Dr Hazel Tan is an academic at Monash University and part of the Mathematics, Science and Technology Academic Community. Her areas of research and teaching interest are in secondary mathematics education, educational technology, and international comparative studies. Her research methodological expertise is in quantitative and mixed methods and her work on Facebook as a recruitment tool for research has gained academic interest. Before moving into academia, Hazel worked as a senior secondary mathematics teacher and head of mathematics department, and as an educational technology officer for the Singaporean Ministry of Education. This prior experience provided a solid foundation for her current academic work.
Dr Tan please share about your current work and what drives your interest.
I have a few current projects. The main one is on STEM education and I worked in a team of researchers with different expertise and experiences. My own expertise is in mathematics education and mixed methods research. Our STEM team has designed and conducted workshops for teachers and students in Australia and Southeast Asia, and our research is currently in looking at online STEM inquiry activities, something that is timely. What I like about my research is that it is very current and “glocal”. Glocal in the sense of having both a global relevance as well as considerations of the local context.
What did you study and if you could do it again would you still choose the same course?
Well, I grew up in Singapore and studied all mathematics and science subjects (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics) at high school. I then took up a teaching scholarship by Singapore’s Public Service Commission and majored Mathematics at the National University of Singapore before doing my teacher education at the National Institute of Education. Actually, although I loved all the science subjects and learnt a lot from them, if given the chance again, I would have traded a science subject with a humanities subject such as Economics or Geography for my post-secondary education. I believe that in this knowledge era, having both breadth in various disciplines as well as depth in a particular discipline is very important. Breadth is important in order to enable one to have an open mind and see opportunities, and depth for one to specialise and develop expertise on a discipline. Especially now and in the future, multi-disciplinary teams are crucial to solve the world’s problems, for progress and advancement. This idea was promoted in Singapore since the curriculum review in 2006; post-secondary students need to take a contrasting subject out of four main subjects in their post-secondary education. So for example, a student taking subjects in ‘arts and humanities’ or ‘mathematics and sciences’ have to take at least subject from the contrasting discipline (arts and humanities or mathematics and sciences).
Could you share with us about your work as an educational technology officer for the Singaporean Ministry of Education.
Sure. The system in Singapore is quite different from Australia, in the sense that most schools are government schools and hence there is a centralised teaching career support and progression (most teachers are employed by the government and so are civil servants). Teachers can apply to be seconded to the Singaporean Ministry of Education for a few years and then return to schools, which was what I did. I think this provides teachers with better insights into policies, as in that they are also involved in developing education policies, as well as ensuring that the Ministry does not become an education policy “ivory tower”. I was part of the team spearheading the ICT Masterplan in Education initiative, and worked with a high performing team of educational technology officers, many of whom have gone on to become school leaders. At that time, we promoted the use of educational technologies in schools, through conducting professional development workshops, school-based consultancies, research on educational technologies, and working with the industry.
What kind of STEM skills have helped you the most in your career?
I think I have developed analytical, systematic, and critical thinking skills, which have stood me in good stead throughout my career. These skills, I believe, are resulting from my mathematics and science discipline. Also, having a curious and open mind and positive attitudes are important and valuable habits of mind. Growth mindset is a term that is very popular in schools, and part of it is having that open mind that is curious to learn. This is important to keep improving myself and learn new things. As with any career, there is always room for improvement. I have learnt a lot from my colleagues and friends about teacher education, mathematics and STEM education, as well as on conducting research and writing papers.
How do you think students can develop sound mathematical skills in high school?
An important aspect is the mindset and attitude towards mathematics in the first place. If parents and everyone can have the mindset that mathematics is not a ‘hard’ and ‘abstract’ subject, but rather a subject that is useful and interesting (like science or humanities), then I believe that the greatest hurdle will be overcome. This is a socio-cultural difference. For example, when I first came to Melbourne to study PhD, my non-university friends here did not bat an eyelid when I told them I am studying PhD, but wow-ed when I said I was studying mathematics education. The opposite was true in Singapore. When I told my Singaporean friends that I was studying mathematics education, they did not bat an eye-lid but were wow-ed when I said I was studying PhD. This experience illustrated what people think is “hard” (mathematics vs PhD) is actually cultural, and they have a mental barrier to what they perceived as hard. Think of English or literacy. People don’t say that it is hard and therefore they don’t want to learn English. They would think that no matter it is easy or hard, it is essential and hence important to learn English. If everyone can think the same about mathematics or numeracy (which are not the same, much like English and literacy), then I think it will be much easier to develop mathematics skills. Of course, at this point in time, I would suggest parents and teachers think of using real-world context, manipulatives, problem solving, mathematical modelling or inquiry activities to develop students’ mathematics skills. Some great ideas can be found in ReSolve (https://www.resolve.edu.au/) and use of challenging tasks (see examples by Prof Peter Sullivan for F-Year 5 and book). I also recommend extensions and support such as Emerging Sciences Victoria, Mathematics Talent Quest, Getting Ready in Numeracy, and Extending Mathematical Understanding (EMU) Intervention Program for students and teachers.
What are the 3 most important STEM skills (from your academic experience) that you value from your students and why?
I think you can see from my previous comments that it is not the knowledge and content that is important, as they can change and progress with time. It is the skills, attitudes and mindsets (or values) that are important. Having an open and growth mindset, analytic, systematic and critical thinking, as well as meta-cognition, are what I value from my students. The growth mindset is important to drive one’s curiosity and learning, the STEM thinking skills are important to ‘sharpen one’s mind’ to solve problems and deepen the learning, and the meta-cognition (thinking about one’s thinking) is important to be aware of our own thinking processes, improve our thinking, and transfer learning to other contexts. Hence, it is also important for us teachers to develop these in our students. It’s a long term process and as long as we ourselves value these, we will keep improving our own teaching skills and promote these skills and mindsets in our interactions, activities, and discussions with our students.
Wow Dr Tan! What an amazing career journey you have had from Singapore to Australia! Thank you for giving us such interesting insight on the importance of developing positive open mindsets, attitudes and values for learning.
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