Debrief after Boys’ Brigade Adventure Quest (AQ) 2016
“Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”– Legendary basketball coach John Wooden
Ten weeks ago, 14 Boys from St. Hilda’s Primary School’s 49J Company Boys’ Brigade (BB) set out on what has become a “rite of passage” for Primary 6 Boys in BB: Training for the Boys’ Brigade Adventure Quest – a nation-wide competition pitting 448 Boys in 109 Teams from all over Singapore in a gruelling 3-hour obstacle course race under the blistering 34°C Bishan Park heat.
REPEATING AS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSFOR BB ADVENTURE QUEST 2016!
The real Adventure Quest is life itself.
To repeat takes character.And Character derives from Habit;Habit, from Actions;Actions, from Words;and Words, from Thoughts.
“You’d better say goodbye to your plushies and your childhood because you ain’t gonna need them no more! We are at war, ladies and gentlemen! So grow up! Strap up! Man up! And wipe that smile off your face, SOLDIER!”
Not the most child-friendly introductory line by a teacher ever, but war isn’t all warm and fuzzy, isn’t it?
The seed of Singapore’s modern history was sown in the blood-drenched, potholed soil of war in the 1942 Japanese Invasion. The blitzkrieg that overran the supposedly formidable “Gibraltar of the East” brought the then British-ruled smorgasbord of immigrant inhabitants to its knees with a three-year Occupation that broke hearts and crippled souls.
From that quagmire of lost faith in our ‘defenders’ but faithless in our own defences, we rose.
Although Singapore is a thriving city-state now, we remember the heroes who had their backs pressed against the cold walls in the trenches of trepidation, grasping their rifles and final few bullets as they made the decision to rip themselves from their positions and into the blanket of crossfire above them.
In the Malay language, that fighting spirit is known as ‘semangat’. The word has no direct English translation, but in a wartime context, it refers to a blend of zeal, courage and perseverance amidst sacrifices made. And that is what students will experience and inquire into: “What is semangat in times of war?”
In the role of enlistees about to face the mighty Japanese army, students signed drama contracts and put on a persona of a soldier, signified by a jockey cap they donned. As long as they wore the cap, they were military.
Facilitated by teachers in the roles of boorish sergeants and officers, the enlistees headed to the site of one of the last stands in the defence of Singapore in World War II – Bukit Chandu, or Opium Hill – the final resting place of the lionhearts from ‘C’ Company of the Malay Regiment, now a museum to honour our nation’s first heroes.
Gathering intelligence about the enemy from artefacts and information panels, the enlistees discovered they were outmatched severely by a veteran force steeled by years of war experience, armed with cutting edge weaponry, and guided by the unmatchable bushido code and indomitable leaders…
“I’m never going to make it back from this war.”
That realisation arrived in the form of an activity requiring enlistees to pen down someone or something that they treasure the most, taking a last look at it, and to the horror of everyone, rip the paper to shreds!
Hands quivered, hearts clenched and tears welled, as our young enlistees relinquished what they cherished… Much like the Malay Regiment soldiers in the prime of their youth, trading their tranquil village lives and their tender family ties for the certainty of death in the defence of Singapore.
That’s the sacrifice of our heroes in war – what they left behind that will never be theirs ever again.
But the soldiers were not the only ones who sacrificed…
Interviewing a masterful parent in the role of ‘Madam Saadiah’: a woman widowed by her husband’s choice to honour his duty, enlistees discovered the anguish of a wife losing her pillar of strength; a mother forfeiting her partner; a person watching through foggy tears of reluctance as her better half walked away into flames of war.
That’s the sacrifice of people in war – who they let go whom will never be theirs ever again.
The context was set. The enlistees’ minds made up. It’s time to prepare for war.
Learning from the examples of heroes like Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi, enlistees discussed and decided on the ammunition needed to fight the Japanese. They were not concrete ones like bullets, but more importantly that which resides within each and everyone of them: acts of courage and perseverance, along with the importance of these virtues when confronted with the inferno of battle.
Time to put our young soldiers to the test!
The enlistees set off, squad by squad, crouching for cover across an ominous terrain…
Springing from the hedges, two berserked Japanese soldiers charged towards the startled squads!
IT’S AN AMBUSH!
FWEEEEET!!! A sharp, stinging whistle sped through the air! Everyone froze.
The sergeant who blew the whistle calmly approached the enlistees. Placing a hand on the ‘frozen’ enlistees, he inquired into the soldiers’ state of mind.
“What are you thinking right now? What are you feeling?”
“What is the first thing you wanted to do when ambushed?”
“You found out you have no ammunition left. What are you going to do?”
“Your squad is in a state of panic. What are you going to say to them?”
Whilst some enlistees admitted their thoughts of fear and retreat, many found it within themselves to press on:
“I’ll never give up!”
“This is it! I’ll give it everything I have!”
“Let’s go, everyone! This is what we’re here for!”
And toward the enemy they lunged.
No more enlistees, they were soldiers now, with semangat in their hearts.
When the dust settled and the battle won with courage and perseverance, like leagues of heroes in the past, it was time to honour the brave.
The honour of creating a crest fell now to the creative hands of the soldiers: an expression of their understanding of semangat, and a reminder to display the courage and perseverance in everything they do.
Finally, it was the time everyone was waiting for: graduation!
Our young, honourable soldiers – naive enlistees no more – marched forward, chest full of pride and beaming with fulfilment, to receive Graduation Certificates from our Commanding Officer. They have gone through a lot to get here.
With a last military tradition, the soldiers excitedly placed their jockey caps over their hearts, and with a unanimous swing, hoisted them into the cerulean sky, peppering the blue with their glorious joy!
With their caps off, our soldiers now reprised their identities as students and stood in front of those who actually fought and died at the ground beneath their feet: the Roll of Honour for the men from ‘C’ Company, The Malay Regiment.
For these 42 men who bore the brunt of the Japanese attack on Bukit Chandu, it was not a school-based learning journey, neither was it something they could ‘unhook’ from: it was real.
Their semangat, their struggles, and their death, was all too real.
“We are here, celebrating Singapore’s 50th year of independence, because of men like these. Lion-hearted men, who gave their lives yesterday so that we can enjoy ours today.”
“At this moment, I would like everyone to, in your own way, thank these men, for the semangat they have shown and the sacrifice they made.”
Some of those who were still wearing their caps took it off, placed it at their hearts, and bowed their heads.
Some saluted the Roll of Honour.
But in every student’s eyes, and surely in their hearts, was the silent appreciation of the callous hands that planted the seed into the grim earth of Singapore’s history – a seed which bestowed the fruits in which they revel in today.
“Bukit Chandu: The Last Stand” is the first part in a project to redesign Social Studies learning journeys in Singapore. The focus of the teacher-initiated ‘Project LIFE’ is to place inquiry and experience at the centre of beyond-the-classroom learning across three learning journeys, progressing from the beginnings of Singapore (Project Seed) to its modernisation (Project Roots), and lastly its present (Project Fruit).
The Microsoft Global Educator Exchange (E2) is an exciting three day event to recognise and celebrate the achievements of educators who are preparing students for life in the 21st Century. The Educator Exchange brings together around 300 of the world’s most innovative educators for an unparalleled opportunity to collaborate, create and share their experiences on how to integrate technology and pedagogy in ways that achieve 21st century learning outcomes.
This post contains my written thoughts for a post-conference interview with the local Microsoft Team in Singapore.
Q: Could you describe your experience going up to E2, from the point where you were selected as one of the three Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts (MIEs) till the point of departure?
Ever tried skipping stones across a lake? Sometimes, unexpectedly, the stone skips so many times the sheer amazement draws some “ooohh” from you. That’s how I felt. I really didn’t expect my little idea to skip through the vast lake of educational thoughts, much less garner the flurry of opportunities that came my way, one after another in rapid succession…
I always envisioned such conferences to be a congregation of experienced professionals with decades of experience under their belt, sharing their jewels of wisdom in a melting pot of educational sageness. Being a beginning teacher boasting a measly two years in teaching doesn’t really fall into that ‘sageness’ category. Like, at all.
But the Microsoft Team took a chance on me – sacrificing the pensive surety of experience for the volatile radicality of an idealistic young teacher barely out of the infant stages of his career.
As such, when I was selected as one of the 3 MIEs alongside Jenny, an experienced ICT subject head; and Dr. Harris, a leader in edtech, I thought Microsoft had made a typo. I read the email a second, and third time to make sure it wasn’t the humid Singapore weather that got to me. Then it hit me – I was going to Seattle!
For the next month or so, I discovered my perfectionist streak. From the broad conceptual strokes of project refinement to the millimetres of website formatting, it had to be the best that I could humanly achieve – I was representing Singapore on a global stage! Bring it on!
Q: Was the experience at E2 what you’ve expected? What are some key highlights of your experience at E2?
I was jet-lagged for 3 days! That was unexpected! But it was really a blessing in disguise, as the involuntary sleepless nights in Seattle enabled me to be industrious in our winning project, doing up the video for our idea pitch.
As for the highlights, all I can say is that it has been life-changing in the very essence of the word. I think foremost would be the people. The amazing people. My conference teammate and friend Lidija Kralj from Croatia commented along a random corridor, “You know Andy, I feel comforted when I am here, because I know that I’m not the only crazy one out there.”
I found that same solace in the solidarity gained from belonging to a fraternity of diverse educators, galvanised by a common like-mindedness: to challenge the boundaries of educational possibilities.
It was an experience of uplifting strength and unparalleled connection that I’d think only beckons once in a lifetime. I am really blessed to have this experience as a launchpad for my journey into education.
Q: Could you describe your winning project at E2 – what the project is about, how was the project process like, and what did the judges like about it?
What if the the current generation of children could have the courage to face the problems our generation didn’t have the guts to: discrimination, poverty, global warming… What could the human race achieve?
That’s what we wanted to find out in Project Courage. Our project starts with students identifying and acknowledging their deepest fears and then searching for ways to overcome it. Students then share their ideas via a video, a Sway or other multimodal means.
The culmination of the project is a Skype sharing session involving 4 countries and spanning 3 educational levels, with students sharing their thoughts on fear and courage and ultimately seeing that fear, and the propensity to overcome it – courage, are universal traits that binds us all as human beings.
We were only given 3 hours over 2 days to develop a unit plan and a way to pitch the idea to a panel. Of course, that was just face-to-face hours; we continued our discussions on OneNote from the comforts of our fluffy hotel beds till 2a.m.! The wonders of ICT and the bright side of jet-lag, I’d say.
As we were awarded Project Excellence: Building Educator Capacity, I feel the strength of our project was that it empowered the educator to be a change-maker in not only a single child, a single class, but perhaps a single generation.
It challenges the educator to nurture students who will rise above the test of life, instead of succumbing to a life of tests – a spirited, socially-conscious steward of his or her own gifts and talents.
Q: What are your three key takeaways from E2?
One of the keynote speakers and leading educationist Angela Maiers raised a syllogism that defined my learning from E2:
“The opposite of courage is not cowardice. The opposite of courage is comfort. Therefore, in order to be courageous, we need to be uncomfortable.”
Singaporean teachers are not physically comfortable. Studies show that we work the longest hours.
What we are comfortable with is our thinking: the box in which we are rummaging in to find our definition of quality education. We are comfortable in rummaging through that box. We are comfortable to let PISA test scores be our benchmark of educational excellence. We are comfortable with our way of planning lessons. We are comfortable with our ‘Brand Singapore’ in education.
Because we take PISA to be our yardstick, our students are, and will continue to be good in Math, English and reasoning. We teachers hence gear our lesson-planning to meet those standards. Therefore, as planned, our students will grow up to be good in counting, reading, writing and linear problem solving. They will be great problem-solvers.
But are our students problem-finders?
I’m afraid in the confines of our current comforts, our students will need others to point out the problem for them before they can solve it. As such, they will not be leaders, as true leaders initiate change, instead of just managing it. The evidence is perhaps in the corporate world, as leading positions in the MNCs based in Singapore taken up by expatriates, and Singaporeans as middle-managers or executives. It is also in the non-corporate world – where are the Singaporean innovators who can hold their own on the global stage? Where are the Singaporean Nobel Laureates or social change leaders?
Therefore, we need to make ourselves uncomfortable. We need to have courage.
Firstly, the courage to unlearn. Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai and fellow educator, moved that sometimes instead of teaching students how to learn, we need to teach students how to unlearn. In his context in Swat Valley, it meant boys unlearning oppressive definitions of courage, and girls unlearning being oppressed as a lifestyle.
In Singapore, I feel students have to unlearn the mindset everything has a model answer, because that’s not what it is in real life.
Parents have to unlearn the degenerative client-service provider relationship that they demand to have with teachers; the best for their child is not their child being the best.
Teachers have to unlearn that learning is broader than what is stipulated in the curriculum, and the mindset that everything outside the curriculum is extraneous and hence unnecessary for students.
Secondly, the courage to rethink. Anthony Salcito, VP of Microsoft Education, raised a query as to why teachers plan for skills and content knowledge separately – what if they were one and the same? He gave an example that “knowing the decisions historical leaders made is the content and the skill to make decisions”.
This made me think about the other aspect of our lesson planning: values. The fact that we wish to imbue values into our content implies that we view them as separate entities. Is this true?
Lastly, the courage to collaborate. When I graduated, I was left with the impression that social media is a Singapore teacher’s worst enemy. There have been too many cases of one post too honest, one picture too revealing, leading to the demise of one teacher too many.
Hence I had a fixed mindset toward social media, that it was for the frivolous and frolicsome – not adjectives a teacher would like attached to himself or herself. At E2, I saw collaboration via social media as a norm – “Collaboration? Oh, I just Tweet a teacher from Slovenia, and bam! The next day, our classes are collaborating on a project. Simple.”
Ideas from advocates latch on; this snowball then crosses path with indomitable passion, is sprinkled generously with encouragement and love, and topped off finally, with a common goal to bring global education to greater heights.
I wanted in. In, to this world of possibilities for mastery. In, to this realm where ideas are not privatised, but proactively snowballed – a world where I just might be able to glimpse a field of education beyond the circumference of the view from the bottom of the well I’m sitting in right now.
I know that my learnings, and more importantly, unlearnings, are uncomfortable to hear, but I also know that no frontier has ever been explored in comfort. The educational frontier in Singapore is no exception.
Q: How do you foresee yourself putting this into practice after coming back?
‘Foresee’ wouldn’t be an accurate word, just like ‘inspired’ as compared to ‘transformed’ because the former entails intention but not action. The ball has started rolling the day I touched down in Singapore.
After a month-long process, my team and I have just concluded Project Courage with an enlightening Skype discussion that challenged students to delve deeper into the concept of fear and courage through learning from the sharing of their international counterparts. We are looking to extend this experience by perhaps participating in a virtual cross-cultural experience via Skype paired with other online classroom platforms such as Edmodo.
Besides Project Courage, I am currently initiating a student-teacher collaboration to develop a Social Studies-Mathematics Minecraft lesson unit, capitalising on the expertise of students’ penchant for the game and fellow teachers’ acumen for learning objectives, to develop and refine student-managed gamification proposals.
For expert advise, I am working with a Brazilian teacher and Minecraft advocate, Francisco Tupy, a wondrous educator and a die-hard gamer.
One also cannot be a hypocrite to foster courage but not display it himself or herself. Facing my own fear of social media, I have also set up this professional blog and a Twitter account (@mr_andyng) to share and learn from the sea of ideas beyond our local shores, geographically and ideologically. I look forward to the opportunities for collaboration that will arise.
Overall, I feel that E2 has opened entire realms of education for me, changing my paradigms, empowering me, connecting me to the summit of educational practices from all over the world.
It all started from a little idea that skipped, and now it’s time to make some ripples.
“The point is not to pay back kindness, but to pass it on.”
The message of making a difference by paying it forward resonated with Grade 5 2014 students as they took up the baton of service learning to pass on the gift of learning they have been blessed with.
Students took ownership of the entire process, from generating ideas to contacting their beneficiaries, from fund raising to gift making.
Equipped with their personal devices, students research on organisations as a target audience to spread their kindness to, and collaborate for ideas with their sister class on an Edmodo online classroom.
Students led their own discussions to brainstorm ideas, developing not only ideas for fund raising and activities, but even more so criteria to select and finalise ideas for implementation: feasibility, impact and participation. Things got tough, but with grit, students persevered on to see the planning through!
Employing their awesome handicraft talents for the cause, students held a garage sale fund raising with loom bands, origami products and a photo booth. In just a massively hectic 2 hours, students raised more than $400 for their Values In Action efforts for their beneficiaries!
With the funds raised, mini-terrariums were made by the students, to allow children who are neglected to have a learning experience through the mini-ecological system. As students reflected on the their gifts, they hope that the children who receive the terrariums and accompanying resources will be edified by the learning, and that education will empower their beneficiaries to dream big!
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – M. Gandhi
This phrase took on a whole new meaning for our Grade 4 students.
In Singapore, we pride ourselves to be expert problem-solvers, equipped with the skills, rigour and values required to delve into the depths of a problem to search for the luminescence at the end of the tunnel. And we get there.
We are definitely problem-solvers. But are we problem-finders?
We will definitely be capable of solving the problems of the future, but we would have to depend on others to identify the problems first. As such, in the larger picture of things, we will always be followers, never leaders.
Change starts from seeing areas that need change in the first place. The lens of purposeful observation is often given up for the sake of skills-based mastery. How many times have students just stopped to look for themselves at the lingering issues within our society, instead of being told about them from books and newspapers?
“But looking for problems is not part of the curriculum, learning about them is.”
So let’s make looking part of the curriculum as much as learning is.
Students were inspired by the story of Craig Keilburger, just 12 years old when he saw the problem of international child labour through the murder of Pakistani child labour victim and activist Iqbal Masih, and decided to make a difference by setting up “Free the Children”, a charity organisation that seeks to end global child labour:
Seeing the problem. That’s the first step in the changemaker’s journey.
Armed with the thinking lens of “See, Think, Wonder” (See Harvard Project Zero’s “Thinking Routines” – http://www.visiblethinkingpz.com), caps and clipboards, students ventured forth into their neighbourhood at Tampines West, seeing areas where change is needed which they will formulate a research question around.
These areas of changes are not just limited to tangible aspects such as litter, as students soon found out, but abstract, unseen ones as well. One adventurous student began to conduct her own interviews with residents on their level of happiness living in their neighbourhood.
Once students caught on to this change in paradigm, there was no stopping them! They flocked to passers-by, eager to inquire into areas that change is needed: first two or three, then like bees to honey, they swarmed.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Follow us in our quest to ignite change in our community through social research, as we bloom for others where we are planted!