Published on 11 Sep 2023

Researcher in the Spotlight: Associate Professor Tan Aik Ling, Deputy Head (Teaching & Curriculum Matters), Natural Sciences & Science Education Academic Group

An alumnus from the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP), Assoc Prof Tan Aik Ling’s foray into the world of academia started when she was a biology teacher at River Valley High School for 10 years. Despite being rejected twice for her PhD application, she never gave up and pursued her research journey in areas such as classroom interactions, emotions in science learning, inquiry-based learning, and science teacher professional development. She shares with us her journey, her recent research projects and work she has been doing, as well as her thoughts on education research in Singapore.

Q. Can you share with us your educational background, research and teaching journey, and what sparked your interest to embark into the world of academia?

I received my first degree in microbiology and biochemistry from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and my Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, (NIE0, NTU). I spent 10 memorable years teaching biology at River Valley High School, and it was probably one of the best times of my life. I got to work with my students on various science and biology projects and learnt a lot more about science! My interactions with my students also shaped me into the person that I am today!

I embarked on my PhD study when the opportunity came along with the establishment of the Centre for Research and Pedagogy (CRPP). After my Master’s degree where I worked on educational management of educational institutions, I got curious about the micro aspects of school life, basically how teachers and students talk knowledge into being. I remembered that my PhD application being rejected twice by NIE! Discouraged but determined, I met up with the late Professor Lee Sing Kong in his office one day and shared with him that I would really like to find out more about the knowledge construction process in science. After our discussion, he got up from his desk and walked me from Block 7 (where his office was) to Block 2 to meet Professor Peter Freebody. I shared my ideas with Professor Freebody and the rest is history! I learnt under the best people such as Professor Peter Freebody and Prof Margery Osborne for the next four years.

I started my PhD journey on a part-time basis, teaching in school in the morning and attending lessons in the evening. After one year, Prof Freebody suggested that I should be engaged with the community of researchers more intimately so that I get intellectually stimulated! I applied to be seconded to CRPP as a teaching fellow and that was where I got to know the most supportive group of colleagues (Dr Dennis Kwek, Dr Wong Hwei Ming, Dr Mardiana, Dr Michael Tan, Dr Uma Natarajan, etc.) to complete my PhD studies. Those were the early days of CRPP and we had such beautiful memories of attending reading groups, spending hours trying to make sense of our data, and making our presence felt in schools! Twenty years on, while we have taken different paths, many of us are still engaged in educational research and making the training from those early years of training from CRPP count! 

Q. Please share with us more about the idea, the proposed methodology and what do you expect to see from the results and potential implications from your most recent research project: “Adoption of Integrated Resources to Shape Integrated Learning Experiences: Insights from Implementation of 2023 Primary Science Syllabus”

The Primary Science Resource project is an exciting new project that started officially in June 2023. The team members of this project are all the stakeholders of primary science in Singapore! Members of the research team include NIE researchers, Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Curriculum Planning and Development Division (CPDD) primary science team, Academy of Singapore Teachers’ (AST) primary science master teachers, as well as science teachers in schools. The excitement of working on a project with representatives from various major decision-making bodies in Singapore is amazing! Everyone wants to play their part to ensure that primary science teaching can reach its intended purpose of inspiring our young learners to inquire so that they are empowered to innovate! More importantly, students and teachers will be scientifically literate to participate in the democracy of our country in an evidence-informed manner.

The revised primary science curriculum (launched for Primary 3 in 2023) is supported by an integrated suite of resources (textbook, workbook, teaching and learning guide, SPARKLE kits, Student Learning Space (SLS), and young scientist cards). As resources in and of themselves are not self-acting, the research team aims to find out how teachers and students use and interact with these resources to facilitate science learning.

We adopt a mixed-method approach to uncover the adoption of the integrated suite of resources. First, we conduct a landscape survey of how science teachers use and rate the usefulness of each of the resources based on the specific topics. Second, we interview participating schoolteachers on their professional decision-making process in planning science learning experiences. Third, we observe their lessons in progress to observe how the different resources are used before, during, and after lesson enactment. Fourth, we interview students to understand their science learning experiences with the integrated suite of resources.

Our analysis of the various data sources would enable us to (1) understand primary science teachers professional decision making with regard to resources and planning for science learning, and (2) understand how resources can be planned and adapted to support science learning for different profile of learners. We will also build a depository of science teaching and learning exemplars so to facilitate teacher learning in primary science teaching.

Q. Can you also share some of the other work that you are doing locally?

I have just concluded a research project comparing two different ways i.e., problem-centric and solution-centric, for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) learning. Comparing the outcome measures of types of questions, levels of argumentation/reasoning, and creativity, we found that ontic questions are preferred over epistemic questions in both types of learning experiences. Levels of argumentation are also similar in both cases, but the types of creativity developed differ. The results of this study suggest that the different starting points for STEM learning can be used for learners of different levels of readiness.

I am currently in another project that examine students’ connectedness to nature after they have undergone a three-day non-residential camp at the St John’s Island. By exploring St John’s Island, learning about coastal management, experiencing land reclaiming through a simulation, trying out coral regeneration, and presenting their ideas for the development of St John’s Island, students’ awareness related to their biotic and abiotic environment is heightened. For instance, students indicated that with knowledge that there is life underneath the sand on the beach, they felt that they ought to be more mindful (not to litter or pollute) when visiting a beach. When exposed to coral restoration efforts, the students felt more hopeful about the future since there are research efforts put into mending the environment. These findings are important to inform the role and impact of outdoor and informal forms of learning and how they can connect to learning in core curriculum and learning about ideas of sustainability.  

Q. In your opinion, what is the value of education research in Singapore?

Education research generates evidence that can be used by teachers, policy makers, and stakeholders to make informed decisions about the best and most meaningful ways to learn. Insights from educational research can also be used to make decisions about how limited resources can be and should be allocated to benefit different profiles of teachers and learners. Of course, the process of education research in and of itself enables a systematic way for the community of educators to understand how evaluation of programmes and learning are conducted.

Q. Which area(s) of education research do you think merit more attention in Singapore?

Values-based learning could be given more attention. Values such as kindness, honesty, inclusiveness, etc. can be infused into core curriculum more intentionally. Developing these values is increasingly more important with society becoming more fast-paced, new technologies emerging that is making what is acceptable and what is not acceptable more diffused. 

You can find out more about Assoc Prof Aik Ling here.