Sunday, March 16, 2008

Of seeds sown, and seedlings grown

(Kindly pardon the Dr Seuss-esque subject for this post, I was just entertained by a full-length version of one of his scripts earlier in the evening.)

I bought a camera recently, and found that one of the pixels on the LCD was inactive. A technology-enthusiast would call that a hot or dead pixel, which shows up as a bright spot on the LCD screen, regardless of whether an image has been captured by the camera or not. Now, what's one pixel out of 230 000, you say, but the net effect is somewhat similar to a bright-red pimple smack in the middle of the temple of Helen of Troy. (Call this obsession an occupational hazard if you might.)

Nevertheless, I was thoroughly impressed by that particular manufacturer's after-sales service, and their willingness to replace this with a new product (of the same model of course). Thus, Helen of Troy, post-adolescence. This was particularly impressive as company (and product) policy dictates that a unit can be replaced only if there are at least five such hot pixels.


I had a bit of a think about programmes like last year's DMP (Design My Place, an "architecture- and urban-awareness" workshop geared towards upper-secondary and pre-university level students) and more recently, the roaringly successful YUP (Young Urbanist Programme, a similar workshop for primary-school students), and what it might give birth to.

The YUP programme, by virtue of its objectives (or maybe by virtue of its acronym!), is somewhat reminiscent of a programme that some of us might have participated in in primary school, called the Young Scientist's Award. It's the programme where you research on bugs and achieve an Entomology badge, sort out some waste and achieve an Environmentalist badge, and so on. After x number of badges - and therefore, x number of ticks on a checklist - you'd become an eponymous Young Scientist.

What these programmes have done is that they inculcate a seed (possibly more, depending on their response to various conditions) of interest and participation in architecture and urbanism (I use the term rather loosely here) in this case. There are, the cases of DMP and YUP, projected plans of continuing and sowing similar seeds (how's that for a Seussian alliteration?) in a larger pool of schools, across multiple levels of education preceding higher learning (at this point, primary, secondary and pre-university students have already been involved). More sites in Singapore would be covered, concomitant with more ideas, greater ideas, and unbridled visions of what the city could be - perhaps even more unbridled at primary-school level than at pre-university level, but that's a discussion in another room.

In essence, the seeds are thrown over a larger hinterland, with one constituent area being responsible for - or accountable towards - another.

Yet, with the passing of the programme, though, what becomes of the participating students? The sowing of seeds (I apologise for the poor metaphor in the earlier paragraphs which has been taken up to this point) over a larger area might (and likely) lead to a lapse of attention, a lack of nurturing, in the previous seeds which have just begun to grow. While having an interest in architecture and urbanism (again, don't philosophise too much on the word in the context of this blog entry) inculcated in them by having participated in the workshop, it might be very soon before the interest gets superseded by the more daily demands of having to survive the many other obstacles of pre-planned academia - the PSLE, O and A Levels, plus the multiple variations of secondary and pre-university baccalaurates and integrated programs that could well snuff out that interest in architecture. Case in point - I might have participated in that young scientist award programme, but it didn't make me a scientist.

While I'm definitely not arguing that every (current or future) DMP and/or YUP participant should aspire to become an architect at some point, what I'm championing is the nurturing of the now-seedlings that have been planted in them. The idea is to be able to engage previous workshop participants at a higher level of involvements in future workshops, and this can be two-prong:

1. To engage the participants of the previous workshops as facilitators - and eventual veterans - of future workshops.

2. To enable them to participate in workshops that are now more in-depth, and thus engage their thinking and creativity (for lack of a better synonym!) at a level that is now in tune with their maturity, and

(Point number 2 would work out when there are workshops that sufficiently bridge the various levels of formal education, but given the current infrastructure, a YUP participant at primary-school level could well benefit from the DMP programme when he/she is at the upper secondary/pre-university level.)

Now all that rant above simply elaborates on this - the long-term vision for these workshops could include the possibility of inculcating a long-standing commitment with various schools and curricula, beginning as an "attache programme" to the existing curriculum, and possibly assuming greater involvement in formal curriculum in the future. That is to say, good "after-service service", for the sake of bringing this point of the discussion back to the initial thought about the good follow-up service rendered in the replacement camera scenario.

Which leads to the next point.

How would a structure like this fit, and feed back, into a larger, longer canvas? How would the curriculum host programmes such as DMP and YUP if they are taken into the long haul, and thus involving greater labour, more resource and higher levels of commitment by the personnel of participating schools?

Taken several steps further, wouldn't it be ideal if the students, through these programmes, have direct involvement in the spaces that they learn in, and/or the softer aspects of their curriculum (akin to what students of certain liberal-arts universities might relate to)?

A conversation with Tay Kheng Soon, at some point in a very enjoyable semester last year, one highly successful - and one can only hope is contagious - example came up. Kheng Soon was closely involved with the planning of one such school together with Mechai Viravaidya - Thailand's Condom King might ring a louder bell - the latter having launched the now-renowned Cabbages and Condoms chain of restaurants and resorts. That school is the Lamplaimat Pattana School in Thailand (see a write-up of it here, by Catalyst in Thailand), and for the sake of brevity (and trust in you having read that Catalyst article), the students across six primary-level grades are genuinely involved in their learning spaces and curricula. Some students have even set up their own radio station, broadcast to students of the school alone. (How many of us would even think of doing that at any point in our lives? We are taught to "pass with flying colours", except that those colours come from a very limited palette.)

The administrators have administered, and remarkably, stopped at that. They have allowed for room to grow, without any semblance of an overbearing hand in controlling the child's destiny, so to speak. They have facilitated, and in that process, nurtured the growing seed.


Programmes such as YUP and DMP could be that which tills the land, at the very first step of that long-drawn, and often endless, process of learning.

Comments, refutations and anything in between are very much welcome. ;)