Monday, October 24, 2016

National Spelling Championships 2016

This took place in April.

The RHB-Straits Times National Spelling Championship 2016.

In my boys' school, the P4 to P6 would be invited to sit through a selection test in school every year. The kids have to spell 20 words and out of the over 800 pupils, only a handful will be picked to represent the school in the first round of the spelling competition.

I understand that usually only 2 or 3 in Primary 4 and 5 would be picked and the remaining top spellers would be from Primary 6 classes. And most of these seniors will be from the same class - the only top class. The school selection is purely based on merits, so it is all very fair.

While I know that my eldest has a gigantic vocabulary and has never had problems spelling big words, I had never paid any attention to this competition in the past. Being in an academically competitive school means that there is stiff competition amongst peers for every opportunity to represent school. So it was a pleasant surprise when he came home one afternoon to inform me nonchalantly that he was one of the 15 selected, along with another 8 from his class.

He went to the First Round and competed against 1800 students from all over Singapore.

With such fierce competition, and this being his first time, we did not expect more especially after we learnt from fellow parents that 2 of his classmates are competing for their third consecutive year. These must be the previous top spellers of the cohort. Experience does matter a lot for such events since winning counts on one's ability to remain calm in addition to his ability to spell.

But he conquered the First Round, as one of the 119 Spelling Warriors! And the only 4 left from his school to make it to the second round - the Zonal Round.

The second round was much harder as they had to spell in front of an audience. Unlike in the paper and pencil round where pupils can correct their spelled words, in this second round where they spelled into the microphone, they were eliminated the moment they spelled one word wrongly.

Unfortunately he fumbled and his journey ended here. It was a word that we knew he could spell, but he just did not manage to that day. Perhaps the nerves got the better of him that moment he was the focus of everyone's attention. Still, we were extremely proud and pleased that he gained some experience. The results did not matter much really, since there could only be one eventual winner and he did make it all the way to Zonal round which was still quite a feat for a first-timer.

We are already grateful for the many lessons he could learn from this valuable experience. His best friend, who was competing for the third consecutive year, did eventually make it to the Final round and emerged #7 nationally this time. So there was still plenty for us all to cheer for.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

5-year-old Invents: The Spider Web Maker

We always teach our kids not to waste resources and always recycle whenever possible.
As a result, they have been trained to keep an eye out for items that can be recycled.

Dolly came across a piece of paper with a big circle in the middle and decided to create something with it, so the paper would not go to waste.

30 min later, she brought it to me with a great story.

"This is a spider web maker. In case there are lots of insects in the house, we can make spider webs with this machine and insects will be trapped by the webs. Just press the buttons on the frame and the colourful part in the middle will spin so fast that spider silk will shoot out from it and form a web."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thinking about Thinking: A Key Process to Effective Learning

I caught a glimpse of my dolly deep in thoughts.

Me: What are you thinking?
Dolly: I am thinking of what I am thinking.

I could tell she did not say this absentmindedly and that she meant it. After that incident, there were many more evidences that all my previous effort of nurturing her self-awareness of her thinking process is bearing fruit.

I blogged about metacognition, the process of thinking about thinking, back in Nov 2009 when I wrote extensively in this blog about Teaching a child to question and fostering curiosity in young minds.

Metacognition refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. Activities such as planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive in nature. (source)

Why do some children and students learn better than others?
While many will be quick to point out factors such as higher IQ (intelligent quotient), exposure to better resources (including better teachers, lessons, schools etc) or having nurturing environment, one important factor that is often overlooked is the child's ability to think about his thinking process.

This self-awareness of one's thoughts helps children become more effective learners as they learn to focus on what they still need to learn to achieve the learning objectives. Research shows that this self-awareness evolves during childhood and that this metacognitive ability improves with age. In fact, most growth of this metacognitive ability happens between ages 12 and 15. 

However, for most children, the development of this ability may not happen as early or efficiently, especially if they were not taught or shown how to think.  In fact, given the way Singaporean students are taught in schools from age 7 onwards, it is probably fair to say that by the time they are in Secondary schools, many teenagers still do not fully realise they possess this metacognitive ability, let alone learn to utilize it to become a more effective learner.

It is definitely less common for kids under 6 to develop this self-awareness, since most parents and educators are most likely unaware of what they can do to nurture this self-awareness.

But it is also not impossible. First, we need to understand how children gain a deeper understanding of how they think, feel and act. But this alone, is still not enough.

As I have seen in my own children and students in my Bright Minds Lapbookers classes, kids under 12 can be taught how to think through the systematic introduction of metacognitive exercises.

Every lapbooking activity that we do in class (and at home with my own kids) is coached in a manner that trains the child's metacognitive ability, in addition to honing their skills (such as fine motor, eye-hand coordination, listening, problem-solving, critical thinking, creative imagination etc) and developing their key executive functions.

In classes where kids under 4 years old attend with parents, I explain the rationale of how and why I introduce certain activities, so parents can learn from observation of their children's performance and practise coaching tips straightaway with their kids. This precious transfer of knowledge to parents empowers them to reinforce continuous learning in the intended manner, which is another reason why students who were with us for extended period all developed this cognitive ability early enough.

Our K1 and K2 (age 5 & 6) students get to put their metacognitive ability to practice at every lesson as they are coached through the inquiry process.

Like most skills, the more practices we do, the better we get. The abilities to think critically and creatively begin with the nurturing of metacognitive ability and these skills improve exponentially with structured training.

As children's metacognitive abilities increase, research suggest they also achieve at higher levels. Just like how the rich gets richer more easily, widening the income gap between the rich and poor; children with such abilities and skills also learn at accelerated pace with ease, hence widening the achievement gap between the advanced learners and the masses. It is simply a fact of life.

Needless to say, the benefits also extend way beyond academic learning into life experiences.

What I find fascinating too, is how neuroscientists had gathered at an international workshop in 2014 to discuss how self-awareness and this higher order thinking strategy actually changes the structure of the brain, making it more flexible and open to greater learning.

In a few days, we will begin Term 4/2016 classes. I cannot wait to share my knowledge and method with parents of my students, and empower them to effect amazing changes to their children's learning journeys.


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