Teachers can learn a thing or two from the advertising industry, Chan Yew Meng says. Students are like customers, and teachers must find new ways to keep them engaged.

Students today have a shorter attention span, with classroom learning only one of the many ways to spend their time. If educators are to help students grow in the “most effective manner, you have to tune your teaching to their way,” says the Deputy Principal of Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore.

Chan tells GovInsider how the polytechnic is turning traditional notions of education on its head, and adapting its teaching environment to the habits of Generation Z.

Design thinking in the classroom

Chan and his team are looking to use “learning experience design” in classes – a concept that borrows from the principles of design thinking. It places students at the centre of decisions, and the learning process is planned around their interests so they find it engaging. “Every lesson should be treated like you are designing an experience”, he says.

“Let’s say you’re teaching a class, one person looks at you intently, while another fiddles with his headphones – how will you judge the two students?”, he asks. A typical teacher will say the one who pays attention must be the better student, but perhaps the distracted one is merely doing his research, he says.

“You have to imagine from the student’s perspective – what will be their experience, going through this one hour?,” Chan says. He believes that understanding the cohorts, and engaging their emotion and cognitive development are key to this.

The initiative is now part of his staff’s training programme, and he has engaged internal expertise from the polytechnic’s design school to help with this. They are “providing leadership to the rest of the colleagues in this area”, he says. The training will be an ongoing process and “is not something that can be accomplished in a day or two”, he adds.

Gamifying learning

Staying motivated can be challenging for students, and Chan is looking into new ways to nudge them in the right direction. “Even when you embed a lot of interactive elements, sometimes it’s just not very interesting,” he says. “The whole idea is self-directed learning – how do you keep them interested?”

Teenagers do spend hours playing online games, and he draws insight from there to make lessons more fun. Polytechnics can implement a reward system to motivate students. Students want “positive affirmation” that they are going the right way, he says. For instance, they could be given digital badges for completing lessons and assignments online.

PolyMall

All five polytechnics in Singapore are currently working on a joint project, called PolyMall, which will launch in October, he says. The platform pools learning materials across all five institutions for lecturers to collaborate on modules and students to share and study these materials online.

It will help educators across polytechnics “contribute to make e-learning better”, Chan explains. Lecturers will have to develop modules together, allow teachers from different institutes to learn from one another. Schools leading in certain subjects will lead the discussion, and other polytechnics will nominate their staff to participate in the venture, he adds.

The first stage is opening it up to students. After that, the platform will be opened up to adult learners, like mid-career professionals who want to pick up new skills, and the wider public. “We are going to rapidly progress to the continuing education space”, Chan says, in line with the country’s national SkillsFuture programme.

Skills in need

Tech now plays a large role in teaching and learning, so lecturers will need to be tech-savvy. But Chan believes that they should also learn from advertising and communications professionals. Educators can learn from copywriters on how to get their learning points across succinctly, engage students, and inspire them to do more about it, he says – “which is what advertising does”.

Chan is learning how to market education to students. They’re his customers, and he must listen to them. “We can’t use the way we were taught to teach our students”, he says.

As he tells it: “The days of teaching is largely over; this is the age of learning.”