In Singapore, Bulletproof Coffee, the Forbidden City and Unsung Heroes

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

In Singapore, Bulletproof Coffee, the Forbidden City and Unsung Heroes

from Microsoft Education

By Andy Ng     Nov 17, 2015

In Singapore, Bulletproof Coffee, the Forbidden City and Unsung Heroes

Here is a day in Andy Ng life.

5:30 a.m. - Morning Coffee

Bulletproof coffee: coffee, butter and coconut oil. It must be the greatest discovery since, well, coffee. Brilliant stuff to start the hectic day of a teacher. Gonna need every ounce of oomph I can get today! Wonder why they call it 'bulletproof' though . . .

6:30 a.m. - Daybreak’s Prologue

Blu-tacked above my desk is the Latin phrase ‘sapere aude’, which translates to ‘dare to think’; it’s a reminder of why I entered this fraternity in the first place—to dare to think, and to dare others to think. A judicious nudge in the right direction whenever the quagmire of routine threatens to set in.

8:00 a.m. - Inside the Classroom: Ancient Civilizations (Social Studies)

Today we’re delving deeper into the social structure of ancient China. Singapore has a curious population; the Chinese populace here is a diaspora. Through decades of localization, the current generation of Singaporean Chinese are desensitized to heritage—being more Singaporean than Chinese. My Indian, Malay and Eurasian friends, however, appreciate the nuances of our multicultural society.

Using the photo-tourism capacities of Google Earth and the crowd-sourcing app Photosynth, students learn about the lives of different groups of Chinese from panoramic photos of venues unchanged since ancient times: the Great Wall of China, ancient towns Dali and Xitang, the Forbidden City. If you can’t bring the kids to ancient China, bring ancient China to them!

Next comes the part everyone loves! Using an app of their choice (Tayasui Sketches, Sway, iMovies), we create interpretations of the contributions of the ancient Chinese to society and upload them on our Edmodo class page for comments. As more and more poems, artwork and Sways are uploaded, ideas begin to converge; 5000 years of ancient Chinese heritage wasn’t the work of just one man in power, the Emperor. Like the collaborative nature of the students’ task, it was the product of a combined effort and contribution from all walks of life.

But that’s not what modern history books tell our students, at least not in my part of the world. Heroes are remembered, but not the humble. Victors consist of the lions that prevailed in the end, but never the lionhearted that perished in front of them. It’s time to give a voice to the unsung heroes of history. It’s time to think for ourselves, instead of being taught to think. I ask students respond to a quote by the 19th Century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, “History is the story of great men.” Let the thinking begin.

Students begin to question the very definition of greatness: what is our criteria for greatness contrary to that of society? They discuss the ethics of remembrance: why remember someone over another? They reason effects of hegemony: what will happen if history continues to be the story of great men?

They dare to think. For the distressed. For the oppressed. For the forgotten.

9:05 a.m. - Corridor Reflections

As I walk out of the classroom, students still abuzz with opinions, I wonder what I have just done.

Many say the Singaporean education system is elitist. More say that it favors solely those whose strengths lie in the academic domain. Some would deem that I have perpetuated the cycle of privilege for kids capable of deeper thinking early in their lives. I say: I make this generation think, so that they can find a heart for those whom they think and speak up for, so that they can solve the issues of the world our generation wasn’t able to solve.

11:00 a.m. - Inside the Classroom: Mindsets and Expectations (Character Education)

Trending in character education right now is the scientifically proven idea of the growth mindset–that effort, strategies and attitude trump intelligence. We can cultivate and nurture intelligence, instead of being resigned to the stagnant version of it usually measured by digits.

To set the foundation of developing this mindset, today students explore the definition of success and failure. What is success? How can it be measured? Whose view of success are we subscribing to? Conversely, what is failure? Is failure really the opposite of success? Who dictates the branding of failure to us?

I tell the kids to close their eyes. “I’m going to list some statements," I say.

• "You have to score well; you’re gifted!"

• "Why did you do badly on this test; I thought you were smart?"

• "This will be easy for you; you’re intelligent!"

“As you open your eyes,” I ask them, “tell me, have you heard statements like that?”

A resounding YES! echos as chatter erupts all around. For these young high-achievers, expectation is a double-edged sword: it drives them, but at the same time, depletes them emotionally. While learning about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, and watching clips from the movie, Akeelah and the Bee, students discover that there is more to success than winning: learning, friendship and the feeling of being supported by those we love.

Our conclusion is that success is not a product, but the byproduct from the search for excellence. As such, failure shouldn’t be measured by an inadequacy to achieve that prize or that grade. Instead, I define failure as missing out on everything else that’s beautiful in the single-minded pursuit of material achievement.

There’s this new, fancy, future-classroom biometric technology that measures students’ engagement levels by discreetly scanning their eyes. I agree with the edtech. Eyes communicate engagement. When I see the sparkle in their eyes, the furrow of their brows, I know: I’ve ignited something within my students.

12:00 p.m. - From Sanctuary to Reality . . .

I smile to the next period teacher as I stride out of the classroom. In my wake, I hear something that makes my stomach churn: “Alright everyone! Today I’m going to present the awards for those smart ones who achieved full marks for the last test! Please give a round of applause to . . .”

I look back as a student–who seconds ago lucidly articulated the definition of success–pumps his fist in the air and races to receive a huge Snickers bar, parading it in the face of his dejected friends. Besides the teacher’s hearty applause, there are only a few reluctant claps. Everyone wanted that Snickers bar. Everyone wanted that prize. Everyone wanted to be deemed smart.

Reality. Engagement does not mean retention. Not even for fifteen seconds.

Before I can even take a breath to relieve the betrayal and the dismay, a vibration in my pocket prompts me to read a text message from a parent. “Why did you give Jonathan a 16/20 for his project? His work is definitely better than his friends. He deserves a 20. Please call.”

Reality. One’s child being the best is more important than the best for that child.

3:30 p.m. - Reality Checked

The 40-minute drive to Ministry Headquarters feels like those nights where you think you’ve slept only a wink, literally. The events that transpired a few hours ago, seemingly inconsequential, feel like the anvil of an existential crisis. Is what I am doing—igniting unlearning, thinking and rethinking—even worth it? Or will it all be undone by the institutionalized mindsets of parents, and even fellow teachers? Am I alone, shoving in the opposite direction through society’s march toward a single peak of success?

I’ll find out in a couple of minutes, as I proceed for a half-yearly review meeting with the Character Education coordinators of several other schools.

4:00 p.m. - Daring to Think Dares Others to Think

After the usual pleasantries, routine questions spring up and indubitably routine responses naturally rebound.

• “How do we find the new lessons?”

• “Oh, it’s great—loads of activities, topics of discussions. Kids love it.”

• “What about the curriculum’s scope?”

• “It’s good too. The learning objectives cover what is important to the kids’ development and growth.”

I decide to start shoving in the ‘wrong’ direction again: “No. There’s a huge problem.” Everyone’s head turns. “The lessons are good,” I say. “The curriculum is good. But it takes more than a good boat to sail the ocean, doesn’t it? We’ll need an auspicious wind and a united crew to do that. The children’s environments—and parents especially—aren’t helping the cause, and even our own teachers are not in tandem with the goals we have for Character Education. I might be generalizing, but does anyone here feel this way?”

Almost immediately, a surge of fellow naysayers young and old, usually silent (I assume sickened by the politically-correct tone of such meetings), comes alive with anecdotal grievances, insightful recommendations and spirited calls for change. They suggest educating parents and other teachers, instead of merely our own students, on the need for character on top of grades—an investment in the eternal, instead of just the temporal . . . .

A solidarity of misfits. A coalition of the like-minded. I wasn’t alone after all. Sapere aude.

10.15 p.m. - An Epilogue

The scribbles on my OneNote from the three-hour long meeting put a weary smile on me. After taking in the prospect of change on the horizon, it’s time to end my day with some empowering and constructive Twitter feeds from passionate educators all around the world. Like they say, motivation is like bathing, recommended once (or in fact, twice) daily, especially after an adventure in the reality of education.

For an educator, everyday is a battle for minds, navigating the trenches between beliefs of the past, conditions of the present and an unwavering hope for a better future. In this struggle, I can be courageous, not because I am invincible, but because the ideas I teach are bulletproof.

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