy of Singapore Teachers in 2020, I was intrigued to learn more about what such professional learning opportunities entailed. Michele’s reference to ‘a repertoire of practice’ (which, as she clarified, could be both individual and collective) reminded me of the routines and strategies showcased in the Singapore Teaching Practice, and in other sources like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0.

Presentation by Michele Reinhart

Such strategies would be helpful in preventing the kind of typical ‘gentle inquisitions’ (i.e. teacher-centred conversations that merely rehash what the teacher actually knows but still asks as if pretending to be in doubt; which I must confess I am sometimes still guilty of!). Genuine instructional conversations are so much more difficult to facilitate but so much more rewarding. I think most Singaporean educators (myself certainly included) have not heard of the Torshtalent video-commenting platform that Michele introduced. (One caveat, though, is that video-commentaries can be hugely time-consuming to make!) In any case, as Michele pointed out, we need to be intentional in the use of videos, whether as tools for self-monitoring or peer-critique, or even to play them to students so as to promote their metacognition.

Another presentation that we attended later that day was by Karin Forssell, director of the Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) master's program and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. One key point she made was that a maker mentality is far more important than just having tools like 3D printers and vinyl cutters. A true makerspace demands a transformation of the curriculum, pedagogy and mindsets of both students and teachers. My school currently doesn’t have a ‘makerspace’ (it sounds a little too avant-garde perhaps!) but maybe we will in future. As an English Literature and Language teacher, I was initially unsure about how relevant the makerspace session would be to me, but I was surprised to learn about how drama improvisational activities are actually conducted and welcomed by the Makery! The cross-disciplinary quality of Stanford’s institutes is clearly worthy of emulation.

Presentation by Karin Forssell

Karin also made a prescient point about inclusivity: students who are wheelchair-bound should have the opportunity to make their ideas tangible. This impulse to accommodate different learning needs and body types (which demands furniture that is height-adjustable, etc.) is praiseworthy but it imposes extra costs. Would Singapore schools be similarly willing to bear the costs of such investments when they benefit only a minority? In any case, sometimes little efforts can make a big difference. At the Makery, the use of nametags meant that it was easier to strike up a conversation; there was also writing on the board, which read: “When are there people to help me learn how to use the ‘things’? Always!” Such little gestures really promote a welcoming and friendly environment to learn and reach out to one another. I think we need more of such efforts in school too in order to foster a caring community of learners.

On a side note, I was very much impressed by the tour of Stanford University given by our undergraduate tour guide, Sophia. She was clear, knowledgeable, and approachable; her command of the school’s history and her entertaining accounts of campus life made her sound wiser than her years. I’m not sure whether our students would be similarly confident and eloquent! I think we need to do more to promote our students’ communication skills so that they can be effective ambassadors for their schools (or country!).

Tour of Stanford University

At the conference itself, the opening session I attended was PC111 Facilitation Skills for Group Effectiveness (by Jane Ellison and Michael Dolcemascolo)—the session alerted me to the wealth of frameworks, tools, techniques, moves and strategies that I knew next to nothing about. I was already familiar with Habits of Mind, but not with Cognitive Coaching and Adaptive Schools. Here was a whole world of strategies that I had to acquaint myself with; most of the other American participants indicated their familiarity with the frameworks when questioned via a show of hands. I clearly had much learning to catch up on! I would condense my learning from the session as a series of three points.

At PC111: Facilitation Skills for Group Effectiveness

Firstly, the importance of intentionality cannot be overstated. Having a clear sense of purpose is crucial for presenters and facilitators, but making this purpose explicit for participants is also critical. If we try to do it all, we risk losing our craftsmanship. One way is to keep the purpose (and agenda) visible throughout the entire process; during the seminar, a clipboard showing the agenda was constantly displayed. Also, the format of a presentation greatly depends on one’s intention. There is nothing wrong with a lecture per se if one’s intention is to deliver information in a really short amount of time and to do so authoritatively. But if one has the intention of motivating students or colleagues, other formats should be considered. For instance, a quartet-jigsaw approach could be considered: this would involve numbering the participants 1-4, dividing a reading task between them, before giving them time for reading, followed by a round-robin sharing. The point is that any presenter must begin with the end in mind (to paraphrase Stephen Covey) by thinking about the final outcomes with his or her audience.

Another key aspect to consider would be to ensure that our language is congruent with our intentionality. During the workshop, every commonplace term was questioned. For instance, ‘ice-breakers’ was a term that the facilitator virulently advised against; as he railed, “What does the term suggest about the people in your group? Are you really so distant from each other that there’s ‘ice’ between you?” Instead, he employed the term ‘inclusion strategies’. Whether we realize it or not, there are patterns of language that are congruent with our intentionality. While a prosecuting attorney might keep on questioning, an expert witness might keep on telling; we need to vary our styles if we are to be effective facilitators. If we have a problem with the effectiveness of our lessons or seminars, it might just be a problem with our language. Michael, the session facilitator, reminded us of a quotation commonly attributed to Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved at the level at which they were created.” Sometimes, we need to take a step back and observe exactly what kind of language we are using so that we can do so intentionally and mindfully.

Jane Ellison and Michael Dolcemascolo

Finally, I realized the importance of listening and reflection. Both activities seem passive and quiet, but they are instrumental to growth. Often, we’re not listening to understand; we’re listening to speak. It is so difficult to be truly present, and yet that is precisely what we must do to be effective teachers. We also need to avoid ‘serial advocacy’ (i.e. just offering a rapid rattle of ideas without organizing them or pausing to reflect on them); instead, we need to talk to ourselves first before we can talk to others. Only by ‘inking our thinking’ can we effectively build our capabilities and stretch ourselves to maximize our learning. Every lesson or seminar needs a ‘take-out’—an insight that the audience can immediately follow-up on. I had always known on a theoretical level that reflection was important, but it was not until this session that I realized just how vital it was for participants to actively construct meaning in the process of learning. (This applies for adults too—they are, in the words of Michael the presenter, simply learners in bigger bodies.) In my future lessons and seminars, I seek to consider how such insights can be applied as I lead teams at the Academy of Singapore Teachers. In particular, I will:

  • Stop -- employing clichéd expressions like “so what you’re saying is …”

  • Continue to -- attend fully to the situation, and listen to others with the intention to understand

  • Start -- making the paraphrase shorter than the original statement (when paraphrasing others during a facilitation session) [which may be difficult since I'm often so verbose!]

Session by Dr Marcia Tate

If that session focused on facilitation skills, the next one—entitled “‘Sit and Get’ Won’t Grow Dendrites” by Dr Marcia Tate—delved into the nuts and bolts of presentation skills. My sister attended this session during the Learning Forward conference two years ago; she was so enthusiastic about recommending it that I had to attend it myself just to ascertain why she had been so impressed.

I was clearly not disappointed. From the very beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by how Marcia took the effort to greet every single participant personally at the door, including myself. It was a friendly gesture that signaled warmth and pleasantness. There was also music playing that created just the right atmosphere for the session. Throughout the session, Marcia shared jokes, told stories, and conducted games and movement-based activities that had participants laughing, tearing, and dancing at once. Her session was also consistently rigorous and data-driven; her constant references to neuroscience further clarified the purpose and function of activities. Like Taylor Mali (poet extraordinaire and author of the renowned poem “What Teachers Make”), Marcia walked the talk—she modeled a whopping 16 out of the 20 strategies that she taught.

Participants engaged in a demonstration during Dr Tate's class

Comparing both Saturday’s and Sunday’s sessions, I realized both enacted the same technique of ‘Start without a Start’: they started right on the dot—as they explained, they emphasized punctuality because they took the feelings of participants into account. If they had not started on time, what would those on time think? (“There’s no need to be on time; I shouldn’t have been here on time then.”) And what about those who were not on time? (“I’m late and she still hasn’t started so it’s OK for me to be late.”) Instead, it’s beneficial to start anyway even if the class has not turned up, but with an activity that is beneficial for those who turned up on time. While Jane and Michael conducted a discussion activity straight after the break, Marcia told a joke; either way, there was a clear incentive to turn up on time (and she even played the song ‘Baby Come Back’ when the break was drawing to a close!).

Just observing Marcia, I realized that her showmanship and finesse boiled down to her command of both verbal and non-verbal cues, as clarified and demonstrated by Jane and Michael the day before (“Before they hear the words, they hear the tone”). Marcia effectively balanced both her approachable voice (when inviting responses) and her credible voice (when presenting facts). In terms of verbal techniques, she invoked multi-modalities, mnemonic devices (like ‘BOA’: Behaviour, Outcomes, Attitude), connected ideas using stories, and taught content in chunks, just to mention a few. The sheer number of sound bites she offered was impressive:

  • “The only person who should know more than a teacher about the brain is a neurosurgeon. We’re teaching brains every day.”

  • “Teaching is the greatest profession: you’re in the only profession that has an impact on every other profession.”

  • “Alone, you are smart; together, we are brilliant.”

With the phenomenal Dr Marcia Tate

Most of all, her non-verbal communication was phenomenal. Every ten minutes, I was up on my feet with the other participants, either with my 3/6/9/12 o’clock partner, or with my ‘family’ (those sitting at my table). At one point, I was even tossing a sponge ball as part of a game in front of all the other participants! In contrast, I wonder how many lessons in Singapore schools (or for that matter, even the seminars conducted for teachers) often still involve mere ‘sit-and-get’. One way that I’m considering to extend my learning is to apply these insights (of chunking, and incorporating movement-based activities) directly during any upcoming seminars or workshops that I may conduct in future. As Dr Tate would have us repeat three times to ourselves (and in front of one another): “I can do this!”

Continuing with workshops that focused on neuroscience, one such session was entitled “Teach the Way Brains Best Learn”, conducted by Kagan Professional Development. Kagan has had a long history of presenting such workshops; their techniques have also been taught in Singapore. Nevertheless, it was a useful workshop that not only covered Kagan techniques but also the science behind them: reviewing the 6 Principles of Brain-Friendly Teaching, participants learnt how to align our instruction to how the brain best learns—through structures. Such structures could include basic classroom management tools like hand signaling (as they pointed out, any attempt by a teacher to regain students’ attention that takes longer than five seconds is a classroom management issue).

At the session by Kagan Professional Development

But there are also a great variety of techniques and structures available: for instance, getting students to stand as the teacher polls the class (if the question applies to them) is a lot more effective than just getting them to raise their hands (and selecting only a few). After all, brains need constant nourishment—one quarter of all oxygen that the body requires goes to the brain—and movement helps to promote blood flow to that most vital organ. The brain also attends to novelty. Sometimes the curriculum can provide that novelty, but more often than not, it is how we teach (i.e. pedagogy) that really provides that novelty. If students look bored—with their mouths gaping open, or dozing off—it’s because those are brains that need oxygenation! Teachers need to conduct processing activities that engage the pre-frontal cortex, while allowing for constant brain breaks. These activities and breaks also don’t always have to take too long; sometimes, just five minutes (or even a minute) are all that are needed. One useful analogy that the facilitator used was that of a glass of water: if we keep pouring water into a glass, it begins to get full. Working memory is like water; we need to allow for regular processing of information so that the water level will drop and the water won’t overflow. Teachers thus need to check for understanding regularly and effectively using brain-friendly techniques.

Dr Lisa Lucas leading a session on neuroscience

Another session, on ‘The Neuroscience of Social and Emotional Teaching, Leading and Learning', was focused on managing the stressors that often afflict us in the course of everyday life for teaching and learning. As the main facilitator Dr Lisa Lucas explained, it is possible to shift from a physiology of threat (a system that keeps us safe from physical harm) to a physiology of mindfulness and compassion (involving caring, connecting and feeling safe). This would involve diminishing the influence of the amygdala (the cave-dweller brain) and maximizing the use of the pre-frontal cortex (the evolved higher brain). One of the most memorable aspects of the session was the use of metaphors and stories. In particular, the facilitator pointed out the negativity bias as described by Dr Rick Henson: while negative things tend to stick to us like Velcro, good things tend to slide off us like Teflon. It is vital to tame the frenzy of our minds by training our brains. Other aspects covered during the session included epigenetics (i.e. we can influence how and if our genes are expressed) and neuroplasticity (i.e. the brain mirrors our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes). Overall, the session offered useful reminders about the importance of conducting short activities that dilute or diminish negativity in school or at the workplace.

Dr Stanley Pogrow on how drama can be used to supercharge lessons

The afternoon session on ‘Supercharge Lessons and Teaching with Drama’ was focused on how to engage the YouTube generation in an age when so many distractions threaten to captivate their attention. One main insight was that teaching is essentially a performative activity. As the facilitator Dr Stanley Pogrow pointed out, every teacher should ideally have taken a course in theatre. In order to ensure that students, including the most resistant learners, are intrigued and engaged, instruction must become far more creative. Just one outrageous lesson per semester can have a profound effect on students. During this session, we analysed videos, discussed strategies, and practised designing one dramatic/outrageous lesson. Two of the participants also delivered dramatic readings of sample outrageous lessons! One insight from the session was clear: images of the mind can be far more ‘high-definition’ than even the most advanced video games. Indeed, the use of imagination is the most powerful teaching and learning technology that teachers can use to overcome student boredom and resistance.

Chris Holmes presenting about student apathy and motivation

The session entitled “Backtracking Apathy: The why and how of teaching motivation” was largely a sit-and-get session but it was still memorable and inspiring. The facilitator Chris Holmes conducted 235 interviews with students across 48 states to find out what exactly motivated and demotivated them. He offered a compelling analogy: businesses would go out of business if they did not do enough market research. As teachers, why don't we ask our students what they want or need as well? In his research, the facilitator found that students found some of the biggest obstacles in their motivation toward schoolwork to be: relationships (especially those with peers and teachers), lack of academic choice and surprisingly, teachers themselves (or more precisely, the lack of support and respect from teachers). Here are some of the most important lessons that American students felt they should have learnt (but often did not):

  • How to be happy

  • How to control your emotions (love, anger, impulsivity)

  • Social skills (how to get along, communicate)

  • Independence (how to ‘adult’ without adults)

  • Who you are (e.g. talents, purpose, meaning)

These topics have very little to do with academic content but a lot to do with socio-emotional skills. It is only through personal conversations with students that we can gain some insights into their concerns and needs in schools.

Poet Taylor Mali delivered a rousing keynote address

Finally, the keynote address by Taylor Mali on “The Flawed but Sacrosanct Odyssey of Teaching” was a true highlight that aptly concluded the conference. During the keynote address, I was enthralled by his humorous anecdotes, lively interaction with the audience and his impeccable sense of comic timing. It was not merely the substance of his speech that was engaging but also his style; his sincerity and congeniality were traits so palpable that even audience members who may not have been familiar with poetry would have been visibly moved. The poem that marked the finale of his speech was of course ‘What Teachers Make’ – the very poem that launched him into stardom.

The subsequent Q and A session with him was also illuminating. He shared techniques behind poetic composition, as well as behind-the-scenes stories of the poems that he had shared during his keynote address. Besides sharing about his favourite poem (‘The Lanyard’ by Billy Collins) to elaborating on his personal mission (to “make poetry cool again”), he offered anecdotes and poems, tickling the audience while autographing copies of his books. Personally, I found his philosophy of poetic composition to be compelling: as he explained, to turn pain into gold, the poet has to be engaged in a four-part process: revealing (i.e. some topic or object), reviling it (i.e. distancing oneself from it), reveling (i.e. rejoicing in it), and finally re-veiling it (i.e. to cover, though not to hide but to honour it, like the veiling of a bride). Such honest and heartfelt suggestions have been inspiring even for my own personal writing practice, which has been deepened by all the insights shared during this learning journey.

My fanboy moment with Taylor Mali

Reflecting on this trip, I’m deeply humbled to have had the opportunity to interact with so many eminent and inspiring American educators (alongside outstanding Singaporean teacher-companions!). In a way, I have been occupying a liminal state – part student, part teacher – by both observing and participating in such memorable professional development activities. It has been a deeply emotional journey for me: going to places I had never imagined I would ever get to visit, experiencing the culture, visiting local schools, and of course, meeting the people: these are precious memories. This has been, in Taylor Mali’s words, a ‘sacrosanct odyssey’ for me too – this journey to America has opened my eyes to a new understanding of what education truly entails, and the experience has been unforgettable.

Amidst freezing temperatures, these outstanding teachers made the journey so heartwarming

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