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Issues In Educational Research, 2012, Vol 22(2), 127-148.
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How Singapore junior college science teachers address curriculum reforms: A theory

Patrick Lim
The University of Western Australia

David Pyvis
Curtin University

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.


Though our understanding of educational change has improved significantly over the last few decades, educators today are still facing the challenge of effecting successful educational change in schools (Hargreaves, 2005). Notwithstanding the vast collection of empirical studies on change implementation, generalisation and application of research findings from one country to another or from one educational sector to another are problematic and difficult due to diverse social, cultural, economic and political contexts (Fink & Stoll, 2005). More interpretive research is still needed to examine the "dynamics of the interrelationships of the many factors" embedded within the diverse contexts of educational change (Anderson & Helms, 2001, p.12). In light of the aforementioned scholarly advice and concerns, a study was undertaken to examine Singapore junior college science teachers' pedagogical practices in the implementation of curriculum reforms underpinning the 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' vision. More than a decade has passed since the unveiling of this new vision for education in Singapore, a nation which places strong emphasis on examination meritocracy for economic success (Zakaria, 2006).

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.

Background and context to the study

New direction for education in Singapore

With the emergence of knowledge-driven economies, the Singapore government recognised the need to re-orient the purpose and practice of teaching and learning in Singapore (Luke et al., 2005; Gopinathan, 2001). Subsequently, the policy of 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' was pronounced. The policy aimed to use education to develop students into creative thinkers, life-long learners and leaders of change (Ministry of Education of Singapore, 2006) Two particular expressions of the policy were 'Teach Less, Learn More' and 'Innovation and Enterprise'. These key initiatives emphasised the use of innovative teaching approaches to engage students in their learning (Ministry of Education of Singapore, 2006; Deng & Gopinathan, 2005).

Junior college education in Singapore

Junior colleges in Singapore were established with the aim of providing a rigorous two-year pre-university education. In Singapore, a junior college is perceived to offer a more direct path towards university education as compared to other post-secondary educational choices (Goh, 2002; Tan & Ho, 2001). Junior colleges adopt a lecture-tutorial system which serves as a gradual introduction to tertiary education and aims to develop independent learning and self-discipline in students. At the end of the two-year course in junior colleges, students sit for the 'General Certificate of Education Advanced Level Examination'. Admission to local universities in Singapore is determined by the grades students obtain in this national examination.

New demands on Singapore junior college science teachers

Singapore traditionally maintained a teacher-centric approach to education (Tan, C, 2008) and junior college education was not an exception. For junior college science teachers, the new philosophies of 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' were presented through the '2006 revised junior college curriculum', which approached reform by seeking to engage teachers as well as students in active learning and in experimenting with new ways of thinking, doing and solving problems (Tan, C, 2006a). Under the new educational paradigm, traditional teaching methods such as 'drill and practice', 'one-size-fits-all' instruction, and providing 'standard formulae and model answers' were regarded as undesirable and were to be discontinued in schools (Contact - The Teachers' Digest Issue 03, October 2005). It was intended that these methods be replaced by 'progressive' pedagogical approaches, such as collaborative learning and differentiated teaching, as well as the use of ICT in teaching and learning. In addition, new science content was introduced into the revised curriculum.

Overview of the literature

The outcome of the implementation of curriculum initiatives depends on what teachers 'do and think' with regards to these initiatives (Fullan, 2007). In particular, what teachers 'do and think' with regards to putting in practice the intended curriculum initiatives is determined by the challenges teachers encounter during the implementation process as well as the meanings teachers ascribe to the initiatives. The review of literature pertaining to this study is, thus, organised in three parts. The first part discusses the challenges teachers face when implementing educational initiatives. The second part examines the meanings teachers ascribe to intended curriculum initiatives. The third part reports the theoretical propositions asserted by researchers on how teachers implement educational change. These three bodies of literature collectively provided the necessary conceptualisation and contextualisation of this study.

Challenges teachers face when implementing educational change

The challenge of acquiring new professional knowledge
For the successful implementation of curriculum initiatives that espouse 'progressive' pedagogies, teachers need to be proficient in the following three areas of professional knowledge: subject matter content knowledge; pedagogical knowledge; and pedagogical content knowledge (Chen, 2008; Salloum & BouJaoude, 2008). These three forms of knowledge are inter-related, as a good pedagogical content knowledge requires teachers to be strong in their content knowledge and to be able to understand the subject-related learning difficulties students are likely to encounter (Salloum & BouJaoude, 2008). Science teachers strong in their subject matter content knowledge are more effective in promoting higher-order critical thinking skills in their students as the teachers are able to "ask cognitive challenging questions" and "pick up students misconceptions" (Childs & McNicholl, 2007, p.1632).

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).

Meanings teachers ascribe towards educational initiatives

Benefits to teaching and learning
Teachers are primarily concerned with how the intended educational initiatives improve teaching and learning in the classrooms. Educational initiatives that are perceived to be able to help students attain better results in the examinations are implemented with much enthusiasm by teachers (Churchill & Williamson, 2004; Fishman & Krajcik, 2003). On the other hand, teachers are likely to abort initiatives that they regard as 'threats' to achieving quality academic grades in examinations (Owston, 2007).

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.

Theoretical understandings on how teachers implement educational initiatives

In the process of implementing curriculum changes, teachers are likely to make adaptations to the intended initiatives (Churchill & Williamson, 2004). Teachers make adaptations to instructional materials as well as to their teaching practices in order to meet classroom needs (Spektor-Levy, Eylon & Scherz, 2008; Drake & Sherin, 2006). Furthermore, according to Luehman (cited in Barab & Luehman, 2003), the teachers' pattern of adaptation may involve the following steps: identification of classroom needs; assessment of intended initiatives in light of the identified needs; visualisation of the implementation procedures; and finalisation of implementation plans.

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.

The study

Theoretical framework

The study was developed within the research paradigm of interpretivism and was anchored in the social theory of symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism rests on three basic premises (Blumer, 1969, pp.2-5). The first premise is: "human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them". The second premise is: "the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows". The third premise is "these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he [sic] encounters" (ibid., pp2-5) The central research question was: How do Singapore junior college science teachers 'deal with' the teaching of their science subjects under the '2006 revised junior college science curriculum'? The concept of how individuals 'deal with' a particular situation is consistent with the theoretical underpinnings widely articulated within symbolic interactionism (O'Donoghue, 2007). A 'deal with' study is ultimately concerned with revealing the perspectives of the participants with regards to a specific phenomenon and the actions the participants take in light of their perspectives.


The research question was pursued by addressing five specific aims which drew on Blumer's three premises of symbolic interactionism. The five specific aims were as follows. Guiding questions, as listed in Appendix A, were constructed to address the specific aims. The guiding questions were not put forth to the participants as phrased, but reworded into conversational data collection questions. The data collection questions were initially general in scope and were restructured when themes were discovered from the interviews.

Research methodology

Grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) was used as the research methodology because grounded theory shares the theoretical foundations contained within symbolic interactionism (O'Donoghue, 2007; Neuman, 2006). Moreover, grounded theory methodology best addressed the research aim of building substantive theory concerning a phenomenon that was oriented towards "action and process" (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p.38), that is, teachers' implementation of curriculum initiatives. A grounded theory study does not require multi-sites but rather "events and incidents that are indicative" of the phenomena that is being studied (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p.190). This study was conducted in one government junior college in Singapore.

Theoretical sampling and selection of participants

There were 43 science teachers teaching in the junior college, of which 18 were physics teachers, 19 were chemistry teachers, and six were biology teachers. The science teachers were deployed according to their subjects of specialisation. All the science teachers were university graduates, majoring in a particular science discipline (that is, physics, chemistry or biology). In addition, each of them had formal training in education and teaching. As a junior college provides a two-year pre-university course, the teachers were further divided into two sections, with each section teaching a particular cohort of students. Thus, at any one particular academic year, one section of teachers would be teaching the 'Year One' students while another section of teachers teaching the 'Year Two' students. The science teachers only taught one science subject, which was their subject of specialisation. Each teacher was given at least three tutorial classes of students and each class consisted of about 25 students.

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.

Table 1: Demographics of the research participants

AgeGenderYears of
teaching experience
First Group of
Science Teachers
DianeEarly 30sFemale7Physics
MargaretLate 20sFemale6
MichaelLate 50sMale25
JaneLate 20sFemale1Biology
NancyLate 20sFemale5
MartinLate 20sMale5Chemistry
DeniseMid 20sFemale3
Second Group of
Science Teachers
BertLate 30sMale12Physics
CindyEarly 20sFemale2
SophieLate 50sFemale25Chemistry
MarianneEarly 20sFemale0.5
MelissaMid 20sFemale4Biology

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.

Data collection and data analysis

The primary sources of data in this study were semi-structured interviews, classroom observations and teachers' record books. The secondary sources of data included official records and public documents such as ministerial releases. Data analysis comprised three major levels of coding, open coding, axial coding and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). While coding of the collected data was generally done in stages from open to axial and then to selective, there was interweaving between the three stages. Coding was done directly on the transcripts, field notes and related documents. Memos and diagrams (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) were used in all the three levels of coding.

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

Figure 1: Generation of concepts from interview transcripts

Figure 2

Figure 2: Categorising of concepts during open coding

Figure 3

Figure 3: Diagramming memo generated during axial coding

Figure 4

Figure 4: Theoretical memo generated during axial coding

Figure 6

Figure 5: Diagramming memo generated during selective coding

Figure 6

Figure 6: Theoretical memo generated during selective coding

Figure 7

Figure 7: Conceptualisation of challenges encountered by Singapore junior college science teachers

Study outcome

The theory

From the analysis of data pertaining to the perspectives and approaches of all the study participants, a theory was developed and this theory was that: Singapore junior college science teachers 'deal with' the teaching of their science subjects under the '2006 revised junior college curriculum' through a three-stage sequence of individualised amelioration of teaching and learning. In the first stage, the science teachers encountered a set of challenges in delivering the revised curriculum according to the prescribed requirements. This set of challenges was conceptualised as shown in Figure 7.

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)

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 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.

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

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 propositions

Subsidiary propositions were developed to support the theory in explicating how the science teachers 'deal with' specific issues that are intricately connected with delivering their science subjects under the revised curriculum.

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.

Table 2: Expert-Formal Authoritative teaching approach and Singapore
junior college science teachers' teaching approach

Expert-Formal AuthoritativeSingapore junior college science
teachers' teaching approach
Teacher possesses knowledge and expertise students needTeacher is the 'undisputed' dispenser of knowledge which the students assimilate
Emphasises comprehension of conceptsEmphasises developing students' content knowledge in accordance to examination requirements
Gives detailed and succinct answers to assigned tasksProvides detailed solutions to tutorial and past examinations questions
Maintains a standardised way of completing assigned tasksMaintains a specific way of answering examination questions (so as to meet examiners' expectations)
Sets clear goals and objectivesSets 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.

Table 3: Characteristics of a Realist paradigm of education

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.


Findings from this study suggest that Singapore junior college science teachers' pedagogical choices seem to support the position adopted by Wu and Huang (2007) that teachers vary their instructional approaches to meet classroom needs. Teachers and students feel comfortable to engage in inquiry-oriented, instructional activities only when the topics that are being learnt can be easily digested by the students. The practice of focusing on developing students' content knowledge and 'recitational' content knowledge by the science teachers in teaching the revised curriculum, as highlighted in the theory, exemplifies what McCain (2005, p.14) means when he asserts that teachers have "little choice but to focus on content delivery" when 'dealing with' a massive curriculum.

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

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'.


Drawing on empirical research, this paper has posited a theory of how junior college science teachers in Singapore 'deal with' educational reforms underpinning the 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' vision. Developed through the use of grounded theory research methodology, the theory suggests that the science teachers' pedagogical practices in teaching a new curriculum occur in stages, shifting from problem identification to practice amendment and finally practice refinement, and that individualised amelioration occurs because of contextual realities encountered by the teachers. The argument is that science teachers in Singapore junior colleges are responding to new demands and dictates through a process of individual amelioration of teaching and learning practice. Essentially, they are forced to make practical accommodations when they find new teaching and learning initiatives incompatible with sought outcomes. It also seems very clear that the goals of 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' will not be fully achieved within the Singapore junior college system without changes to the status and nature of national examinations.

Appendix A: Guiding questions for addressing specific aims

This is available in the file http://www.iier.org.au/iier22/lim-appendix.pdf


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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: plim@eynesbury.sa.edu.au

Dr David Pyvis is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Media, Communications and Culture of Curtin University.
Email: d.pyvis@curtin.edu.au

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

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