A meditation in education

Traditional learning is dead, says school principal Natalie Chan. Carolynne Dear found out how she is single-handedly leading an education revolution

Sitting quietly on the 21st floor of the shiny new California Tower, Hong Kong’s dynamic Central district spread out beyond huge glass panes, is twelve-year-old Hillary Yip, student of OWN Academy, Hong Kong’s newest – and probably most unusual – secondary school.

Her teacher, and school founder and principal, is Natalie Chan, an engineering graduate and former member of the corporate world. The school has no premises and student and teacher use co-working space Metta as their base in between forays into Hong Kong to research projects.

The school may have no fixed curriculum, no extra-curricular activities, no further teaching staff and currently no other students, but Chan is convinced it is the beginning of a revolution in Hong Kong’s education system.

“I’ve experienced a lot of what education has to offer, and none of it was particularly impressive,” she says. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she attended a local school, an international school, a US boarding school, and finally university, graduating with a degree in engineering.

“It was a pretty typical Hong Kong upbringing – a tiger mom, lots of after-school activities, and the expectation that I would move along this very narrow, very conservative tunnel of opportunity.”

She did what was expected, moved into corporate life, but quickly became disillusioned. “I wasn’t using anything I’d learnt. I just seemed to be helping very rich people become even richer,” she says. “I had a prestigious consulting job, but I was unhappy and out of my comfort zone. This wasn’t how I’d envisaged my life panning out. I just thought, what was the point? All those years of schooling and all those fees, just to end up using nothing of what I’d learnt.”

Quickly realising there is a “massive disconnect” between education and what actually happens when students enter the world of work, she handed in her notice and spent time teaching at the Harbour School, to find out what the more progressive schools were up to.

“I really enjoyed teaching there, it’s a great school, but I still felt it wasn’t meeting what the world requires.”

So what should we be teaching our kids?

“Well the whole technology thing, I just think a lot of educators don’t use it to its full potential. In many schools it’s employed as just another teaching medium – we had chalkboards, then whiteboards, now laptops and i-pads. But that’s not getting to the root of the technology revolution.

“Students aren’t being taught how to sift information properly, to sieve the real from the fake, how to consume information and how to process it, learning how to use technology as a tool to reach a goal. In the real world we don’t use calculators in business, for example, we use spreadsheets. Time management, e-commerce, monetization techniques, social media marketing, none of this sort of information is being passed on but this is how the world actually works. Even skills like app development are becoming obsolete as off-the-shelf tools are becoming more readily available – coding is the buzz word of the moment but pretty soon it won’t be needed. Computers will take over these jobs. Students will need to be working on a macro level, figuring out how things are connected, understanding how a system works and being able to figure out how to add value to that system.”

Chan cherry picks from different curriculums using inter-disciplinary projects as her teaching base. Hers is a personal learning framework which is probably more aligned than anything else with the Finnish system, which eschews subject-based learning. For Chan, even the IB system is too systematic and leaves too many life questions unanswered.

As such, she has been collaborating with the Finnish Chamber of Education which, keen to introduce Finnish teaching methods into Hong Kong, has approved Chan’s academy.

Essentially, her teaching methodology involves simulating the real world in a project sense, enabling students to develop a huge mind-map of how things interconnect.

“I reference other curriculums but I’m creating things as we go. I want to build a new system from scratch. I want to be as creative as I can. I have my own framework of learning and then pull from different curriculums. The Finnish system is project and theme-based rather than subject-based – real-life application learning. I think IB is great, but it’s still very systematic. It’s intense but it still doesn’t answer a lot of life questions.”

Yip’s parents approached Chan about a full-time school position for their daughter after she moved into secondary at Kellett School. Yip, already somewhat of an entrepreneur, admits she wasn’t enjoying school and is happier with Chan. Earlier this year she launched her own app, MinorMynas, as part of the AIA Emerging Entrepreneur Challenge. The idea behind the app was to build a global network of children under 18, to make meaningful connections while learning each other’s language.

“My reason for pulling Hillary out from the traditional international school system were two-fold,” Yip’s mother, Joey, told me later by email. “We were seeing signs that showed she wouldn’t benefit from the school environment moving forward. She found it hard to fit into the social aspect – the teenage dynamic is a difficult situation for a nerdy kid, and sometimes the mocking and teasing and social isolation were too much to take. Secondly, Hillary wasn’t challenged enough.”

The family initially thought about switching to another international school, but realised the frustrations she was experiencing would be widespread. “Natalie offered us an alternative which fitted our needs. Hillary’s education is going to be at her own pace. We were also attracted by the style of learning, with Hillary required to actively research, internalize and connect with real-world problems… We want her to find meaning in all that she does and learn HOW to learn, to work, to lead. We have total confidence in Hillary. We have plans in place for her to move up to tertiary education should she wish to do so further down the road.”

This term, Yip has been tasked with creating a lamp – she has spent the last couple of days furiously gathering raw materials and fine tuning her design, and this morning she is sitting down with Chan back at base to research and discuss the mechanics behind constructing a working light.

So far, Yip has clocked up two months with Chan, and says she is “really enjoying it”. She’s finding the current lamp project a challenge as her initial design didn’t quite work out. “But that’s how you learn,” she shrugs. “I’m going to develop it and then try and sell it.”

“So we start with an issue, and then we break it down into individual subject areas,” explains Chan. “The whole process involves lots of disciplines. At the beginning of the term we took a trip out to an incinerator for example – from that experience we broke things down into opportunities for subject areas like applied physics, chemistry, engineering, sustainability and so forth.”

“I think there’s lots of fun and innovative primary support in Hong Kong, with education systems like Montessori, Waldorf, IB and so on,” says Chan. “What I’m interested in is that 12+ age bracket when education seems to slip back into a more conservative rhythm. I want to take students on who have basic literacy and numeracy skills and move onto the next step – that’s what I’m interested in, how they process information, how do they filter it, how can they add value to it.”

“Of course I feel incredibly responsible for Hillary, it’s a massive leap of faith for her parents. I know I’ve picked a very hard road, but I completely believe it is the right road. Revolutionising Hong Kong’s education system is not something that is going to happen overnight.”

She currently has a few more interested parties, parents of children who have joined Chan on the summer holiday camps that she has been running for the past few years. The camps run along similar lines to the school, in that a different project is worked on each week with students travelling all over the territory to research and develop it. She is hoping her September school intake will include a couple of classmates for Hillary.

The school day runs from 9am to 3pm, the “campus” is handily located in Lang Kwai Fong and she “will probably” break for the summer. “Hilary’s keen to keep on trucking, but I think I might need a week or so off,” she laughs. “The school is loosely based around the Hong Kong (northern hemisphere) term timetable.”

“My dream has always been to address the gap between education and employment. I didn’t expect to have students quite so quickly, but it’s great that Hilary and her family have put this trust in me. Ideally, I’m trying to grow a corps of six students and then I can send them out to the corporate partners that I’ve been developing relationships with over the last year. These are not traditional teachers, but professionals who can share their valuable learning with students. I want to create “classrooms” all over Hong Kong to which students can travel each day from our fixed hub. There are so many awesome people out there, doing such amazing and interesting things, and we can learn from them.

“I’m really keen to create these career environments so students can really understand what different jobs actually involve. There’s not a much opportunity for this sort of thing in Hong Kong at the moment because everyone is so focused academically. Obviously academics are important, but to create that motivation and for students to understand why they have go through these studies, that’s not addressed so well.”

So what about exam results for university? Just how far can you challenge the status quo?

Chan smiles. “I believe university is already redundant in this age. I realise that sounds extreme and of course, university is a great choice for a lot of students, but not for everyone. I think a large proportion of students go to university because it’s part of the process, they don’t necessarily have any idea what they want to get out of it. I want to partner with corporates and show them that students graduating from this academy are ready for work, and moving straight from school into work is a good thing.”