I’ve always been curious about education. Both my parents were IB instructors, and I considered a teaching path very early. This summer, I came across a TechinAsia article highlighting a new personalized learning company, Ascend Now, right in my backyard in Singapore. I was no stranger to EdTech, but I had never considered this particular approach. Can you personalize learning for everyone?
The next thing I know, it’s 9:00 am on a Monday morning as I make my way along the sun-lit poolside area of a Singaporean condominium. The fresh morning air is punctuated by the rhythmic gurgling of the water running through the pool drains and the quietly confident voice of Ethan Barnes, Head of Curriculum of Ascend Now, talking to a laptop at one of the pool tables. He notices me, waves and signals that he is just wrapping up a lesson. I take a seat at the adjacent table and strain my ears to hear what is being taught.
I’m surprised to hear his student giggling away on the microphone while Ethan recalls a story of his time at Monash when he seriously struggled writing his Cognitive Psychology paper.
“So you see, it’s not about whether you “get it”. There are so many students out there who “get it”; you need to be able to take portions of knowledge and apply them to whatever situation you’re in - even across other disciplines. Sure, categories exist, but everything is connected.”
These short two minutes at the end of the lesson were enough to pique my curiosity. Surely, understanding the concept was important. Yes, application is great but if that’s the case, why aren’t we taught that religiously in our academic youth? I must admit, I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I barely noticed as Ethan approached and we touched elbows gently in greeting before taking seats opposite each other.
Ethan must have recognised the thoughtful - more likely, confused - look on my face and immediately offered an explanation.
“It’s simple really; each child is different so we want our teachers to form a relationship with them. We want to know their interests so that we can tie academic concepts to these specific interests while teaching. In order to do that, you need to spend time connecting with students in a reciprocal relationship. I want my students to know me as well as I know them, particularly my own trials and tribulations. You can’t have success without failure."
With that, we launched into a conversation regarding the deficiencies of the current education system. Impersonal relationships, lack of individualised learning for students, standardised testing, delivery methods: there wasn’t a shortage of ideas to discuss.
Let’s go through this in detail.
Teachers have the unenviable task of trying to teach an entire classroom of children, all with different interests and learning abilities, how to succeed in a rapidly changing world. It’s not an easy task. It’s no wonder we have children fall behind at times no matter the mammoth efforts that teachers put in to try and tailor their classes to as many students’ needs as possible. As a result, kids fall through the cracks, and only a select few (who happen to fit the criteria of particular teachers’ teaching styles) succeed.
In order to engage students more effectively, it is widely agreed that you need to be able to relate concepts to students’ interests. This is exactly the idea that Ethan effuses about: connection with students is the key to potentially unlocking their academic potential.
If teachers can find the passion that drives their students, the aim is to leverage this interest in order to promote a higher quality of learning. The additional benefit of addressing real-world interests is that the student will be privy to how concepts are not solely classroom drivel, but how they can be relevantly used in their world as well.
The current system of education has very rigid forms of assessment. Standardised testing, or at the very least ‘regular’ testing, presumes a standard linear way of thinking which does not necessarily allow students to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge. Rather this type of testing creates drones who cruise through their academic careers in a daze, performing mindless tasks for meaningless grades.
“Why do two grade 6 students have to learn the same content, and graduate at the same time?” I can tell that Ethan is incredibly passionate about giving students every opportunity to learn at their own pace. Not only that, his students don’t demonstrate their knowledge through numbered grades, but on their own terms, whether it’s by writing a novel, building a presentation, designing a math game, or debating a court case. . A 2017 study by Harvard University asserted that excessive test taking and preparation “inherently undermines the goals of meaningful learning.”
In today’s society, it is essential for education systems to create critical thinkers. With the massive amounts of information available at our fingertips, it is vital to be able to sift through and find the pertinent information rather than losing yourself in a mountain of data. Standardised testing does not achieve this.
Therefore, it may be all about testing, testing, and more testing, but in reality research shows that providing feedback to students is far more beneficial than providing them with a grade. A number grade can only show students how much they got right or wrong. Proper feedback and varied methods for demonstrating knowledge provide students with the opportunity to reevaluate their work and push towards their desired learning goals.
“We want our students to be the main characters in their story. As educators, we just need to facilitate their vision, whatever it may, and be in their corner when they need us.”
However, Ethan admits that changing the way the education system is set up is a difficult task. In order to change the way students learn, you need to re-programme the entire way they have been taught to function in the classroom. You have to be able to move them away from merely being led to certain answers in specific contexts, and instead provide them with higher order thinking skills that will enable them to translate their conceptual knowledge into practical applications. In developing young thinkers, Ascend Now hopes to create problem solvers who are ready to tackle the issues that face our world today and in the near future.
I watch in rapt fascination as Ethan becomes increasingly animated. “Twenty, thirty years ago, information was power. Now information is available for free, at the click of a button. Power now lies in the delivery of this information and in the application of this information.”
I settle back into the deck chair as our conversation begins to wind down and briefly pause to reflect. Ethan is kind enough to allow me a moment to collect my thoughts. One point in particular keeps forcing itself to the front of my mind: do you think this online sky school is even sustainable?
“We are at the precipice of a societal mindset shift: parents, educators and students alike are starting to view online education as valid, and equally effective - if not more - as compared to traditional, in-person school. Education has been conducted the same way for so long now, but it would be foolish not to benefit from the wild technological improvements that society has achieved in recent years. It would be foolish not to leverage the tools at our disposal to provide the best education for students. Students have so many different ways to express their knowledge in the world today, so why should we limit them? Teaching online addresses the way students can uniquely demonstrate their knowledge. This is how I believe education needs to be. This is the future.”
I thank Ethan for his time and make my way towards the exit. I’m barely aware of the lift descending to the ground floor, but as the lift doors open, one thing is clear: the education system needs to change. And today, I got a glimpse of the future.