Thursday, March 25, 2010

Push for Singapore students to learn from their environment and that seven-coloured thingy in the sky

Reading this Straits Times article on "Push for Singapore students to learn from their environment" pushes me to compile some random thoughts and observations into a coherent post.

The article centred on a top institution here espousing the merits of place-based education (PBE), "a learning pedagogy first introduced in the United States". PBE "emphasises learning through real-world experiences, with the local community and environment as a starting point". In short, it connects students to the real world.

Besides the term "PBE", nothing is new. Education has always been trying to get students into the real world, whether through work attachment, community service, field trips, study trips etc. However, in practice, budget and time usually closet the student in the classroom or glue him to the computer screen (online research, lessons, discussion and whatnot). I guess PBE is another repackaging exercise like PBL (problem based learning) a decade back. (Hey, don't they sound similar?!)

Nevertheless, the principles of PBE are highly relevant, so much so that I am a strong believer of PBE despite hearing about "PBE" for the first time. Besides for research purposes, my water quality monitoring (WQM) activities and courses aim to bring students (from primary level all the way to working adults) into the real world environment to experience how it fits (and contradicts) classroom theory and laboratory experiments.

Here are some anecdotes in support of PBE.
I once talked to a JC teacher who accounted that some of her students have never seen a rainbow in Singapore. When they had a field trip to Australia, they were awed by the first rainbow they experienced. Uh... are our students going outdoors nowadays? Not surprisingly, these students have yet to visit Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR), Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) and even the highly touted Marina Barrage.
Figure: Marina Barrage in the foreground still under construction in 2007

When I showed my own polytechnic students bug specimens, most of them became instantly fascinated. (Of course, there were always the few who hated and feared bugs.) Why? Throughout their primary and secondary school education, the only bugs they saw were two-dimensional ones on print or screen. They would never have imagined the sizes and shapes of real bugs (albeit as specimens).
Figure: bug specimens

PUB is a strong supporter (financial and otherwise) of water research. A PUB staff once remarked to me about PUB having sponsored a secondary school team in developing a remote mobile WQM device. Indeed a wonderful idea and a handy gadget if successful. Yup, the kind that needs good working knowledge of mechanics and electronics. Shockingly though, the students were unsure of why WQM is necessary and how it is useful to the environment. (Perhaps they have not read this blog.)
Henry Peavy in his book, As if the earth matters, summed the issues up succcintly - one day, students (who will grow into the leaders of the world) can't even recognise a chicken without reading its DNA.
To reiterate my earlier point about students (and adults) not going out into the environment enough (shopping and movies are not counted!), I am perturbed that based on a quick poll of the primary school students in my courses, most use an email account and half write a blog. Looks like learning for them will still remain mostly in the classroom and their computers.
To end, I quote this from the anime, Monster (yes, television and the internet have their place in education but they should be done in moderation) - "education is to develop people useful for society". But anyone who has watched the series knows that these "educated" people ended up as psychological inepts incapable of love. Perhaps a more apt description would be "education is to develop the full potential of an individual - intellectually, physically and emotionally."

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