For teachers: How Might We introduce cultural competence and (technical) digital skills education in our classrooms?

Our experience designing ASEAN Social Innovations Program, a remote-first cross border digital skills training program between Singaporean and Filipino students and teachers

ASEAN Social Innovations Program 2022, some Filipino friends joining remotely in the background

Written to share with teachers at Raffles Institution Teacher Conference 2022

ASEAN Social Innovations program was conducted for primarily students from Raffles Institution (Singapore), Colegio de San Juan de Letran (Philippines) and MINT College (Philippines). Started at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was a remote-first cross-border program, the program owners reflect on how this came about and these insights can influence classrooms of the future.

The expected output of the program is:

(1) A prototype (ideally digital product) built by the team that addresses a social problem of their choice

(2) An article on Medium documenting any aspect of learning of their choice

Implicit outcomes include friendships and familiarity with digital tools to help students better capitalize on opportunities of the digital economy and better navigate remote work.

There are 5 sections in this writeup:

1. What are some programme design principles that the team considered when developing this programme?

2. Was there a curricular framework that was adopted in designing the programme?

3. What are some pedagogical implications that teachers need to be mindful of when working with students in this area of social innovation?

4. What are the kinds of student competencies that the programme hopes to develop and — besides surveys and reflections — are there other innovative ways in which we can meaningfully assess the development of such competencies in social innovation?

5. Is it possible to translate elements of the programme into the teaching of specific subjects?

1. What are some programme design principles that the team considered when developing this programme?

I was lucky enough to study at New York University and then intern with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, Philippines, Amnesty International in Tokyo, Japan followed by interning as a software engineer in a Singporean startup before going to a small venture capital fund in Jakarta, Indonesia prior to becoming a teacher. Central to these interactions was having to navigate very diverse workplaces and developing cultural competencies. Today’s world is diverse, global and increasingly borderless. Even in my own “startup” attempts, I have had interns from the Philippines, Belarus (whom our greatest well-wishes go out to at the height of the Ukrainian conflict; her family was caught in it), software engineers from Spain and teams who have never met each other except for decentralized meals. Technology has made interactions across cultures a very common experience. Children, youth and teachers today need to be prepared to enter a workforce that spans across borders that is tech-enabled.

Beyond the affordances and disruptions by tech, adaptability to thrive under such ever-changing circumstances is key. It is not enough to be good in a tool but one must be open to learning new ones or finding new synergies (or integrations) across the tools that one has learnt.

As such, four core principles of the program include:

  1. Cultural competence (active listening, being empathetic and sustained engagement) needs to be integrated throughout program design given its significance in the 21st century workplace
  2. Technical competence (learning principles as well as tools) fast to appreciate its potential in a transferrable manner as opposed to using just tools in a closed ecosystem.
  3. Respecting autonomy while balancing accountability.
  4. Cultivate learner initiative and motivation, with the acknowledgement that in a remote world, those are the most powerful driver of learning outcomes and there is no enforcement mechanism beyond positive reinforcement.

2. Was there a curricular framework that was adopted in designing the programme? Are there frameworks that can be used in developing students’ competencies in social innovation and how applicable are they to the design of lesson units in different subjects?

A core part of ASEAN Social Innovation is user-centric design. Our first module on user experience research largely uses Design Thinking principles, starting first and foremost with user empathy.

There is always an extremely strong temptation among students (and even teachers) to jump right at a solution — say, “we need to entertain elderly in old folks’ home with performances and bingo” or “we need to run tuition programs for low-performing primary school students”. We actively discourage imposition of such presupposition of user needs.

Instead, even in early prototypes of this program, we had to go through extensive user interviews and user research. I ran a small prototype with my Civics class in 2020. It was a bit tough given that they were taking A levels that year but using a simple architecture of just Microsoft Teams + Notion, we still managed to take a stab various social issues ranging from encouraging recycling in school, tackling social alienation and depression during COVID and identifying dengue risk factors (problem statements all generated by students themselves). Minimally, running this small-scale program during civics showed a critical insight:

Even graduating students had the drive to make a social impact and had some headspace to do so.

This energy just needs to be directed with some structure. Hence the program.

To me, user experience research is universal. Whether it is designing a self initiated community service project (what we call values-in-action in Singpaore or CE01 in my school), creating an event for fellow students, designing co-curricular activities, or even conducting a lesson — both students and teachers are experience designers.

Students are quick to call out when our slides are ugly. We (teachers) are annoyed when students lack a proper management system or workflow for things like CCA, school events they run, etc. As we wrestle all these problems, frustrations or what startups love to call “pain points”, we should always find a way to systematically dissect and document what the problem is about in order to design an effective solution.

User interviews are central to any design — the immediately transferrable insight is towards learning design which both Melvin and I had to heavily reflect on in our capacities as teachers.

Other modules are slightly more technical: user interface design (lo-fidelity pen and paper prototypes to eventually hi-fidelity ones on Figma, the current industry standard for app development/ prototyping) may seem to have less transferrable insights into teaching and learning. Similarly, low-code and no-code web development, workflow automation and integration does seem removed from the immediate classroom BUT actually do play important roles in administrative aspects of our jobs. I will write more extensively about these in another set of articles.

3. What are some pedagogical implications that teachers need to be mindful of when working with students in this area of social innovation? Are there specific approaches that would be helpful for the teacher in engaging students about such issues?

Innovation fundamentally exists to solve problems. Innovations are considered novel because we seldom take such a perspective or consider such ideas in our everyday life. We are all constrained our lived experiences and exposure we have. That is why diversity is worth celebrating because of the viewpoints that come out if it.

One pedagogical implication that we may find immediately uncomfortable with is having to cede a good deal of autonomy to each project team. We have to quickly accept that we do not have a monopoly over truth and knowledge in the classroom. As educators we call this “expert authority”. Domain expertise is simply impossible when you give students free rein to discuss social problems. I am typically all ears when hearing the Filipino students share about their hometowns as well as the different issues they tackle — some from Makati in Metro Manila; others from Baguio the land of hamonado longanisa (sweet Filipino Sausages), strawberries and good weather in the mountaineous regions; another a lover of the sea and diving who grew up in Cebu. (I never had a Filipino friend at their age of 17/18. I had some Filipino acquaintances through debating in Asia but later met my first Filipino friends were from my time in the Asian Development Bank in 2017 when I was 24 where I was heartily introduced to their food, culture which involved a lot of singing and dancing. I ended up dressing as a troll for a charity event with them.)

Preparing for a performance too makes for sustained interaction. This was the last thing I thought I would have to do at a bank.

This cycle, a group of students is building an app to raise visibility of dying forms of Indian dance. I have absolutely no clue but am fascinated by how they have interviewed such practitioners in far flung parts of India that they would never have otherwise thought or heard about. If you run an innovation program, chances are you will be journeying with your students and navigating the ambiguities and uncertainties of a new context/ environment from perspectives you have yet to consider. I hope you, like us, find this exciting and go in with an open heart and mind to learn about the lives of others. You will spend a lot of time listening.

Another implication that I find myself largely uncomfortable with was being facilitators of knowledge. The approach is very similar to coaching when you ask questions to direct students and I must confess, it is honestly so much easier just to do frontal teaching in my opinion. Even though we are taught questioning techniques in teaching school, under a standardized curriculum and syllabus, the answers are often closed (with exception of few subjects like General Paper, English Literature, Knowledge and Inquiry, English Language and Linguistics). There is no way closed questioning or recall type questions will lead to any meaningful or innovative outcomes.

Here are some questions that I found myself repeating. These questions are often divergent and warrants more deliberate thought (and a lot of homework):

  • How do you know that is a genuine user need?
  • How can we narrow the scope of the problem? (The students I encountered are often too ambitious in a good way, they hope to make a positive impact but can be a little greedy in doing too much)
  • What parallels exist in the market/ who are your competitors?
  • What is your unique selling proposition (USP)?
  • Why is it worth solving (now)?
  • Is there product-market fit? (There is a dimension of the program that requires students to think about how the idea can self-sustain from an Economics)

Actually some of these questions converge with what Y-combinator asks. I genuinely don't think it is innovation if you impose ideas on students — they need to derive ownership by arriving on it on their own terms while we poke, poke and poke at various steps of the way.

In fact, I have also come to appreciate that designing the right questions is the hallmark of a great teacher. This article is written just answering what James, a master teacher/ fellow colleague asked. On the other hand, I only very recently graduated from Beginning Teacher (BT) status so please bear with me as I grow and pardon my non-technical language.

4. What are the kinds of student competencies that the programme hopes to develop and — besides surveys and reflections — are there other innovative ways in which we can meaningfully assess the development of such competencies in social innovation?

One main competency that ASIP uniquely afforded is cultural competence in an age of lockdown. When overseas trips are entirely cancelled (I do have strong reservations about 7-day trips being “magic markers of cultural exchange” — I have a preference for more sustained engagement), the question remains: do we just wait for the pandemic to be over then resume cultural learning?

Maybe I am just a young upstart and incredibly impatient but I seriously thought it would be a massive disservice to batches of students if we just wait and pray. But I have come to accept actually, this frustration is universal (cue user empathy and research) and this actually means there is a good energy to capitalize on and redirect. The students clearly too share this pent up frustration for subpar learning experiences. At the same time, I was also forced to contemplate: what does it mean to be culturally competent?

There is a teaching and learning paradigms that we accidentally arrived at after some trial and error. This involves a learning model of 1) concrete experience (partaking in the program and interacting with peers and teacher mentors), 2) abstract conceptualization (in defining problem statement and ideating a solution), 3) reflective observation (cultivate through rounds and rounds of user interviews), and 4) active experimentation (iterative prototyping) while accommodating the following principles:

A) Respect for learners and their experience. Active listening is not easy, especially not in a remote setting. We cannot force students to put away distractions and ultimately can only act in good faith and make gentle reminders to do so.

B) Begin learning with the learner’s experience of the subject matter. The decision to allow students to solve a social problem of their choice was deliberate. I hope students, through the problem, reflect on what problems and pains they have faced in their lives. Their experience hopefully then provides a baseline level of knowledge to further investigate the problem.

C) Make space for conversational learning. We use a business communications tool called Slack (Discord, Microsoft Teams could very well serve the same function. To a lesser degree, WhatsApp and Telegram too). Culture sharing is done both synchronously online (more on that in the later section) as well as done in writing on Slack. There are further sub-chats known as “channels” where students engage each other and they can float in-and-out between other groups to explore discussions of other teams.

An inside look into our Slack workspace. Channels help to separate concerns so conversations remains focused

In order to facilitate cultural competency, we had to engineer spaces for Filipinos and Singaporeans to work with each other, otherwise they will conveniently stick to their own social circles.

Beyond the stakeholder of students, we had to also convince principals and teachers to co-create this with us. One aspect that we consistently had support for was “culture sharing”, a fixed block that we began every session with. We took turns to talk about practices, beliefs unique to our communities and shared both the teachrs’ and the students’ perspectives.

Thereafter, the Medium article served as a consolidation of some of these experiences. You can read some of them here in this publication. For the first batch, I set the requirement for conversation/ interview logs as means of validating concerted and deliberate interaction. I was glad that many students stepped out of their comfort zones and made a good faith attempt to learn about others from another country. To me, this was quite remarkable for their age, especially for the many shy and introverted students I have come across in the program from both countries.

Here are some further references for the frameworks for cultural competence that Melvin and I came across:

There are less immediate and less obvious indicators that I have learnt to treasure. The learning outcomes really are not the most apparent. One of them is students showing me that they finally met their Filipino counterpart (she came to Singapore) over a year on after the very first run of ASIP, photo below:

Moments like these genuinely makes me want to cry — it makes me think maybe the pain of doing all these does improve educational outcomes in a profound way

Another is when they exchange messages on social media platforms like Instagram. I will never know this on my own but I am heartened to hear these when I run into students from my program in the corridor. And also sadly Economics remedial sessions that I have to conduct. Well, to most teachers these online interactions are absolutely perilous since we have no visibility or ability to enforce safety. But this is the online, increasingly borderless world that we exist in. For all the fears and problems online, there is much to learn and grow in the same digital domain.

One of the main draws of ASIP to some students was the internship which helps to cultivate workplace competencies (which will otherwise be tough to introduce in the classroom). The excitement and promise of applied learning is well grounded by pragmatism — learning makes sense if it prepares us for the future. Students, even in college, are increasingly dissatisfied with the gap between what they learn and what they actually use. ASIP’s digital skills curriculum addresses this gap by reverse engineering some of the skills required in-demand in industry (validated by interviews with professionals in the private sector) and then generating something that gets students up to speed to contribute in spite of not having extensive training. All classrooms could explore some degree of applied learning. It is similar to a learning journey, just a lot more sustained and requires very deliberate scoping by the learning designers.

In both experiences for Stridy (Environmental Education Software-as-a-Service Non-Profit) and NUS FinTech Lab, we reduced friction by bringing speakers to school and provided direction to curate content for the students. On extreme right: students had their hands on creating Artificial Intelligence (AI) art using the parameters “”narwhales in ancient greece (arcane)”

ASIP served as an incubator for student projects. But Project Work (PW) and many other structures afforded by the school can very well do the same. My experiences in Hwa Chong as a student involved this crazy exercise called “Projects’ Day”, an intra-school projects’ competition. Most teachers play the role of mentor to student teams. All secondary 1 students (13 year-olds) are forced to participate. It is optional henceforth. There are many ways to foster autonomy, critical thinking to enable students to ideate creativity.

I sincerely believe independent of funding, every school possesses the talent and expertise to run something like ASIP and beyond. Please feel free to reach out to me if you ever hope to integrate any of these in your classroom.

5. Is it possible to translate elements of the programme into the teaching of specific subjects? If so, what subjects would be relevant and how can teachers of these subjects adopt some of the ideas of the programme in their classroom practice?

I would think that the white space afforded by Civics could be one way to introduce innovation and critical thinking using scaffolding from design thinking (encouraging the non-linear process of empathy, problem definition, ideation, iterative prototyping and testing approach). If your subject has bandwidth to accommodate student-led projects, design thinking could provide some structure to an otherwise very open-ended and ambiguous endeavor of project design.

Beyond Civics and self-initiated learning of any subject, I think there are definite parallels with Project Work. This is basically Project Work on steroids with added complexities of someone with more technical demands and absolutely different lived experiences (whether it is the Singaporean student or the Filipino student meeting each other for the first time; 95% of students in our program never had any extended interaction with a peer from such backgrounds).

Both Economics and English/ General Paper can benefit greatly from both process documentation as well as applied aspects of the program. In the first run of ASIP, we gave each group a small budget to hire a freelancer to assist with blockers they face. Some teams chose to engage designers to improve the aesthetics of their digital products. Memorably, one team was very upset with the quality of the work from the freelancer. In Economics, we know of this problem as conflict of interest and in particular, asymmetric information where the seller possesses more information about the product/ service than the buyer and deliberately withholds such information. The dissatisfaction they experience is pretty much market failure in practice.

ASEAN Social Innovations Programme

Updated description for sharing at Raffles Institution Teacher Conference (RITC)

How Might We introduce cultural competence and (technical) digital skills education in our classrooms to prepare ourselves and students for the future of work? Designed as a remote-first cross border program with Filipino and Singaporeans students, both students and teachers are exposed to design thinking and work on a prototype to solve a social problem of their choice. Interaction was sustained between Filipino and Singaporean students and teachers by design with the assistance of digital tools such as Slack, Miro, Notion and more. More important than the specific tech tools — one of the biggest learning point we took away was user experience research is universal. It has far reaching implications for any learning experience (subject agnostic) or school experience design. On top of that, process documentation for both the learner and designer goes a long way (largely of the reason why we chose to take part in this conference :))

By the end of the session, teachers will be able to:

  • Explain principles to cultivate cultural competency in the classroom and explore ways to enable social mixing
  • Analyze how design thinking can be used to provide structure to project management for their respective subjects
  • State and incorporate some digital tools (e.g. Miro, Slack, Notion) to facilitate remote work and learning

Original program description

Southeast Asia is the road towards a $1 trillion gross merchandise value economy by 2030. In anticipation of the rise of the digital economy, we will be sharing our experience running the ASEAN Social Innovations Program (ASIP), a remote-first cross border digital skills exposure program for driven youths. We partner with schools in ASEAN and deliver exploratory courses in User Experience (UX) research, User Interface (UI) design, low/no-code web development and digital marketing. We also curate remote internship opportunities with both Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and startups in the region. Students have had the opportunity to learn and hone their digital skills to solve problems through a project of their choice as well as optional work experiences.



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Educator interested in data science, dance and full stack development