When schools prioritise qualifications at all cost, it can prevent their students’ social development. A pressure-cooker environment produces excellent pupils but poor citizens.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic has moved to ensure that students graduate with both smarter heads and hearts. Using an approach called ‘service-learning’, they have involved students in community work to develop empathy and purposeful learning. From 2016, there will be at least one service-learning model introduced into every three year course.

“We feel that this will help our students to be more effective learners, and also help us change our paradigm about what is education,” says Choo Cheh Hoon, Senior Director of Projects. The programme sees service-learning become a module on an academic course, helping students to apply their knowledge to tackle social problems.

This, ultimately, will achieve three outcomes. First is for pupils to be a “passionate learner,” says Choo. Second, “the student must be a big-hearted person.” And third, pupils must have a global perspective.

The approach helps them become more passionate about their studies because they see the impact of their knowledge when it is applied. It also boosts their empathy with the less fortunate. But how does it give them a global perspective?

The answer is in the scope of the projects. For example, Ngee Ann has a partnership with a small village in Cambodia where people live near a refuse site and recycle the materials, explains Joyce Wong, Deputy Director of the School of Humanities & Social Sciences. The students help teach these villagers new skill sets, for example in business and enterprise. Pupils on this course helped improve the business models for recycling the material, using their learning to scale up sales and achieve a higher yield for villagers.

Meanwhile, the nursing cohort of between 300-400 students work with an NGO to support migrant workers in Singapore who receive limited healthcare. “This is a powerful experience because they actually go and talk to the migrant workers and understand what they do like never before,” Joyce says.

A third scheme sees project management students support elderly people in Hong Kong. They use their learning to run a gala evening for a group of elderly people in need. “They get to interact [with the elderly] very frequently so they understand [their] needs face to face,” she adds.

A dedicated office, run by Joyce has been established to find suitable projects for students. With 50 diplomas and 16,000 students, it is a big programme to manage, but Ngee Ann is giving its utmost support.

The dedicated office will manage how service learning ties into the curriculum of each programme; build capacity for staff; partner with other schools and NGOs; and communicate the programme to students.

The team will also help celebrate successes achieved during these programmes. Awards will be given to celebrate achievements, which may not necessarily be academic. A culture of encouragement will help support students as they face natural pressure to achieve good grades.

“It is not going to be easy,” Choo concludes. But “we are building a new culture of learning, we are building a new culture of teaching, we are building a different mindset.” For students in a high-strung city, service-learning could be a welcome chance to see the value of their learning in a whole new light.