As a young student during her university days, Amita Menon used to teach French and Mathematics to high-schoolers. While she went on to spend 16 years in the banking world, her love for teaching eventually led her to set up HighQ, a learning centre in Singapore. She speaks to Creative Sparq about her intent to get “children to love education and get them to think differently, creatively and learn to apply their knowledge in real life.”
Why did you make a switch from working in Banking to starting an enrichment centre?
I worked in banking for almost 16 years across various disciplines ranging from the operations area to credit and sales, with my last assignment involving heading sales performance globally across the transaction bank.
During the course of my career at the bank, I got married and had two children. The turning point really was after the birth of my second child. My elder child was 6 at this time and in school. The awareness of children’s education was becoming all-pervasive by then and the more I delved deeper, the more disillusioned I felt. There was something lacking in the way children were learning. When I looked around, I saw children who looked bored and under constant pressure. The fire and sparkle in the eye were missing and I often heard kids saying they hate maths, or science or English or even school.
Growing up in a very unconventional but amazing school in Mumbai, India, I remember how learning was fun, investigative and creative. It was not about the exams but about the journey, which automatically led to great academic results, a sense of achievement and immense self-confidence. I felt the need to recreate that environment somehow – an environment which would in some way shape and transform things not only for my daughters who were about to embark on this long period of education; but also for all the other numerous children.
What has the journey been like?
The journey has been tough, challenging but extremely exciting, fulfilling and rewarding. Challenging because it’s about changing the way people think – both parents as well as teachers. And change and disruption are not easy.
In Singapore, and I think in several countries across the world, people approach education in a very theoretical, formula-driven and rote-based manner; where the emphasis is on the result and not on the journey. Systems are fairly structured with very little room to manoeuvre. However, things are changing - school systems are evolving and greater flexibility and an element of creativity are being introduced into the curriculum.
However, even though school systems might dictate a change, changing a generation of teachers and parents alike takes a while. My role I feel has been partly to aid and abet this process and expedite the change so that the current generation of learners can benefit. This has been our biggest challenge – moulding and influencing both parents and teachers – parents because they need to be convinced that their children can be successful even while they are actually enjoying the learning journey and also while they appear to be having fun doing things in an unconventional manner.
Influencing teachers has meant retraining teachers to use different strategies, continually reinforcing a thought process different from what they are used to and encouraging them to bring out the best in the child through positivity rather than negative reinforcement.
But the rewards are immense. The joy of seeing a child transform in front of your eyes from someone who hates a subject to someone who wants more and can’t get enough to one becoming very successful in that field- that really is the best feeling – nothing can compare to that.
When a child suddenly says “ OOH… THAT’S WHAT THIS IS… NOW I GET IT”- It's like you see the light coming on, the best feeling ever! Pure joy. Getting that text or an excited call from your student to say that they have topped their class after struggling for years, brings tears to my eyes!
Why are you passionate about what you do?
I am a believer that education can change society as it changes the way people think and interact with each other and therefore impacts relationships and society in general. Our aim and focus have been about helping children to learn to think rather than memorize, teaching children to use their creativity in applying concepts learnt rather than drilling by merely focusing on past year papers and pages of mindless calculations.
Starting off initially with teaching maths – or encouraging children to “love” maths, we migrated this ethos and methodology across other subjects and disciplines such as the Sciences as well as languages such as English and more recently Hindi.
Once established, we then entered a new area – “emotional intelligence”. Sadly, an area quite often ignored or not given sufficient attention. Being a “mentor” rather than a “tutor,” teaching children to be “independent” rather than use tutoring or a parent/ teacher as a “crutch” and seeing if your children are ”eating right,” “studying right” and feeling “right” are all part of developing “emotional intelligence.”
What does creativity mean to you in the context of your work?
For most people, creativity means to be able to draw, paint or write beautifully. In general, creativity is associated with the arts fields. However, for me, creativity can be found in all areas of life, work and study. Creativity means stepping out of your comfort zone. Creativity means thinking out of the box. It is about being able to visualize concepts and solve problems by breaking them down into smaller parts, visualizing and applying strategies based on concepts that have been taught. Creativity means exploring and finding different ways of solving the same problem. Creativity means being able to apply your scientific knowledge in a real life and practical application that could help others on a larger scale.
Your coaching centre is different from other centres as it has evolved from academic coaching to include nutritional and success coaching as well. Why this shift? What role does your centre provide that parents and schools are unable to fulfil?
Developing or paying attention to the Emotional Quotient or Emotional Intelligence has been proven to be more important towards long-term success. An emotionally stable and well-rounded child will be a well-adjusted member of society and demonstrate success not only academically but in general as well.
It would be unjust on my part to say that parents and school are unable to fulfil the role. However, the truth is that limited time and resources constrain the extent to which schools are able to develop this aspect together with ensuring a high standard of academic education.
Parents, on the other hand, are fairly focused on academic achievements too and this aspect often gets neglected, either because they are themselves unaware of it or not really equipped or resourced in the most optimal way.
Hence our objective is twofold. One is to generate awareness among the parent community and the other is to create an environment where we are able to mentor, advise, coach and raise the emotional quotient of our children.
As part of our evolution and journey towards creating a holistic environment, we introduced nutrition and success coaching as well. Our tutors are trained to be not just “tutors” but also mentors to our students guiding and advising them along the way and alerting us and the parents if they feel something is not quite right.
We have seen that this process of mentoring and guidance not only improves the academic performance of the children in the subjects they come to study but also raises the level of motivation, focus and self-esteem – all of which are criteria for overall and long-term success.
Based on your experience in coaching children, what helps children enjoy the learning process?
The learning process is a lifelong process in every individual’s life and starts when a child is born. For a child to grow up and become successful, the child needs to be happy, content, motivated and most importantly needs to enjoy his or her learning process.
So how do we do that? By making it fun, interactive, providing children with the opportunity to be creative, think out of the box, step out of their comfort zone and enjoy new experiences. We do this by using manipulatives, games, and other hands-on resources.
To cite an example: as a coach, I encourage children to visualize concepts, even use manipulatives to build the concept, use a variety of methods to solve problems and encourage them to create their own set of problems and solve them. Games are often played after having taught concepts simply because playing games are a method of assessing children on the application of concepts without them actually realizing they are being assessed. This makes the learning process not only effective but also very interesting and fun.
Coaching or tuition centres are generally seen as the additional support children need to understand concepts being taught in school so that they can compete effectively on exams. Why do parents feel that schools are not adequate in performing this role?
This is a tricky question. I do not believe that schools are inadequate by any means. However, I think it is more about getting that extra attention and building self-confidence. Parents feel and rightly so that if the child gets that little extra attention in terms of a very clear conceptual understanding as well as the application of concepts, then it would put the child in a very solid position in terms of academic success for a later stage as well as during their exams.
In some schools the student: teacher ratio is very high and so getting individual attention and addressing individual learning gaps is difficult if not impossible. In addition, schools have a curriculum to complete within a specified period of time, and they need to move quite rapidly through it. While the more able children will be able to cope, the vast majority of kids find it hard to keep up and end up struggling. Parents turn to coaching centres to not only fill these gaps but also to build a sense of self-confidence. However, when choosing coaching classes, parents sometimes get carried away by peer pressure and enrol their children in large group classes which really defeats the purpose.
It is a known fact that every child has individual learning gaps and these can be filled only in small group settings where children are getting individual attention. Besides, it is only in small group settings, that it is also possible to make the learning process more interactive and enjoyable.
What do you do to fuel your creative energy?
I’m constantly reading, watching interesting videos, TED talks ( I love them), have been certifying myself by doing E- courses online and most of all by just talking to people from different walks of life. It is always interesting to talk to different people, get different perspectives and this often sparks ideas in terms of doing things differently. Quite often it is the children who give me a lot of insights and food for thought.
Anything else you would like to add?
I love education and am a big believer that unless you make it interesting and holistic, you are not going to be able to make that difference. Making that difference and adding some real value is the most important thing for me.
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses. Connect with her on LinkedIn.