Global Perspectives: Chew Leng Poon Reports from the 5th IEA International Research Conference

By Chew Leng Poon

On June 26-28, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) held its 5th International Research Conference at the National Institute of Education in Singapore.  Researchers, academics and educators from over twenty countries attended.  IEA has produced cross-national studies of education achievement for the past fifty years and this biennial conference is the forum at which researchers working with the data from those studies come together to exchange ideas, information and findings from their own research and on critical education issues.

CLPChew Leng Poon, Principal Senior Specialist at the Singapore Ministry of Education, attended the IEA conference and reports on key aspects of the meeting below:

Drawing on international data from large-scale benchmarking studies, including TIMMS, PIRLS, The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), and International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), 57 research papers were presented at the 5th IEA International Research Conference in Singapore.

As it was the first time that the TIMSS and PIRLS cycles coincided in 2011, researchers made use of data from both studies to build models that explored the relationships between achievement in reading, mathematics and science and school, classroom and home factors. School effectiveness was a common theme in both the keynote addresses and also in the paper presentations.  Attitudes, self-concept and motivation of students toward learning – in academic subjects and in civic and citizenship education – were also examined. Methodological approaches and challenges of using international benchmarking data were shared and debated.

In the keynote address, “Mathematics Education in Singapore”, Prof Berinderjeet Kaur from the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University discussed the evolution of the Mathematics curriculum in Singapore since the 1950s.  She described the philosophy, principles and design of the current “Mathematics for every child” framework.

In the foundation years (Grades 1 to 4) of primary schooling, every child experiences a common mathematics curriculum.  A significant chunk of the total curriculum time (about 20 percent) is devoted to mathematics education.  Students who experience difficulty in learning the foundation concepts receive learning support for Mathematics, with specially trained teachers and supporting resources available in every primary school.

At the secondary level (Grades 7 to 10),  the mathematics curriculum is differentiated for students with different aptitudes in Mathematics, with high but appropriate expectations of mathematics literacy for every child, regardless of course of study.  The characteristics of the differentiated curriculum include a common broad curriculum framework that binds all the different mathematics syllabuses.  All the Mathematics courses of study are designed around the common focus on “Mathematical problem solving”, which is the competent and creative use of mathematics to solve problems.

The syllabuses are nested in two senses: There is a coherent spiral development of topics from one educational level to the next and the syllabuses from the different courses share common core outcomes that are regarded as fundamental to building a strong foundation for mathematical problem solving (see example at end of article).

There is also a provision for flexibility in implementation in the schools. For example, students from a Normal (Academic) course have the option of a more demanding Express course mathematics syllabus.  Bridging courses are designed to help students transition from a less demanding to a more demanding syllabus.  This is possible because the national curriculum makes clear where the gaps are and where the bridging is required.

Students who have a strong aptitude and interest in Mathematics have the option of taking two Mathematics courses in Grades 9 and 10.  The Additional Mathematics syllabus extends learning in Algebra and Geometry and introduces students to Calculus and Trigonometry. Strong learners are therefore challenged.  About 45 percent of grades 9 and 10 students take these two Mathematics courses.

There is an inverse relationship between curriculum time and demand of syllabus – students who take a less demanding Mathematics syllabus are given more curriculum time. For example, students taking the Normal (Technical) Mathematics syllabus spend 4–5 hours per week on Mathematics, compared to 2.5–3 hours per week for those offering the more demanding Express course syllabus.  Students in the Normal (Academic) course are given 5 years to complete the same Mathematics syllabus (and sit for the same national examination) as the Express course students who take 4 years to complete the syllabus.

An example of nested Grade 7 syllabuses in Algebraic Expressions, Formulae and Manipulation:

GlobalPerspectives.jpg

In the keynote address, “Quality of Schools and Teaching: What can we learn from International Studies?”, Dr. Eckhard Klieme of the  German Institute for International Educational Research raised some of the challenges that researchers and users of research findings need to be aware of when working on or interpreting findings of international large-scale assessment.  Mainly he discussed the need to understand the impact of system and culture; the impact of professional practices and institutional contexts; and the potential and limits of cross-sectional data when comparing across educational systems. There is also a need to distinguish between classroom and school effect in order to measure and explain change at different levels. Researchers should try to link the findings to strong theories of school and teaching effectiveness.

Dr. Eckhard suggested the importance of revisiting the concept of “opportunity to learn” (Schmidt & McKnight, 1995; Schmidt & Maier, 2009), which includes content coverage, content exposure variables such as curriculum time and depth of teaching, and content emphasis variables such as higher vs. lower order thinking skills.

He suggested that large scale assessment should go beyond the focus on content in defining opportunity to learn. Rather, large scale assessment could contribute to comparative studies of the quality of teaching and learning which is a key construct of “opportunity to learn” that Dr. Eckhard believes will contribute to school/classroom effectiveness.  The large scale assessments can be used to “describe teaching and learning, its variation and distribution” based on subject matter coverage (traditional notion of opportunity to learn), quality dimensions (structure and classroom management, support and cognitive activation), and specific practices (“treatments”).

Data collected can be used to model the relationships between the above dimensions and student attainment, cognitive skills and non-cognitive outcomes. The findings can also be used to test whether factors impacting teaching quality and effectiveness are universal characteristics or culture-specific.

Dr. Eckhard ended his keynote address by exhorting all to let “key research drive IEA studies, not just policy making”.

While this year’s conference was impressive in its depth of subjects covered and international representation, what really stood out to me was the quality of discussions among conference particpants and the constructive critiques and suggestions offered by experts in various fields.  I would encourage other practitioners and researchers to attend the next conference in South Africa in 2015.  To learn more about the conference, visit: http://www.iea.nl/irc-2013.html.