Enrichment schools dip into creativity to teach kids

From virtual lessons to craft boxes, enrichment centres harness innovation to keep children learning during the pandemic

Five-year-old Eden Teo always looks forward to his lessons at Happy Fish Swim School, where he has been learning to swim for more than two years.

When that abruptly stopped during the circuit breaker period, his mother Michelle Low, 33, found it tough to manage as there were fewer outlets for him to expend his energy.

"He missed the swimming lessons very much," says Ms Low, who works in the social service sector. She is grateful that the school kept in touch and sent her videos so that Eden could practise drills and breathing techniques at home.

His lessons resumed on June 25, but it was nowhere near normal - his class size was reduced from six to four, and there were temperature checks and safety measures as well as lane ropes separating the students.

The kids were not allowed to use the play pool to warm up beforehand and parents had to remain outside.

Still, Ms Low says Eden was "very delighted" to be able to swim again and meet his friends. She also feels it is safer for him to swim in the centre's private pool, with its precautionary measures, than in a public one.

Mr Tan Jian Yong, Happy Fish's managing director, says about 80 per cent of its 3,000 students want to return, but it can accommodate only about 60 per cent because of reduced capacity guidelines.

He is heartened that "demand is still strong" and that parents took a liking to the school's Facebook live-stream videos during the circuit breaker, where it dispensed tips on simple swimming movements, and more, to do at home.

Like Mr Tan, other players in the billion-dollar enrichment and tuition industry here are finding their feet after the pandemic's sweeping economic blows.

Some have fought back with innovative responses, including creating new products, going fully digital and bringing in new foreign programmes.

According to the Government's Household Expenditure Survey 2017/2018, families in Singapore spent $1.4 billion on tuition; and the number of enrichment and tuition centres registered with the Ministry of Education has increased from about 700 in 2012 to more than 950, reported The Straits Times last year.

BLENDED LEARNING IS IN

Some centres used the circuit breaker period's forced isolation to rethink how lessons are delivered.

"We were convinced that online lessons require a different approach to be effective compared with live lessons," says Mr Dave Sim, founder of The Physics Cafe, which has more than 1,000 secondary and Integrated Programme students attending its physics, mathematics and chemistry lessons.

Students first watched a digital recording of the lesson, then attended an online tutorial session a week later. During the in-person classes, its tutors reviewed the concepts quickly and then used quizzes and test challenges to help students develop problem-solving skills.

"The programme has been so successful that many students now prefer to attend our online lessons rather than on-site classes," Mr Sim adds.

In-person lessons are recorded and uploaded online, and students can access its library of digital resources for free.

As a testament to its success, he reports that his centres saw a "huge influx" of about 100 students when it reopened in phase two, with about seven in 10 new sign-ups opting for online lessons.

The British Council Singapore, which has some 5,000 students from pre-school age and above, also refined its online teaching experience of English during the circuit breaker.

It reduced class sizes for a better teaching experience, offered recorded guides that are accessible on demand and engaged students and parents with free virtual sessions, including show-and-tell, book clubs and examination tips.

While parents have shown an "overwhelming demand" for centre-based lessons in phase two, it is looking to build on its blended learning experience, says Ms Mei-kwei Barker, its director of English language services.

"We've seen first-hand how online, face-to-face learning and technology can go a long way to encourage greater engagement, higher levels of information retention and even spark self-motivation for learning."

Blended learning may well become the norm for post-Covid-19 enrichment, says Ms Jamie Tan, founder of Flying Cape, an online booking platform with more than 800 education providers. About seven in 10 of its centres cater to school-going kids.

It surveyed about 100 providers early this month and found that 67 per cent will continue to offer both online and classroom lessons. Another 13 per cent plan to continue offering digital-only programmes.

The blended learning approach also works for The Learning Lab, which offers academic programmes for children from pre-school to junior college levels and runs 2,000 classes a week.

Its students are now split into two groups which alternate between home-based learning and centre-based classes, says Ms Michelle Chen, its director of planning, enrolment and customer service.

No student is allowed to attend only classroom lessons for safety reasons, and he or she may also opt for fully online classes.

Adapting to the new normal requires "open conversation and collaboration" with parents and responding to their concerns, she adds, which is one reason it is offering 25 per cent in credit to offset fees in a bid to help families through the pandemic.

Ms Tan of Flying Cape adds that the circuit breaker has made more parents aware of novel ways of self-learning, such as using AI (artificial intelligence), machine learning and gamification. These create an "engaging and immersive experience for the children" and will change the way they learn.

One company that is riding on this trend is KooBits, an education technology firm whose mathematics e-learning programs are used in more than 40 per cent of primary schools.

It launched its first consumer products, Home-Based Learning and Live Tutoring, at the start of the circuit breaker period in April. This "complete coincidence" resulted in "huge demand" for its e-learning content and more subscribers than originally forecast, says KooBits' founder and chief executive Stanley Han.

The company plans to offer a science-based consumer product later this year.

"This pandemic has in some ways forced everyone to give e-learning a try. Just like any product, it won't suit everyone's tastes. But at least everyone has overcome the initial inertia and had some experience with e-learning products, which has helped many people experience the value in education technology," he adds.

As acceptance of e-learning grows, so do the possibilities.

Flying Cape's Ms Tan adds that it has been working with overseas providers to offer online enrichment here, including Chinese language and art from China, as well as online music from Malaysia.

Conversely, many of its Singapore-based vendors are looking to expand regionally and can leverage the portal's expansion in China and Malaysia.

KEEPING THE HUMAN TOUCH

Non-academic enrichment centres, where the human touch is key, found various ways to engage their students when they were closed.

Teachers at Crestar Education Group had to react fast to offer virtual lessons for students studying Chinese language, Chinese and English speech and drama, abacus, art, violin and dance.

This provided the "consistency and routines children thrive on", says Ms Soh Bee Ling, its general manager and head of the enrichment division. It has more than 4,500 students locally.

Teachers also held "meaningful live interactions" after lessons where students reflected on their feelings and improved their well-being.

About 80 per cent of students have returned to centre-based lessons in phase two, and it has not had to turn away children as class sizes have always been kept small.

Some centres have had to overhaul their entire approach, like KindyROO Singapore, the local arm of a child development programme from Australia that aims to enhance children's learning abilities through sensory-movement activities guided by neuroscience.

It has stopped physical classes since the middle of this month as it caters to children as young as six weeks old, says the centre's director, Ms Shee Hock Ai Ling.

KindyROO now offers online classes parents can participate in at home with their little ones at a fraction of the previous rate - $197 for 10 virtual classes, compared with $660 for 12 centre-based classes.

It also offers one-on-one online consultation sessions for parents who need personalised advice, as well as customised wellness programmes for kids.

However, some parents and children still prefer physical classes.

Mrs Indy Lachhar, 38, a talent development director, is glad her son Aryan, seven, returned for lessons at Da Little Arts School in phase two. He has also resumed tennis lessons and is waiting for a vacancy at his regular gymnastics centre.

She feels it is important to continue his indoor and outdoor enrichment as they stimulate his brain and keep him engaged and learning.

Da Little Arts School founder Eileen Yeo did not conduct online art lessons during the circuit breaker as she felt they could not replicate the quality of its classes. Instead, she launched DaBox, a $38 craft box for children to do art activities and have fun offscreen during the stay-home period.

The response was so good that the school created eight themes and sold more than 1,500 boxes in eight weeks.

Even though centre-based lessons have resumed, it is now offering a National Day-themed box as well as DaBox Mini, a smaller version that is popular as goodie bags for remote birthday celebrations. The latter was inspired by a parent's request.

Ms Yeo says the pandemic has forced her to innovate her 10-year-old business and "find new ways to add value". She remains upbeat.

"This crisis has presented us the opportunity to build special bonds with our customers and to eventually emerge from this stronger than before."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline 'Enrichment schools dip into creativity to teach kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe