Personal development in the new normal often involves blended learning. In the continuing education space, classroom learning has undergone digital transformation to accommodate our busy schedules for learning and development.
Workplace training and development are needed for organizational survival. Upskilling your teams is also a big contributing factor to employee retention.
Celine Chew is an Affiliate Faculty member of SMU Academy at Singapore Management University. She is a Certified Information Privacy Manager (CIPM) and Head of Learning and Development at Straits Interactive, which delivers personal data protection governance, risk, and compliance solutions for businesses.
Celine has extensive international training experience and specializes in the social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of learning. She is also a coach to senior executives in multinational as well as regional companies.
In today’s evolving working world, continuous growth ensures workplace performance. It makes a difference between an employee’s relevance or redundancy in an organization.
Celine Chew spoke to LEARNTech Asia at the end of 2020. She shared her thoughts on how the pandemic ushered digital transformation in the continuing education and training space, how students are relearning how to learn, and how a growth mindset will help your career future.
Editor’s Note: Our interview with Celine is the fifth in a series offering partners of the EduTech Alliance an opportunity to share their thoughts on the future of learning and work.
Here’s the full video interview with Celine. You can jump to adapted highlights in the sections below:
What’s the learning mindset in Singapore?
We have evolved, and it’s not just one type of mindset. From the different groups of people I’ve come across over the last few years, there is a whole spectrum of learning mindsets, as you would have in any population.
Some folks are really into learning and lifelong learning. And we’ve met people who are looking to learn all sorts of different things. There’s also a group of people who are having challenges and figuring out how they will be learning all of these new areas.
Because of the pandemic and the circuit breakers, now we’ve got more time. We’ve got opportunities to go into different learnings that I see an evolution of those sorts of learning mindsets.
Did the pandemic transform people into lifelong learners?
I’ve been in education for a long time. Even as Singapore first started, we always looked to move and push. Because of the position of Singapore as a tiny little island, there’s the mindset of “Okay, we got to stay competitive, we got to keep learning with the new areas.”
If you look at Singapore’s history, we went into different industries over the years and how we got into these areas from nothing.
Because a few different forces are coming together — work, the world economy, the nature of jobs, AI, automation — those areas, plus the pandemic, because of the policies that we have here it provides a lot of opportunities for people to learn.
Are Singapore’s learners different from the rest of Asia?
I don’t think so. I think we are in a better position because of the infrastructure and the resources that have been built up over the years in the education system.
Making English the primary language has allowed us to continue because a lot of the new research is in English. Because we can read and get into the infrastructure of the internet, I think it’s given us an advantage.
If you look at the other countries, they are resource-rich. But the fundamentals need to be put in place in terms of the infrastructure. When the pandemic shut us down, and we went to the circuit breaker, everybody’s learning from home. We had to have laptops for students; we had to have enough Wi-Fi the internet connections. We had to have people who are familiar with these new technologies.
We had the IT master plan for education 30 years ago. That was in the years where teachers never use laptops to teach. We never used PowerPoint. All our teachers at that point had to learn to use PowerPoint. So we started with bite-sized learning over the years.
Even now, there are still people who struggle online, with Zoom, and with all your internet conference tools. But because we have no choice, everybody has to get help from somebody.
I met a gentleman who’s 80 years old, and he is in his second employment. He’s retired from his previous job, and he’s learning how to use Zoom. But he’s got his younger colleagues to come and set it up for him and help him learn. I always say to the participants in the class, “When I grow up, I want to be just like him.”
His motivation was that he wanted to keep himself busy. He tried not to so much reinvent himself per se, but because he’s 80, he wanted to keep having a meaningful way to engage himself.
His expertise was in the areas of security. Those were the areas that he knew best. So that was where his strength was and his background experience. So the organization tapped on that.
As a result, he had to understand the other new areas that he may not be familiar. And that’s when he then decided, “Okay, I need to learn these things. And how do I figure these things out?”
Do fresh graduates & mid-career professionals learn differently?
Most of the people I encounter nowadays are mid-career, mostly in the 40s. But we do see a few new grads. I’ve had the opportunity to work with the new grads and those who are just about to graduate in the areas of work that I do. They are looking to gain a competitive advantage and know what it is before they get out into the workforce.
This other group — and there’s a whole spectrum of people who are what we call “ the appointed” — who are either volunteered by the organization or those who are volunteers themselves to take on a new position. They come with different mindsets.
When you come with “I have to do it because my boss told me,” it’s a very different thing than “I’m doing it because I want to keep myself career resilient, I want to keep myself in the forefront so that I can be of greater value to the organization, and that I gain skill sets and knowledge that are transferable.”
Was the pandemic and unemployment a wake-up call for a growth mindset?
I will say yes. And I don’t know if you have met people who’ve gone through the Japanese occupation. For example, my grandma was born in 1914. And she passed away at 98 years old. She went through pretty much everything that Singapore went through. When you are forced into a situation where you have zero choices in order to survive, to make ends meet, you are forced to figure your way around things.
I think the pandemic created a situation where everybody’s in the same boat, and it’s not just in Singapore but it’s the whole world. So, we’ve got to make it, and we’ve got to find a way to make it together.
Because of that, the government was there, the organization, working together — the staff, the employees, those who are unemployed — we are all now trying to figure out ways to make it not just as individuals, not just as organizations, but how do we make it as a country?
I think it was quite dire and quite dreary in the early months. We were feeling the heaviness of things. I could feel like the whole country came together when there were those moments, like singing. The whole estate was starting to sing loudly, and I felt touched. So, those were the kinds of things that I think that together, we can figure out our way, just as we had done in the years of past.
Could Singaporean employability extend beyond its borders?
I think there are a couple things. One, because we speak English and the big majority has a second language, whether it is Malay, whether it is their mother tongue, whether it’s Chinese, and because of that, we are better able to communicate.
Number two, the ability for us to understand tech — getting onto the internet, being able to travel — are areas that tech has allowed us to do.
But number three, because of this background, when we know where our strengths are and a big part of Singapore’s strength, we have figured out ways to set up systems.
We’ve figured out ways where we are able to export things that we figured out that could work that nobody else has tried. But we know that we’ve got to create a unique set of circumstances that allows us to progress.
That has allowed us to figure out how to go about creating these new systems that allows things to work and be able to work with other people and other cultures.
I think it all goes back to how the education system tries to get people to work together with different languages, different cultures, figuring out how to make things better.
For example, I’ve never understood for a long time why we wanted to plant trees along our highways and along the roads and in the districts and all that. I never quite understood why until I saw a little quote that Lee Kuan Yew asked the person who was in charge of National Parks to create a testimonial that tells the world we are here to stay.
And what better way than to have trees that take years to grow. And that’s it right there. And so, in that sense, I realized that we are here to stay.
Yes, there may be challenges along the way as you would have in life. Life is not just one way up or one way down. Life will have all sorts of things thrown at you. But how do we get better? How do we find a way? Nature will find a way, like the trees will grow where the conditions best meet them — with the sunlight, water, and all that.
But you need some form of nurturing; you need some ability where the conditions are best met that will allow you to thrive. As much as we are providing all that, I think it also comes to a point where we need to find those ways for ourselves individually.
So the infrastructure is there for the things that we can do, but at the same time, we need to own it, and we need to be prepared to pay the price. That’s what creates the value that is most important to us and what matters most to us.
But at the same time, it’s also because there’s now this ability that the rest of the world can also do it online. We also have to figure out why would the multinational companies choose us over somebody else who might be priced lower?
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Is bite-sized learning more effective in adult education?
I think that’s the way to go now. Simply because when you’re an adult learner, you’re working or looking after family, and so on. So you don’t have the luxury of putting everything aside for two or three years and then just doing nothing but learning. You’ve got no choice but to do it bite-sized.
Bite-sized may be half a day, it may be one day, it may be a couple of days. I think it allows us to learn it, apply it, understand it, test out if it works, and experiment.
I like the word “experiment,” and if we look back at some of the policies that the country has or some of the strategies right now, or at least in the last few years, that various universities have started to put in place for adult learners, it’s a series of different experiments — what’s going to work, what’s not going to work?
I think it’s how we experiment with the different strategies that will work for each of us. Because there is no one strategy that will work for every single person, we will have to tweak it to make it work for us based on what the time is like for us. Why we want to learn, how we actually learn.
We have various learning strengths, but we also have various weaknesses that are unique to each of us and to each of our circumstances. So I’m finding that as we are progressing and the experience I had with adult learners over the last few years, this helps.
But what will be helpful is to have some examples of success, some examples of failures that the folks can experience, or they can look at. Then, from there, have people that they can bounce off ideas and have a community where they can share ideas, which may work a lot better.
How do we know when teaching strategies are effective?
With the new laws that we were looking at, there weren’t many people with this background. So, what we did was we started creating in terms of a framework and looking at how we best understand each of these parts; what are the skill sets and the knowledge that you need?
For example, in the whole area of data protection, and if you’re going to be a data protection officer, what skill sets do you need? What knowledge do you need? You need to know the law. Then, what’s the easiest way for you to learn the law? We came up with the acronym, and that helped.
One of the things that I realized is that we need to know how to ask better questions, and we need to ask questions that allow us to learn better. So that’s number one. Then number two is then the different things we have to look at that will allow us to know if we are progressing.
One of the things is the ability to observe what’s going on in terms of the process and the outcome. Because a lot of us were very outcome-driven, but we forget the progress, and we forget the process, which is about learning.
So you can come to the same outcome, but the process is different. When the process is different, when you get to the same outcome, whether you are able to go long term to figure out lifelong learning or not. To go further is going to be curtailed by not answering the process.
So, this is an area that I actually borrowed from my years of being in teaching. There is a belief that if you don’t know how to catch and throw a ball, you will never learn how to throw and catch a ball.
I’ve always wondered, why is that? What if it’s possible? And so as I went into biomechanics. It’s like shooting a ball — how do you increase the probability of getting the ball into the hoop? The moment you can get it in line, you increase the probability. When you get it to a certain angle, you increase the probability. So how do I do that?
With the students that I used to be teaching, I say, “Okay, can I narrow it down so that they don’t toss the ball everywhere?” The moment you get them to get their elbows and their wrists aligned, their shoulders aligned, and you just focus on forgetting about getting the ball in the hoop, just aim to get the ball in alignment with the hoop.
When you do that, their alignment and the ability for them to get the ball in line increases the probability of them getting the outcome of the ball being in the hoop.
That was when I realized, it is not that the child cannot catch and throw the ball, but the strategy they’re using doesn’t work. It makes it even more difficult for them to try and catch a ball because if you observe a child trying to catch a ball who’s struggling, you will observe there’s a vastly big difference between them doing it.
The people who can do it, they’ll do it this way, which means they are able to increase the probability of them catching the ball, whereas for the child who cannot catch a ball will catch the ball like this, which means they’ve got to really have the ability to time it so finely. Which means they get hit a lot more. And when you get hit a lot more, you tend to close your eyes, which tends to decrease the chance of you catching the ball.
So, that was a concept that I pulled from education into this new field of adult learning. It’s like, “Okay, how do I pace it out?” In order that there are little things that they can catch and they can I understand in bite-sizes.
Then, as they feel the success each time, the confidence grows and when the confidence grows, then the belief starts to change: “You know what? Maybe I can do this”.
But because they are adult learners, there is always that “what’s first” principle. Then that reiteration and elaboration of the first principles starts to be repeated. Because when we are adults, our memory is very different.
The way we learn has shifted, and research has shown that when we go beyond 35 years of age, the way our memory degrades, it’s a natural fact.
So we’ve got to figure out new ways of learning that’s different from when we were a child. Then when we get to what fifty or sixty years old, the learning, again, changes. So we also have to figure out new ways of learning that’s very different, because the way the brain connects shifts.
And so there is this thing that we don’t understand enough about the neuroscience of our brain and there is a misconception that how we learn, if we cannot, then it’s because I’m old. It’s because I cannot learn. But that’s not necessarily true. I believe that is because the strategy with us then no longer works so we got to figure out new ways.
Will the desire to reskill and upskill eventually plateau?
I don’t think there will be a plateau. Because technology is advancing so fast, we have to understand and have to learn about the new technologies. If we don’t, we will not be able to find the new ways that we will reinvent ourselves yet again.
One of the ways that Singapore has stayed relevant is we are continually reinventing ourselves. With the push of AI, machine learning, and even new technologies, we have to understand how the AI works, we have to understand how algorithms are going to drive our lives.
One of the major things that, for example, I was sharing with a lot of different classes, is how we must fundamentally understand the big difference between what’s cause and effect versus what’s a correlation.
It’s a very different concept in understanding the world because we’re now going into the digital world, where the machines and the algorithms will be making those decisions.
These are correlation-based decisions, they are not cause and effect. But our brains evolve a lot slower. It evolves in thousands of years and not in months or days. The algorithms are progressing at that speed, but they are correlation-based, they are not cause and effect. But because we are so used to “Because A happens, then B, C, D, therefore E happens” our brain will say “Because A happens therefore we get E.”
There are too many things that we may not be able to see behind the scenes and we do need to understand this difference. There’s a big difference between these two concepts. I think this is going to be a really important principle to get to, because that’s where the world is moving into.
How do we support continuous learning?
This may be one of the most important things. One, we’ve got to each have that beginning belief that we can learn and each of us has actually had the ability to learn since we were a baby.
The concept of learning then is we never tell a child after three days of trying to walk, “Forget it. You know what? You will never learn how to walk. So forget it.” We never say that to a child because the child does not have a belief that it can walk or he or she cannot walk.
So they’ll just keep trying and keep experimenting until they figure it out. Even if a child wouldn’t, we as adults and caretakers will go “Come on, let’s go. You can do it”. We motivate, we incentivize, we push the baby to do that.
So, as we’re adults, can we have that same belief and that same mindset, ”Let’s figure this out until we get it”. I feel it is an important thing, because we can learn this. Just how long is it going to take?
Is it possible, for example, for you to become a concert pianist? And you say no. What if I change the question, “Is it possible for you to become a concert pianist in a hundred years?” And the answer will be yes, right?
Then the third question is, are you prepared to pay the price of that hundred years of doing a lot of practicing to be that concert pianist. In hundred years, if you are prepared to, the likelihood is you will be a concert pianist.
So that belief and that ability to start practicing and to start experimenting. And finally, to understand our learning strengths, our learning weaknesses, and finding ways to create the strategies that would best help us learn. I think that would be the key to keep us moving. The why, the how, and the what and for us to figure those things out.