BEYOND BOOK LEARNING
Shailaja Guillory is eight years old and has already started an online business. In its first year her company, Bloom Teas, started selling its herbal and floral teas to local shops and restaurants and now has customers in Bali and around South East Asia. Shailaja may have started young, but her early business acumen is not unusual among her fellow students at Dwi Emas International School in Shah Alam, Malaysia.
Dwi Emas, Malaysia’s first entrepreneurial school, cultivates a spirit of entrepreneurship, furnishing students with the skills needed to support their aspirations in any field of their choosing. “Our kids don’t have boundaries,” explains group CEO and founder Anne Tham. “We help all of them find success in the world, whatever their abilities academically.”
Unusually, especially in Asian education, high grades are not the key markers of achievement in the model developed by Anne Tham and her sister Melinda Lim, who have been educators for over 30 years. Instead, the focus is on value to society and a practical approach to learning. From a young age, students like Shailaja are taught to apply the skills they absorb in the classroom in a real-world context by launching real businesses of their own.
“We want our kids to be able to fit into the world they are moving into,” says Tham. “We want to emphasise the need to make education relevant.” It was this philosophy of making education truly relevant to modern-day concerns that led her to found Dwi Emas International School in 2015. Since then, the school has been accepted as part of the Endeavor Global initiative, an entrpreneurial network composed of business leaders around the globe who mentor promising institutions making a significant social impact in their community.
MORE THAN A SCHOOL
Dwi Emas, along with its sister school, Sri Emas, carries the motto “More Than A School”. It underpins an educational ethos that differs markedly from the typical pedagogical methods of Asian schooling systems. Many schools apply rote learning, says Tham, and students are under strong pressure to excel academically, with punishment meted out for low grades or failure to complete assignments. Classwork often involves unnecessary and repetitive tasks such as copying or reciting text.
In this context, just 16 per cent of schoolchildren are categorised as “excellent” while almost two-thirds, 68 per cent, are labelled “average” and the rest “weak”. Looking at these statistics, Tham says the current exam and schooling system only suits the top 16 per cent. “It’s not that the 68 per cent aren’t any good,” she says. “It’s just that they don’t like the way the education system works. In fact, they hate it half the time.”
By contrast, students love coming to school at Dwi Emas and Sri Emas. “Our students complain to their parents that they don’t want the holidays,” says Melinda Lim. “They prefer to be in school.” This is partly to do with the flexibility of an educational approach that accommodates the natural exuberance of children and incorporates creativity into every class. “In order for the students to thrive in school we need to lets the kids be kids and the teens be teens,” she says.
At Dwi Emas, a history lesson exploring the defence of kingdoms could involve building a castle, which students will be encouraged to sell at the end, while algebra class, which begins in years 1 or 2, becomes a game with characters and plot lines. A team of Dwi Emas teachers also developed the world’s first chemistry role-playing game, ChemCaper, which is now available on iOS and Android.
SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE
“We’ve been pushing the boundaries of how we can engage the kids while embedding all the 21st-century skills into their classes,” says Tham. The results are extraordinary. “We get a lot of feedback from people in the business community who say they’ve never seen anything like it,” Tham adds, pointing to a number of students who have established successful companies by the time they are in their early teens.
One 13-year-old designs web pages, and a teenage boy with a passion for calligraphy makes and sells watercolour inks to fill a gap in the market for affordable, locally produced art materials. Tham also recalls a former student, now an automotive engineering graduate, who sold 500 cars while still studying; and another student who struggled to fit into the Asian education system and later forged a career as a renowned beatboxer and musician.
These achievements are partly down to the confidence that the school’s learning model, focusing on collaboration and creativity, instils. “The whole nature of learning in many schools is very competitive, but the world out there is collaborative,” says Tham, who was recently invited to Finland – along with Shailaja Guillory, who received a standing ovation – to speak at the international tech startup conference Slush.
EDUCATION FOR TOMORROW
Like many educators, Tham and Lim were concerned by the challenges facing their students after graduation. “Graduates are pouring into countries around the world and there just aren’t enough jobs, so they end up going back into education,” says Lim. Their intention was to give graduates more options than the existing education sector and provide them with the “skills, confidence and experience” to create jobs for themselves – and for others.
To develop a schooling system designed for future career markets, they went out into the business community to find out about the needs of tomorrow. “We started from scratch and reverse-engineered the whole system to teach the children for their future, not the world today or in the past,” says Tham.
Global markets such as South Africa, China, the UK, Vietnam, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia are now inviting the Dwi Emas team over to discuss sister schools based on the same model. “Looking at our students, I see a huge difference in their outlook and approach to life – they don’t entertain the idea of failure,” Tham says, pointing to her happy, flourishing charges. “They’re proof that, if you get the education right, all students can excel.”