Tang Sheng Lien Michele is more into Monopoly than computer games, but she is happy to let her students go digital to improve their understanding of Geography.
Tang Sheng Lien Michele, Catholic High School, President’s Award for Teachers 2016 recipient
Michele knew that boys learn best when there are games and technology involved. So, when she came across Aqua Republica, a digital simulation game on water sustainability, this enthusiastic Geography teacher saw it as another way in which she could make the subject come alive for her students.
When it comes to games, Michele prefers traditional board games, but that wasn’t going to hold her back. As she says, “Anything new is interesting to me.”
Her openness to challenges sustained her through the early years of her teaching career. Fresh after her GCE A-Level, Michele joined a school as a relief teacher where, as she says, it wasn’t unusual to see police cars roll up. Her students were just a few years younger than she and they gave her a hard time. “I tried putting my foot down, but that didn’t go well,” she says with a laugh. What worked much better was showing them that she cared. “I learnt something in that job – the power of human relationships, and that stuck with me. I liked learning how to relate to my students.”
That was 22 years ago.
Today, Michele is still trying new things. Her classes playing Aqua Republica have put her on a steep learning curve while her students have taken to it effortlessly. Laughing, she says, “There’s no way you can beat them – they’re all expert gamers!”
Developed in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, Aqua Republica requires players to develop sustainable communities based on their understanding of issues such as pollution and green technology. The school became the first in Singapore to adopt the game.
Michele is firm in the way the game is used in the classroom. “You don’t just play games for the sake of playing games,” she says. She puts a great deal of thought into engineering the learning outcomes she wants. She plays the role of facilitator, constantly relating the game to the curriculum. “What’s important is that the students are having fun and are engaged as they make sense of their learning through questioning and collaborative discussions. I try to tease out their learning experiences and help them make the connections.”
A chief aspect of her lessons are the debrief sessions, which, under Michele’s direction, are rich with students’ insights. One of her students, Dominic, says, “We were in the library but we got so excited debating the topic that it became really noisy and fun!”
She constantly questions students’ assumptions by sharing case studies from around the world. And she knows she has hit the mark with her questions when she hears a collective gasp emanate from the boys.
The opportunity to question, understand and make connections about the world is what makes Michele passionate about her subject and she’s excited to pass that on to her students. “You learn about the world and how dynamic it is. Geography brings to the learner empathy for people and the environment,” she says. “It makes me a purposeful citizen. I want to help my students make sense of the world they live in, and to inspire them to take positive action.”
It’s working. After learning about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the students decided to put up an exhibition to educate the public about tsunamis and signs of an impending tsunami. And then they decided to take it further and raise funds for the tsunami victims. “That was how they communicated their care and concern, through Geography,” Michele says proudly.
Always game for more
The school’s experiment with Aqua Republica led to collaborations with other schools in the area. The fact that some of these were girls’ schools brought new perspectives to the discussions that followed. “We also represented Singapore in Korea to play the game, where the boys had to design a game from scratch to teach the importance of water sustainability to primary school kids.” This led to the students presenting their game idea at the World Water Forum in Korea – a gathering of policy makers who seek to advance the cause of water through innovation. The students did the school proud in the competition by winning second place.
Next, Michele decided to head further into unchartered territory by getting her team of Geography teachers to design a card game on energy. They approached a researcher from NIE’s Learning Sciences Lab and went to work. “It was a teacher-designed game, from the get-go. The researcher was a facilitator. The teachers were in full control of the learning outcomes and how we wanted to achieve it.”
The card game was a hit with the boys. It has even thrown up new knowledge for Michele, since she researches some of the ideas surfaced in class. She says, “My mastery of the subject has deepened from the designing to the playing of the game.” Her colleagues, too, can’t wait to design another game. “We are seeing more teachers, also from other schools, who are keen to be part of this learning process,” she says. “It’s always good to have people who are passionate – we feed off each other’s positive energy!”
Always on the go
Always keen to experience new things, Michele continues to take courses, build her teaching skills, engage in action research and travel.
“If I live a rich life myself, whether in terms of travels or in terms of experiences, I think it makes one like a resource for students – to share life experiences, to share personal stories. Our students need to see that life is more than just studies. There’s so much more for them to experience and learn from.”
Her advice to all in a nutshell: “Don’t be afraid to try.”