Learning for creativity, innovation and empathy: Lessons from Asia

The more developed Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong etc., have education system that are widely perceived to be highly efficient and effective. These education systems have been one of the cornerstones on which Asian economies have developed rapidly over the last few decades. However, we are now seeing a small but growing movement reacting against these traditional approaches to education and their focus on grades, university entrance exams and jobs in the public sector and large firms. Some are beginning to criticize this mainstream education system for failing to provide the skills that are increasingly being demanded in the globalized economy. The detractors perceive this traditional approach to education as stifling creative thinking and empathy among young people.

Thought Collective, Singapore

In Singapore, the Thought Collective aims to change the educational paradigm through a multi-pronged approach, running four social enterprises, including School of Thought, Food for Thought, Think Tank and Thinkscape.

In 2001, its founders wanted to change the status quo of traditional education by setting up a tuition school that had an ulterior motive – to support the development of young people in Singapore who were more socially aware, creative and innovative. They set out to tackle the problem of widespread apathy amongst young people in the face of long-term social problems:

“As teachers, we had seen too many young Singaporeans emerge out of the school system jaded, knowing and caring only as much as the exams required them to know and care about. We were troubled to see the indifference many Singaporeans showed not only towards Singapore itself but to the world and life in general. It was not too hard to imagine how these youths would grow up to be unhappy and disenchanted adults, pessimistic about their ability to change their circumstances.”[i]

Since its founding days, School of Thought has moved from strength to strength with increased number of pupils in their tuition schools, now based in a number of locations, and influencing school boards and teachers to adopt a more creative and innovative approach to teaching through an alternative curriculum.

The Thought Collective has a portfolio of various ventures within it: through the School of Thought, it has gone into printing; through Think Tank, created to disseminate School of Thought’s teaching pedagogies in a more innovative medium than textbook format, and to ensure that young people heard about and were inspired by the creative work of the Thought Collective, it now prints periodicals which are circulated to over ten thousand young people in Singapore; from Think Tank, the founders then went into the restaurant business to create a place where Singaporians could feed both their bodies and minds – eat delicious food and share their ideas and talk about social issues. Most recently, the Thought Collective has branched into Thinkscape – providing young people with learning experiences and placements working with government and private sector as a way to learn about work and life. They are in the midst of developing a consultancy where they provide insight into the Thought Collective Model to charities and other organisations trying to create social change in a sustainable way.

This group of young social entrepreneurs in Singapore identified a market gap and social problem – and merged the two to come up with innovative solutions. At their heart, however, explains co-founder Shiao-Yin Kuik, the Thought Collective aims “to build up the social emotional capital of Singapore.”[ii]

Haja Centre, South Korea

Similar to the School of Thought in Singapore, the Haja Centre in South Korea was created out of the need for an alternative education model that fosters creativity and empathy amongst young people in Korea. Haja Centre creates a safe space that embodies diversity, relationship building, and autonomy for young people to help unleash their inner creativity and potential.

© Haja Centre / The Hope Institute

At the Haja Centre, young people are given the autonomy to work on the projects that stimulate their creativity– from making films, creating art, websites, social enterprises. Self-directed learning and self-reflection is encouraged, and the space allows for young people to experiment and be creative. There is also a strong importance placed on relationships – especially peer-to-peer relationships. The Haja Centre has created a platform called ‘Show Haja’ where young people are invited to share and present their journeys of success and failure. The platform enables the young people to work collaboratively and to understand different perspectives with an open mind.

Typically, young people at the Haja Centre join short cultural programmes that include one day or one month work experience in cultural occupations of people such as film directors, singers, DJs, photographers, models, and make-up artists. Then they can start other cultural programmes, lasting several months at the Production Studios, or even register for courses at the alternative schools including the Production School. Through these programmes and schools, young people produce their own cultural work such as films, plays, musical shows, rock concerts, and parties. Participants of the Haja Centre choose diverse careers in their twenties after completing the projects of the Haja Centre. Some go back to formal schools and universities, some become freelancers working in culture industry, some become NGO activists and others become social entrepreneurs.

For preliminary social entrepreneurs, the Haja Centre provides mentoring and specific consulting on business planning, marketing, financing, sales required to turn preliminary social enterprise into governmental authorised social enterprise. Currently, eight social enterprises that were incubated by the Haja Centre have been verified as social enterprises by the Ministry of Employment and Labour, and three preliminary social enterprises are supported by the Haja Centre. Noridan, the first social enterprise incubated by the Haja Centre, is a performance company that makes percussion instruments from recycled materials. It started as a cultural programme group in 2004 at the Haja Centre and now has since become a social enterprise which employs 86 full-time people, performs around two hundred shows and a thousand workshops per year.

Make a Difference (MaD), Hong Kong

In Hong Kong there is a similar movement towards learning through creativity, innovation and empathy. Make a Difference (MaD) organised by Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture in Hong Kong, MaD is a Hong Kong-based platform devoted to inspiring and empowering young people aged 19-30 across Asia to create positive personal, economic, social and environmental change. The Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture believes that young people have a power to make a difference and focuses on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation and discovery.

© MaD / Global Innovation Academy

These are three examples among many in which the traditional education systems are being challenged by social innovators around the world. Similar examples can be found in other parts of the world. For example, Educate!, based in Uganda, starts from the idea that, despite critical challenges facing young people, the current education system is leaving the next generation unprepared to create and lead solutions. They advocate the need to “re-imagine the purpose of education” in order to develop a “new generations of leaders and entrepreneurs to solve poverty, disease, violence, and environmental degradation.”[iii] Another example is Ashoka’s new global empathy initiative,[iv] recently started in North America.

Key Resources

Tong Yee, Elizabeth Kon & Shiao-Yin Kuik, Directors, School of Thought. Interviewed 29 February 2012.

The Hope Institute (2012) Fostering youth creativity through self-directed learning and learning by doing at Haja Center (a report prepared for the Young Foundation)


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