Engineers Can Become Good Teachers – Unleash

Engineers Can Become Good Teachers

Three Elements of Creating Innovators

”In the lives of young innovators whom I interviewed, I discovered a consistent link and developmental arc in their progression from Play to Passion to Purpose,” said Tony Wagner, a world renowned expert on innovation education and the author of the book “Creating Innovators”. According to Wagner, these three elements are not innate gifts bestowed on a blessed few but learned behaviour, attitude and mindset that everyone of us can potentially acquire through education.

This should be great news to devoted educators who want to nurture the future innovative leaders that the world needs. But the reality, as Wagner observed, is that innovators have always been a rare breed and our current education systems are falling short of delivering more of them.

The Education Challenge

Yet Siu is a father of three and the Founder and CEO of Outblaze, a Hong Kong based technology conglomerate. Like Wagner, Siu was concerned about that current education systems, with their focus on book memorisation and standardised testing, have not been providing the required skills our world needs.

“My concern is that most traditional education systems – with their focus on old-fashioned techniques like memorisation, exams and creativity-crushing hours of homework – do not properly prepare children for what has been called the fourth industrial revolution: a future dominated by automation,” Siu said (Knott, 2017).

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Our world is changing so rapidly that skills and professional qualifications once considered very marketable are now being called into question. From certified accountancy to finance and law to medicine, the prestigious jobs most young people in Hong Kong find attractive are now threatened to be replaced by artificial intelligence in the near future.

Against this backdrop, how can 21st century learners in Hong Kong acquire the right skills to stay relevant in this disruptive time while enjoying what they are learning with curiosity and passion?

They require a different kind of learning environment with a program rooted in a different educational philosophy.

Technologists Turned Educators

Founded in 2017 by Yat Siu and two co-founders of Dalton School Hong Kong, the Dalton Learning Lab was established to offer after-school educational courses in a variety of Science, Technology Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) for children aged 4 to13, with an emphasis on fostering divergent thinking, project-based learning, digital fluency, design thinking, collaboration and teamwork and interdisciplinary education. Why would Outblaze, a technology company with a track record in developing corporate communication systems, cloud technology, and digital entertainment software, enter the field of education?

“Outblaze has always been a pioneer. We believe in Blue Ocean Strategy, operating in new markets in which opportunities for growth are more promising. In the last couple of years, we have seen that the mobile game market is becoming very saturated with fierce competition and eroding profit margins. It is becoming a red sea,“ said Lobson Chan, Outblaze’s Chief Operating Officer, who joined the company in 2000 and now oversees the operation of the lab. “The STEAM education market looks bright and it provides a lot of synergy with our edutainment software business”, he said.

As long time IT veterans, both Yat Siu and Lobson Chan know very well what kind of skills the current digital disruption and transformation will create in market demand. By collaborating with the Dalton School Hong Kong co-founders and other educators, they can bring the best of the digital technology and education worlds together and make a difference in STEAM education and the nurturing of 21st century skills. Dalton Learning Lab demonstrates that learning can be fun and engaging.

Putting Empathy and Play Back in Learning

Three years ago, Outblaze would have never thought of building a joint-venture with the two Dalton School Hong Kong co-founders and having its engineers as instructors for kids’ classes. It all started out when Outblaze management discovered that some of the product features in their edutainment software for kids were not well received. They looked into the matter and found out that their younger engineers being single and childless did not have enough insight about the needs of their target users — the kids. These engineers built the software in isolation with little contact with their users. Outblaze management sought new ways to make their engineers more sensitive to user needs and chose to emphasize “Design Thinking”.

“We hired education consultants to train our engineers to become teachers so they could interact with the kids more effectively to understand what the little ones wanted from the software. We also conducted in-house training in design thinking for our staff with complementary techniques borrowed from other disciplines. Then we made these trained engineers spend their day developing software in the morning and teaching kids how to learn with the software they made in the afternoon. The kids also found it amusing to discover their teachers were the creators of the software they used in class, “ said Lobson.

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The smiles shown on the kids’ face, questions they asked and duration of their attention could tell a lot about how engaging a product was. By playing with the kids and observing their responses, the Outblaze engineers learned how to build better software for kids with fun and pedagogic outcomes. The arrangement later evolved into the founding of Dalton Learning Lab. Being empathetic with user needs to build better edutainment products and solutions, and making learning fun through play have become the core competence of Dalton Learning Lab.

Although it is too early to tell, as Tony Wagner argues, whether the play can later turn into passion and ultimately into purpose with deep impact in a child’s life, the Dalton Learning Lab has already shown us that engineers can become good teachers. And design thinking may be one of the secret sauces!

1. Kylie Knott, “Hong Kong tech guru’s after-school lab to help children prepare for a robotic future”. Post Magazine. 10 Oct 2017