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Perspectives on Learning: An Interview with Renée Boey

Image credits: Baker & Bloom

With her literature degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, it is perhaps unsurprising that Renée Boey is a big advocate of reading. The Instagram page of Baker & Bloom, a Hong Kong-based institution that offers English and STEM classes for K12 students (4 - 19 years old) founded by Renée, is peppered with book recommendations running the gamut from the works of Shakespeare to Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Such is the educator’s passion for language that language arts and communication is one of Baker & Bloom’s four core focus areas.  

Having attended local and international schools in Hong Kong before going to St. Paul’s School, a boarding school in the United States, Renée first discovered her love for teaching in her college years. Leveraging her unique perspective on teaching and learning gleaned from her experiences with different education systems, she started Baker & Bloom in 2014, and has since built an impressive team with expertise spanning a multitude of fields.  But do not be too quick to dismiss them as your run-of-the-mill enrichment centre; an integral aspect of the institution is its emphasis on the future-readiness of students and the development of the self, and parents get involved too through informative seminars to help them support their child’s learning and education decisions. Goguru chats with Renée on learning, being a parent, and of course, reading.

 

What have you learnt in your journey as a founder?

I think that being a founder - a builder and creator of a team and a community of learning - has taught me how important it is to balance between a highly creative, generative mode and a more disciplined, focused mode. There are times when we at Baker & Bloom need to come up with original curriculum content and new ways to teach that draw attention to skills that are becoming increasingly important, skills such as media literacy, entrepreneurship, algorithmic thinking, and design thinking. And there are also times when I also have to decide how to deepen what we are already teaching, how to build expertise in subjects that are perennials for us and I believe will remain important for a long time to come - for instance, communication skills, traditional literacy, and critical thinking. Toggling between these modes is not easy but essential for us to grow as an innovative education organisation, and I find that having the advice and support of capable and creative advisors and colleagues has been invaluable. I’ve also felt again and again how important it is for educators today to keep learning ourselves and to be open-minded.

In addition to yourself, all of Baker & Bloom’s team members are educated in the west. What would you say is the ‘X factor’ in their pedagogy that sets them apart from their Asian counterparts? On the flip side, what are some strengths of Asian school systems?

I actually think that both traditions share a great deal in common, depending on which phase in history we are looking at. Both Asian and western traditions have strengths that relate to self-cultivation and understanding the relationship between the self and the world. There is also tremendous variety among “western” pedagogical approaches. But if I were to identify a few unique strengths, I’d point to providing opportunities for project-based learning and independent study before university, as well as a more learner-centred, holistic approach to schooling. Asian school systems often have more centralised coherence, and they can cultivate students who are more comfortable with collective learning, who understand the value of grit and hard work. Ideally, I think we should combine the growth mindset of the west with the respect for knowledge and skill mastery of the east.

Leadership and service is one of the four leaves in Baker & Bloom’s approach. Most people can understand the value in having leadership skills, but can you share with us how that ties in with service?

Baker & Bloom’s fourth leaf “Leadership & Service” is really about character and self-cultivation. Leadership in that sense involves becoming our best self so that we can serve others. Both service and leadership ask us to self-reflect and empathise with others. I think education has to encourage students to find purpose in life, to connect our own skills and passions to what the world might need, and the best leaders have a vision for channelling collective skills to serve a greater cause.  

 Students learning through play

Education has changed a lot over the years. There is greater recognition of different learning methods, a broader definition of knowledge and the influence of technology. What is one vital lesson/skill adults are missing out on, that their children are learning?

Human-centred design. I think this process of problem-solving which embraces the idea of understanding the people who experience a problem before you design a solution and also the idea of creating pilots, prototypes that you can test so that you can continue to refine your solution or design is brilliant. It’s intuitive in many ways but I think having it explicitly taught just unleashes so much potential in students.

In one of Baker & Bloom’s Instagram posts, you explained how the name came about. Baker alludes to the saying “getting a bigger share of the pie”, but instead you want to encourage children to “bake their own pies”. Especially in competitive societies such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it is not easy to avoid getting caught up in the rat race. What advice would you give to parents in defining that line between motivation and pressure? 

The idea of “baking your own pies” really has to do with a generative mentality. If you define success narrowly at school, you will likely define success narrowly in life for quite some time. Your metaphors for learning matter. The possibility of generating value for yourself and others - baking pies so you can feed yourself and others - is more motivating in the long run I believe. So keeping that bigger picture in mind helps when as parents we feel the pressure to add pressure. A good coach, a good parent, does have to know when to ease off and when to guide with a firmer hand. But I think knowing your child as an individual makes a remarkable difference. E.g. if a child is sensitive to criticism or a perfectionist, it does no good to compare them with others all the time. I think you build intrinsic motivation by recognising a child’s natural strengths and personality, offering them concrete support and encouragement in their areas of weakness, and helping them see that they have to eventually learn to take ownership over their own learning and their own lives. Easier said than done of course.

If you define success narrowly at school, you will likely define success narrowly in life for quite some time. Your metaphors for learning matter. The possibility of generating value for yourself and others - baking pies so you can feed yourself and others - is more motivating in the long run I believe.

Is there anything you wish was done differently in the early years of your education?

My parents gave me an incredible and joyful education at home and at school so there’s not much I’d change. But I wish I had been exposed to concepts in engineering and had more opportunities to build things when I was very young. I love our STEM Program Director Mei Chen’s ability to help kids construct these engineering and scientific concepts through making (and deconstructing) things. There are more tools, programs, and games these days that allow kids to understand technology and engineering through play. But I guess it’s never too late!

Has being a mom changed the way you approach educating and nurturing children?

Being a mom teaches me many things every day. I started off teaching secondary school students and so I feel more in my element as a teacher with older students. But I have always loved playing with very young children, and now that I’m a parent, I get to play more and to observe first-hand how, through play, a baby discovers new objects, words, concepts, people and integrates all that into his or her picture of how the world works. Play is one of the best ways to learn and how to bring play into the classroom has become more important to me. 

 A teacher reading to her students

You are an avid reader and learner. What advice will you give to people who say they have no time for reading?

There are people who literally have no time for any leisure because of the demands of life. There are people who prioritise other things over reading and learning. For those who are truly swamped, I recommend podcasts, audio books, and poetry. Contemplating a few lines of language artfully crafted can give as much pleasure and inspiration as reading a hefty novel. For those who prioritise other things, it could be because reading feels hard. Reading is a muscle that needs exercising to grow strong, but I think its rewards are deep, lifelong, and transformative. It helps if you can find the right book!

Reading is a muscle that needs exercising to grow strong, but I think its rewards are deep, lifelong, and transformative.

What is one book that you look forward to sharing with your child?

I love Roald Dahl - all of his works - but I think Danny, the Champion of the World is a book I’ll enjoy sharing with my children because it’s about a wonderful and evolving relationship between a child and his parent. 

 

Join Renée for a series of complimentary parent seminars and children workshops on Sat, 22 September at Buds by Shangri-La Hotel! She will be sharing further insights on nurturing readers and writers in the age of screens, as well as essential learning skills for the future. Click here for more details. Limited spaces are available, so register now by emailing lionel.leong@shangri-la.com

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