An open letter to the Education Minister from a group of project work teachers

The following is a letter addressed to the Education Minister and it is from a group of project work teachers. Although TOC has the actual names of the educators, we publish this letter anonymously as it may have implications for their careers, students and school. We publish the letter with no edits.

Minister Sir

I represent a group of education officers in different schools writing in to share genuine concerns on the administration of Project Work (PW) in JCs and other pre-university institutions here.

Due to the possible implications of this letter on different schools as well as fellow colleagues and students, please allow me to write to you as a private citizen. I write with some concerns over how PW has been administered in schools here.

Sir, in short, I strongly feel that both SEAB (Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board) and CPDD (Curriculum Planning and Development)/MOE are not helping us PW teachers sufficiently on the ground in the delivery of this subject.

Over the course of 2 years alone, SEAB has tightened the manner in which they would like this subject to be supervised by teachers for students.

CPDD, on the other end, seems to have its hands tied, conducting A-Level PW training courses for teachers without really knowing how to go about addressing the strict, if not impractical assessment guidelines issued by SEAB.

Please allow me toelaborate briefly.

SEAB this year issued a set of rules to ‘guide’ teachers further on the administration ofthis subject. They include

  1. The instruction to all schools to destroy the Project Work Written Reports (WRs)after assessment is done. Schools can only retain sample copies for teachingand instructional purposes.
  2. Not allowing schools to invite speakers (which some centers used to have the liberty of doing so) or teachers to provide closer guidance to possiblestakeholders who are likely to play a critical role in shaping their project.
  3. Not permitting teachers to mark student drafts.

Sir, we find some of these measures to be pedagogically unsound and rather unreasonable and illogical in scope and practice.

We feel that these measures have been imposed on us without really first understanding the actual classroom conditions, group dynamics and coursework mentoring that this subject is led by.

Very little was done to solicit the views of PW teachers who teach this subject. Some of us have been teaching it since it was started in 2001 on a pilot-run. I feel that SEAB only looks at issues from an examiners’ point of view and not from the perspective of pedagogy.

They sometimes forget that the students we teach are only 17 years old and have limited experience in dealing with real-world issues or contacting stakeholders who are relevant to their research needs. These students require greater guidance, especially the weaker ones who can only learn through drafting as well as the recommendation of contacts which by their own limited network and ability, could be hard to achieve.

Many times, we sincerely wish that officers from SEAB can just step into a typical PW classroom and witness for themselves (or accompany teachers for a week, if not a term) to see just how difficult it is to teach this subject well. Their current regulations have only made the learning process more agonizing for teachers and students.

Above all, the instruction to destroy WRs (written reports) confounds us most.

Sir, we hear the government taking many steps to call on Singaporeans to put forth good ideas for society. This happens on a regular basis. However, PW teachers here are stunned and saddened that SEAB, in the name of assessment, can forgo thousands of painstakingly-written and well-research WRs each year and instruct schools to send them to the furnace/shredder.

Sir, I wish you could have the opportunity to read some of these reports which students over the course of 9 months, have painstakingly compiled based on data collected from real world settings. Many also contain socially-relevant ideas built on a theme directed at an actual target audience or needs-based community or even a ministry or NGO.

As teachers, we also feel that students deserve to have copyright over their ideas. To instruct all centers to destroy WRs is equivalent to telling universities to destroy thesis produced by their students.

The greater tragedy is that many of these reports contain solid and well-researched ideas relevant to Singapore’s future needs in so many ways ranging from policy-making t orecycling, special needs, tourism, conservation, advocacy work, nuclear energy, heritage, higher education, business ventures, marketing and even youth development.

Sir, we really wish you could have a personal look at some of these reports.

Just as a doctoral student is likely to consult past theses to detect new areas to research on or best practices to follow, a project work group should also be given free access to a rich variety of good reports their seniors have done, so as to be inspired the same way. The rules and strict guidelines against plagiarism should of course remain.

My own appeal to SEAB is to please trust and allow us PW teachers to impart this academic life-skill to our students. This is real and practical guidance as far as we are concerned, not SEAB’s version (i.e. the destruction and restricted circulation of past written reports to current batch of studentsin the name of coursework assessment).

Some additional components of PW such as the assessment of preliminary ideas (PI) or evaluation of materials (EOM) are also subject to irrational directives. Teachers have been instructed by SEAB not to pen our comments on our students’ drafts.

Sir,how realistic is this? Do professors or universities guide their students the same way? How do we expose our future undergrads to real-world learning with rules like these?

This is equivalent to telling a General Paper tutor or a honours supervisor in university not to do the same thing to their students’ scripts/project proposals. Theses are exam documents too but we do not see universities rushing to destroy them in the false fear that succeeding batches of students are going to copy ideas and reproduce them wholesale.

Can we please seek your kind intervention to appeal to SEAB to please be more realistic in the administration of this coursework examination? Let the universal rules of plagiarism apply and empower teachers and centers to exercise it with full authority without resorting to needless report burning and destruction.

It is on occasions like these that the teaching fraternity wonders if SEAB and CPDD are indeed collaborating closely enough to understand the real struggles teachers face in delivering and imparting the value of this coursework exam and subject to students on the ground.

Does SEAB know the impact their policies have on students and teachers? Have they even tried to adjust their policies and make it more ‘teacher-friendly’ and realistic to real-world learning? Or is every policy imposed from a top-down approach, totally disconnected to the real dynamics of classroom teaching and imparting of life-skills and values which every PW teacher strives to do?

Lastly,it is not easy to motivate and mentor a disparate bunch of teenagers to undertake a project task. For many of us, we find it to be deeply fulfilling, on the contrary.

What saddens us ultimately is that these finer processes of groupwork and team dynamics will always be forgotten or parked aside in favour of easily measurable targets like grades and distinctions. Some of us have had the humble privilege of receiving personal notes from students who feel the same way.

To many perhaps, PW has become a ‘touch and go’ subject, a necessary pain they undertake in order to qualify for local universities only. We believe alot more can and should be done to change this sad perception. Many of us feel that the spirit which gave birth to this subject remains noble and excellent (and ought to be defended). However the current regulations have unfortunately, killed much of its original spirit and intent

Sir, given your executive power as well as strong overview over the administration of subjects here, I appeal to you to make a holistic inquiry on how the instructional measures of PW have led to rising cases of teacher-frustration as well as instructional conflict in the administration of PW as a coursework exam here.

In addition, we also believe MOE is able to gain many insights by embarking on a longitudinal study of students who have undertaken this subject here. It is best to find out from our own ‘customers’ how the subject has impacted their learning (or not at all, due to the way it is administered) or outlook to life some years after they graduated. The kind of feedback and data generated are likely to very useful to policy-makers who can then advise SEAB and CPDD, on how best to develop more progressive strategies to develop and administer this subject to students here.

Sir, it does not take too long for one to note that PW is already a highly unpopular subject among pre-university students here. There is even a facebook page dedicated to the elimination of this subject.

While it is easy for us to put the blame on impetuous teenagers, I find it highly disturbing that a significant portion of students (in every succeeding batch) should despise a subject so much when to us, it is easily one of the most practical and useful forms of learning which allows students to bridge praxis with theory.

Like A-Level SPA, which is undertaken by science students here, the over-regulated administration of some subjects have led many students to feel cynical about our whole educational process.

I sincerely hope more can be done to foster fruitful dialogue between SEAB and MOE (particularly CPDD) in the instructional and pedagogical implications of teaching some subjects here, particularly PW.

Thank you Minister Sir for your time and kind intervention.


fellow educators in Singapore

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