Dr. Chee-Kit Looi has been doing research in educational technology for more than twenty years, since before he started his own family. When his sons were in primary school, he asked himself, “Have any of my research endeavors mattered to my sons’ education in school?” The answer was no, so he resolved to do research that would have practical application in the classroom. It was a major turning point for Chee-Kit, and we asked him what it meant to him and his work.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
Thankfully, in recent years, my research has created some inroads into transforming school practices. My work on rapid collaborative learning has transformed classrooms into learning spaces where students work in groups to actively explore new topics on a routine basis, and yet fulfill the curriculum needs. I feel a certain sense of joy in seeing students collaborating with each other in an engaged and productive way, and in seeing teachers develop their facilitation skills as we co-design lessons with them and observe their classes. We have worked with more than ten schools in Singapore to co-design and refine innovative practices. It provides a sustainable basis on which these schools have continued or plan to continue the innovations on their own.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
My research on seamless and mobile learning has made good progress toward creating a sustainable model of 1:1 computing in schools. My work has transformed the science curricula of Primary 3 and 4 in Nan Chiau Primary School (http://www.ncps.moe.edu.sg/) so that both the teachers and students can harness the capabilities of mobile devices for inquiry teaching and learning. The school has also become one of the FutureSchools (prototype schools in ICT usage) in Singapore. I am heartened that my research has helped the school attain both sustainability and scalability in their innovations.
How can educators facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through this project?
In working towards scalable and sustainable practices, we as researchers take a design-based research approach to addressing complex problems in real classroom contexts when collaborating with practitioners. We use a Chinese metaphor known as barrel theory to represent why we need to adopt a comprehensive systemic perspective when a school adopts an innovation.
The wooden barrel theory states that the capacity of a barrel is determined not by the longest wooden bar or plank, but by the shortest. We tend to focus on just one or a couple of planks, but that creates a challenge for impacting practice. We extend the barrel theory to say that the capacity of a barrel is also determined by the seams or the lack of seams between planks, meaning that we need alignment of neighboring planks. Educators need to identify the real needs, think of innovative solutions to address these needs, and not just focus on individual planks. For example, we cannot just put technology into schools, we have to help teachers design the lessons and the pedagogy, and we need alternative ways of assessing what the students would have learned with the new pedagogies.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
I can empathize with the parents’ insecurities as we carried out the pedagogical innovations in schools, as they are not acquainted with the philosophy of these innovations. Although an overwhelming number of parents do give their support, they are worried that their children acquire new skills at the expense of performing badly in high-stakes assessments.
As a parent myself, I also went through such an internal struggle. When my younger son was in grade 11, he had an opportunity to go to MIT for a six-week research project. But this was during examination time, and my wife was initially concerned that he would miss the lessons in school and affect his results adversely. But we decided that he should go for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He benefitted immensely from the exposure during his MIT stint, learning beyond and above what was needed at that time.
In short, it is the mindset that we need to change. Learning is not just for scoring well in examinations, but to gain critical dispositions that will enable students to do well in the knowledge-based economy. To achieve this involves taking calculated risk to transform teaching practices and gaining invaluable support from parents throughout the evolutionary process so that students can receive a quality education that will benefit them for a lifetime.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be?
A mobile device, ready-at-hand, that connects the child to people, information and resources. It is an intellectual partner that mentors her in a personalized way, captures her learning moments and shares her experiences across different contexts. It is also a learning hub that connects her formal and informal learning experiences, thus providing continuity in her learning pursuits.
About Chee-Kit Looi
Professor of Education and Researcher, National Institute of Education, Nanyang
Technological University – Singapore, Dr Chee-Kit Looi finds his passion in the hard work of collaborating with schools, leveraging educational research to make a real difference in classroom learning. He devotes his time to studying the role of technology in transforming classroom learning into active collaborative learning spaces, and for bridging formal and informal learning.
Current residence: Singapore
Education: Master of Science (University of British Columbia, UBC), PhD (Edinburgh University, Scotland)
Websites I check every day: Facebook, www.bbc.com, www.asia1.com.sg
Person who inspires me most: Steve Jobs, who had to leave Apple but came back to
revive and inject a new lease of life into the then ailing company (and this is an understatement!).
Favorite childhood memory: My father (now deceased) was a Chinese physician who did bone massage for patients and treated them for bone fractures and the like. Even now, I still remember some scenes of him treating patients; occasionally there was a snapping sound, and subsequently a loud cry of pain from the patient whom later heaved a sigh of relief after the dislodged joints had been put in place. From these episodes, I learned that sometimes in order to treat a root problem, one needs to bear the transient pain associated with solving the problem.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Paris (which I have not been to)
Favorite book: The Bible