School should no longer be just about learning your ABCs and 123s, says Kenny Low, fresh back from his trip to the Davos World Economic Forum 2010 in January, as he shares about the urgency of bringing education to the next level.
Having spearheaded internationally-recognized efforts at helping students who are not able to excel in the mainstream school system get another shot at quality education, it’s safe to say that founder and principal of City College (previously known as CHEC) Kenny Low is in a good position to give his opinions about the direction of education for future generations. Besides launching the International Baccalaureate diploma for foreign students, City College is looking to develop an entrepreneurship curriculum in order to groom students for a world undergoing constant change.
Indeed, the digitization of information and its accessibility afforded by the Internet have put the world on such an accelerated mode that change is happening faster than our education systems can register. “The jobs that are going to be created in the next ten years have yet to exist, and thus schools have no way of preparing students for them. Where previously subject knowledge, that is, mathematics, science and linguistics sufficed, the next 10 years will see life skills and thinking frameworks rising in importance,” says Low. In other words, it is not the accumulation, but application of subject knowledge that will see to our survival in the face of rising competition from India and China.
In looking for something to act as a vessel for the learning as well as application of subject knowledge in a real-life context, Low found that entrepreneurship education is the way to go. “For example, while English lessons teach grammar and essay writing, entrepreneurship education teaches the application of English skills through speaking with people to identify market needs and writing letters to request for funding. This sort of challenge-based learning approach is much more effective than subject-based methods of learning.”
For this reason, City College is sending teachers to the US-based Network of Teaching Entrepreneurship this year to be equipped in order to bring the curriculum back. NFTE itself is a story of inspiration. It was started by one-time corporate bigwig Steve Mariotti, who realized that entrepreneurship education is the answer to conventional schooling methods which hold no interest in its students, especially those from the lower income bracket, thus causing them to drop out of school and become cases of juvenile delinquencies. Thanks to the teaching methods he helped pioneer, many of NFTE’s alumni are today owners of successful businesses.
So what then is the role of the school in all this? Undeniably, as children engage with the world at an increasingly younger age through the Internet, the relevance of our own local schools is being severely tested. After all, one no longer needs to go to school for knowledge (Wikipedia is quite literally the know-it-all) nor to make friends (social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter will take care of that). One can even become an online entrepreneur by starting up an eBay business. Low illustrates, “If you type in ‘How to make a bomb’ on Google, it is not going to ask why you need to make a bomb, nor will it ask whether you need counseling. It doesn’t teach you what is right or wrong—it doesn’t shape your values.”
This is where the physical classroom has the edge over virtual reality. Teachers who can cultivate a two-way learning environment instead of one-way while inculcating his students with the right moral values will be able to bring much-needed value-add and relevance back into the classroom. “A school can no longer be a mere silo of knowledge where values education is a sideline subject but a community with a real desire to be able to work together and solve real life problems, ” he says.
At Davos, Low also had the opportunity to meet the President of Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda. Being perhaps the top design school in the world, City College hopes to be able to collaborate with it in future—besides the entrepreneurship-based curriculum, City College is also looking at the possibility of developing diploma programs in design over the next five years. Why design? It is one of the few areas where graduates can compete for jobs based on the merit of their portfolio and not the prestige of the school, which can take many years to establish.
“Also, web designers are the architects of the future, building without brick and mortar. And because real estate in the digital world is limitless, where the only limiting factor is human attention, design skills will always be relevant and in demand.” In fact, those who are skilled at IT design are the most well-positioned to channel that attention.
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Most importantly, however, is the fact that good design has the potential to change lives. Low illustrates with a case in Nepal, where design students were tasked to solve the problem of high infant mortality rates caused by newborns succumbing to the cold en route home to hospital. While an incubator is the obvious solution, the trick was to make it portable. In the end, they found their answer—by applying the principle of latent heat to the problem, they devised a blanket stuffed with a layer of butter to preserve the baby’s body heat.Of course, the butter has since been recreated into industrial material, but it is stories like these that re-affirm Low’s vision of a design school that is not merely an educational institution but an agent of positive change in the world. It also goes full circle back to his advocacy for challenge-based learning.
Already, ideas are starting to form. Through his conversations with a group of social entrepreneurs in Davos, he identified many areas of need in places like the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam that Singaporeans are well able to meet. “You can’t do much with S$10,000 in Singapore, but you can build a factory in Cambodia. Instead of having everybody clamoring for a handful of positions at the big MNCs, why not link our students up with social enterprises in the region as a form of their final year attachment? This will help ensure that their very first service to the world will be something meaningful.”