Economics Teacher in Singapore Throws Out the Answer Key

By August 21, 2017 No Comments

In this episode, Doris speaks with Oliver Smith, Business and Economics teacher at Singapore American School.  Oliver discusses the depth of learning his students experienced while solving problems for real businesses in his entrepreneurship and AP Economics courses. He describes the liberation that comes from teaching students without an answer key.

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Doris: Hello Oliver.

Oliver: Hi Doris.

Doris: So, Oliver if you could start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself, your background and then what you’re doing.

Oliver: Sure. So I’m a teacher at Singapore American School and I’ve been teaching there the last three years. This will be my fourth year there. Before that, I was teaching in public high schools here in Washington State for the previous 15 years. And in general, I teach business, AP Economics, entrepreneurship, advanced economics and I’ve taught a bit of math in the past as well. You know, Singapore American School is a large international school. We have about 1200 students and kind of feels very much like a high achieving you know, school that you would find in the US. And you know, I think since I’ve been here the administration and the school has been dedicated to innovating and finding new ways to help our students be more competitive in today’s’ kind of changing global economy. So yeah, that’s kind of how we met, I suppose.

Doris: Yes. and you teach high school, correct?

Oliver: Yeah, high school. So right now I’m teaching AP economics and we have a new entrepreneurship class that we’ve been teaching the last two years. And then I also teach kind of a general business class and an advanced economics class which is based kind of on development economics.

Doris: That’s great. And a little bit more about the…your student population.

Oliver: Yeah, it’s an English speaking school. And like I said, it feels very much like an American school. Most of our students have some connection with the US but we do have an international flavor as well. And you know, I would say that you would…well you’d probably find that you know 60 to maybe 75% of the students have spent a lot of time in the US, while the other portion have mainly lived overseas for their whole lives. But we don’t have very many English as second language speakers, you know, and things like that. But…so again you know, we have a population that’s mainly kind of an American population. But in Singapore yes. So ex-pats in Singapore, yeah.

Doris: Yeah, okay, that’s really helpful. So tell me why you came to the workshop and what you took out of that workshop and then what you did with it.

Oliver: Yeah, sure. So I think like two years ago, I was tasked with putting together a new entrepreneurship course offering for our students. And initially, I kind of thought back to my previous experience in public school and I’d taught the traditional business plan approach that I’d actually learned in business school myself as well. And I never really kind of thought that that might not be the best approach because who am I to kind of question PhDs who are on these textbooks. So initially that was my plan but then I started doing a bit more research and I ran into a lot of the Lean LaunchPad stuff and… And I found a workshop in California that was through I think an organization called Venture Well. And I ended up attending because that was kind of the best thing I think I could find and it turned out to be kind of mainly attended by professors from universities around the world who kind of wanted to emulate what Steve Blank was doing and you know, other professors at Stanford and Berkley…

Doris: Mostly at graduate schools.

Oliver: Yeah, mostly graduate schools. But you know, since many of my students actually apply to these schools, I’m like, “Oh, we can handle this.” And you know, kind of took a chance to try something a little bit different. And I saw the potential but we definitely had some issues with the college approach that they were using. Like for instance, I found that the kids they’re supposed to be coming in with an idea of their own. And quite honestly, most of the ideas were terrible. I mean, they were…

Doris: Of course. Yeah, we know, I know how that is.

Oliver: I think upon reflection you’re like, a lot of the kids would probably agree with that as well. You know, they’re either too broad, too narrow, too unrealistic. And most of them wouldn’t stand up to the tools that we’re using, like the Business Model Canvas and Customer Discovery interviews and they were constantly pivoting or scrapping their projects altogether. And it just led to burn out. I realized that this wasn’t really the best model for my students. So I think again I kind of stumbled upon the workshop… I think I found it on Steve Blank’s website actually. There was, he had an article that was written up about your program. And it sounded like this is what I should have actually gone to first and I wish I would have found your program before I went to the…

Doris: The graduate school professor, yeah.

Oliver: Exactly. So, you know, I’d say that kind of the biggest things that I took away from your workshop, I think it was just kind of liberating to sort of realize as a teacher, you know, I don’t really have to have all the answers. And it’s kind of fun just to be a coach or a facilitator again rather than a disseminator of information I suppose. And you know, I really learned to love telling students that I don’t have the answers and also answering questions with questions. You know, it was really nice to do that. And I think I also structurally, it really helped out my course as well by using the business problems initially to kind of teach these tools. It really helped the students to kind of put in context what, you know, these aren’t just abstract tools that you’re posting on your wall and trying to fill in. But these were actual tools that you could use in a real life context with real people and real problems. It turned out to be a really good experience for the kids.

Doris: Yeah, I was just going to say, I think what you’re saying is hugely important and I don’t think people really understand it until they’ve done it. There are a lot of entrepreneurship classes, K-12 classes even now, where the students start by coming up with their own idea and then going through a process to create a business plan or a business model or a pitch. And what I think is massively important, what you’re talking about, is that you’re giving the students to start a real problem that’s unsolved of someone else, another business, that’s a real one, it’s specific. It’s not a teacher produced project and it’s not a student produced project. And it allows them, as you’ve said, you know, they get to learn some of these skills and methods, working on something that’s tangible of someone else’s before they get to a place where they have to have some foundational stuff before they can generate things out of thin air on their own.

Oliver: Exactly. You know, I think also, like the students that I have and I’m sure they’re not unlike students all over the place. But you know, they’re great at playing kind of the school game. You know, if you just kind of show them what an A looks like, they can completely reproduce it. And this wasn’t really one of those kinds of classes where they could do that. You know, I couldn’t show them what an A looked like because I didn’t know what an A looked like necessarily, especially with relation to each one of these business problems. So, you know, that was something that I really appreciated as well and I took away from the workshop. I also like, you know, that the fact that a positive outcome for the students could actually be a negative outcome for their idea. That’s kind of real life, right?

Doris: Yeah, exactly.

Oliver: Where not everything’s going to work out. And that’s valuable to find that out and as quickly as you can I suppose, right? That was another thing that I really took away.

Doris: That’s great. So then you taught this in this entrepreneurship class this year?

Oliver: Yeah.

Doris: Tell us, give us an example of a business your students worked on and describe it a little and what they learned and what they did.

Oliver: Yeah, sure. So we had two kind of very different problems. We scaffolded the whole thing. So we started with a…what I thought was a relatively simple problem but it turned out to be fairly complex. We met an entrepreneur in Singapore who was trying to import single origin Guatemalan coffee into Singapore. And while he had some success kind of B&B where you’re selling to businesses and just kind of bulk and they didn’t really care what the price was, he really kind of wanted to increase his margins and sell to the general public but he wasn’t sure if he had a customer base or not in Singapore. You know, would anyone care about single origin Guatemalan coffee and would they care if it came from a certain farm and a certain hillside in Guatemala?

And that was kind of the question that my kids were tackling. And it was really interesting to see some of the things that they came up with. Perhaps local Singaporeans, they didn’t really care a whole lot about it. And they found out through interviewing that his only real customer base would be kind of the ex-pat community. So that was kind of an interesting problem.

The second one that we worked on was an app, a phone app. And it was another kind of young entrepreneur who was trying to start an app where people could meet on their travels. Not really like a dating app or anything but just kind of people who were traveling on their own who wanted to meet up and go to social events or go to museums or whatever.

And her problem was that it’s kind of like, I guess the idea is like TripAdvisor where there’s a lot of user generated data. So her problem was well, how do I get these initial adaptors to keep coming back until we have like a critical mass of user-generated data? And that was the problem that my students worked on for the second problem. And again, completely different than the first one. And you know, completely different things to learn and it led to different thinking and different solutions as well. So it worked out really well.

Doris: Yeah, so either by talking in general or picking one or two students in particular, whatever is easiest for you, tell us about the learning that happened in the course of that course.

Oliver: You know, starting out like I said, I think a lot of my students when they first came to the class they thought that it was going to be a class about writing reports on Elon Musk and Bill Gates. And they weren’t really understanding that they were going to be doing the entrepreneurship themselves. So, you know, I had some push back I would say initially where yeah, they were, “Wait a minute, this isn’t really what I was planning on doing. And I can’t kind of play my little game at school here. I actually have to go out and start thinking and solving problems.” And…

Doris: Yeah, they’re not happy about that at first.

Oliver: No, no. I mean, there was actually a bit of anger I would say. But…and then there are also some kids who are kind of like, “Oh, this is great, I can actually get an A for effort now.”

Doris: Yeah, exactly. I don’t have to do much, right. I can…this is cool, yeah.

Oliver: But I would say that it actually turned out to be for almost all of the students, it was a positive experience where they really, you know, were finding some things that I had never even thought of as solutions. And you know, I would say that I had a couple of students that, one in particular that she didn’t seem super engaged initially. And you know, all through the class I was kind of, “Is she really kind of getting anything out of this?” But then when the class was over, she actually started her own business online where she was selling swimsuits that she had sourced through Bali and was selling and distributing all around the world. And you know, she was using a lot of the tools and the learning and skills that we talked about in class and she was actually learning and I didn’t really actually realize that I suppose.

Doris: That’s so interesting. And as a teacher, I mean, you’ve been teaching for many years in a variety of settings and schools and a variety of student populations and subject matters. How was this different as a teacher and from the more traditional courses you’ve taught and what’s useful?

Oliver: Yeah, you know, you get like a sort of a safe zone as a teacher, right? And you don’t really think outside of the box sometimes until you get hit in the head with something new. And you know, I would say that in my opinion this is…if it’s not the future of education, at least it’s a part of, you know, kind of the future of how we are going to be educating our kids in the future.

You know, where kids are…they’re using all of their facilities from many different subject areas to solve a real problem. I mean, this is what real life is, right? It’s real inquiry based learning work, you know, you kind of give a kid a problem and then it leads them to rich higher level questions of their own that they have to think about. And I also think it kind of signals a shift sort of in a traditional classroom setting as well where I had the kids getting out of the class and talking to people and we also utilize the flip classroom method as well where we had kids watch Steve Blank’s Udacity videos as part of the course. And they come to class with that already in their toolbox.

You know, and I think with technology today, you can do that if you have access to the technology that allows the kids to get some of the work done outside of class. And I also think that it’s okay not to have the answers as a teacher. And that’s something that, like I said, I found really liberating where I don’t know if what the kids come up with is the right answer or not. But with the evidence that they produce, it’s definitely a better guess than we had starting out, you know? And I think that’s kind of a neat thing to think about as a teacher going forward here with not only my subject areas but I’m sure also in other ones as well.

Doris: Yeah and did you do a project in your economics class as well, similar to the entrepreneurship class?

Oliver: Yeah. So we tried out the business problems in the entrepreneurship class first. And then we liked it so much… my partner teacher, he’d never been to one of these workshops. He still hasn’t but he’s planning on going at some point. But he liked it so much that he…this advanced economics class was his kind of to start out but he really wanted to incorporate the kind of methods we were using in my entrepreneurship class in the advanced economics class. So we partnered up with some NGOs and tried to do some social entrepreneurship problems. And the first one involved trying to get villagers in a small Cambodian community to not only purchase but use latrines. This was an effort to try to raise the sanitation in their village and eradicate some of the health problems they’ve been having and then inevitably hopefully increase their economic standing as well, so.

Doris: Wow. So this is in your advanced economics class. Must have required a ton of research. What are some of the things your students learned about working on that project?

Oliver: Well, most of these students were students that we had in AP Economics who had done really well and they just really kind of wanted to follow their interest in economics a little bit further. And we really tried to give them a bit more real life experience of economics. With AP Economics, you know unfortunately, it’s a lot of just content and kind of a real traditional approach to education. So we wanted to give them an opportunity to use what they’re learning in our class in the real world.

And I would say that a lot of the kids…while they were also learning more about economics, they were also learning about how you study economics in the real world as well. I mean, how do you go out and try to figure out why were these villagers were making decisions they were making? Was it based on economics? Was it based on culture? And they were learning all kinds of things in addition to just the economics that we were trying to teach them as well.

Doris: When in the course of the year did you do those, that project and then any other projects in that class? Was that at the end of the year, toward the beginning?

Oliver: Yeah, so we’re a semester school. We have two semesters and the first semester was the…our entrepreneurship course. So that was where we first tried the business problems. And again, they went really well considering it was our first effort.

Doris: Yeah, I’m impressed.

Oliver: So the second semester was…yeah, second semester was advanced economics. And we kind of had to scramble to get these projects together. It was a little bit harder finding NGOs or non-profits that were willing to work with us in Singapore because quite honestly, Singapore doesn’t have a whole lot of economic development issues. So it was a different dynamic, you know, we didn’t have kids necessarily going out and doing interviews as much as they were with the business problems in our entrepreneurship class.

Doris: Yeah, they probably had to do a lot of online research, Skype interviews, emails, that kind of thing.

Oliver: Absolutely, absolutely. So it was a different dynamic. I would say it was actually a little bit harder as a teacher to kind of keep the kids going than it was when you were sending the kids out and actually talking to people and trying to figure out the insights they’re getting from interviews and so on and so forth.

Doris: Yeah. So Oliver, you’ve taught in a variety of schools and you’ve taught at public schools in the U.S. You’re teaching an international school with a very competitive, sort of college competitive population of students and parents. You’ve been teaching subjects, AP classes, advanced classes, math, economics, the stuff that most consider to be pretty, you know, pretty significant academically challenging stuff at a high school level. If I gave you the choice between you could teach advanced economics, mathematics, all these things in only a traditional way or only using this new methodology you’ve been piloting, which would you do and why? And you can only do one, you can’t do both.

Oliver: Well, definitely the traditional approach would be easier but I would definitely I think choose obviously this business problem approach or problem approach, I guess. Because you know, I think it’s really important that students understand that they’re going to be able to show that they can actually solve problems at some point in time. When they’re at their first interview with a college or an employer, they can say, “Look, I’ve actually done something. I’ve tackled a real problem and I found solutions, whether they’re correct or not, I don’t necessarily know. But I found evidence to support these solutions and perhaps, you know, even solutions that could be validated in a real world setting.” So these are skills I think that are really important, they go above and beyond what you’re going to find in a traditional classroom where students are memorizing textbooks and filling out multiple choice tests and things like that. So to answer your question, absolutely I would take this real world problem-based approach.

Doris: And do you consider the learning academic that they’re doing?

Oliver: Oh absolutely. You know, some of the projects that students were coming up with at the end, some of their presentations blew us away. I mean, absolutely blew us away. I mean, they were going above and beyond what was expected and actually…it was tough in some cases for myself and my partner teacher to keep up with what they were doing. So, you know, if you were to show some of these projects to administration or whatever, they…I mean, well we did actually, we had administration there and they were blown away by what our kids were doing academically. And also again, just kind of practically.

Doris: Just out of curiosity, tell us some of the kinds of things that they were addressing in these presentations. I think for people who haven’t experienced this, it’s really hard to wrap your head around the fact that these students end up gaining deep knowledge of really, really rigorous academic stuff content in the course of doing this kind of work. People think of it as one or the other. It’d be great to hear some examples of…do you remember some of the kinds of things they presented?

Oliver: Yeah. I mean, there were some where students were really kind of… I’m thinking back to our advanced economic class where we had some really amazing students. And they would come up with…well, they would kind of go above and beyond what we taught them in economics and come up with some of the models that we hadn’t taught them before and they would actually figure these models out on their own and kind of use those in their presentations where we definitely didn’t expect that. And then also just kind of some maybe simpler solutions that were maybe not quite as obvious. Like for instance, when we were working on the projects in Cambodia, you know, some students were…looked at some cultural behavioral kinds of solutions that weren’t necessarily obvious and the kids had to do a lot of research to find these out. And also they had to have evidence to support that these solutions perhaps worked someplace else before or they had tried someplace else and that they might work in this context as well.

Doris: Yeah, I mean, what happens in a project like that, even if it lives in the advanced economics course and even if they end up with a lot of their work rooted in economics and the application of models, etc. it’s not a single discipline where you have to work within when you’re solving a problem like that. You have to look at behaviors, you have to look at culture. You have to look…you have to consider all that other stuff, which is what happens when you get out of school and you’re doing anything that’s not in a discipline defined classroom, right?

Oliver: Absolutely, yeah. And there isn’t a textbook to solve life’s problems for sure. So I mean, you absolutely have to kind of go outside of the context of what you’re learning in class and sometimes use other skills as well. So.

Doris: And so did you…I’m also interested in both of your advanced economics entrepreneurship. What kind of result did you see from having them work on teams? What kind of…was there a benefit to that, to the learning that came from that, did it not matter? What do you think?

Oliver: Well, this is funny because as a teacher, this was probably our…this was the biggest stumbling block for us when it came to using this method because we had a couple of…well, I don’t know about unique things. I’m sure that there are policies like this in other schools but we’re not necessarily allowed to grade, you know, using group grades. Or at least a large portion of the grade can’t be based on a group grade. So…

Doris: By the way same here. I had to figure out how to give grades with this model in a school with people, kids get individual grades.

Oliver: Absolutely, yeah, and it’s grades in our school are very important for the students. I mean, they’re very aware of their grades at all times and it’s something we have to wrestle with. I think a lot of the students they would tell you they’re very interested in this learning, in this real life application. At the same time, the grades were important. So when we put them in groups, there was definitely a learning curve for us to try to figure out how we were going to assess students

And you know, that took us a while to kind of get going. I think we have a grasp on that now but I think obviously working in groups is a good thing for the kids. So I’m just kind of looking at it from a teacher’s point of view but I think the kids really, you know, they did a great job of communicating with each other, learning from each other, helping each other look at things in different ways. And you know, I would love to do more group work than I do already in my classes.

Doris: Yeah, it’s…yeah, you’re right. It’s on the teaching side that you have to do contortions to fit it into a graded system. And that’s where a lot of the work to, you know, on the one hand, I give teachers methods of assessment that can fit into a graded system. And on the other hand, I’m working on the Mastery Transcript Consortium Board to try to create a new transcript as an alternative to grades because I don’t think ultimately grades serve the purpose they’re intended to serve and I think that they’re actually doing the opposite. But I think the kind of learning that happens when students do this challenging stuff on teams is super valuable to the rest of their lives as well.

Oliver: Absolutely.

Doris: Yeah, so you’ve done this one year and I really applaud you for your bravery. It’s really hard work and it’s really…it’s risky, it feels risky…

Oliver: Absolutely.

Doris: …yeah, to be in a high school teacher in a really competitive school doing this. It’s risky from a lot of different angles and really crazy hard to be the pioneer in this. So coming out of this year, are you doing it again? What does this mean for your school, for your community? Are you going to get driven out of town? Are you in the U.S. because they said, “Get the heck out of Singapore,” or what’s next?

Oliver: Oh gosh, I hope not. Yeah, we’re absolutely doing this again. We felt like it was a success. I mean, there were definitely stumbling blocks but that’s learning for us as well. I mean, we kind of have to learn along with the students. And again, not every business problem or problem in economics is going to be the same. There could be situations where we have to scrap it altogether and be ready to do that. And you know, I mean, we have the trust of our administration to do this and so we feel confident that we can take this risk and it’s not going to get us fired or anything like that.

So no, we’re absolutely going to continue with this work and try to find more and more interesting and rich problems that we can, you know, have our students work on. And it’s obviously a lot of work but we’re totally up for it and super excited about kind of seeing where this goes from here.

Doris: That’s great. Do the students coming out of your classes, would they say now that they’ve been through the whole thing, would say they would they would, “Yeah, that was good, I’m glad that we did this weird class this way?”

Oliver: Yeah, I think so. I mean, just looking at the numbers we have signed up for next year, we have double the number of kids that we had this year. So…

Doris: That says it all.

Oliver: I think word has spread that’s it’s really a class that’s different from other classes. And it’s a class where you can kind of go out and, you know, learn a lot of different things using a lot of different skill sets. And it’s just something that I think kids really understand that there is value to that in addition to what they’re learning in the traditional classroom setting.

Doris: That’s fantastic. And do you, you said your teaching partner wants to do this as well, continue teaching this way.

Oliver: Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely and I…like I said, I think he’s also going to be coming to one of your workshops here soon.

Doris: Yeah, I’ll be…you’ll have to send me all the dirt on him before okay.

Oliver: There’s lots and lots of dirt.

Doris: Okay, that’s awesome, that’s great. Well, Oliver, I’m so excited to hear what you’ve done in just your first year. The first year of the pilot is by far the hardest, it’s usually pretty gruesome. And you…I’m sure it was very hard for you but you’ve come out of it. The fact that you have twice as many kids signing up the next year says it all. And I’ll be really excited to hear how your next year goes. Let’s talk again in a year.

Oliver: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Doris: Thanks, Oliver.

Oliver: Appreciate it.

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