By Invitation

Let's tear down the ivory tower called school

Schools insulated from industry and workplaces do a disservice to young people, as industries of the future require them to innovate and tinker, not sit in classrooms absorbing lessons

The industries of the future require students to be innovative and creative so that they can work effectively with technology instead of being replaced by it. They also require resilience and grit, as innovations demand tinkering, and failure is, more often than not, a natural step before success.

Yet both the public and private education sectors struggle to provide a sustainable platform for such learning. The market is full of gimmicky "21st century skills" centres. Even parents instinctively know that innovation can't be taught by flashing an image of Steve Jobs on a projector to a classroom full of students, and unless your seven-year-old is a genius, saying she learnt the computational concepts to program an iPhone app in a week is a farce.

Plus, college admissions counsellors are wary of Asian students with perfect exam scores, a buffet of "achievements" but limited ability in true problem-solving - the latter increasingly vital for judging candidates. So, what is the best way to learn these skills? Let's start by destroying the ivory tower we call school.


In Singapore, mainstream secondary schools are traditionally "protected" from industry, which means they remain blissfully shielded from the innovation happening at lightning speed in the industry and economy at large.


Ensconcing Singapore's bright teenagers in such a naive and static environment is a disservice to them and to the country's national strategy at large. Just as the Government is advocating closer relations between academia and industry at the tertiary level with SkillsFuture, secondary schools and junior colleges must also be exposed to applied learning opportunities with companies.

Several  companies in need of specific skills in the United States are reaching out to pre-tertiary institutes. For example, Cleveland has set up a Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school - MC2 Stem High School in General Electric's premises, where students work in fabrication laboratories and prototype new products. Since it opened in 2008, 84 per cent of its graduates have gone on to college.

In 2011, IBM opened P-Tech, a six-year high school in Brooklyn, where students learn a maths, engineering and science curriculum co-developed with IBM, along with Shakespeare and social studies. After their high-school diploma, they have a priority path to getting a job at IBM.

According to The Economist, more than 70 companies, such as Microsoft, Verizon and Lockheed Martin, each struggling to find innovative and tech-savvy staff, are working on similar models.

Education foundations like CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) and the IB (International Baccalaureate) are also re-evaluating their curricula to make them more relevant. The IB has launched a new programme called IBCC (career choices) to provide an alternative high-school diploma, which allows students to spend part of their school year working on projects with companies. However, its uptake has been slow globally, largely because of the stigma around "vocational" degrees, although Singapore's School of the Arts (Sota)  is an exception.

The challenge for applied learning goes beyond its poor image and branding. Applied learning is  hindered by operational challenges: Both schools and companies are ill-equipped to deal with this new education mandate.

Teachers and schools find it stressful and difficult to speak the language of corporations, and therefore fail to provide value propositions for companies to partner with their students.  Companies also have yet to fully appreciate their role in training their future skillforce - these young students may not be their lifelong employees but they will be their future freelancers, collaborators and brand ambassadors.


The natural tendency in academia when thinking of a collaboration with industry is to think of "internships".

This is problematic for a few reasons: First, internships for secondary and JC students are far and few between; second, for those that do have internships, the experience is often unrewarding - many  students complain they did not learn anything of value and were relegated to making photocopies and "busy" work; and third, companies don't find interns useful because they don't have the skills or knowledge to contribute.

This is a "lose-lose" situation. College admissions panels know that internships are not productive experiences, and do not give interns an added  advantage over other applicants. It is time to reassess the skills acquisition strategy for high-school students.

A more appropriate platform would be "externships", which I define as an authentic learning experience that provides secondary-school students with the skills and opportunity to solve a problem faced by a company in a field of their interest.  Examples include innovation challenges related to delivering services in different markets, technology apps to optimise operations and cut costs, and creative prototypes for new types of products.

The word "externship" is not new and has been used to connote spells in which students shadow professionals at their workplace for a short duration. However, the expanded definition of externships provides a compelling proposition for students and companies. An externship becomes a close cousin of apprenticeships as it is  carried out in vocational schools or tertiary education, where a combination of theory and practical application enhances skills.

Singapore is no stranger to the concept. In fact, much of the SkillsFuture programme advocates such an approach for the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and universities.

It is important to note that one can't transport the apprenticeship concept wholesale to pre-tertiary skills: Younger students need more foundational and less "expirable" skills like entrepreneurship, leadership, communication and basics of technology; and companies hesitate to have teenagers in their offices for many reasons (not least because in Singapore a non-disclosure agreement can be signed only by someone aged 18 and above).

The solution: Programmes that allow secondary and junior college students to tackle innovation challenges for companies, while learning the skills to solve them with their teachers, and presenting their ideas to companies.

Unlike internships, externships are housed at the academic institution rather than the premises of the company, reducing the time required for companies to oversee students to as little as six hours per externship.

Externships, each of which varies between a month and four months, follow a learning path centred on three stages. At Level 1, students may solve the challenges faced by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); at Level 2, they tackle the difficulties troubling Fortune 500 companies; and at Level 3, they move towards identifying problems themselves, forming teams and competing in international forums.

Finally, inherent to the process is the training to communicate and articulate the process of problem-solving: To present possible solutions to company stakeholders, to accept failure and criticism productively, and to brand achievements and insights.

The externship journey - sometimes running over years - is encapsulated into the personal statement and interview, which more colleges are using to sift the star exam-takers from the intelligent Renaissance students who will lead the 21st century.


There is little dispute among educators that we need to better prepare our students for emerging industries and nurture the resilience and habit to upskill. However, the road from today to a future where you work where you learn, and learn where you work - a blended trajectory for lifelong learners - remains at least half a decade away.

The eco-system of education players is evolving as we move to that phase, and we are witnessing the emergence of a new player in the education sector built to broker the relationship between industry and academia.

In the US, Udacity, founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, delivers certified courses in partnership with corporations for job-seekers, giving them an edge over applicants who have only learnt theoretical concepts during their academic years.

In Singapore, my colleagues and I founded The Keys Academy to provide skills to pre-tertiary students. The academy is exploring externships with SMEs like Action X (Run For Your Lives), breakthrough technology companies like Airbnb, and investment firms like Jungle Ventures, and participating in international competitions like the Conrad Innovation Challenge, where teams compete to present commercially viable solutions for global problems.

Over time, as educators receive training and experience in how to form and handle relationships with companies, this niche intermediary will no longer be required. At SAP school in New York, for example, teachers are mentored by SAP employees as well. Teachers at a leading girls' school in Singapore recently asked me for the same mentorship.

If Singapore can pivot its pre-tertiary education sector towards more alignment with SkillsFuture, it can become a breakthrough role model for the rest of the world.

The Stem ALP (Applied Learning Programme), which is being piloted by the Ministry of Education in some schools to help students learn science with relevant examples, is one step in the right direction.

However, a stronger approach would be to problem-solve, test and prototype ideas with companies and the realities of the marketplace (admittedly a more complicated proposition in the sciences than technology and business).

There are many advantages to externships for Singapore's national ambitions, primarily that they cultivate the kind of students former chief scientist of Xerox Corporation John Seely Brown calls "entrepreneurial learners". The education system must prepare for a world, he says, where success belongs to those who are a blend of Homo sapiens - man who knows - and Homo faber - man who makes.

For SMEs, externships provide much-needed creative manpower while, for larger companies, it provides avenues for corporate citizenship and innovation, because they are listening to their future customers. SMEs present the best model for externships if the programme is to be scaled at a national level, given the large number of SMEs in the country, their need for creativity and innovation, and the support historically provided by the Singapore Government.

Best of all, externships bring with them a measure of transparency and accountability for educators, and imbue a spirit of fearlessness of failure and innovative spirit in students, since solutions are presented to companies, and it is not possible to "game" unpredictable real-life situations. The long-term educational value of these skills is priceless.

•Ayesha Khanna is co-founder & CEO of The Keys Academy, which is pioneering externships for Singaporean students.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'Let's tear down the ivory tower called school'. Print Edition | Subscribe