Let's tear down the ivory tower called school

Let's tear down the ivory tower called school
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The industries of the future require students to be innovative and creative so that they can work effectively with technology instead of being replaced by it.

They also require resilience and grit, as innovations demand tinkering, and failure is, more often than not, a natural step before success.

Yet both the public and private education sectors struggle to provide a sustainable platform for such learning.

The market is full of gimmicky "21st century skills" centres. Even parents instinctively know that innovation can't be taught by flashing an image of Steve Jobs on a projector to a classroom full of students, and unless your seven-year-old is a genius, saying she learnt the computational concepts to programme an iPhone app in a week is a farce.

Plus, college admissions counsellors are wary of Asian students with perfect exam scores, a buffet of "achievements" but limited ability in true problem-solving - the latter increasingly vital for judging candidates. So, what is the best way to learn these skills?

Let's start by destroying the ivory tower we call school.


In Singapore, mainstream secondary schools are traditionally "protected" from industry, which means they remain blissfully shielded from the innovation happening at lightning speed in the industry and economy at large.

Ensconcing Singapore's bright teenagers in such a naive and static environment is a disservice to them and to the country's national strategy at large.

Just as the Government is advocating closer relations between academia and industry at the tertiary level with SkillsFuture, secondary schools and junior colleges must also be exposed to applied learning opportunities with companies.

Several companies in need of specific skills in the United States are reaching out to pre-tertiary institutes.

For example, Cleveland has set up a Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school - MC2 Stem High School in General Electric's premises, where students work in fabrication laboratories and prototype new products. Since it opened in 2008, 84 per cent of its graduates have gone on to college.

In 2011, IBM opened P-Tech, a six-year high school in Brooklyn, where students learn a maths, engineering and science curriculum co-developed with IBM, along with Shakespeare and social studies.

After their high-school diploma, they have a priority path to getting a job at IBM.

According to The Economist, more than 70 companies, such as Microsoft, Verizon and Lockheed Martin, each struggling to find innovative and tech-savvy staff, are working on similar models.

Education foundations like CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) and the IB (International Baccalaureate) are also re-evaluating their curricula to make them more relevant.

The IB has launched a new programme called IBCC (career choices) to provide an alternative high-school diploma, which allows students to spend part of their school year working on projects with companies.

However, its uptake has been slow globally, largely because of the stigma around "vocational" degrees, although Singapore's School of the Arts (Sota) is an exception.

The challenge for applied learning goes beyond its poor image and branding. Applied learning is hindered by operational challenges: Both schools and companies are ill-equipped to deal with this new education mandate.

Teachers and schools find it stressful and difficult to speak the language of corporations, and therefore fail to provide value propositions for companies to partner with their students.

Companies also have yet to fully appreciate their role in training their future skillforce - these young students may not be their lifelong employees but they will be their future freelancers, collaborators and brand ambassadors.


The natural tendency in academia when thinking of a collaboration with industry is to think of "internships".

This is problematic for a few reasons: First, internships for secondary and JC students are far and few between; second, for those that do have internships, the experience is often unrewarding - many students complain they did not learn anything of value and were relegated to making photocopies and "busy" work; and third, companies don't find interns useful because they don't have the skills or knowledge to contribute.

This is a "lose-lose" situation. College admissions panels know that internships are not productive experiences, and do not give interns an added advantage over other applicants. It is time to reassess the skills acquisition strategy for high-school students.

A more appropriate platform would be "externships", which I define as an authentic learning experience that provides secondary-school students with the skills and opportunity to solve a problem faced by a company in a field of their interest.

Examples include innovation challenges related to delivering services in different markets, technology apps to optimise operations and cut costs, and creative prototypes for new types of products.

The word "externship" is not new and has been used to connote spells in which students shadow professionals at their workplace for a short duration. However, the expanded definition of externships provides a compelling proposition for students and companies.

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