Stories > An Early Start in Life
An Early Start in Life
Singapore education volunteers team up with teachers in India and Indonesia to improve Early Childhood Education in their communities.
BY AUDRINA GAN
lobally, Early Childhood Education (ECE) is playing an increasingly significant role in a child’s overall learning journey. Aimed at developing children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs, ECE programmes have been viewed as providing a crucial foundation for learning and well-being.
Recognising the mutual need for development in its respective ECE sectors, the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) has been a proponent of sharing the country’s best practices with other ECE institutions in the region and beyond.
Indeed, the organisation launched its first-ever ECE programme in Myanmar back in 2010. Since then, it has expanded its programmes to India and Indonesia, partnering with non-profit organisations to enable capacity building in curriculum enhancement and pedagogy.
One of these programmes was held in collaboration with Muktangan Education Trust, a Mumbai-based initiative. The five-year project, which commenced in 2017, saw Singapore ECE educators equipping their Indian counterparts with skills in areas that included curriculum enhancement, pedagogy and teacher development. To create a sustainable impact, a group of core local trainers has also been identified to train aspiring teachers in the sector.
“It is crucial for the heads of schools and teachers to be aware of the kind of education that young children require at various stages of their development that will allow them to flourish,” explains Muktangan founder Elizabeth Mehta.
“For instance, we cannot teach a preschooler the same way we would teach a 10th-grade student. The ability to understand the difference in the teaching techniques and matching them to the right stage of student development should be the focus of a teacher’s training.”
BEYOND ROTE LEARNING
The desired reforms must be accompanied by a strong understanding of the local ECE sector as well as the challenges it faces. This includes convincing parents in rural areas about the importance of ECE, says Singapore International Volunteer (SIV) team leader Kannigadevi Ravindran, an Assistant Director and Special Needs Mentor from the Presbyterian Community Services Singapore with over 30 years of experience in the field.
For instance, both teachers and NGOs like Muktangan have to constantly highlight the importance of ECE in the physical and mental development of young children. By organising talks on the linkages between health and nutrition, they convince parents to enrol their children at ECE centres, which provide not only a proper learning environment but also nutritious meals.
Another challenge is the high student-to-teacher ratios at these centres, necessitating the need for volunteers to act as classroom helpers in rural areas. “Teachers have to manage 30 to 40 multi-aged children per class who speak different dialects,” explains Kannigadevi.” There may also be a lack of basic resources such as toys, furniture and teaching materials. As such, ECE teaching methods in these areas are centred on rote learning and chalk-and-talk methods.”
In consultation with their Indian peers, the SIV team covered topics such as child development and assessment, transition to primary schools, and designing an age-appropriate learning environment.
To get more children and educators to take a keen interest in the new curriculum, the SIV team also proposed ways to infuse creative learning into the curriculum. During the last training trip to Mumbai, Kannigadevi conducted music and movement workshops for ECE educators. “Learning art and music during early childhood is important, as this is a time for exploration and sensory-motor development in children,” she says. “It is a holistic way to work on physical skills, while also encouraging young children to learn sounds, words and patterns, and to strengthen their social and emotional skills.”
She cites an incident that reaffirmed the effectiveness of the creative programme to the team, both trainers as well as trainees. “During one of the sessions, a group of children was watching the session along the corridor and asked if they could join us through a series of gestures,” she recalls. “We invited them in, and they had a great time singing and dancing. They thanked us and left saying that they would come back the next day. It was truly a heartwarming moment.”
SHARING NEW PERSPECTIVES
For Kannigadevi, the volunteering stint has also opened her eyes to a different culture. “Almost everyone I interacted with in India had a story to tell, which helped me to appreciate their feelings, nuances, as well as the richness of their lives,” she shares.
One story that particularly moved her involved a local teacher who overcame adversities to find new meaning. Having been married at a young age and facing marital problems, she was compelled to leave her husband, return to her maternal home, and eventually find employment.
“A year later, she joined an Anganwadi [courtyard shelter in Hindi] ECE centre – a chain of government-run rural childcare centres throughout India – as a preschool teacher. She has found joy in working with children, and continues to advocate for children’s rights. I salute her courage for making the decision to walk away from a failed marriage to find a greater purpose in life,” remarks Kannigadevi.
She adds that the Indian participants in the training programme admire Singapore’s well-structured education system. “They applaud the Singapore government’s initiatives such as accredited early childhood courses for teachers, continuing professional development, and grants for centre upgrading as well as subsidised fee.”
Despite the disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic to the physical training sessions, the teams in both countries have adapted to the new normal. “This necessitated the re-evaluation of cascade training by master trainers and navigating challenges faced by the educators during this time – all of which were successfully conducted online,” she says. The project, which will end in June 2022, is expected to benefit some 240 Indian ECE educators as well as 2,400 underprivileged children in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
“ALMOST EVERYONE I INTERACTED WITH IN INDIA HAD A STORY TO TELL, WHICH HELPED ME TO APPRECIATE THEIR FEELINGS, NUANCES AND THE RICHNESS OF THEIR LIVES,” SAYS SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEER, KANNIGADEVI RAVINDRAN.
TRAINING BETTER EDUCATORS
Over in Indonesia, Renni Kusnaeni – who is chairwoman of the Indonesian Kindergarten Teachers Association (IGTKI) West Java – oversees a huge responsibility: to increase ECE competencies for its 32,686 teachers and members, who are spread across the area’s 27 districts. Over the past decade, the IGTKI has been active in launching campaigns to highlight the importance of ECE – particularly among underprivileged children. In the ECE programme initiated by the Indonesian government and reinforced by IGTKI, for instance, every kindergarten that is financially capable of doing so must include underprivileged children with an unlimited quota ratio.
In spite of these gains, the importance of giving children a head-start in their learning journey may still be lost on parents. “Some prefer to send their children to primary school directly because they are under the perception that ECE is only about playing, and not learning,” notes Kusnaeni. “At the same time, the local community tends to assume that kindergarten is a formal school and makes learning demands that are comparable to those of primary schools.”
Another challenge she cites is the lack of synergy between educators, the local community and the government. “For example, the government could apply a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:15, which is not optimal for ECE,” she explains. With many teachers still lacking the qualification to become ECE educators, more professional training is required to develop the sector.
In 2019, IGTKI West Java embarked on a curriculum enhancement and pedagogy programme in partnership with the SIF – the non-profit’s first foray in the field of ECE in Indonesia.
SIVs will share knowledge, skills and best practices with their Indonesian peers, while equipping 50 master trainers with enhanced pedagogy and quality assessment skills that will allow them to cascade their knowledge to a greater number of teachers.
“Singapore’s education curriculum – which places more emphasis on creativity, and life and social skills in each child – is highly relevant to Indonesia.”
Novanaqori, Indonesian ECE teacher
NEW WAYS OF LEARNING
SIV Dr Sirene Lim, who heads the Early Childhood Education Programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), has been conducting workshops that include, among others, effective questioning techniques to promote children’s curiosity and support their observation skills; strategies to improve children’s thinking and verbal interactions; as well as the use of wordless picture books. And these lessons have proven to be fulfilling ones.
“Singapore’s education curriculum – which places more emphasis on creativity, and life and social skills in each child – is highly relevant to Indonesia. As skills development in the 21st century increasingly focuses on collaboration, communication and creativity, our children will grow up to become useful citizens to their society,” opines ECE teacher Tazkiyah Nur Mujahidah.
One of the most effective practices that the SIVs engage in is to infuse the training discussions with plenty of case studies, making them more relatable to everyday classroom scenarios. Despite the challenges that have arisen due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the programme has continued to engage both the trainers in Singapore and the teachers in Indonesia. During an online workshop on the learning environment and classroom management last June, for instance, the SUSS trainers shared safety measures being practised in Singapore’s ECE schools and home-based learning materials with members of IGTKI.
For Dr Lim, it was the high level of participation from the Indonesian teachers, and their collective enthusiasm and curiosity – qualities that take on a more formal sheen in Singapore – that truly struck her.
“Despite the language barrier, the teachers were forthcoming in sharing what they do in their classrooms. They would pull out their handphones to show me video clips from their classroom activities, and spontaneously break into song and dance to show me the kind of routines they conduct in their classrooms,” she recalls.
On the other hand, the Indonesian teachers were impressed by the culture of discipline – especially the way it is utilised in a school environment. “It is interesting to learn how Singaporeans implement discipline and punctuality in their everyday interaction with students and fellow educators,” says Indonesian teacher Novanaqori, with extensive ECE experience.
Another ECE teacher, Tomy Iman Kholiq, appreciates the invaluable communication skills he picked up during the training. “We learnt useful tips on speaking to parents, such as not comparing one child with another, as well as the use of right gestures and body language,” he shares, adding that the trainers’ sensitivity while working with participants from a different cultural background made the programme a mutually beneficial experience.