The pentagonal framework
Former Education Undersecretary Isagani Cruz once told me that the Revised Basic Education Curriculum or RBEC that guides Philippine public schools today is an outline that, to be truly effective, needs to be constantly fleshed out in the classroom by the teacher.
Previously, I referred to the TIMSS analysis that found that “coherence, focus and rigor” were attributes common to the curricula of Singapore, Korea, Japan, Belgium, Hong Kong and the Czech Republic—countries whose students have exhibited consistently excellent academic achievement.
I also mentioned that the RBEC starts slowly and builds on more complex concepts as the student progresses. Singapore’s curriculum design on the other hand has attracted worldwide attention for a number of reasons. For instance, in March 1998, the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that it would be reducing content in the curriculum—“by up to 30 percent for most subjects” (emphasis supplied)—in order to provide room for teachers to implement the key initiatives, namely the infusing of thinking skills and integrating the use of Information Technology in lessons and the delivery of the National Education messages.
The MOE made this radical move after extensive consultations regarding learning outcomes and core content with education experts and stakeholders and teachers from primary, secondary, the polytechnic universities and the Institute of Technical Education. The objective of the consultations was first, to establish what constitutes “the essential knowledge, skills and values of a subject and which provides a firm foundation for further learning at higher levels.” These concepts were to be retained. Conversely, concepts that were not fundamental or which relied on plain recall, or “which overlaps with that taught at other levels in the same subject or with what is taught in other subjects” were to be either reduced or removed from the syllabuses. The same would be done for “content which focuses on technical details rather than conceptual understanding and is no longer relevant in the Singapore context or in real world practice; and content which is too difficult or abstract for the intended level.”
Just from this MOE promulgation alone, the “coherence and focus” of Singapore’s curriculum is very evident. The streamlining of the curriculum down to what is truly essential is a critical reform goal for any education system. As Wang-Iverson, Myers and Lim W.K. noted in “Beyond Singapore’s Mathematics Textbooks,” the benefits of such a clear and detailed curriculum enable teachers to focus on how to teach the content because what is to be taught is already determined. Contrast this scenario with what the Philippine public school teacher grapples with on a daily basis. If you range the concepts she needs to teach her young wards versus the prescribed number of school days in a year, she will average about one concept a day with very little to no extra time for assimilation and mastery.
Also previously, I made note of the pentagonal framework on which the Singapore curriculum is founded. You could say that going through traditional curricula—like what we have in our schools—is like going up a rope ladder, which becomes more difficult as you rise higher. The pentagonal framework works more or less the same way, but this time its like climbing up a big cargo net: you have more handholds so you can climb much faster.
The five nodes of learning in the pentagonal framework for mathematics as identified by Wang-Iverson, Myers and Lim W.K. are (1) conceptual understanding, (2) procedural skills, (3) processes that combine knowledge and skills that are necessary to learning and applying concepts, (4) attitudes that underscore belief in the subject or concept’s usefulness and (5) metacognition, whereby “students are able to monitor and control their thinking in order to progress as problem solvers.”
Singapore’s curriculum stands out because it is, in the words of Wang-Iverson et al., “concise, coherent and uncluttered.” The textbooks that support this curriculum are also quite remarkable, because “the content is presented in a way that helps students grasp the concepts, [but] are slim enough that teachers can provide additional lessons on topics as needed without pressure to cover an excessive amount of material.”
To illustrate this, here’s the portion of the concept of Whole Numbers of the Singapore math curriculum syllabus for Grade One: (1) Include counting to tell the number of objects in a given set, comparing the number of objects in two or more sets, use of ordinal numbers (first up to tenth) and symbols (1st, 2nd, etc.), number notation and place values, reading and writing numbers in numerals and words, comparing and ordering numbers, and number patterns. (2) Exclude use of the terms “cardinal number” and “ordinal number,” and use of the symbols > (greater than) and < (less than).
Wang-Iverson, Myers and Lim W.K. however emphasize that “Singapore’s academic strength lies in its national commitment to high-quality education. Its goals for its students are fully supported by a systematic plan [with] a realistic timeline and ample funding.” As our friends at the Philippine Business for Education would say, if we want our students to achieve their true potential, quality education has to be everybody’s business. That’s how Singapore does it.
Butch Hernandez ([email protected]) is the executive director of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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