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!

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.

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