"Learning Isn't Just About Being In The Classroom", Tan Choon Shian

Head of Singapore Polytechnic, Mr Tan Choon Shian, talks about different ways of learning and the aim to create future-ready, inspired learners.


Singapore Polytechnic (SP) Principal and Chief Executive Officer Tan Choon Shian was just 16 years old when he set sail to Taiwan in a navy ship. As part of his attachment, the National Cadet Corps cadet spent many days combing the steel vessel for rusty surfaces and hammering away the affected layers, before protecting the clean metal underneath with fresh coats of paint.

A few years later while studying in Japan on a government scholarship, Mr Tan worked part-time as a cleaner at a bathhouse. He would brave the winter chill to cycle from his hostel to the bathhouse when it closed at midnight to scrub the place for two hours.

“It was a bit painful… but I learnt how a Japanese bathhouse works,” said Mr Tan in an interview with Challenge at PappaRich at Star Vista. “Learning is not just [about being in] the classroom – it’s [also] getting out there and trying all these things.”

Doing things differently

Before joining SP in 2013, Mr Tan was Deputy Managing Director of the Economic Development Board (EDB). During his 20 years at the agency, he headed departments such as the Electronics and Precision Engineering Cluster; Planning and Policy; and Marketing Communications.

To him, the move from EDB to SP made perfect sense: “EDB’s about creating an economic future for our people. I’m just moving from that to nurturing the people – the students – who will be creating that economic future.”

One of Mr Tan’s first undertakings at SP was to extend an ongoing exercise to hear what the 1,700 staff thought about the polytechnic’s vision. His team asked lecturers from the architecture school to come up with a space in which participants would feel “safe and comfortable” talking openly; he also asked the staff to pen their hopes and challenges of working in SP on Post-its. He ended up with more than 7,000 notes, every one of which he and his leadership team read. “We put them on display… [with] no editing, no censorship, including some fairly strong frustrations. This was to encourage trust and transparency.”

SP also consulted external experts on education and work trends beyond the school, and conducted Our Singapore Conversation sessions with students, gaining some insights on youths and the future of work.

The exercise, which took nearly a year to complete, helped SP win the 2014 Public Service Best Practice Award for Organisation Development.

The result is SP’s new vision with the three ideas of “Inspired Learners, Serve with Mastery and Caring Community”. Mr Tan and his staff are teaching their students to be “inspired learners”. Youths today will likely have multiple careers in a lifetime, and the best way to prepare them for that is to inculcate in them the desire to learn continually, he explained.

And it’s not just academic success that matters. Aware of how some students struggle with socio-emotional issues, Mr Tan encourages SP lecturers to reach out to them via social media. “It is one way to show care and concern,” said the affable principal, who has Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. “Some lecturers have used social media very successfully to motivate students.”

But educators need to be mindful of boundaries, he cautioned. While he follows the Twitter feeds of students, he avoids “friend-ing” them on Facebook, seeing it as a more private platform. Meanwhile, for lecturers who want to use Facebook to connect with students, SP advises having two accounts: one private and the other professional.

Being non-contentious online

The Internet, Mr Tan noted, is a “very tricky space and a contest for eyeballs”, and so his strategy is to be selectively authentic: he stays away from commenting on potentially controversial topics but shares openly about “non-contentious” events like his morning jogs and experiences with his children, aged 13 and 9.

“I don’t talk about education on social media,” he said. “Because if I talk and people engage me, and there’s a very strong opinion which I cannot tolerate, what can I do? Do I keep quiet? Do I say yes or no?”

“If you look at it, it’s the fairly mundane things that create a community,” he added. “You’re not there to show off how smart you are. I want to go there to see what my friends are thinking.”

His caution stems from his observation of social media over the past decade. He was an early user of Facebook in 2007, but admitted that at the time, he and his senior colleagues at EDB were “a bit fearful of Twitter because it is a young people’s thing”. Still, in 2011, they had their first go at Twitter, sending “live” updates during EDB’s 50th anniversary celebration. And then when EDB set its sights on the China market, he opened a Weibo account (China’s microblogging service).

“So I’ve been experimenting a bit... I’m the type of person who feels that the best way to learn is to do something,” he said.

Finding pragmatic solutions

Since joining SP, Mr Tan has injected greater flexibility into its hiring practices. He cited a recent SP recruitment advertisement for a business development manager’s position that wanted applicants with 10 years of relevant job experience and a degree. “When we spotted it, we said: if the person already has the experience, why insist on him having a degree?” he said. And so the degree requirement was scrapped.

The principal also wants to support the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises’ call for public organisations to hire former offenders. But he cannot ignore the concerns of some parents who are uncomfortable with the thought of their children interacting with staff who have criminal records.

The solution he is proposing: a “nuanced” employment policy that would allow the hiring of such individuals for backroom functions instead.

“I think we can and should be very inclusive… If they can do the job, we should hire them.”


What's in your cuppa?
3-in-1 yuan yang (tea with coffee), only when I’m travelling.

How often do you have it?
First thing in the morning, before my jog in the city I am visiting.

Where do you take it?
In my hotel room when I am on the road.

Civil Service College will hold a Fireside Chat with Mr Tan on 30 September.

    Sep 1, 2014
    Chen Jingting
    Norman Ng
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