Is entrepreneurship the answer to creating job-ready, 21st century students?

Is entrepreneurship the answer to creating job-ready, 21st century students?
This Malaysian school’s entrepreneur-centric approach is making waves in the education sphere. Source: Shutterstock

Imagine a school where students learn biology through Tai chi, additional mathematics by a trip to the water theme park and physics all through hip hop.

While unorthodox, that’s how ACE EdVenture Group CEO Anne Tham and Chief Academic Officer and Director Melinda Lim are transforming education for students, where learning isn’t always confined to the four walls of a brick and mortar classroom.

The curriculum at Dwi Emas International School – Malaysia’s first entrepreneurial school, which Tham founded – is located in Shah Alam, Malaysia. Here, students are educated beyond their books. They are taught skills that can be applied in the real world, in addition to learning and understanding their lessons through engagement, not rote learning.

Starting them young

Instilling an entrepreneur mindset starts from the moment students start their schooling at Dwi Emas. But how exactly do you teach kids about entrepreneurship?

“Entrepreneurship can mean different things to different people, so our approach is defined by our 12 Pillars of Powerpreneurship, a culmination of our founders’ own entrepreneurial journeys,” notes the school’s website. These principles include ‘design my money blueprint’, ‘trust is the new currency’ and ‘become a problem solver’.

Entrepreneurship can be seen as a critical component of 21st-century pedagogy.

With financial and business education rooted in the school’s curriculum, this makes it a stark contrast from typical Asian curricula. The school doesn’t believe in streaming its students – instead, they focus on collaboration. So far, their approach has produced students who perform well academically with the entrepreneurship-centric approach.

Tham (R) and Lim (L) speaking about their school at the Bett Asia Leadership Summit 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Source: Bett Asia

Speaking to Study International, Tham shared that their mission was “to push the boundaries of education”. For starters, their programme is unlike the typical Malaysian curriculum which tends to be exam-oriented. Instead, theirs is highly practical.

“We de-emphasised exams for the kids to do well in exams. If the kids love learning, they’ll do better in their exams. So it’s a no brainer – our focus was on the learning,” she explained.  

Learning is made fun for students, even in tough subjects. For example, students who are studying the kinetic particle theory in physics use hip hop to help them remember facts. Both Tham and Lim, who are sisters, are staunch believers in engagement in learning to help ensure they go into students’ long-term and not short-term memory.

Lim, a graduate of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and an engineer by training, said this makes learning fun and effective as it helps them remember information from their lessons. They also use memory techniques for subjects that require students to memorise facts.

“The kids are learning and enjoying it – they’re doing things that help them remember. We built all types of memory techniques for subjects where they had no choice but to memorise facts. And when it comes to subjects where it’s very content heavy, we focus on the concepts,” explained Lim.

“Many schools, particularly in Asia, expect students to behave like adults: ‘Sit down, sit still.’ We said they’re kids – we can’t make them serious. They love to laugh, have fun with their friends and move around. So we had to figure out a way of using their nature rather than the opposite,” said Tham.

Lim shared that they created all types of activities to make learning fun for their students. This includes getting students to learn about measurements by going around the classroom or even the school, rather than something mundane in class, such as a book or an eraser.  

“They’re learning the same thing, but they are understanding the concept and doing it in a fun way. So every single subject, every single year, is taught like that,” she said.

Both Lim and Tham, who have a combined 60 years of teaching experience, expressed that different types of learners benefit from kinaesthetic techniques.

“If you look at how a child or how anybody learns, merely sitting down and reading leads to the least retention,” said Lim, adding that within two weeks of reading, retention can drop to 10 percent, but active learning can lead to better retention.

They seem to be on the right track – students who have left their school can still recall their lessons despite not touching the subject, and Lim knows that this is because understanding leads to long-term memory.

“Our kids realise that they don’t have to study at the last minute because they remember what they’ve learned from a few years ago and it shows up in our results. That’s one of the reasons Cambridge was starting to notice us because our students’ results were way above normal [the international average], and this is from not selecting [streaming] students,” said Tham.

According to the school’s website, the percentage of As and A*s their students achieve in the Cambridge IGCSE with the ACE EdVenture Approach is higher than the global average in both the sciences and mathematics.

Meanwhile, the school made their fifth consecutive appearance as a world-class institute in Cambridge Innovation 800, an annual publication by the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) that showcases leaders and institutions that are making a significant difference in education in line with Cambridge’s ideology.

How it came about

Imagine trickling relevant knowledge from some of the world’s top thinkers and leaders, such as renowned entrepreneur and author Robert Kiyosaki, and making it accessible to eight and 10-year-olds.

“Initially, we didn’t want to develop the curriculum [entrepreneurship] because it would have taken a long time, but we couldn’t find one that we felt was right. Entrepreneurship is a mindset – an educator’s mindset is different from entrepreneur’s. So it [the curriculum] can’t come from educators, it should come from entrepreneurs,” explained Tham.

With the help of an entrepreneur and their teachers, together, they took three years to refine the programme, and their Powerpreneurship programme was mapped against this.

They’ve already had a few success stories from their curriculum, with several of their students going on to create their own businesses based on the principles they learned, in addition to learning to managing their own finances – crucial skills needed in the world.  

According to Tham, one of their students started her own tea company and has even made about RM1,000 in one day. Instead of using the money to treat herself to toys, she exclaimed that it was her ‘seed money’, showing that the entrepreneur principles were rubbing off her.

Another student, who had a cookie business, spoke about reinvesting the money she made to buy a bigger oven that would allow her to bake more cookies.

“One Year 2 student was out shopping with her mother who was trying to decide which handbag to buy. The student asked her mum, ‘Is this a need or a want?’ which made her mum take a step back [to rethink her purchases]. Hearing stories like these from parents…[shows] that their mindset is changing,” said Tham.

The curriculum has already sparked interest from neighbouring countries who are interested in adopting the entrepreneur programme in their schools, including Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

So, what’s next for the duo and their school? It seems there’s nowhere to go but up.

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