An educator goes on a quest to establish a better teaching system with a focus on English.

When Anne Tham was teaching at a local private college 30 years ago, she noticed that while students were being trained to score in exams, they lacked English proficiency and the critical thinking skills required for them to do well at university and later on when they enter the workforce.

She left her job to try to offer something better: a teaching system that incorporates discussion-oriented, experiential and application-based learning. What started off as an English tutoring class has now evolved into the Seri Emas International School and Dwi Emas International School, Malaysia’s first entrepreneurial school.

Tham talks to Savvy about the drawbacks of rote learning, the role of online learning and the future of education.

When you started a tutoring centre for English 30 years ago, how was your system different from what was already out there at the time?

Back then most people taught English for UPSR, PMR and SPM. It was all geared towards scoring in exams and didn’t produce fluent English speakers. They couldn’t engage in discussions or do proper presentations. I wanted the students to be able to speak like native English speakers so I thought about how a person who grew up in English-speaking households learnt the language.

We acquire language by listening to it a lot. First we learn to understand the spoken language, then we learn to speak, and only after that do we start reading and writing the language. But most people do it the other way around. They start by learnt to read and write, which is an artificial way to learn any language. By listening and speaking the language, you can acquire any language very quickly.

Why is English so important compared with other languages?

It’s good to learn many languages but the most important is English because we live in a globalised world and English is the most commonly-spoken language across countries. People say it’s important to learn Chinese because China is a growing force. Yes, it’s good to learn Chinese but if you look at what’s happening in China, they’re learning English in a big way. The Chinese don’t want to just do business with Chinese-speaking people. They want to do business with the world and in order to do that they need to know English. Also, when you talk about big markets, don’t forget India which is also a huge market. Over there, they speak English. It pays to learn English.

A common criticism of the Asian education system is that it overly emphasises rote learning. Why is it important to change this?

It has a lot to do with the education system being systemised. When you want to systemise something, you look at results. When educators look at students who do well in exams, they find that the ones who score well are those who study and memorise things. So they think this is the best way. Asian students tend to learn by reading, listening and looking at visuals over and over again, which allow them to score in exams. But the real world functions differently. When you go out into the work force, you need to be able to interact with others, hold discussions, engage in negotiations, make presentations, and so on. Asian students are generally not well trained for that.

Many parents send their kids to “tuition” centres, sometimes for several hours a day. What’s your view on that?

The message we’re giving students is that if they want to do well, they can’t do it on their own but rather, they need external help. This trains them to become dependent. Resilience and grit go out of the window. In Asia we tend to look for quick fixes so we spend money on tuition centres. So many things are now available online. Khan Academy, a great resource for students, is available online free of charge. All you need is for your kids to take the initiative.

What are your thoughts on home schooling?

My concern about home schooling is the lack of socialisation. It’s important that kids are given the chance to mix with other kids so they can better understand and respect others. They need to experience nice and not-so-nice social interactions so they’re better prepared for the real world. We have found that some kids who were home-schooled had very low patience and tolerance for others.

Dwi Emas is dubbed an “entrepreneurial school”. What does that mean?

In general, we find the education system as being too theoretical and not practical enough. At Dwi Emas, we encourage our students to start simple businesses while they’re still in school. Even at the primary school level, we encourage them to sell stuff. This isn’t compulsory and neither is it designed as some kind of school assignment or project. It’s something we encourage as an extra-curricular activity. We really want them to run actual businesses, sell things online etc, and many of them do.

Kids from well-to-do families can afford to go to private schools but what about those who can’t afford it. Isn’t there a gap?

There is a gap and it has always been there. To reduce that gap, things need to be improved in government schools. Of course this isn’t easy and it’s not just a problem in Malaysia. This is the case in many countries. Teacher training programmes need to be upgraded. They’re still being trained to teach the traditional way but the world has moved on. We must do away with rote learning.

What do you look for in a teacher?

We look for those with the right spirit and energy. The teachers must be able to do more than just teach a subject. They must be able to engage with the kids. They need to have people skills and to be able to build rapport with the kids so that if they see something wrong, they can properly intervene.

You have visited many countries to study their education systems. What are some of the ideas that you like?

If I had my way, my system would be even more progressive than it is now. But this is not something that a lot of parents can accept. Academic results are still desired by Asian parents. So, we do have to prepare students for exams. But there are schools out there which are not exam-focused at all. For example, in New York there’s a school that teaches subjects through performance. Students get really engaged and as a result they learn better. In San Diego, there’s a school that emphasises problem-solving rather than exams. Those kinds of approaches are very interesting to me.

Is there a danger of private school students becoming elitist?

Yes, that’s why it’s important to foster empathy in their everyday lives. It’s not enough to bring them to old folks’ homes on weekends.

Our students are encouraged to interact with the cleaners, security guards, transporters, etc. If some of them have a bad attitude, we remove them from sports teams or performance groups until they learn to treat other people well. We’re pretty strict about that.

What are your thoughts on online learning?

I think it will be the main way people learn from tertiary education and above. But below tertiary education, you need some real world engagement and socialisation. With both children and teens, it’s crucial they’re in school so they get to mix with others.

The nature of jobs is changing very rapidly due to artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet and globalisation. How do you prepare a student for working life when things are changing so rapidly?

Ayesha Khanna, CEO of ADDO AI, an artificial intelligence advisory firm in Singapore said that by the time books are printed, the information is obsolete. This is certainly true for IT-related subjects but also increasingly true for many subjects. The skills we need to train our students in are not things that can be found in books.

They need to learn to be flexible and resourceful, and to be imaginative and creative. Because if they are, they can come up with solutions to manage whatever needs to be managed. Rote learning from books doesn’t train them for that.

You’ve been in the education line for three decades now. What keeps you motivated?

If you deal with parents the way I do, you cannot stop. If you see what needs to be done and what’s not yet done for our kids, you cannot stop.

If you see the commitment of our teachers, you cannot stop. I’ll never get tired of this.

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