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Learning as one nation
[November 20, 2005]

Learning as one nation

(Philippine Daily Inquirer)PHILIPPINE EDUCATION "FINDS ITSELF IN A DEEPENING RUT OF MEDIOCRITY," says the Philippine Human Development Report 2000. Nothing much has changed since then.

Problems like unqualified teachers, error-filled textbooks, lack of equipment, large classes, and rote memorization plague the education system. No wonder, the country is always near the bottom in standardized tests like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

There is a way out of the morass. Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido and husband Christopher of the Central Visayan Institute (CVI), a high school in Bohol, are sharing with Inquirer readers the teaching methods they have developed to help improve basic education in the country.

They are proposing that the Dynamic Learning Process (DLP), which has raised academic performance at CVI and attracted the attention of educators and government officials, be adopted nationwide. DLP involves learning by doing and holding of simultaneous classes for the same subject for all year levels.

If DLP is adopted by the education department, students all over the country can listen to a lecture by a national expert teacher on TV via satellite. This approach can address the lack of qualified teachers because, in principle, only one expert teacher per subject is needed for the entire country.

WE PREFER TO RELY ON HUMAN ingenuity and creativity to achieve our national goals through cohesive effort and economy of resources using 21st century technology, and modern and classical teaching strategies.

If we work as one nation, we can attain short and long term targets for our school children and for our country.

For example, we believe our country can forge ahead in international standardized tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and have a more systematic preparation for better performance in prestigious competitions such as the International Mathematics Olympiad or the International Physics Olympiad.

We can develop a solid basic education system feeding collegiate and graduate levels at high levels of competence. In turn, this will help advance teaching and research in universities. We can graduate high quality manpower for the different professions. We can ensure that our entire education system will lead to improved living conditions in the country for all. Moreover, we can develop culture and intellectual taste. We can develop strength of character.

However, progress can only be achieved in stages. We focus on our immediate goal: at minimal cost and change in infrastructure, in the quickest time, to have the maximum number of students learning science and mathematics at the highest levels of mastery.

Dynamic learning

Our springboard for the different scenarios we envision for the country is the Central Visayan Institute Foundation's Dynamic Learning Process (DLP), which we designed and implemented in 2002.

This program has been a crucial factor in the revitalization of the CVIF high school to significantly higher levels of academic performance six years after being near-closure in 1999.

The program is differentiated and target-oriented for effective learning under multiple socioeconomic and cultural constraints. It synthesizes classical and modern theories for use in real classroom situations. It mixes features of traditional methods, individual instruction, distance education, and the Montessori philosophy, and revives classical approaches such as the no-homework policy.

It takes into account our own direct observations and recent results in cognitive theories and brain research. The essential components of the DLP are the parallel classes scheme (See Fig. 1), activity-based, multi-domain learning, in-school comprehensive student portfolios (instead of notebooks), comprehensive teacher's portfolios (instead of lesson plans), strategic study and rest periods, and integrated cultural and character formation. With these features, the program progressively addresses problems like lack of textbooks, equipment and qualified teachers and large classes.

Although implemented with the 2002 Basic Education Curriculum (BEC), the program is compatible with other curricula such as special science and math curricula of science high schools. Moreover, being based on studies of universal aspects of the teaching-learning process, the program has high potential for model expansion and should be workable within a wide spectrum of student abilities (slow to brilliant), teacher qualifications (novice to master levels), and resources (poor rural to affluent urban).

Parallel classes, biorhythm

The CVIF model has a parallel class schedule with all sections of all year levels having the same subject at the same time (See Tables 1 and 2). This takes advantage of the natural biological rhythm with the challenging subjects of science and math taken first thing in the morning when students are fresh for school work. This is in contrast to more common schedules with some science and math classes toward noon or in the afternoon. These are non-peak hours for learning when students may be hungry, tired, and generally restless, especially in a tropical country like the Philippines.

Furthermore, because we have the no-homework policy and parents are strongly urged to have their children sleeping by 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., students who are sleepy in the morning can be interviewed why they lack sleep.

Four days of the week-Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday-are for academic work, while Wednesday is for Music, Arts, Physical Education and Health (Mapeh), and Citizenship Advancement Training (CAT). There are no classes on Wednesday afternoons except for CAT for seniors. Remedial work, faculty and club meetings, practices and rehearsals, are also done on Wednesdays, with 6 p.m. as the school curfew and cut-off time for extra-curricular activities. Sundays are reserved for leisure, family time and religious obligations. (Close adherence to this schedule has developed in students a strong sense of time management for their different activities. This is especially good for adolescents since psychologists identify this as the stage for forming both behavioral and intellectual habits.)

The key question on a school schedule with parallel classes is how one teacher can handle more than one science class if these are conducted at the same time. This is where the expert teacher and facilitator setup comes in. (See Fig. 2)

This peculiar component of the CVIF Program was inspired by the Aronson Jigsaw Strategy in which students are grouped into so-called "home groups" and "expert groups." The model is called "Jigsaw" because each student's part, as it moves from the expert groups to its home group, is essential for the successful achievement of objectives. In the CVIF model, we inverted the entire procedure. Instead of students, the "expert teachers" and "facilitators" cooperate to achieve targets.

The "expert teacher," who is a regular classroom teacher responsible for a particular subject, prepares the learning activities, and grades activities and exams. During the subject period, he or she chooses the section where a lecture or discussion will be conducted.

In practice, with long periods during academic days, different sections may be visited while students are doing drills, projects, concept notes, or drawing. While the expert teacher is not with a class, a facilitator (who is also a licensed and expert teacher of a different subject) takes charge.

The facilitators do not discuss or interfere with the activities of the students. They merely make sure that the students are doing the activities for the day and classroom conditions are conducive to learning. The students are thus constrained to work independently while having the time and opportunity for deep thinking and intellectual exploration. By the time the expert teacher visits the class, the students already have particular questions in mind on problems they tried to solve earlier.

Flash of insight

The expert teacher simply reinforces correct understanding, points out common errors, or compares the merits of different solutions. The flash of insight or understanding is more often observed than in traditional situations where the teacher introduces the topic, lectures, and gives examples, before the students do exercises. In fact, with this setup, many students are able to solve physics and math problems even without prior explanation of the topic.

The schedule with simultaneous classes for all subjects forms the system's intrinsic inhibitor preventing the slide back to teacher-centered methods. This allows effective learning-by-doing with students having more time for absorption and progressive mastery of lessons. If teachers stay every day for whole periods with their classes, the tendency is to revert to traditional methods such as lectures, repeated explanations of the same topic, or group dynamics. There is also the tendency to move on to the next topic when pressured by fast learners. This is because quiet students are generally observed to acquiesce to the dominant mood set by high-profile students whether or not they have learned the subject matter well.

The simultaneous periods promote higher interaction between teachers and cross-fertilization of ideas. Poor performing teachers are pushed to better performance as they move from one class to another as facilitators and are exposed to activities given by good teachers. Teacher apprentices can train on the job while serving as assistant expert teachers. Facilitators also learn teaching strategies used in other subject areas.

Via satellite

Suppose schools all over the country have simultaneous science periods, 7:30 a.m. to 9:10 a.m., what we call "science time." This allows students all over the country to listen to a lecture by a national expert teacher on TV via satellite. (For example, imagine having as Biology expert teacher the international awardee, Dr. Josette Biyo, for students all over the country.) Twenty to 30-minute lectures for general science, biology, chemistry and physics can be aired on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, respectively. Questions may be asked of the national expert teacher through phone, text messages, or e-mail. During the periods when students are not listening to the lectures, they will have learning-by-doing activities such as problem-solving exercises, reports on learning stations, concept notes and research, to be filed in their comprehensive portfolio. The same procedure can be done during "math time," 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

Unlike educational shows on Discovery Channel or the Knowledge Channel, the regularly scheduled lectures of the national experts, or team of experts, will follow the prescribed BEC and learning competencies for the entire school year. These will not be lectures for entertainment or supplementary learning. These will be rigorous "expanded classroom" lectures for students with well-defined learning targets. Success indicators will include the country's performance in international standardized tests as well as high science and math proficiency levels of incoming college freshmen. This means that national expert teachers will not be rated according to how good and how entertaining they are as lecturers, but according to how the students all over the country achieve their learning objectives and how well they do in aptitude exams, college entrance tests, and subsequent college work.

Key players

The "Learning as One Nation" scenario takes advantage of 21st century technology and the natural affinity of the youth for cable TV and the Internet. It can be realized with the cohesive, harmonious, and functional teamwork among different sectors of society in an effort to raise levels of competence of our young people.

1.) Department of Education (DepEd)- planning, organization, administration, mobilization of resources, overall coordination; 2.) Department of Science and Technology (Science Education Institute)-selection of national experts and think tank, documentation and research, archival; 3.) Department of Social Welfare and Development-support mechanism for students with special needs; 4.) Philanthropists-matriel and wherewithal.

5.) Media-programming and TV simulcast, archived on-demand webcast; 6.) National Science and Math experts-design and preparation of year-long activities, quarterly examinations, 30-minute lectures for simulcast, evaluation of feedback with the think tank; 7.) Think tank-strategy, tactics, continuing program evaluation and review.

8.) Centers for Educational Measurement-objective evaluation and assessment; 9.) School administrators-preparation of venue and audiovisual facilities, transmittal of feedback, questions and exemplars to DepEd, school discipline; 10.) Classroom teachers (assistant expert teachers and facilitators)-interaction with students, gathering and organizing of questions and feedback for transmittal to DepEd, checking of learning activities, quizzes and exams, computation of grades according to standard national criteria.

11.) Parents and guardians-moral support, health, nutrition and rest for children (sleep by 8 p.m. or 9 .p.m) for maximal science and math learning in the morning.

Cost estimates

Since we will be working within the existing DepEd and DOST infrastructure and organizational setup, the significant additional expenses will be the actual costs of yearly simulcast and the initial purchase of television sets for schools all over the country. The DOST and private networks may offer better estimates of the cost of televised lectures, videotaping and reproduction. (Lack of computers limits use of videostreaming technology.) For the cost of TV sets, we note the latest DepEd statistics (school year 2003-2004) of an enrollment of 5,025,956 in 4,830 public schools. For around 100 students per viewing cluster (1 TV), an estimate budget of P500 million may be needed. This amount (only about 7 percent of the annual net income of some large private corporations) is within feasibility margins. Additional sources may come from realignment of DepEd and DOST budget for training workshops (instructional materials, travel and accommodation costs for trainers and participants) since the science and math teachers will have on-the-job training throughout the school year in their own schools.

Furthermore, since most science and math professors write their own lecture notes, these can be reproduced for teachers and facilitators. Students in public schools and poor private schools will not need textbooks since they will copy the notes from the board. (To deter complaints against copying, we emphasize that masteral and doctoral students in physics normally copy the detailed lecture notes written on the board by first-rate university professors here and abroad.) Copying serves the dual role of visual-psychomotor coordination to enhance content learning and improvement of technical and functional language skills necessary for the 21st century.

Guiding principles

To ensure success, it is extremely important that all educators involved should be aware of fundamental principles.

1. Learning by doing. To learn science and math, students need to think with their own minds and work with their own hands.

2. Sound fundamentals. A strong structure needs a solid foundation. Virtuoso levels are reached only by being well-grounded in the fundamentals.

3. Mastery not vanity. A simple problem completely and clearly solved is of greater educational value than a complex problem sloppily analyzed with a forced final answer. (This is the philosophy of our CVIF Young Math Virtuoso Project started in 2003, which got support from the Fund for Assistance in Private Education in 2005.)

4. Adaptability. An educational program must be adaptable because no two learning situations are completely alike.

5. Honesty. Cheating is unscientific. Fraudulent data invalidate evaluation.


Clearly, if we can make this scenario or its variations work, the country can circumvent the problem of lack of qualified science and math teachers. (The problem is worsening. Over 3,000 teachers have migrated to the US and other countries since 1992.) Indeed, in principle, only one expert teacher per subject is needed for the entire country.

Moreover, not only the students will learn. This is an occasion for apprenticeship for science and math teachers all over the country who will be the "assistant expert teachers." They shall be watching national experts actually teaching the subject for sustained periods within the constraints of the prescribed curriculum, and answering students' questions for the entire school year. (Note that the large scale effect of short-term "out-of-context" teacher-training seminars and workshops has been questioned even in other countries. On the other hand, most university professors have no hands-on experience in the day-to-day run of lessons in basic education for an entire school year. This leads to recommendation of too many topics at inappropriately advanced levels. We have personally experienced the effects of such mismatch.)

On the part of the national expert teachers, their high visibility will subject them to healthy critique of pedagogical methods, accuracy and clarity of presentation. With real and regular feedback from peers, elementary and high school teachers, and students, there could then be progressive improvement of strategies. We expect a yearly advance and development according to the doctrine of continuing improvement. In time, the improvement will be transmuted into higher levels of competence in collegiate and graduate levels.

Addressing criticisms

Problems and questions will be encountered in the beginning. Naturally, an unorthodox large scale program of action can elicit much criticism. We expect three major types of opposition: overtly vocal but harmless, covert but harmful, and actively hostile. Nevertheless, from personal experience, we affirm that the best antidote should still be positive results and the clear achievement of objectives. In the beginning we may have to work with a bootstrap strategy, focusing on high ideals while coping with gross realities, continually improving ourselves along the way. Some questions which may be anticipated, are the following:

1. Problem: If expert teachers give short activities or activities, which are too difficult, students who either finish early or are unable to proceed become restless and noisy or will simply chat or sleep. Facilitators are helpless bystanders.

Solution: This problem is the easiest to solve. Professional teachers have a tremendous amount of possible activities for their students to be kept busy. They in fact already use these for homework, seatwork, board work, and projects. Most books have questions, exercises and suggested activities at the end of each unit. The only difference is that the students will do all the work in school during the period when the expert teacher is not conducting a lecture or discussion. Indeed, it is surprising to realize the amount of time even advanced students need to diligently complete such work with time to absorb and appreciate the significance of what they are doing. Moreover, extra time may be used for research, advanced work, or completion of unfinished activities.

Encoded in DNA

2. Question: As teachers, shouldn't we be with our students and teach?

Answer: As teachers, our primary duty is not to teach but to make sure our students learn. Since they learn by doing especially in math and science, it is imperative to give them time to do their work without interference on our part. This follows the "watering-of-plants principle"-we water, but it is the plant which grows according to the program encoded in its DNA. Too much watering kills a plant.

3. Question: Won't the students get so tired with all the writing, drawing and problem solving?

Answer: Learning is serious work. To develop stamina and achieve higher levels of performance, rigor and discipline are necessary. There are no shortcuts to excellence and ultimate perfection. This is well-known by athletes who train to be Olympians and artists who train to be virtuosi. This is also recognized by highly industrialized top-performing countries in the TIMSS.

In any case, we have personally observed that when objectives are clear to young people, even children, they are willing and able to dedicate themselves to their goals and submit to a program of disciplined training and focused self-development. This is why we emphasize the no-homework and protect-the-weekends policy. The students, just like professionals, go to school to "work" on their personal, intellectual and physical development. After dismissal, they relax and enjoy leisure and family bonding time for their strategic rest.

Of course, they always have the option to do advanced studies during their free time.

The other side of the coin is that there is intellectual joy in learning. During academic days most of our students are busy and quietly creative with their activities. It is not uncommon to see them completely absorbed in their work for the whole period lasting over 60 minutes. This debunks the myth of short attention span.

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