Would the US take over the education system in Singapore?

PISA front runner : Singapore: The stronghold of teacher training

Every Tuesday afternoon, the six math teachers from the 9th grade of the school I visited this week meet on the outskirts of Singapore. For one to one and a half hours they sit tightly packed together in a small conference room, each with his or her laptop. They plan projects, discuss their experiences and consider how they can improve the lessons for their students. I am invited to attend their meeting this Tuesday.

The team explains to me that they are working on an exponential growth modeling project unit. The idea: The students in groups of two should keep a slice of toast in a transparent plastic bag and measure the growth of the mold that has spread on the bread over a period of several weeks. Then ask them to find a function that best describes the growth.

For the past few weeks, each teacher has tried the experiment at home, each with a different type of toast. Today they present their results and discuss how best to structure this assignment for the classes. One teacher takes the view that one should provide different functions to choose from in order to avoid that the students choose the wrong function type, for example a quadratic function.

Subject teachers discuss their lessons together

Ms. K. leads the discussion and has a different opinion: “We are not helicopter parents who chew everything in front of the youngsters. Even if it is the wrong type of function - we have to appreciate what they come up with as long as it is based on the measured data. ”Possible discussion questions for the class are discussed: Why does the toast need to be sprinkled with a little dust beforehand? What factors contribute to mold growth? How much mold will there be after 100 days? A trick question because the function predicts more mold surface than there is bread.

At the end of the session, I am amazed at the high quality of the didactic discussion that I have just attended. For ten minutes the teachers debated the wording of a question and I learned a lot - not just about teaching in Singapore, but about good math lessons in general.

Professional learning communities are the rule

During my internships at other schools in Singapore, I learn that scenes like this are not the exception, but the rule. All the teachers I speak to participate in such weekly working groups. This type of intensive collaboration is part of a national strategy to improve the quality of teaching nationwide.

Such so-called “Professional Learning Communities”, in German professional learning communities - a model from the US American further education research - are sometimes organized according to subjects, sometimes according to grade levels. Some groups work interdisciplinary on a didactic idea that the teachers want to try out, e.g. B. digitally supported exam formats. All implementations have in common that the meetings are firmly planned in the teachers' timetables.

Sometimes the topics are set up as research questions in which teachers record their class observations and collect data on learning success. Every year, the college, together with the school management, determines different priorities. The results of the learning communities can then be presented in pedagogical conferences in their own school or in a cluster of around twelve schools.

Ms. K., who is also my contact person at her school, explains to me that the learning communities are only part of the training program at schools in Singapore. All teachers are entitled to 100 hours of continuing education per year, which count as paid working time. Regular training for the entire staff or for individual departments is firmly anchored in the timetable. In addition, there are many opportunities for collegial observation. This is made possible by the fact that the teaching obligation is often around a third less than in Germany.

Further training offers opportunities for professional advancement

Singapore has also reimagined career advancement opportunities for teachers. In the past, when a teacher wanted to advance, this usually meant taking on additional administrative tasks. As in most school systems, the tasks of long-term teachers hardly differed from those of young professionals.

When teachers choose the didactic career, with each advancement level they take on more responsibility for continuing education in their school and in the wider Singapore teaching community

The ministry therefore introduced a didactic career, the so-called “teaching track”, as a counterpart to the classic school management career. When teachers choose the didactic career, with each advancement level they take on more responsibility for continuing education in their school and in the wider Singapore teaching community. The first stage is that of the "Senior Teacher". With a slightly reduced teaching obligation, a senior teacher works primarily as a mentor for young teachers or for colleagues who want to embark on a didactic career themselves. They are the quorum members who most often open their classroom doors to others to demonstrate new teaching methods.

One level above is the position of “lead teacher”, which in terms of reputation and pay is the same as that of a deputy head teacher. As one of three lead teachers at the school, Ms. K. has specialized in didactics for particularly talented students. She is heavily involved in in-house training courses, coaches more experienced teachers and shares her knowledge with other schools in the same cluster - all without administrative or supervisory tasks. Her goal, she tells me, is to become a so-called “Master Teacher”. In this position she would help determine the orientation of the training courses for her specialization for the whole country.

Learn from abroad in basic and advanced training

In terms of training and further education, Singapore often relies on bringing the best ideas from abroad into its own system. For example, all prospective school principals are required to attend the education system of another country. At a Singapore school, I am being looked after by a young elementary school teacher who recently completed his master’s degree at Harvard - with a full state scholarship for student teachers.

In order to qualify for her current position, Ms. K. took a sabbatical year in her early 40s to study at Columbia University in New York, one of the most renowned universities in the USA. During her master’s degree, she wanted to bring herself up to date with the latest teaching and learning research. Her conclusion: While the West wants to learn from the East how to improve subject-matter skills in the classroom, the East tries to learn from the West how to teach in a more problem-oriented manner. Projects like the toast bread project described at the beginning, which are now typical in Singapore, are also under this symbol.

Nevertheless, the teacher emphasizes, great attention is paid to the balance between such application projects and a solid professional foundation laid by carefully planned and largely teacher-controlled lessons. Yet it is significant that schools in Singapore - unlike many western ones School systems - are now also allowed to replace exams with alternative assessments such as group projects.

It is almost paradoxical that this country seems to be well on the way to implementing the ideas adopted from the West more comprehensively than many a Western school system. The fact that Singapore invests so heavily in the collaboration, training and professional development of its teachers is certainly one reason why the profession is so highly regarded. But beyond that, it is precisely these investments that enable teachers to drive innovation in the school system.