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TeacherThree representatives of Singapore’s Hwa Chong Institution recently visited Loudoun County Public Schools Academy of Science (AOS).

Hwa Chong is the premier high school in Singapore, an island nation whose test scores in math and science are consistently the highest in the world. Three of Hwa Chong’s faculty members – Ang Lai Chiang (mathematics), Har Hui Peng (biology) and Ng Siew Hoon (physics) – visited the AOS between March 5th and 7th. The Loudoun school was the only one the delegation from Singapore visited while in America.

The visiting educators were interested in studying the way the AOS curriculum integrates the sciences in the ninth and 10th grades, the inclusion of math in the science program and the inquiry-based methods AOS faculty use to teach math and science.

AOS Director George Wolfe visited Hwa Chong twice in the past two years, most recently in January with the Cornell Institute of Physics Teachers. The mission then was instructing Singapore’s teachers about how to teach using the inquiry process.

“Their students score world-class results on standardized tests. Singapore is always at or near the top in math and science,” said Wolfe. “One of the things that’s very interesting that has come to light in that country is that they lag behind – according to their minister of education – in terms of innovation. They realize that perhaps getting a standardized test score that is high is not as important as learning to think outside the box. Thus they are very interested in the inquiry process, which is what we teach.”

The 88-year-old Hwa Chung Institution also has a lot to offer Wolfe and American teachers. “They have a great research component, which is what I really hope to learn from them. The way they set up their research groups, the way they get kids to do research, we brainstormed a lot about that. It was very encouraging because they have the same frustrations I do.”

One universal frustration is paramount among teachers instructing advanced-level teens in science, said Wolfe. “It’s very hard to get a teenager to ask a question that’s answerable. They all want to do things like ‘I want to cure cancer.’ Their aspirations are way too broad because of where they are developmentally and where they are scientifically.”

Wolfe said he’s trying to use his staff as mentors who will get students to narrow their focus to something that is doable. Research scientists say they have trouble getting their graduate students to do this.

“(Students) want the big picture. They don’t understand yet, because they’re not scientists – they’re students of science – they don’t understand how science is built from the bottom up. They look from the top down.”

Peng said using hands-on, inquiry-based techniques will be difficult in Singapore because of class size. Classes in Singapore are typically 36 or 37 students and can range as high as 40 to 44. Students are lectured for 10 weeks and then start on a large-scale research project without much hands-on scientific experience; something Peng said may not be ideal.

Peng likes Wolfe’s method of getting students involved in four- to five-week research activities. “It’s really neat.” Implementing this philosophy on a large scale at Hwa Chong could prove difficult, she added. “We can do just a little bit of it. It’s better than nothing.”

Singapore’s superiority on exams is a mixed measurement of real achievement, Peng said. “Exams are a good measure of whether a person can think critically or not. It’s telling people to learn how to analyze and come up with solutions…

“Our students are very good at exams. What we want to do now is to get them to be real problem-solvers, not just be good at exams. We want to have a balance.”

The way the AOS combines the study of math and science particularly intrigues, Peng. “Students always see math and the different sciences as compartments. It’s important for all to function together.”

While they were in America, Wolfe accompanied the delegation from Singapore to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute facility at Janelia Farm and to the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools for Math, Science and Technology in Philadelphia

Last Modified on March 27, 2007