She adds that good and excellent teachers are not born, they are made through constant learning and growth by unlearning their assumptions of the classroom, repositioning themselves and their understanding of teaching.

Insights into our Fundamentals Curriculum with our L0 Lead Curriculum Developer

Academia’s Fundamentals programme works on the very foundations of the English language for children. In Primary 1 to 2, they are introduced to the fundamental rules of the language in speech and in writing, through the exposure to various academic components like Comprehension, Grammar and Vocabulary Cloze Passages and story-writing, before advancing to more technical levels in Primary 3 all the way through to PSLE. In order to do well in those higher levels and beyond, it is crucial for there to be a strong foundation. This is why our Fundamentals Programme is so carefully designed and constructed, purposefully curated to engage with the tender ages of 7-8 years old.

Teaching Fundamentals:
Insights with our Fundamentals Programme Lead Curriculum Developer

An interview with Ms Christina Sum, Curriculum Researcher at Academia. Here, she shares about her pedagogical philosophies and how she conveys them in the curriculum she designs and her teaching methodologies.

1. You have designed a series of curriculum that is pedagogically grounded in the educational theories of the present. Could you tell us more about what they are designed to accomplish?

Reading and writing are important skills. We rely on these skills to communicate. Even when students are not working on an English assignment, they must engage with the language, and we see that in the other subject areas where English is the language of learning. We need to understand that when students underperform in school, it is not because they are not good enough, rather it is because they are not gaining the understanding they need.

Reading and writing are transactional processes, which do not always look the same for all students. For less advanced readers, this process is passive and one in which one’s engagement with the text is low because they are not able to make the connection between text, experience and knowledge. Therefore reading to them is a word recognition experience. For more advanced students, they make connections easily between text, experience, and knowledge to create their own understanding, which is augmented by the teacher’s explanation in class.

Therefore, when I design the curriculum, I use a variety of different approaches to encourage students to interact with the text. KWL charts are utilised to get students to reflect on their own understanding before and after reading a text. There are also several differentiated approaches that I have used to help students understand characterisation, plot, and theme so they can navigate a text on their own. We also want students to understand that the learning of a language lies not merely in understanding grammar and its mechanics. Rather it is a way for one to gain a deeper understanding of the world through the nuance of language. This is particularly important as they approach secondary education where they are no longer being tested on their grammar. At the secondary level, students are expected to explain their own understanding of language that they encounter in a text.

Ultimately, my motive is twofold: I believe learning should be instinctive and regardless of their level, the curriculum must aid students in advancing their understanding of the English language and its nuances. Regardless of the student’s background, learning must be accessible for all so they can develop their reading and writing skills, and ultimately navigate cultures and communicate cross-culturally.

2. What gaps do you see in our students that we need to address urgently?

The issues our students experienced is also commonly seen across most second language learners. Singapore is a melting pot where cultures and people from all walks of life mingle, and as such, our students who have grown up in such an environment have inevitably taken on different forms of English. The most common form of such English is Singapore’s version of English, more commonly known as Singlish, which is a mish-mash of various dialects and languages. 

Learning various forms of English is not necessarily a bad thing, and we see that commonly enough in America as well as in countries such as England where English is the dominant language; however, the issue surfaces when students begin to mistake the slangs they use for legitimate expressions. This is common when students attempt to paraphrase the language of a text, e.g., faster for more fast. This is a result of students’ limited understanding of a language; where instead of expressing the idea in a more concise and succinct manner, students are focusing their energy on trying to replace one word for the other. Their failure to fully understand the nuance of the language they are encountering is seen in their inability to explain the expressions used in the text, or understand the tone and meaning of the language. 

This issue is a symptom of a bigger problem. Students are not reading widely or consuming literature that is meant to broaden their language capabilities and expand their vocabulary and understanding of the world. This is a common problem in an environment where teachers, parents and children are focused on testing. In other words, learning has become a means to an end, rather than an avenue for growth. In other words, learning has become a mechanical process, rather than instinctive. This can be difficult to tackle because, at the end of the day, the scores and grades obtained from a test determine, to an extent, their future and the schools in which they will attend.

3. How do you keep your students engaged and motivated in class?

I am not a purveyor of knowledge within my own classroom. I know more than my students because of my education and experience. I believe that learning is a reciprocal process. There is a lot I can learn from my students. There have been moments in my career when my students have asked me questions that I do not have answers to. I will admit my lack of knowledge and get back to them with the answers. This might seem like an innocent move, but I believe over time, this is what helps my students understand that learning is a lifelong process. We go on learning even after we have graduated from the classroom.

I communicate with my students as I would to anyone, and that means if they decide to have an argument with me over an issue in class, then I will use the opportunity to teach them about fallacies in argument. For instance, it is very common for students to think that just because they have spent hours on an assignment and therefore they deserve an “A” for a grade. I will use this opportunity to introduce the topic of logical fallacies in arguments. The teaching of fallacies usually interests the students because they feel that for once in their life, they are able to win arguments with adults.

I respect my students and often demonstrate that in my communication with them. This is especially useful when I work with more precocious students because they are aware of their own intelligence and ability, therefore I would engage them by asking them open-ended questions in class that are meant to nudge them to think more deeply about the topics we are working on. I do this because I want to create an environment of learning and understand that learning is not a one-way street but a cyclical process, where one enters into a discourse with the other.

In some of my classes, I would allow my students to temporarily step into the position of a teacher for a moment where I would allow them to explain the meaning of a word or concept before stepping in to augment their learning. By allowing students to do that, I am also giving them the opportunity to check their own understanding of the concepts or ideas. As we progress through the year, students eventually open up and the classroom becomes a place of learning and laughter. Ultimately, I don’t believe in managing my students or classroom. My work as a teacher is to engage them in learning and challenge them to look beyond the surface.

4. What are the key elements of difference between local and international curriculum? And how do you blend them in the Academia curriculum?

Curricula on a whole are specific to the political and cultural values found within the country. In comparison to local curricula, international curricula expose students to a wide range of writing and literature. In the IB curriculum, the study of English is called language and literature, where students study language and literature in unison. Depending on the country, students are usually being exposed to more local literature although the IB curriculum does do a better job at providing students with a wider exposure to international literary works. In international curricula, students are also challenged to think more deeply about the world through an examination of local and global issues and in doing so they need to produce a distillation of their learning through a series of presentations, writing and research. Generally, they are able to produce more thoughtful content when they are tasked to do analytical research and expository writing.

In comparison, the local curriculum is more focused on the study of English as a language, but on a more fundamental level, where students are tested on their comprehension of a text through a more methodical approach. The tests are designed in part to test understanding of the language. These tests provide educators with an understanding of students’ language abilities from a quantitative stance; however, tests are discriminatory by nature. Therefore when a test is one of the few indicators we have in the local curriculum to track students’ achievement, their learning can be skewed towards testing prep.

This is seen in the variety of writing that students need to be adept at. To prepare students I have blended some of the elements of language arts into our curriculum, where in 2021, we exposed lower primary students to a range of writing styles beyond that of narrative writing. Students are given the chance to write biographies. This is a brief and easy introduction to situational writing, a facet of writing that students will be exposed to in secondary school. Towards the end of the year, students are exposed to expository writing where they are asked to defend an opinion. We did that through the use of graphic organisers, and by building into our unit plans a range of differentiating elements so the learning becomes accessible to all students.

By blending more literary elements into our curriculum, students’ foundational understanding of literature and language can deepen, all of which will help them understand the nuance of English, a skill they need to develop as they progress in their education.

5. How would you compare teaching today, specifically in a digital age and amidst a pandemic with volatile measures, to before?

As a teacher, I will always prefer to teach my students on campus. The connection is more personal and teachers are able to observe the learning process of their students more intimately. Assessment, both qualitative and quantitative, can be made more easily. The interaction students have with their peers and teachers in class provides them with the augmentation they need in their learning. Teachers are also able to provide instant feedback to their students because they can circulate around the test hence providing students with the differentiation they need in their lessons.

However, as the pandemic continues, changes have to be made. With teaching in the digital age, the challenge comes with designing learning materials and lessons that need to be more challenging and interesting. It is important to remember and understand that students, regardless of their age, are curious about the world. They come to class because they want to learn, and therefore we need to engage them. I have in the past utilised forums as a way of hosting discussions and monitoring their discussions. In many ways, I prefer this over classroom discussion because students are able to go back to the comments their peers have made. During a classroom discussion, this is not possible. The advancement of technology during this pandemic has allowed classroom discussion to morph into more productive sessions of project work. Since the computer will remain the primary medium of learning and instruction, I have used this opportunity to start projects with students where we examine issues of local and global significance. In February 2020, I started a project about food with my students where we examine the issue of food insecurity from various perspectives. As we continuously shift between classroom and online teaching to accommodate the volatile measures of the pandemic, we need to continuously look at ways in which we can use technology within the classroom to deepen our students’ understanding of the world around them. 

6. What do you think is essential in being a teacher in today’s climate?

Education is a field that is continuously evolving because society is. We are no longer in an era where teaching is merely the transference of knowledge, and students are empty containers where we deposit nuggets of knowledge. I have learnt that regardless of their age, students are perceptual and curious. Hence teachers need to approach teaching with the notion of creating understanding. It is therefore important for teachers to approach their work on a conceptual level. In order to engage their students, they need to be learners as well. Dr. Ruth Vinze at Teachers College, Columbia University argues that teaching is a composition. She adds that good and excellent teachers are not born, they are made through constant learning and growth by unlearning their assumptions of the classroom, repositioning themselves and their understanding of teaching. In a society where politics and culture are constantly changing, I believe this attitude is essential.

7. What drives your passion as an educator? In other words, what makes you show up and bring your entire self to the classroom each day?

This is a difficult question to answer. I love learning and the pursuit of knowledge. Being in the classroom allows me to do that. Perhaps it is that passion for learning that drives my interest in the work. Every lesson is different, even though you are teaching the same group of students. Teaching is a privilege and understanding that drives my passion for teaching. There are days when I would wonder if there is an off button somewhere on a particular student when he or she just won’t stop. Those days are few, and I am fortunate. I approach the work by consistently asking myself, how can I make learning more accessible, while challenging my smartest students? The answer to that question is always different. I think that is what drives my passion for the work.

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