How Singapore junior college science teachers address curriculum reforms: A theory
The University of Western Australia
Using grounded theory research methodology, a theory was developed to explain how Singapore junior college science teachers implement educational reforms underpinning the key initiatives of the 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' policy. The theory suggests Singapore junior college science teachers 'deal with' implementing curriculum reforms by engaging in a three-stage process of individualised amelioration of teaching and learning. The argument is made that individual amelioration takes place because of an absence of fit between the reform initiatives and the demand on teachers to prioritise preparation of students for national examinations. This paper also discussed the teaching practices of Singapore junior college science teachers with regards to curriculum implementation in light of other scholarly works.
This paper reports a theory developed to explain how Singapore junior college science teachers 'deal with' the teaching of their science subjects under the '2006 revised junior college curriculum'. Scholars on educational change have observed that, internationally, teachers are increasingly being challenged with the responsibility of utilising student-centred pedagogies in the classroom and achieving quality grades in standardised examinations at the same time (see, for example, Towndrow et al., 2010). The theory developed in this study, therefore, has the potential towards advancing educational change literature and furthering educational research.
Conversely, teachers lacking in content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge will not be able to promote active learning in classrooms as these teachers are likely to teach by mere repetition and rote memorisation (Johnston & Ahtee, 2006). It has been argued that acquiring new knowledge for innovative science teaching is dependent on personal and institutional factors (Davis, 2003). Therefore, the acquisition of knowledge for effective implementation of educational initiatives may not be a straightforward process.
The challenge of engaging students
Teachers also face challenges in achieving active learning amongst students when using 'progressive' teaching techniques. It has been reported that students generally prefer teachers to provide them with facts and knowledge and solutions to problems as they believe that knowledge acquired directly from teachers is 'more trustworthy' vis-ą-vis the knowledge learnt through 'collaboration' with their fellow classmates (Baeten et al., 2010; Lewis & Reinders, 2008). Moreover, students accustomed to rote learning often do not appreciate and understand teachers' efforts in promoting active inquiry in the classrooms.
Fear and anxiety in the learning of science may also result in students exhibiting reluctance and resistance towards the use of student-centred learning approaches, and instead rely heavily on teachers to transmit conceptual knowledge. Students generally regard science as a difficult subject to study (Lyons, 2006; Bennett, 2003; Osborne, Simon & Collins, 2003), and it is common to find students exhibiting anxiety towards the learning of science (Udo, Ramsey & Mallow, 2004). The level of students' anxiety in the learning of science is related to their self-efficacy beliefs (Britner & Pajares, 2006; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003), and students are likely to exhibit more enthusiasm participating in student-centred learning activities in the presence of a safe, supportive and caring environment (Rosiek, 2003).
The challenge of working with insufficient time and limited resources
Teachers are often confronted with the issues of working with insufficient time and limited resources for teaching new content as well as organising innovative and creative lessons in the classrooms (Cheung, 2008). Such constraints influence teachers' pedagogical choices. For example, in a rush to complete the required syllabus, which is often the primary objective of classroom lessons, teachers are likely to resort to the traditional way of teaching by factual reproduction of concepts and formulae instead of guiding students through inquiry-based learning (Cheung, 2008). In addition to insufficient instructional time, teachers may also experience a lack of time for lesson preparation especially in planning for student-centred activities (Rigano & Ritchie, 2003) as well as ICT learning activities (Bennett, 2003).
Teachers 'forced' to implement initiatives that they believe to be ineffective in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms may exhibit negative feelings of scepticism, frustration and discontent (Bantwini, 2010). Furthermore, teachers are often confronted with other work priorities so that they do not have the opportunity to understand the significance of the initiatives they are implementing (Fullan, 2007), and this contributes to teachers' resistance towards educational change.
Congruence between educational initiatives and teachers' professional orientations
Teachers whose professional orientations correlate to the intended educational initiatives are likely to implement these initiatives with great fervour (Watson & Manning, 2008). Congruence between the intended educational initiatives and teachers' professional orientations is perceived as reinforcement to teachers' personal identities (van Veen & Sleegers, 2006). Educational reforms that emphasise inquiry-based learning are fully implemented by teachers possessing a "student-and learning-centred orientation" towards teaching (van Veen & Sleegers, 2006, p.92). However, such reforms are, at best, partially implemented by teachers exhibiting a "teacher- or content-centred orientation" towards teaching (van Veen & Sleegers, 2006, p.92).
Sense of ownership
Teachers do not wish to be mere implementers of curriculum initiatives; teachers want to be consulted on the prospective changes to curriculum matters (Evers & Arató, 2004; Salleh, 2003). Teachers' sense of ownership towards curriculum initiatives is therefore critical towards the successful implementation of these initiatives (Evers & Arató, 2004; Vidovich & O'Donoghue, 2003). Elizondo-Montemayor and co-workers (2008) observe that teachers are more engaged and are more successful in implementing curriculum changes when they are involved at the planning stage of the curriculum revisions.
Moreover, implementation of educational initiatives proceeds in stages and teachers experience a different set of 'change characteristics' at each stage (Collet, Menlo & Rosenblatt, 2004). Each set of 'change characteristics' is likely to influence teachers' classroom practices.
Theoretical sampling was used in this study. A group of seven science teachers was selected to provide the first set of data. Maximum variation sampling (Mertens, 1998), with variation in the teaching subject, gender and years of teaching experience, was used to select these teachers. A second group of participants comprising five science teachers was then recruited to provide a new set of data to contribute to emerging themes and propositions. The demographics of the 12 teachers are shown in Table 1.
|First Group of|
|Second Group of|
Having two groups of teachers allowed theoretical sensitivity and theoretical saturation to be established in the study which in turn ensured that the developed theory met demands of being grounded in data, conceptually dense and well integrated (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). It is acknowledged that this was a small-scale study, involving just twelve junior college science teachers in a junior college. However, the participant group was deliberately selected to provide diversity in age and teaching experience and to cover the range of subject areas affected by the revised junior college curriculum. Thus, in these important ways, the sample offered a representation of the body of junior college science teachers in Singapore.
To illustrate the process of data analysis, samples of the memos and diagrams constructed in this study are provided in Figures 1 to 6.
Figure 1: Generation of concepts from interview transcripts
Figure 2: Categorising of concepts during open coding
Figure 3: Diagramming memo generated during axial coding
Figure 4: Theoretical memo generated during axial coding
Figure 5: Diagramming memo generated during selective coding
Figure 6: Theoretical memo generated during selective coding
Figure 7: Conceptualisation of challenges encountered by Singapore junior college science teachers
In this study, it emerged that the science teachers endeavoured to overcome the challenges to achieving their priority objectives by individually adopting measures to improve teaching and learning. This phenomenon constitutes the second stage of the theory. Measures put in practice during this stage can be categorised in terms of 'knowledge expansion', 'resource consolidation' and 'pedagogical adaptation'. The science teachers expand their knowledge mainly through consulting reference books, learning from fellow colleagues and attending in-service courses.
In addition, the science teachers consolidate teaching and learning resources through: active referral and utilisation of materials from university-based textbooks and internet portals for teaching content and planning instructional activities; compilation of 'practice questions' from past examination papers and examiners' reports for 'routine tests' and tutorials; and by 're-fitting' and 're-assembling' syllabus topics into a 'coherent' content. The following remarks by the study participants are presented to support the aforementioned assertions:
...the first level of things that I will do will be to obviously go for the in-service courses, H2 and H3 courses, which will give me some idea, to some extent, on teaching the new syllabus [sic]. (Diane, Physics teacher)The science teachers also adapt their pedagogical practices in order to teach the revised science curriculum effectively to their students. Examples of these practices include: use of 'conceptual' questions; ICT-based learning; inquiry-based learning; use of 'thinking' questions; 'hands-on' experiential learning; group learning; routine tests; remedial; use of demonstrations; developing skills in answering examination questions; as well as 'Socratic' questioning.
I will find 'pictures' and 'diagrams' from books and even 'applets' from the internet to help the students understand the abstract concepts I am teaching. These 'diagrams' and 'applets' help the students to visualise the concepts. (Margaret, Physics teacher)
I just plan according to what I think will help the students in their understanding. It also depends on the students. You can skip certain parts if they know the content, but for the weaker students you have to teach more, sometimes you have to teach what is not in the syllabus to help them understand. (Sophie, Chemistry teacher)
The adapted classroom practices can be described in terms of the roles science teachers assume and the approaches they use to teach their science subjects. The role is of a 'Knowledge-Transmitter' or 'Knowledge-Synthesiser' in the classroom, with delivery of science lessons in a 'teacher-directed' or 'student-directed' manner. These four descriptors further establish four quadrants of pedagogical practice, as shown in Figure 8, which maps the typical classroom practices of science teachers in the teaching and learning of their science subjects under the new revisions.
Figure 8: The four quadrants of pedagogical practices
Drawing on study findings, the third stage of the theory proposes that Singapore junior college science teachers individually refine the measures they have adopted to ameliorate the teaching and learning of their science subjects under the revised curriculum. This refinement is accomplished through 'filling up gaps' in the knowledge and materials obtained from the course of knowledge expansion, modifying and filtering teaching materials obtained through resource consolidation and pedagogical re-adaptation within the four quadrants of pedagogical practices. 'Modification' and 'filtration' of teaching resources were necessary so that these consolidated materials were, in the words of the participants, 'at the correct level of study'. The following remark by a study participant is presented to illustrate the process of pedagogical re-adaptation:
I have a class which is very rowdy. When I first tried to deliver a teacher-centred way of teaching for the difficult topics, it couldn't work. I cannot get the students to focus. So I get them to discuss in groups and I find that they are able to focus better. Therefore I will use this way of teaching for that particular class. (Bert, Physics teacher)As the science teachers re-adapt their pedagogical practices, they move within a particular quadrant or across quadrants of pedagogical practice depicted in Figure 8.
Subsidiary proposition one: Contrary to the emphasis on holistic development of students by the initiatives underpinning the '2006 revised junior college curriculum', junior college science teachers, when delivering their science subjects, focus primarily on teaching students for examinations and developing students' content knowledge.
In support of this proposition, it was determined in the study that in direct contrast to the approaches emphasised by the initiatives underpinning the revised junior college curriculum, participants sought to generate 'recitational' knowledge, that is, the "ability to recite facts on demand, to recognise correct answers on multiple-choice tests, to define terms correctly, and to be good test-takers" (Glasgow and Hicks, 2003, pp.56-57).
Subsidiary proposition two: The pedagogical practices of Singapore junior college science teachers in teaching their science subjects are rooted in the 'Expert-Formal Authoritative' instructional approach, and this approach is externally imposed rather than intrinsically motivated.
Notwithstanding the variation in classroom activities during the teaching and learning of the revised science curriculum, study participants consistently grounded their pedagogical practices in the 'Expert-Formal Authority' instructional approach, whereby the teacher assumes a status as an 'expert' knowledge dispenser and maintains a standardised way of knowledge acquisition in the classroom. A description of the 'Expert-Formal Authority' instructional approach and the parallelism between this approach and that of the science teachers' classroom practices is provided in Table 2.
|Expert-Formal Authoritative||Singapore junior college science|
teachers' teaching approach
|Teacher possesses knowledge and expertise students need||Teacher is the 'undisputed' dispenser of knowledge which the students assimilate|
|Emphasises comprehension of concepts||Emphasises developing students' content knowledge in accordance to examination requirements|
|Gives detailed and succinct answers to assigned tasks||Provides detailed solutions to tutorial and past examinations questions|
|Maintains a standardised way of completing assigned tasks||Maintains a specific way of answering examination questions (so as to meet examiners' expectations)|
|Sets clear goals and objectives||Sets specific academic targets which are measured by a quantitative indicator called 'value-addedness'|
|Source: Grasha (2002, 1996)|
As explained earlier, 'Pedagogical Adaptation' is one of the key measures the science teachers employ in the second stage of individualised amelioration of teaching and learning. 'Pedagogical Adaptation' further results in establishing four quadrants of pedagogical practices, with each quadrant associating with a particular approach of teaching the science subjects. These four quadrants of pedagogical practices are, however, predicated on the 'Expert-Formal Authoritative' instructional approach.
Subsidiary proposition three: Singapore junior college science teachers take measures to build their craft knowledge to teach the revised science curriculum effectively, and this knowledge is made up of two other bodies of knowledge, namely 'subject matter content knowledge' and 'examination matter content knowledge'.
The teacher participants of this study typically recognised a need to acquire new sets of craft knowledge to teach the revised science curriculum, due to changes in the curriculum content and examination format. 'Subject matter content knowledge' refers to the conceptual knowledge of the science subjects the science teachers are teaching, while 'examination matter content knowledge' concerns the type of questions that are likely to be asked in the national examinations as well as the skills to answer these questions to examiners' expectations. A good knowledge in the 'subject matter' and 'examination matter' was perceived by participants as essential towards developing students' content knowledge and 'recitational' knowledge - the knowledge needed to excel in the national examinations.
Subsidiary proposition four: Singapore junior college science teachers individually evaluate the measures they have adopted to ameliorate the situation of teaching and learning the science subjects to ensure effectiveness towards developing students' content knowledge and 'recitational' knowledge, and this 'self-evaluation' eventuates in a refinement of the measures in response to actual classroom contexts.
From the study, it was surmised that the measures science teachers adopt in the second stage of individualised amelioration of teaching and learning result from the 'interaction' between the teachers' existing cognitive structures and their individual understanding and interpretation of the teaching and learning situation. The interaction transpires in the form of an individual assessment of teaching effectiveness based on the measures the individual science teachers adopt to overcome the challenges towards preparing students for the national examinations. Teaching effectiveness is evaluated in terms of three components, namely, 'Craft Knowledge', 'Teaching Methods' and 'Teaching Resources'. These three components correlate to the measures the science teachers adopt in the second stage of individualised amelioration of teaching and learning with 'Craft Knowledge' relating to 'Knowledge Expansion'; 'Teaching Resources' to 'Resource Consolidation', and 'Teaching Methods' to 'Pedagogical Adaptation'.
Subsidiary proposition five: Teaching and learning of science under the '2006 revised junior college curriculum' happens in the 'Realist' paradigm of education punctuated with 'pockets' of 'Progressivism' pedagogies.
Based on these perspectives and actions of participants in the study, it is reasonable to posit that teaching and learning of the revised science curriculum happens mainly in the 'Realist' paradigm of education. The characteristics of such a paradigm are provided in Table 3.
|Realist paradigm of education|
|Emphasis on developing students' reasoning powers and cognitive abilities at the expense of other aspects of students' development.|
Lesson materials are presented in an orderly and organised manner, and content is based on facts, reason and practical use.
Clearly defined criteria in subject-matter are taught to students, and students are formally assessed in standardised achievement tests.
The teacher is an expert in the subject; he or she is skilful in explaining the contents to the students and in assessing the students' understanding.
Routine tests are used to assess students' progress in learning.
|Source: Tan, C (2006a, 2006b)|
As shown in Table 2, Singapore junior college science teachers are likely to adopt the 'Expert-Formal Authoritative' instructional approach when teaching their science subjects under the revised junior college science curriculum. Figure 9 below further amalgamates Tables 2 and 3, and extrapolates the 'Expert-Formal Authoritative' instructional approach to the 'Realist' educational paradigm.
As clearly shown in Figure 9, the individualised amelioration of teaching and learning of the revised curriculum involves the use of the 'Expert-Formal Authoritative' instructional approach, and this approach follows the 'Realist' paradigm of education.
Notwithstanding the dominancy of a 'Realist' educational paradigm in the teaching and learning of science under the revised junior college curriculum, the study found 'pockets' of 'progressive' pedagogy in the teaching and learning of the revised curriculum, albeit confined within the 'Expert-Formal Authoritative' learning environment.
Insufficient time and lack of resources are commonly cited by researchers as the major obstacles towards implementing curriculum changes (see, for example, Cheung, 2008; Bennett, 2003). Liew (2005) has called for more research on how teachers 'deal with' these challenges. In respect to this study, science teachers 'deal with' these challenges through 'Pedagogical Adaptation' and 'Resource Consolidation' respectively. In addition, to tailor to the needs of their students, the science teachers are likely to 're-adapt' their pedagogical practices as well as 'modify' and 'filter' the resources they have consolidated.
Figure 9: Extrapolation of Singapore junior college science teachers' instructional approach
The theory developed in this study reinforces the position maintained by Shaver and co-workers (2007) that teachers working in high-stakes examination system are ultimately concerned with the impact of educational initiatives on students' academic grades. Findings in this study indicate that initiatives which underpin the new educational framework in Singapore junior colleges, such as 'Teach Less, Learn More' and 'Innovation and Enterprise', are difficult to realise while examination grades continue to serve as the sole determinant of both the teachers' and students' capabilities. These findings support the call (for example, by Tan & Ng, 2005) for attention to be channelled towards broadening the definition of success in college education in Singapore. Students in Singapore junior colleges are still formally assessed by a unilateral written examination system. In addition, the examination is 'episodic', meaning that the examination is performed on a "single occasion" and in a "controlled environment" (Tan, K, 2006, p.118). As the theory that was presented here suggests, such practices induce Singapore junior college science teachers to orient their teaching to 'training' students, through routine tests, for the examinations. Thus, the current examination system is a significant barrier to the adoption of student-centred and inquiry-oriented instructional approaches in the teaching and learning of science in Singapore junior colleges. Policymakers could consider alternative forms of assessment, for example the proposal by local researcher Kelvin Tan (2006) to replace episodic assessment with the portfolio to create 'extended assessment'.
The theory developed in this study does not support the assertion by Smith and Southerland (2007, p.418) that the internally constructed beliefs teachers hold can "override" teaching contexts. On the evidence of the study, it appears that Singapore junior college science teachers' preferred classroom practices are likely to be 'overridden' by the exigency to prepare students for national examinations through the 'traditional' way of 'drill and practice' of 'mock examinations'. Meister (2010) argues for the strong impact of classroom and societal norms on teacher implementation of educational initiatives. This was in evidence in the study. The educational culture and societal expectation on Singapore junior college science teachers to deliver quality examination results undermine their efforts to put in practice initiatives such as 'Teach Less, Learn More' and 'Innovation and Enterprise'.
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|Authors: Dr Patrick Lim was a doctoral research student in the Graduate School of Education of The University of Western Australia. He currently teaches university foundation studies. Email: email@example.com
Dr David Pyvis is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Media, Communications and Culture of Curtin University.
Please cite as: Lim, P. & Pyvis, D. (2012). How Singapore junior college science teachers address curriculum reforms: A theory. Issues In Educational Research, 22(2), 127-148. http://www.iier.org.au/iier22/lim.html