Taking SPM a decade late: why I tak hadir a few papers, my review of SPM English Literature and why I think you should sit for it – 1/?

SPM came and SPM left. Congratulations, class of 2021 — plus random folks like me! (Why I was taking SPM in the first place.) Picture below taken with my candidate statement as I walked out of my final paper: SPM English Literature, on the 22nd of March.

Tengok, betapa thoughtful-nya aku memadam nama sekolah + no. plat kereta

In the end, I caved in and didn’t take the full complement of compulsory papers I had registered for, sitting only for BM (four papers — to satisfy public university employment requirements), BI (four papers) and English Literature (one).

For those who don’t know, these days when registering as a private candidate, you can’t just choose à la carte, there’s a basic set of papers you have to register for as a bloc, and then you add electives and whatnot on top of that. These “compulsory papers” are: BM, Sejarah, Mathematics, Moral/Pengajian Islam (depending which applies), English, Science. My exam results will state ‘tidak hadir’ (not present) for my four no-shows, but that’s not unusual for private candidates who have very specific goals in mind.

Accurate depiction of my invigilators during the Sejarah and Moral exams. When they next saw me, one invigilator said, ‘Eh Tiong, kenapa you tak hadir minggu lepas!’ Ahaha sorry cikgu.

Let me get my excuses in early: I was curious enough to want at least take Sejarah and Moral, but I just had too much on my plate with work, job application-related thingies (more on that next time) and just life in general, not to mention Covid-related incidents. There was even a day where I sat for papers in the morning and afternoon, then gave conference talks in the evening! It takes quite a bit of effort to bite the bullet and study for these extra papers — particularly in the case of Sejarah, a subject that I generally like and read a lot about on my own time, I couldn’t justify the trade-off in time that it would take to learn the 20 chapters’ worth of material in its specific SPM-format.

English and English Lit, by contrast, were not only accessible and fun papers to take (especially the latter), but I have a professional interest in taking them as someone whose career (at that point) was training teachers who would eventually teach kids who would be sitting for those exams. Skin in the game, so to speak. Because I had taught English and English Lit for 5 years at this point, I felt fairly okay just reading the core texts for Eng Lit once over before the weekend, and my own set of notes.

In this post I will focus on the most recent paper I sat for, and which I arguably had the most fun with: SPM English Literature (Code 2206). The paper has three sections according to what they consider the ‘main three’ genres of literature: prose, drama, poetry. You have options on what texts to choose within each genre, as long as you at least prepare to answer based on one.

I have to say that the text selections were really good. The texts I read both really address themes that are current and accessible to teenagers while I think having the capacity to stretch their thinking about themselves and the world around them.

A picture taken on the morning of my exams. I enjoyed both these texts!

The Clay Marble, by Minfong Ho, is a novel set on the Cambodia-Thailand border during the Khmer Rouge era, based on the author’s experience working with refugee children in that same area. It’s quite short but covers a lot of ground, with writing that is in places really vivid and thought-provoking. You don’t really have to engage in historical analysis (the text can be read and appreciated stand-alone) but I’d imagine that teachers will undoubtedly prompt students to get into the historical background of the Killing Fields, etc. And you cover themes like war and brutality, displacement, hope, friendship, courage. It’s a great read that I think would create a lot of space for students to have good discussions and explore the meaning of important stuff.

Flowers for Algernon by Coules/Keyes is one of the drama options, the other being Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which I’d read and taught before, so I thought to give this a go instead. At first glance it seems a bit unorthodox: the text is actually a radio drama adaptation of the original, meant to be a purely acoustic performance without a visual element. And so the ‘stage directions’ read accordingly. Daniel Keyes wrote the novelette, and Bert Coules adapted it for radio, sometime in the early 90s, for the BBC. More here. Sadly, I can’t seem the access the original radio performance, broadcast on Sep 5, 1991. Any voice talents here keen on doing a re-enactment? We’ve got the script!

Flower’s blurb, as found on the book:

Charlie Gordon knows that he isn’t very bright. At 32, he mops floors in a bakery and earns just enough to get by. Three evenings a week, he studies at a center for mentally challenged adults. But all of this is about to change for Charlie. As part of a daring experiment, doctors are going to perform surgery on Charlie’s brain. They hope the operation and special medication will increase his intelligence, just as it has for the laboratory mouse, Algernon. Meanwhile, each day Charlie keeps a diary of what is happening to him. This is his poignant record of the startling changes in his mind and his life.

It’s a great text about really current themes: appearances versus reality, the value of ‘intelligence’, respect for and dignity of life, scientific ethics, etc. All important themes to ponder, not just for school kids!

And I suppose that gets to the heart of why I found 2206 the most enjoyable of the papers. The other SPM papers, which I hope to cover in another post if I have the time and motivation, feel “constrained” to the “perceived” level of the target audience (which I think is needlessly arbitrary anyway). The hidden curriculum is made clear at many points in the BM/BI papers that you’re supposed to ‘think critically’ (what we call ‘KBAT’) but not too much, not too much explanation or depth, not too divergent from a range of acceptable answers. And the assessment design feeds into that. Students are, after all, motivated to score as well as they can, because their material well-being is tied to it (to gain admissions to courses of choice and to win scholarships). But with Eng Lit I genuinely felt like the ‘sky was the limit’ as far as I could justify my statements through analysis, as I answered questions like ‘Nothing nice lasts forever — what does the text have to say about such a statement’ or ‘How does the author convey the significance of this incident’, etc.

Please don’t goreng your answer until like this.

But in all seriousness, to have a subject that educates and rewards students to engage in analyses that are both critical (grounded in reason and justification, in understanding literary devices, with close reference to the text) and creative (multiple possibilities, entertaining multiple perspectives) is a really precious thing that surely is integral to upper secondary education. In terms of the epistemic cognition research, I think this would be akin to what is called evaluativist cognition.

Screen grab from Sandoval et al. 2016, where evaluativist thinking is contrasted to absolutist and multiplist (or relativist) orientations.

Last I checked, only about 300 students take SPM Eng Lit across the whole of Malaysia annually, in recent years at least. This is because most schools don’t offer it, and students who are interested feel daunted by the prospect of taking it as a private candidate without proper guidance. There are private tutors around of course (and I’d be happy to tutor kids who want to sit for it, if time permits) but of course that entails an additional financial burden.

I am not saying, of course, that the value found in the subject is unique: I believe these skills can be inculcated in all the other subjects, and my comparisons are limited only to two other. That and of course teachers are never limited to exam prep alone, far from it (even if it’s also true that exams have a strong gravitational force for the reasons I’ve said before).

Consider this just an individual’s review, one teacher’s perspective, on a really well-developed course by the Ministry of Education, that deserves a lot more credit and a lot more candidates. More on the rest of the exam experience, next time!

A highly-suitable quote that greeted me at the school gates after the paper. Yeats didn’t make it into the poetry selection this time, but there was William Blake, Marlowe, Wordsworth, Kipling to name a few. If there’s anything I’d recommend to improve the syllabus, it would be to add some authors in that aren’t dead white men, haha. Shirley Lim, Ghulam Sarwar-Yusuf, Hilary Tham, Malachi Edwin?

An assortment of updates: grown-up man finishes his PhD, registers for SPM (?), lectures at UM, etc.

Hello everyone, here is a quick (and unedited) series of updates. This post might come across as rather stream-of-consciousness-like, but my thinking is that it is better to put this up in an unpolished form than to be so fussy about my writing that the post never comes to be (because it gets snowed under by other priorities). This is a blog, after all.

One of my main to-dos this year is to sit for SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia), the general secondary school leaving certificate in Malaysia.

Although I sort of now have a PhD–hold up, oh yes I passed my PhD viva, and since there were no corrections required, that means I have fulfilled all requirements for the degree, hooray! Now all there for me to do to actually be awarded the PhD is to say some Latin words while holding a stranger’s finger in the presence of An Important Person (I am referring to Cambridge’s archaic graduation ceremony). No idea when that’ll happen, for obvious reasons. But anyway, suffice to say I am very grateful. My thesis has been deposited at the university library and will eventually be open access, after an initial embargo period of one year.

J.S. Wilson, a printing company based at Cambridge, did the printing and submission for me, since I couldn’t do it in person. A nice member of staff by the name of Eric took a photo for me, as a keepsake. As all true models do, my thesis somehow knew that it shouldn’t look directly at the camera. Nice!

Okay where was I? Ah yes — I do not have an SPM qualification because I did my secondary and pre-university education in Singapore (ages and ages ago now); this hadn’t been an issue for most of my career as I had been working in the private sector, but now that I am applying to be a member of Faculty at a public university, I need to get the qualification, especially in Bahasa Melayu (BM).

Unfortunately the equivalent BM qualification in Singapore (‘O’ Levels) isn’t recognised by the Public Service Commission, despite it also being benchmarked to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. This is a long-standing requirement set for Malaysian applicants (a fun joke: the fastest way for me to qualify to work for the university is to renounce my citizenship, hence categorising myself as an ‘international applicant’ who also happens to conveniently be fluent in Malay.) I have known about this requirement all this while by the way, so I am entirely to blame for putting it off until now.

Anyway I am enrolled for the 2021 SPM sitting, which due to COVID is taking place in Feb/March this year. As we aren’t allowed to register for individual subjects, I have had to apply for at least 5, some of which are compulsory. And so I thought to take it a step further and register for subjects that (a) interest me, (b) I think I can manage in the short preparation time that I have, and (c) will be taught by the students I am currently teaching/training at U.M. I will be sitting for BM, English, English Literature, Sejarah (History) and Moral.

My strategy to exam prep: bagai menatang minyak yang penuh, etc. Check out the flash cards!

It’s quite nice to be systematically learning a language again actually, even if it is a language I already use almost daily. There might be an autoethnography about language learning in there!

In the meantime however it has still been possible for me to work part-time at the Faculty of Education at Universiti Malaya, where I plan to apply for a full-time position as soon as I can. Starting July last year, I started out as a practicum supervisor for undergraduates (a role that involves supporting and evaluating undergraduates posted for a few months at local secondary schools), and from October I have been a research methods lecturer for undergraduates. It’s been a lot of hard work designing the course and its assessments, and being ready to give my best every week for the students, but I have really enjoyed it. It is thrilling to have skin in the game and to begin working on the very thing I am so passionate about: the democratisation of educational research for all teachers, to train and empower them to be equal partners in the research eco-system, within which they leverage their inherent epistemic advantage as practitioners.

A slide from my first lecture in October.

My spiel: educational research is a wide and variegated practice that requires participants who work on a specialised and more committed basis (academics like myself) but this does not mean that teachers cannot play an active and indispensable role in it, especially if we’re talking about educational research that is closely connected to practice and improves education (which to me is the eventual raison d’etre of the whole endeavour) — see, for example, Geert Biesta (2020). So to me at least, that’s why a research component is considered part and parcel of teacher training, at least the undergraduate level. And that’s where I want to work.

I really do find that I am happier and at my best when doing teachery things, building learning communities and passing on ideas and skills that I’ve had the benefit of learning over the years. As the saying goes, ‘Kemenyan sebesar lutut, jika tidak dibakar manakan berbau?

Faded signboard or not, at least ada free parking beb.

In addition to preparing for SPM and lecturing at Universiti Malaya, I’ve also had another part-time consulting + teaching job (will write about it next time if I can) and have been trying to keep my academic life going, like a do-it-yourself postdoc assembled out of scrap Lego. Writing and (sometimes) submitting abstracts, manuscripts, giving occasional talks, organising discussion groups, trying to keep up with the literature. All unpaid, such is the sad reality of doing this kind of work when you’re an academic orphan. But I am grateful for enough paid roles to keep the lights on until my SPM results are out and the castle lowers its drawbridge. Wish me luck!

Aaron's Animals - Facebook Hacker - YouTube
Accurate representation of me these days except I don’t use a Mac and I am not nearly as well-groomed.

I had the good fortune to present at UNMC School of Education’s Alternative Research Lounge lately. A really stimulating and diverse community they have there, led by a really sharp team of academics.

I’m back and I’m done (with thesis writing) — status update

Hello everybody, I am back. Apologies for the long hiatus (or apologies for being back, if that’s how you’re taking this). Time has really flown by.

A believable state for my hair to be in, given you-know-what.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing: not only the PhD, but also other projects (happily, there are two little publications that are now in press, and more at earlier stages of development–stay tuned!). It has been on the most part a solitary experience, wrestling with my own thoughts and engaging in imaginary debates with the various scholars that I cite and those I imagine reading my work. Thankfully this has also been punctuated by semi-regular, digitally-mediated (but still real) discussions with colleagues.

Just yesterday, I had the chance to present one part of my findings at the CEDiR Review (a symposium of sorts run by the Cambridge Educational Dialogue in Research group — of which I am a part). And that was really good, from the process of turning one’s thoughts into a presentation, delivering it ‘live’ and taking my colleagues’ questions. ‘Thinking’ just works better that way for me.

Slide deck with pictures from fieldwork in 2019

But anyway I am happy to announce that I have submitted my ‘soft-bound’ PhD (see below).

This is actually what submitting a thesis is like, trust me.

Due to the pandemic I have long since decamped back to my home country, but for the same reason submissions are all taken digitally anyway. At least Nyan cat and I get a photo with the red door.

Q. So what happens from here?

My PhD viva is scheduled for the second half of September. This is an oral examination where two scholars in my field (one from Cambridge and one elsewhere) critically examine my work and grill me like a late night Ramli burger. If satisfied, the examiners will declare my fate: whether I pass the PhD and if so, what corrections/additions/revisions they would like to see me make. They usually also issue a timeline for corrections – like 3 or 6 months, etc. If your corrections satisfy the examiners (whom you send the corrections to one last time), then you’re done and you print your ‘hard-bound’ thesis that gets stored somewhere relevant in the Uni (and put in an online repository).

It is only upon completion of those corrections that I can apply to formally ‘graduate’ with a PhD. In most practical cases however, employers would consider you to already have the PhD if you pass your viva.

So this means that probably for the next 6 months or so I will be in this special purgatory between being substantively ‘done’ with the PhD and being actually ‘done’ with it.

It is an odd place to be, and people who have come before me have had varying approaches towards how they spend that duration of time. Some start working right away and do the remaining PhD things alongside a full time job. Sometimes those jobs might even be contingent on having a PhD, so they get taken on on a probationary basis, to be confirmed once they pass the viva and/or submit their corrections, etc. Some, of course, choose to take a break for a while from the exertions of the programme.

Well yes tapi bukan.

Besides looking for paid work, I will be putting effort into getting more of my work published, which is a way of getting my research findings out there so that other people can read, critique, respond to and build on what I’ve done. There are also a couple of other research projects that I’m a part of, some of which may develop over the years (more on these next time).

Part of the plan is also to update this blog every fortnight. This blog was set up for the purpose of (informal) public scholarship, and it’s been a pleasure over the years to hear that many of its readers (including those whom I haven’t met) have found it useful. In the pre-Covid days when we could still ‘bump into strangers’ and ‘strike up a conversation’ (huh what), I’ve sometimes met people who, halfway through the conversation, say ‘Oh hey you’re that guy with the blog! Thanks for writing about X.’ And so I should continue. There’ll be posts to come as I holistically reflect on the PhD process, disseminate relevant substantive insights from the research itself, and where share some of my thoughts on education in Malaysia. Akan datang (and you can hold me to it!)

Until next time!

Empty tables, empty chairs

In one of the private schools I’d worked at, I used to worry a bit that my students were a little ‘over-schooled’. What I mean by this is that, because their schooling hours were about 15-20% more than public schools, I felt like they just had less time in general to do other things: to pursue their other interests, to meet kids in other settings and often, just to get enough sleep.

Since I couldn’t do anything about the structure of the time-table, I generally just tried to be really nimble and flexible as a teacher: most of my homework were ‘flipped classroom’ types of assignments where students just do preparatory reading and jot down notes to bring to class, instead of heavy-duty things like writing essays, etc. We saved contact time for things like timed writing tasks, micro-lectures, discussion-based work and whole-class feedback type things. I constantly checked with my colleagues on what they were assigning students so that their deadlines didn’t clump together, etc. The basic idea is that sometimes, less is more; and thinking about timeliness, strategic value and good pedagogy is better than trying to get students to learn by sheer quantity/brute force. Needless to say, this was well-received by most of the students, but some parents had to be won over (haha). Well anyway, that was back in the day.

What are the funniest High Expectations Asian Father meme images? - Quora
I’m just kidding, really!

What about today, in these COVID-19 times? What calculation would I, could I–make? My heart really goes out to teachers trying their best out there, whether in the U.K. where schools remain open, but the pandemic rages on– or in Malaysia where they have shut schools again in the post-Sabah elections fallout (having already closed schools for significant periods of time earlier in the year). Mitigating initiatives, in the form of educational TV programmes (TV Pendidikan) and frankly, herculean effort by individual teachers in a country where internet access is uneven and patchy. And we already know that even assuming perfect internet access, emergency remote learning is not a like-for-like replacement. A friend of mine who teaches pre-university students (whom you’d think would adapt fairly well) remarked that it feels like ‘twice the effort for half the reward’. It’s a situation that wears down both the teachers and the students.

online learning - quickmeme
Yeah, how ah?

With that said, I believe teachers and the governments who lead them are justified in doing all they can to keep schools open. It’s hard yet to tell the effects of this particular pandemic (typically one can only tell the effect of a thing after it’s been done), but studies of prolonged school closures due to natural disaster or other reasons (analogous to COVID-19) show that they can result in a lot of harm over the long term: as learning losses accumulate and, on average, affect children’s lifetime earnings by a significant amount (some suggest 15% loss of earnings). Caveats apply, but you get the drift. Each child (and their home context) is unique, of course–there are even those who benefit from school closure. But by and large, I think it’s fair to predict that they will hit those in challenging circumstances the hardest, thereby widening inequalities.

This is not to say that I think that schools should be open no matter what. Of course there are cases where they have to be closed, for public health reasons. That’s for governments to decide — I’m just a stray doctoral student with a keyboard. State-level actors are the ones with (1) the relevant data from different agencies required to make an informed choice and (2) the democratic mandate to make what is, at its heart, a political decision about managing risks. It’s not as if there’s risk on one side (COVID) and no risk on another. Research tells you how things work and what is *likely* to happen with different decisions (and these can be complicated and debatable) but even assuming perfect knowledge, you still have to make a choice based on your judgement of what is best. Both options have risks, though perhaps learning loss is less visible and it’s harder to tell what the ‘concrete’ consequences are. Some risks are more short term, other are more long term. Often they are a medley of both. But the point is that they are equally real.

I will say however that this should motivate us all to really do our part to flatten the curve, in order that schools can open as soon as possible. Moreover, if you’re reading this and have got a teacher friend out there at risk of burning out from trying to teach their students, reach out to them and buy them a meal to save them the hassle of cooking or buying their own food! If you know a family with a kid who’s struggling in school, and you’ve got a little time to spare, maybe offer a half an hour to go through some homework with them. Or you can pray if you believe in that kind of thing–I certainly do.

Picture of a school near where I live. PC: Chris Sng

Focus

My working desktop these days

I am in the final stage of data analysis now, even as the daylight hours get shorter, the weather cools and we start welcoming new students to town.

Whenever I get sent interesting ideas and readings that might distract me from writing, I chuck them into the ‘Post-PhD’ folder, to give me something to look forward to after this is done. I can’t wait to pursue different questions–there is a lot of scholarship to be done out there!

One thing I plan for next year is to commit to a blog series analysing important educational questions in an accessible way (i.e. less jargon, more memes, more fun). Do send along your questions/recommendations of what you’d like me to answer! 🙂

Countdown

In a couple of months, I will have spent a full three years on this PhD. How time flies!

It has been a really challenging process. PhDs in general aren’t a walk in the park, and I think mine has been particularly challenging without the handrails or boundaries of traditional disciplines. This entire journey has been a prolonged experience of ‘liminal spaces’: drawing together strands of scholarship that do not traditionally speak to each other, bringing a teacher’s sensibility and experience into the ‘foreign’ territory of academia, being the only Malaysian in my cohort — I could go on.

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But this has allowed me to grow in a really idiosyncratic, eclectic way. I have learned so much — about the philosophy and practice of research, about social theory writ large and small, and of course, about the what, how and under what circumstances of teachers in-service learning. In a way my doctoral research experience mirrors that of my field of study: complex, variegated, full of surprises, and personally-involved. Maybe this will be a source of strength, my own intervention in the field.

Many thanks, dear readers, for being a part of this journey. Wish me luck as I write up the PhD! We are still under relatively constrained circumstances — the libraries are closed and I am working from home — as I have been since the uni buildings closed in March. God-willing I will be finished soon and be ready for active service in our next phase of life.

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On theory and practice in education (1)

Throughout most of my undergraduate studies, I often heard this familiar refrain from my lecturers.

Ah, what I’m teaching you is theory, okay? But theory is theory, it’s no use in practice.

At which point, listeners would smirk and nod their heads knowingly. Theory is something we learn in university, it’s not really practical but just something we need to do to get a degree and then enter into the real world of practice.

This often bothered me but I suppose this view reflects a wider cultural belief borne from experience. What’s the point of a theory? After all, we know of lots of people who are good with books but not with actually doing the things they study. The bifurcation between theory and practice seems real. But if so, why not skip theoretical education altogether and dive right into the world of practice?

For some light reading today I picked up Gert Biesta’s Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction. In it he has a chapter discussing how educational studies have evolved differently in the Anglo-American sphere (which I am now being trained in), versus a ‘Continental’ (in this case German) tradition.

[Spoiler alert: the traditions developed in very different ways, historically, and have had to make contrasting decisions regarding the relationship between theory and practice.]

This made me start to ponder the underlying assumptions about the theory-practice relation in my own personal education: starting at home, in my Christian education, in my initial Arts and Humanities training in Singapore (‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels only), in my undergraduate studies at UTAR and finally the ways in which I learnt and developed in situ as a teacher, a mish-mash of on-the-job learning, structured professional development given by the school and evenings spent doing various MOOCs on Coursera.

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[Pro-tip, the best way to get me to read something is to put the words ‘unorthodox’, ‘heterodox’, ‘counter-cultural’ in it. You get the idea]
I think an important thing to note is that ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ are words, and therefore they can mean a range of different things. In Malaysian teachers’ discourse communities, we use the word ‘theory’ to refer to intellectual movements like Behaviourism, Cognitivism, Constructivism. These movements are certain schools of thought that are the outcome of research. They do have explanatory power but they are incomplete [this is a separate topic]. But basically for teachers, each of these ‘-isms’ have certain key principles, which teachers then operationalise through teaching and assessment decisions. The late Mr Renu Kailsan, who taught us in UTAR, often recommended that we take an ‘eclectic’ approach, that is to judiciously select insights from these movements when making educational decisions (‘practice). In that sense he differed from most of my other instructors, by offering us some kind of bridge between the two.

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In 2015, just before I started the MPhil at Cambridge, I was invited back to UTAR to speak at a forum on teaching. Mr Renu is the second from the left.

[Sidebar: My last conversation with Mr Renu was over the gate of his house in Kampar, sometime in 2017. It was a chance meeting (easy thing to happen in a place like Kampar). I remember his cat pawing at his feet, the same cat he used to talk about in his Psycholinguistics lectures (Mr Renu claimed that he had managed to train his cat to execute some pretty complicated commands.) He congratulated me on securing funding for a doctorate. ‘Yes, go and get your PhD. Don’t leave it as late as I have’.]

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A tri-lingual poem written about West Lake, the part of Kampar around which UTAR and some parts of the town was built. Mr Renu spent the last years of his life in these environs.

[I hope nobody minds the sentimental aside. I’ll get back to topic and stay on it now.]

I think Mr Renu was on to something. Theory, as it was popular understood among us in those days, becomes unwieldy and inappropriate when you think of it as a system that you should ‘operationalise’ willy-nilly. ‘Constructivism? Ah, okay, get students to work in groups and talk to each other… for everything.’ ‘Operant conditioning? Okay, sweets when you finish your work on time, one stroke of the cane if not’ [Good Lord!] No wonder then that people cast away the theories they learn in university!

I prefer to think of theories as ways to ‘see differently’ and ‘notice’ things. Formal theories give us a language of description — they do not tell us what to do, because description isn’t the same pre-scription, the latter being informed by our values and philosophy. Theories do however, help us notice things, ask new questions, and hence be more thoughtful and intentional about the decisions we make in class. (As opposed to being stuck in just one way of thinking about things.) Gert Biesta calls this ‘cultural knowledge’, which requires reflexive agency, rather than ‘technical knowledge’ which just needs to be ‘implemented’.

What I prefer then, is a model of the teacher that has the teachers’ professional judgement at its centre, one where theory (and ‘evidence’ for that matter, but there’s a whole other discussion to be had there) is not something to either be adopted passively (or discarded, also a ‘passive’ move), but dealt with in a sensitive and careful way, interpreting and distilling the varying perceptual input from everyday practice in the multitude of contexts that we may be working in. It is a model that is ‘eclectic’, as Mr Renu put it, and which I think accommodates the whole person of teacher and students. It is model in which teacher is also learner.

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Until next time!

On ‘busy work’ in COVID-19 times: thoughts for teachers

Ever since COVID-19 forced schools to close, there seems (to me at least) to have been an unending tsunami of media trying to advise and support teachers and school leaders: articles, blogs, videos, online professional development webinars — you name it. This post is not one of them. I am not offering ‘best practices’ for e-learning, or some life-hacks that will solve all your teaching problems! Instead, what I hope to do is to use this chance to really reflect on some taken-for-granted elements in our educational practice.

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Am I the only one feeling this way? [information overload]

It’s not that I disapprove of the Edu-web’s COVID-19 bonanza! Far from it, it’s fantastic that educators are scrambling to find and share solutions and help students continue learning. Some of the stuff out there are gems, and we need them. Emergency remote teaching, followed by a transition to on-line learning where possible, is especially important for students who are already facing significant disadvantage, though it will be really hard going for those with special needs. The idea that COVID-19 is some kind of ‘great-leveller’ that affects everybody the same way is sentimental nonsense.

But I think if there’s any silver lining in this, it’s that the pandemic has shaken the assumptions we’ve had when things were ‘business as usual’. When times were good (or ‘normal’), perhaps there were things we shouldn’t have been doing but nonetheless tolerated because we could tolerate them.

One of these that has been on my mind is the proliferation of ‘busy work’, stuff that are neither useful nor meaningful, but we somehow spend lots of time and resources on. My own research, and that of many others, suggest that teachers have a lot of busy work. Sometimes, students find themselves being made to do busy work too, even (or even particularly) in e-learning contexts. Something to watch out for.

Let’s try to be clear about what we mean by ‘busy work’ here. Stephen Ball, a sociologist at the Institute of Education, London, makes a distinction between first order activities and second order activities in teachers’ work.

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Instead of a photo I insert a screen-shot of a journal article, how about that! [Full citation of this dahsyat title below]
According to Ball, first-order activities for teachers are obviously things involving direct engagement with students but also things like studying up your subject, developing your curriculum, planning lessons, preparing teaching aids, etc. These are essential things that are at the heart of a teacher’s job, if you like.

Second-order activities on the other hand have to do with performance monitoring and management. ‘Oh,’ you say, ‘You mean “paperwork”!’ Kind of, but not all paperwork is second-order. One might categorise planning lessons etc. as ‘paperwork’ too — after all, you don’t just plan them in your head but often have to write/type them down to think them through properly. And certainly it’s meaningful to print out, organise and keep records of your teaching and teaching material for easier retrieval when you teach next year, or for your colleagues to borrow and adapt.

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Weird. [Gratuitous meme on lesson planning]
But even having excluded all of that, a teacher’s life can still be inundated with writing reports, book-keeping, filling out forms, etc. that will have no effect (whether immediate or delayed) on their essential work, apart from serving some secondary bureaucratic purpose. All paperwork is paperwork, but some are more meaningful than others. To be clear, teachers are essential workers, but sometimes we end up making them spend significant chunks of time doing unessential things.

I am not just trying to pick a fight here. Based on the 2013 TALIS survey by the OECD (Malaysia did not participate in the 2018 survey), Malaysian public school teachers polled appeared to be spending 5.7 hours per week (out of a 45.1 hour average working week) on ‘general administrative work’ and clerical duties (p.388). This figure is twice the OECD average and more than the average amount of time spent communicating with parents/guardians (2.4 hrs) and counselling/mentoring students (2.9 hrs) combined. You tell me what you think about these ratios, which I might be in some cases just the tip of the iceberg.

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Let’s pretend I know what these symbols mean. [Funny math meme]
I have two points to make, and the first of them might feel a little sudden because I’ve not exactly been building up towards it.

The first is that sometimes, ‘Less is more’. Lots of educational interventions have curvi-linear relationships with their benefits, i.e. even useful things like homework or practice have a ‘tipping point’ after which they cease to add benefit, and can even be counter-productive. [Maybe ‘less is more’ should apply to wordy blog-posts by PhD students too]

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Nah, ambik engkau (Pah, take this!)

Like you, your students are probably experiencing extra cognitive load trying to adapt to changes and form new habits, so the ‘tipping point’ in curve will shift to the left for some time. Some online engagement will no doubt be good as it helps establish some sense of normalcy and routine (and take away the anxiety one might feel that one isn’t ‘keeping up’. Be parsimonious, keep things lean if you can. And of course, if it’s retention you’re looking for, you’re better off spacing things out than blitzing!

There are of course cases where ‘less’ really is ‘less’. I know there are many teachers are completely cut off from their students who do not have internet access during lock-down. These colleagues are putting in extraordinary effort to develop work-arounds. Moreover, some students and their families might be facing such challenging circumstances that keeping up with school rightly becomes a secondary matter. You can’t talk about doing simultaneous equations if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. As the adage goes, teachers must put ‘Maslow before Bloom’.

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Wow, they have ‘Maslow before Bloom’ t-shirts now! Teachers have gotten cooler since I ‘retired’ into academia

My second point brings us back to the idea of ‘busy work’. To put it simply, both Ball and the anthropologist Graeber agree that second-order work tends to proliferate for reasons related to the pursuit of power and control. Power and control are the reasons why we design such exacting monitoring systems, even for a job that is as benign as teaching. And the reason why we as teachers might play along with these systems is because it is the means by which we are evaluated, assessed and given either material or symbolic rewards. This is not to say that we should do away with all forms of accountability, but we can pursue more refined and nuanced approaches. What we should not do is go running after superficial measures of success.

Teachers reading this will know that, even in “normal” times, it is a brave thing to prioritise first-order over second-order. In these ‘unprecedented times’ as we are frequently being told it is, it is just the time when teachers should be diverting their energy to first-order work, on top of taking care of themselves and their families. Perhaps COVID-19 will trigger a courageous re-appraisal of what we mean by professionalism in teaching, and in public education more widely, a re-appraisal which will have impact beyond the pandemic. Or maybe we will return to ‘normal’ when all of this is over. The signs are mixed.

Further reading:

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. https://doi.org/10.1080/0268093022000043065

Graeber, D. (2018). Bullsh*t Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It. London: Penguin Books.

Day 5: Socialising amidst social distancing

Today was a very sociable Saturday for us. In fact it was so sociable that I will have to be brief.

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One of the very first things I did this morning was to have breakfast with a few good buddies. You can tell it is one of the first things I did because it looks like I was barely awake! [Thanks a lot, Kaif]

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Jou, Wen Yao, Kaif and I used to have breakfast together at Wetherspoons once a week circa 2017/18, when we were doing our 1st, 2nd, 3rd year PhD and M.A.St.  respectively (I had to Google that last one). It used to be something nice and affordable to look forward to in the middle of the week, as well as extra motivation to get out of bed early. Really thankful for technology that allows us to continue having “breakfast” together, even as the four of us are currently distributed across three countries.

Soon after, I spent some time in the late morning preparing a large amount of pasta for lunch. I decided to make some food for a friend (S) who was still living in college but unable to go home due to travel restrictions. His college is virtually deserted apart from him and another student. Under other circumstances we might invite him over for a meal or to work in our flat, but the lockdown rules don’t permit that, so C and I thought that it would be nice to send him some food. In the end we got to chat while keeping a distance, after which I promptly went home.

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Claire really enjoyed this!

I think in part I was inspired by something another friend of mine (G) did recently. Like the rest of us, G is observing social distancing but wanted to do something nice and so sent us some Bad Brownies. Eating them made me think of her, and so I guess was like an appropriate, though different way to make one’s presence felt in these unusual times. Thanks, G!

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*sharp intake of breath*