Cover Story: Reforming education

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 11, 2018 - June 17, 2018.
-A +A

Malaysia has a bad rap when it comes to education. But right now, as Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik looks for examples of exemplary education systems, a home-grown company has been making waves abroad for all the right reasons.

Anne Tham, group CEO of ACE EdVenture (M) Sdn Bhd, and her team have been quietly building up three schools — Sri Emas International School, Dwi Emas International School and a private tutoring centre, which have a total of 1,600 students — along very different lines. Not only are her methods aimed at transferring knowledge and skills in a fun and inspiring way but she is also teaching the students to be entrepreneurs and to manage their finances properly.

Tham is in the process of opening schools in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Japan. Yet, the educators in these countries would never have thought to look to Malaysia for a model in education.

But then, she never figured that she would become an education reformist. It was the result of trying and failing to find a proper school for her children and creating one in the absence of anything suitable, as well as her horror at the products of the local school system when she was teaching at a local college.

The students could not even carry on a decent conversation in English despite learning the language for 11 years. They were lacking in confidence and could neither write nor think independently.

The system was broken. But what could she do about it? A lot apparently. First, she designed an English programme by looking at the language skills the students would need when they graduate and worked backwards from there. “A lot of people start at the beginning, with what they think primary school pupils can do and teach them the skills one by one. We never did that,” says Tham.

Then, she decided that a core ability students would need is to be able to write. And for that, they needed two things — creativity and confidence.

Tham soon realised that the fastest way to develop these two qualities was not necessarily to do more writing, but to learn to present. From her experience, she has found that if students take presentations seriously, their writing skills usually follow. “Because now, they are creative enough to come up with stuff and confident enough to put it down on paper,” she says.

Tham started her first language school in 1995. She had shared her thoughts with a friend who encouraged her to go ahead. “She told me that if I started something, she would send her son. She was initially a partner, but this wasn’t her thing, so she sold out after two years.”

Tham’s lack of capital did not hold her back. In fact, she started her first tuition centre with only RM4,000. By teaming up with a golf club, she was able to offer English classes to the members’ children on weekends.

On weekdays, she ran classes at her house in Subang while her friend did the same at hers in Bandar Utama. So, in effect, they were paying zero rent for their service.

“All we paid were the utility bills at the houses and 20% of our fees to the club. That gave me the courage to start because if I lost money, it would be no more than I could afford,” says Tham.

She found that it would take six months to two years to turn students around. “After that, it was just a bonus. And I was lucky because once they joined, the students stayed with me. I had some who were with me for as long as 13 years, from the age of 4 to 17. Just imagine what we could do with them.”

When Tham saw how popular her English classes were at the private tutoring centre, she decided to branch out into other subjects. For this, she needed her sister, Melinda Lim, an engineer who was lecturing at the National University of Singapore, for her skills in teaching maths and science. Lim came back in 2007 to join her.

“We decided to focus on the secondary level because we know that is where so many students are miserable. The pain point for parents is that their children do not want to go to school and are not doing well there. They also have to spend so much money on tuition,” says Tham.

She and her sister came up with creative ways to teach the particularly difficult subjects such as additional mathematics, mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, economics, accounting, information and communications technology, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese.

“How do you make those subjects interesting and exciting? English is easy. Students love their English classes. But as for the rest, it was mostly pure rote learning. So, we looked at what the students needed to learn for the examinations and we started to fix the problem,” says Tham.

One of the things she found was that you could not approach a subject chapter by chapter. “You need to have an overview of the whole thing. So, we changed the way we approached a subject and everything we teach builds up to the upper levels.”

Students mark out territory in a forest reserve to understand concepts such as negative numbers and why two negatives made a positive. They also have debates in mathematics classes. They do additional mathematics experiments in a water theme park. They use weighing scales in lifts to see how their weight changed when they are going up and going down for physics. They have water fights in biology class.

Teachers teach across disciplines. “We have a former medical doctor who teaches biology and history. We have teachers who teach geography and English. Or biology and chemistry. We love it because that is the way the world works. Like if you do engineering, you still need to know how to run a business. Subjects cross over — they cannot exist on their own,” says Tham.

Initially, they rented shoplots for the classes but eventually, this was not enough. “The students liked how we were teaching maths and how we were dealing with them. We then realised that we needed to become a school,” she says.

It took 2½ years to find a suitable location. “We looked at different pieces of land and my God! A piece of land in Bukit Rimau was RM10 million. And that was just a patch of grass. Anywhere near Subang was impossible,” says Tham.

As they were bootstrapping, they could not afford to pay rent if there was no income. The school would have to be up and running before they could pay a landlord. But as Tham found out, most landlords were only willing to give a grace period of two months at most.

She looked at office buildings, but these were too expensive. It would take time to renovate them into suitable spaces and the landlords were not willing to wait. Most of them had commercial land because it was not easy to get school land. And when they calculated what it would take to build a school, it was not commercially viable.

That is why when Tham found her eventual landlords in 2011, two years after she started looking for a suitable spot, she appreciated them fully. “My landlord for Sri Emas (in Petaling Jaya’s SS7) is amazing. He waited a whole year for us to get our licence during which he did not collect any rent from us. Who does that?” she says.

Her landlord for Dwi Emas in Shah Alam was equally wonderful. “He got approval for a 10-storey office block and instead, he built a five-storey school on the site. It does not make sense from a business point of view because when you build a school, you have to wait two or three years before you can collect rent,” says Tham.

She thinks they chose to be part of her journey (even though neither of them had children of school-going age) because they felt she was doing something good and wanted to contribute.

As it took three years for Dwi Emas (her first school to offer primary education) to be constructed, it gave her time to develop not only a primary school curriculum but also incorporate something she felt was missing from most education systems: entrepreneurship.

Tham and her partners had been very keen on educating the students on entrepreneurship because of her own entrepreneurial journey. “Five years into my English classes, I realised that I was running a business and I knew nuts about it. How was I going to hold everything together?” she says.

In the end, Tham decided to read a book her sister had recommended — Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. She felt shivers down her spine as she resonated with the message. “I thought, oh my God! This is so true. I went through this and this and this. I could see how real it was. Why were we not teaching this?”

She started sharing a few of the principles with her students and they loved it. “I taught them about cash flow and they loved it even more. Basically, I was doing about nine hours of financial education in the English class just before they graduated because I decided they needed to learn this.”

The students absorbed the principles and two to three years after graduation, she would hear that they were buying properties with their parents. Even her teachers changed the way they dealt with their own finances. One bought property and turned it into student housing, creating side income.

Tham was reading more and attending conferences and business training. “The more I got out of it, the more I was like, ‘Why aren’t we putting all these things in the syllabus?’ It is not just about telling the students we have to teach them this. The skills I was learning were all necessary,” she says.

With just nine hours of financial education, many of the students from her English language centre started their own businesses. One began restoring and selling classic cars. Another started a limousine service while at university in Perth and later went on to host a DotA (Defense of the Ancients, a multiplayer online battle arena video game) competition in a city in China. He is currently developing a city in Laos.

Tham’s teaching methodology has changed over the years. What once worked no longer does. The job of teachers used to be the transfer of knowledge. Today, it is more about imparting skills. “And we have been doing that for 20 years now,” she says.

She has a different approach to helping students learn. “We understand that memorising by rote is one of the worst ways to retain information. So, we wanted to look for ways to help the students remember. That was how we started gamifying our classes. Children love games, which engage their emotions.”

The gamification started with examination papers. “Exam papers are boring, right? So we gamified them by giving students bonus marks for every step they followed. At the end of the day, some students were scoring more than 100%, but we didn’t care. We just made sure they were earning points for everything they were doing,” says Tham.

Then, they started gamifying subjects because children can remember details about their favourite Pokémon characters from the time they are young. “We asked Melinda which is the most difficult subject to teach and she told us chemistry because you can’t see what is going on. So, we took it on. We had no idea how tough it was going to be — to do the whole curriculum and turn it into one story. We have just done one-fifth of it. Four-fifths more to go,” says Tham.

Her gamification company — ChemCaper — is looking to turn various difficult subjects into games to help students not only absorb the information but also retain it for life in a meaningful way. She has employed programmers in Indonesia to help with this, but the concepts themselves are being figured out by her own daughters (a product of her education system) and their team.

But they did not stop at gamification. Tham added hip hop dancing to the mix. “Some 60% of students are kinaesthetic and learn best by doing and moving because it engages and anchors the information. I had students who were good at remembering dance moves but not information on a particular subject. So, I talked to my dance teacher about using hip hop to help them remember information,” she says.

Tham instructed the dance teachers to take information of medium difficulty and turn it into movement. “One of them took kinetic particle theory and turned it into movement so he could remember. And they record themselves doing it,” she says.

“One of my students did a whole thing on sulphuric acid. Now he has graduated and we asked him to demonstrate the dance. And as he did the whole thing, he could explain the theory. He was not remembering for an exam. Right now, how can you help students understand something and remember it for life?

“We did songs for chemistry. And when my sister met the students after they graduated, they could still sing the song for you.”

When Tham finally opened Dwi Emas, she wanted to formalise the classes on financial education and entrepreneurship. “Kiyosaki and a lot of other thought leaders talk about the lack of such education as what is failing our system,” she says.

For her, it is important to make education practical. There is no such thing as an “academic” question. Everything has to be tested out in the real world.

“Right now in university, students may take marketing and branding courses and come up with a marketing campaign, which they present to their lecturer, who grades them on it. But even if they get full marks for it, do they know if the campaign will be successful in the real world?” she says.

Tham has made sure that all of the 21st century skills are taught in her schools, but there was one component missing — entrepreneurship. “Our target was for our secondary school students to run businesses. But we found that our primary school pupils also wanted to be part of it.”

One of her model entrepreneurs is nine-year-old Shailaja Grace Guillory, who founded Bloom Tea when she was just seven. The A-level students were doing a mini-bazaar and she wanted to take up a booth.

“Her mum thought she would have to bake cupcakes, but Shailaja did not want that. She wanted to sell tea. Her father drank a special herbal blend when he had trouble sleeping at night and her mother gave her tea when she felt unwell and she always felt a lot better after drinking it. So, that was what she wanted to sell,” says Tham.

She named the tea blend Moonbeam and it was supposed to help people relax. But her mother pointed out that she couldn’t just sell one product. So, she came up with another, Sunshine, to help people feel refreshed when they wake up in the morning.

“She said, ‘Mum, just two, because that is all I can remember,’” laughs Tham. Shailaja’s teas were a great success. She sold all 100 jars in just four hours at the bazaar. And instead of calling it quits after that, she went on to start her own company — with her mother’s help, of course.

When Tham went to Finland for Slush Helsinki last year, she took Shailaja along. The little girl was the epitome of her experiments with teaching entrepreneurship to the young. And when she spoke at the conference, she received a standing ovation.

“Regular students, once they have an idea, they have to figure out how to monetise it. You can sell it for two months, but how do you grow it? How do you collaborate? How do you market it? And if this product doesn’t work out, how do you adjust it?” she says.

That is why Tham feels that entrepreneurship needs to be taught over a period of time to take the students as far as they can go. She also wants the students to learn about collaboration and leadership.

For instance, some do not like being paired with weaker students in a project. Her question to them is, how sure are they that a better student would want to work with them? “If you are a good leader, you learn how to raise the ability of someone who is not as good. It is not just about being unselfish but having a different perspective,” she says.

While there has been little airplay given to her methods within the country, she has been attracting international attention. People come to visit the school (Dwi Emas with its entrepreneurship education is especially popular) and they want to start something similar when they go back to their countries. Or ask Tham to come over. She will be starting schools in Hong Kong, Japan and Indonesia. She is also looking to start a school in Kuala Lumpur, another in Penang and two in Johor.

Tham is now looking for funding. Being an education reformist, she has gradually learnt the corporate side of her business. “We have three schools and a game company. How in the world do you value these things? And people ask, ‘How much do you need?’”

Tham is a member of Endeavor Malaysia, a global organisation with the aim of growing and sustaining high-impact entrepreneurs. Her Endeavor mentors have told her that she needs a structure for expansion.

“I thought I had a structure. What I realised was I had a structure to expand the academic side. But I did not have a structure for the business. So, we had to sit down and figure out the basic criteria that have to be there for us to go into a particular market,” she says.

Tham is always travelling because her methods are gaining worldwide recognition. She is in demand as a speaker at leading global conferences on education. And she is more than willing to help revamp the Malaysian education system, if asked.