How the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to relook education

Prior to the pandemic, it seemed that the epitome of a good education was found only in elite schools, augmented by endless after-school enrichment, tuition and supplementary classes.

Many parents believed that the more their children left their homes for academic pursuits, the better their chances of doing well in school.

Then Covid-19 hit and everybody had to stay home.

Worldwide, most schools deployed off-the-shelf learning management systems that dispensed homework as a stop-gap measure.

Under pressure, teachers were forced to slap together Zoom and video classes quickly, delivered in formats they were neither familiar nor comfortable with.

Commercial entities took the opportunity to launch sometimes half-baked online learning platforms, mostly in the form of video conferencing.

There were also horror stories of hackers entering kids' classrooms to wreak havoc. Parents started to question if this was the kind of education that would help their children ace the school system.

But even before 2020, there were already rumblings that school systems were no longer relevant.

Many people know that the current K to 12 (kindergarten to Grade 12) compulsory education system is outdated. It started in Prussia in 1800, borne out of the need to have a large workforce during the industrialisation age. While mass education has reduced illiteracy and benefited billions of people, it is still a 200-year-old system that has failed to keep up with the times.

The traditional school system, where the teacher acted as the sage on stage dispensing knowledge, worked wonders for my generation, but why should it be effective for those born after 1999?

These digital natives found their own alternatives to the 45-minute lecture - a two-minute YouTube video made by a world-class instructor, played at 1.8 x normal speed.

There is a growing recognition that the era of mass education is over. Covid-19 signals it is time to embark on individualised education.

As a mother of five children aged 17 to 26, I've learnt education is not what our children can get out of schools. Rather, education is what I can put into a child.

To put the right education into my child, I need to first spend time to understand his or her passions, gifts and learning styles. Most people like to work on what they are good at, so I observe what my kids want to work on, then find resources to bring out their fullest potential, while levelling them up in areas they are weak in.

The main objective is to build up their confidence by allowing them to excel at things they love.

I loved teaching my own children.

From learning how to model mathematics questions to taking courses to update my computer programming skills, I found myself constantly upgrading just to participate in my kids' education actively. Our home has been the most important learning venue for my family.

Not everybody agrees with my approach. But it has always puzzled me. Why spend time trying to ace a system when I can use it to give my children a great education?

Covid-19 has started us off with the great home-based learning experiment. However, to fully harness the strengths of home-based learning, instructional design must not only leverage technology to fully integrate with school-based learning, but it must also fully involve parents, educators and peers. For starters, parents must get involved. First, with kids studying at home, we can observe their learning styles and provide valuable insights to their teachers.

Second, we can acquire free and paid resources to activate better learning. Students can now work on the topics which they are most passionate about, at the level they are most comfortable with. Do not be afraid to go for materials beyond your child's level according to the school curriculum.

Besides instructor-led activities, I like to provide opportunities for students to do research and self-study at their own pace, as well as engage with their peers to learn how to negotiate, follow and lead. I also give them time and space to reflect on lessons.

My children earned their bachelor's degrees before they turned 18.

The online international school, which I started in 2015, has also radically accelerated about 300 students from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and China with different capabilities, from those with learning disabilities, who were streamed into Normal Tech at the Primary School Leaving Examination, to those who are exceptionally gifted.

As always for me, it is not about how much students achieve academically, but how happy they are in the process that counts.

• Pamela Lim is the founder of All Gifted High School, an online international high school delivering individualised education for students of various intellectual abilities. She was also the winner of ASME Netrepreneur of the Year in 2001 and the winner of Singapore's The Most Promising Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline How the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to relook education. Subscribe