I was surprised to see how similar many of the teaching practices were compared to our schools in Finland. The more student-centered approach seemed to be the norm in most of the lessons I observed. Instead of sitting rigidly in straight rows only facing the teacher and listening to him/her, students did a lot of problem solving in small groups, just like I and some colleagues have started doing in our lessons lately. Our students were asked to join them in their groups, and it was nice to see the interaction start after they had managed to break the ice.
I wanted to find out about incorporating ICT, since the work my AEC-NET colleagues had showcased at several conferences was always of such superior quality. The classrooms and the whole school seemed to be very similarly equipped as our school - a data projector in most classrooms. Some teachers actively used ICT in their teaching, others not so much - familiar story. (NB. I only observed a few lessons during one week, so I shouldn't really draw any general conclusions. These are simply my personal impressions.) But when you think about it, a data projector only serves as a modern replament of the chalk board or the OHP if it is only used by the teacher to show and demonstrate things to students. I have seen this reality in schools in many countries. We think we are up-to-date and doing something new when in fact, we are just doing the same old thing in a slightly flashier fashion.
Each Pioneer teacher is given a personal laptop by the school, something that only a few schools in Finland have managed so far. Instead, we have one teacher laptop in each classroom that all the teachers using the room share.
Just like in our school, Pioneer Secondary had a separate computer room that teachers could book to use for their classes whenever they wanted, provided that the room was vacant. We attended a lesson where students were doing their AEC-NET project work. I was very impressed to see how self-directed and active the students were in their small groups. The teacher was available to help and facilitate but the students mostly worked very independently and confidently, and they were only 13-14 years old. It really showed me what education at its best could be today. The students were doing research on ecotourism, and then uploading the results of their work online to share with project partners in other countries.
Pioneer Secondary has invested in a whole school platform, called iCollaborate, which they have used for all the students' project work for many years. Basically, similar to Moodle that our school provides as an overall platform. The advantage of the whole school using one platform is, of course, that it is easier to train teachers to use just one system, and simpler to manage it on the whole. The downside then is that standard solutions don't please adventurous teachers, who soon want to jump outside the box and try something more user-friendly or versatile. Personally, I find these platforms restrictive and dull compared to what social media tools are on offer these days, but that's just my preference.
I had a chance to talk to the head of the ICT department, Ms Ling, at Pioneer Secondary to share ideas. She told me that because most of their staff are quite young, they are perhaps a bit keener to incorporate ICT in their lessons, as it is an integral part of their own lives, too. For this reason, she also said that most of the teachers using ICT are quite confident and self-directed, and thus don't need her help a lot. Yet she is there to help and assist all the teachers, which again brought home one thing I feel is terribly neglected in many Finnish schools, and which I have mentioned many times before - the fact that Finnish schools don't invest in employing a full-time pedagogically and technically qualified person to help teachers, as was the case in Pioneer. I want to add, though, that I tend to reject the ageist idea of teachers' ICT use - considering myself as an exception to the preconception that older teachers can't be 'digital natives'. But, of course, there is no denying the fact that ICT tends to be a more integral part of the lives of the younger generations, which is bound to have an effect on schools once some of today's youngsters become teachers.
I totally agree with Ms Ling's vision that you can't force any teacher to use ICT. Instead, the will to use it must spring from a pedagogical need whereby the teacher realizes that to facilitate good student learning today, at times ICT is the only means of doing it. She also pointed out that their aim was not technology for technology's sake, but a down-to-earth, sensible approach, where technology enhances student learning. Sounded very wise to me! I asked her about the use of IWBs, which my school has heavily invested in lately, but which I didn't see at Pioneer at all. Interestingly, she said they had looked into them but concluded that they didn't offer anything drastically better or different than what you could accomplish with a computer and a data projector! I have only started to learn to use one in our school, and so far I tend to agree with her.
From a teacher's point of view, one of the very rewarding and enlightening sides of organising international student exchanges is being able to see different schools, and learn from their good practices, to have something to take back to your own school. I only wish, schools would be more open to good ideas from outside, even unusual and radical ones, and not be such closed and immutable national fortresses.
It is also great to network and make friends with overseas teachers. We had the privilege of working with a wonderful educatior, Ms Yuen Chai Lin, who worked incredibly hard to make our stay comfortable and exciting - even extending her hospitality to opening her home to me and my colleague to stay in. This gave us an extra glimpse to the Singaporean culture. We can never thank her enough for all her friendliness and considerateness, and for untiringly sharing the Singapore customs with us, and explaining anything we were curious about.