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In Singapore, Training Teachers for the 'Classroom of the Future'

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Alarm bells sound. A faint burning smell creeps into the room. The students have failed to curb human consumption enough, and climate change has taken its toll in the 4-D immersive lab.

Welcome to the Classroom of the Future—a mock-up housed by Singapore's National Institute of Education (NIE) to demonstrate what learning might look like someday. The NIE, the agency that oversees teacher preparation in Singapore, wants to make sure the country's teachers are ready.

According to international assessments, Singapore has one of the best educational systems in the world, and its teacher training program has been cited as one reason why. As the country increases the use of digital devices in schools, it's making a parallel effort to train teachers not just in the latest tech trends—like how to work a SmartBoard or what app to use to practice fractions—but in how to determine when and why to use technology.

Those in the training program are pushed to think about "what are the things that technology can do that you can't do with pen and paper," said Liu Woon Chia, an associate dean at the NIE.

In the United States, technology training is an important part of many teacher-preparation programs. But it often doesn't go far beneath the surface, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, an education research and advocacy group that has criticized American teacher-training programs.

Assimilating Technological Change

In 2013, the group analyzed capstone project assignments from 600 teacher-preparation programs and found that, while nearly all suggested using technology, only 15 percent required teacher candidates to explain how a digital tool would support student learning. Other surveys have repeatedly found that many teachers feel inadequately trained to use technology in their classes.

"In some states, there are standards that require teachers to know something about technology, but it hasn't really been thought through," said Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher-preparation studies at NCTQ. "We do think of technology in education as something that has to be there. Our kids are living in a technological age. That's the sum total of the thinking."

In Singapore, the Ministry of Education has invested billions of dollars to incorporate technology into classrooms. And the NIE, the nation's only teacher-preparation program, has been expected to keep up.

At the Classroom of the Future, a prototype lab that thousands of teacher candidates and foreign guests have trooped through since it opened in 2005, the touch screen-filled cafĂ© and the video-conferencing global classroom are pieces of this effort. Indeed, some at the NIE even criticize the project as promoting superficial technology use—technology for the sake of flash.

But the broader goal of the Classroom of the Future is to get Singapore's future teaching force and visitors to consider how new technologies could change education. Could 4-D—where actual sounds and smells join with 3-D models—increase student learning? What are new ways for students to share information and ideas? Would video conferencing with foreign peers make students more globally conscious?

The NIE has also revamped its own classrooms to make them more digital and collaboration-friendly. The administration has increased the amount of technology-related professional development provided to classroom teachers, and has added an Information and Communication Technology course that teacher candidates must take during their first semester.

Modeling Better Classroom-Tech Use

The course covers some specific tools, but mostly aims to get students to think about why they would use one tool over another in a given lesson. The final assignment is a detailed lesson plan, including a 500-word rationale of why they chose the technology they did—precisely the element missing from many similar American assignments.

"It's not a technology-skills training course," Shanti Divaharan, an assistant professor at the NIE, said. "We don't believe in chasing technology."

In the fourth of 12 class sessions, Darren Nonis, an NIE teaching fellow, had his student-teachers divide into groups and use a thought-organizing app called Popplet to summarize their learning from previous presentations by their classmates. After a brief discussion of the merits of Popplet and the circumstances under which it might be useful, Nonis gave a quick talk about how to set specific learning goals while designing a lesson plan. The students then had to make up an example of a goal, share it on an online discussion board, and critique each others' examples.

Familiarizing students with these simple tech strategies is an important part of getting them ready for what already exists in the typical classroom.

"We didn't want to preach. We didn't want to create death by Power Point," Divaharan said. "We wanted to role model what teachers should be doing."

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