Alden Boon

Stories by Children Founder Chen Yuanhui on Awakening a Child’s Divinity and Wisdom



How does Stories by Children approach education differently then?

I was exposed to the Reggio Emilia Approach® when I did a year in Harvard University. It spoke to me. Fundamental to the principle is that children are equal to the adults. When you speak to a child as an equal, when you speak to their wisdom, what they reciprocate will show up as wisdom. Conversely, when you belittle them or refute them by saying ‘You’re just a child. What do you know?’, they will show up diminished and exactly the version you think they are. How others present themselves to you depends on how you talk to them.

At Stories by Children, I use pedagogy that is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach®. During my classes, not only do I see the children as equal but I also see them as equally divine. This pedagogy is one that is sensitive to a child’s interests and inclinations, not a top-down, didactic approach but one that keenly observes and deeply respects the child as a person. It’s about accepting children at the levels that they currently are. It is more than just about processes or product outcomes. The prompts I use are very simple: ‘Oh, I see.’ ‘Aah, I see that this interests you.’

I am not saying that the ministry’s curriculum is flawed, or that my way is superior. I am merely providing something that is complementary, an alternative my friends in mainstream education can examine and consider.

So, is it more of listening rather than dictating?

Allowing. In order to allow, you must trust that the child has his or her own divinity. You eschew telling the children that they are wrong, or that there is a fixed approach to doing things. In most of my classes, I flow with the student’s energy and am deeply respectful of where they are along the educational journey.

Above all, I’m here to echo to the students that they are divine, and that it is okay to be themselves, even when imperfect (which we all are). Over time, given this constant acknowledgement and affirmation, they will have the courage to speak up. The children will develop the confidence and know that what they say, contribute and do matters. It is not about using characters in a story to teach a moral: ‘These protagonists are confident, so therefore you must be like them.’ It has less to do with appealing to the children’s intellect and more of awakening their inner wisdoms. I say ‘awakening’ because their wisdom is already innate.

We are all carriers of wisdom. It’s not a child versus adult dichotomy. Because children have less of the conditioning that we are used to, they can receive wisdom as a conduit easier than us adults. Sages around the world urge us to revert to a childlike innocence. Why? Because children are more likely to experience states of awe, which are steeped in simplicity. Before a flower is a flower, what is it? That is awareness. Before we teach them what a flower is, it just is. The faculty of language — some say that by acquiring more complex language you can explain more of yourself. Yet, we often hide behind this complexity. It provides a buffer for us to hide behind.

And have you received any words of wisdom from the children?

All the time. I am someone who live with self-doubt. One day, I asked a six-year-old if he thought I should get a haircut. After pondering for a while, he said: ‘I don’t think you should cut your hair, your hair is nice already.’ Five minutes later, he changed his answer to this: ‘Actually, you decide for yourself. If you feel you should cut it, then do it.’ It was such a simple answer, but also a spiritual one. It taught me that I don’t have to seek external validation.

Another moment came from my own daughter, who sits in the sessions from time to time. A student showed me an outline of she wanted to write for an essay. It was structured in a linear manner, promptly checking off the 5W1H; and every twist led to a predictable turn. When I said, ‘Perhaps we could try this other way?’, she replied: ‘This was the way my teachers had taught me to write since I was in primary one, and they said I had to follow this structure.’

Chen Yuanhui Art Therapy Singapore Children Education MOE Teacher-0652

It was the same thing I encountered back when I moonlighted as an English tutor. Two students of mine, who came from different schools and were of different levels, said that exact same thing. As a writer, this stifling of creativity pained me. And they’re from underprivileged backgrounds, so they’re unlikely to have access to creative writing enrichment classes, so they’d probably go out into the world conditioned like this.   

I agree. I get triggered when students are not given a choice or are told there’s only one way to express themselves. But this is the school’s curriculum. And the general philosophy of Stories by Children departs greatly from it. I have moments of ‘am I hurting the children by doing this?’ Being in the minority, you have to stand strong in your own truth. My daughter, seeing that I was triggered, said: ‘You don’t have to care about what others say. If you feel this is the right thing to do, then continue doing it.’

You can always count on children to offer such wholesome and wise advice. Given that an individual person’s wisdom is born of his or her own unique life experiences and interests, I’d imagine the learning is limitless, for both student and teacher. How is the classroom experience designed?

Provocations are key to Reggio Emilia classrooms. The teacher would design themed corners, such as dinosaurs or plants, and see where most of the children go. For Stories by Children, most of my classes are capped to three children. I just go with the children’s flow. Once, a student gravitated towards the topic of ice cream. Her classmate broached the idea of making our own ice cream. So, we spent the session making ice cream of different flavours. She came up with a story featuring three characters who are the CEOs of an ice cream chain, ancient jewellery shop and shop selling archaeological finds. She wrote an entire story of how they travelled to New York to learn how ice cream is made. All the activities conducted during the workshop are just about flowing with the children’s interests — there is no pressure for them to turn their experiences into essays. I do not teach the students that the first draft has to be the final draft. I teach them it is okay to let go of initial ideas: if you don’t let go of the old, the new cannot come.

Was it not Ernest Hemmingway who said that all first drafts are garbage? But since these are paid-for workshops, don’t parents expect any learning outcomes?

I’m very upfront about my pedagogy during the initial communication with the parents and am open to hearing their expectations as well. Together with the parents, we then co-design a learning experience for the children that we both mutually agree on. The goal here is to teach in a way where children feel respected, are seen, have a voice and will acquire new skills. Most parents who enrol their children into the classes tend to share a common belief towards education, or can meet me somewhere in between.

So, each session is tailored to the learning needs of a student. Your classes are currently intimate, held in the privacy of your own home or the student’s. Do you plan to scale up and turn it into an enrichment centre?

For me, I value that personal one-on-one touch. When a teacher is up against forty students, and one of whom is mischievous, he has no choice but to ‘thump’ him down, if not it hinders the collective progress and the entire group does not learn. I had, for innumerable times throughout my career, done that. But when it’s a one-on-one session, this ‘difficult’ child often shows up very differently.

Once, I had a child who was rowdy and had a very short attention span. In a class of forty students, she would be disengaged and easily be dismissed as naughty and disruptive. Through our interactions, I learnt that she’s particularly interested in exploring universal truths. But while she has a lot of things to say on the topic, and a very vivid imagination, she doesn’t like the action of writing or sometimes she doesn’t have the words to express herself. In a typical classroom environment, she may experience a linguistic barrier and find it hard to express herself, but has no other help. How I did it differently was by asking her: ‘How about I type it out for you? You just say whatever’s on your mind, and I’ll transcribe your thoughts.’ It sounds like I’m bending over, but I’m doing it just enough to let her feel empowered. This requires finessing.

One day, she said to me: ‘Teacher, could you remove your spectacles? I want to see how you really look like.’ I did as requested, and she replied: ‘Now I know what you really look like.’ And then she went on to say: ‘You know, I’m usually disruptive in other classrooms, but I won’t disrupt yours.’ There was this shift already. The child began showing me more and more of herself.

How long did it take for the change in her to manifest?

It did not take place overnight. It took about three to four months for her to feel safe, trust me and trust the process. What I learnt is the importance of being present to a child’s beingness. Sometimes we think because a child is of a certain age, and her peers are all at level five, ergo, she too is at level five. But in actuality, she could be at level two. And we expect the child to be able to do feats that only a level-five kid would be able to do — the gap is huge and she is already set up to fail. We have to accept each child at the level he or she is. All it matters is that the children are better than who they were yesterday. It’s a humbling process and almost a spiritual practice, as it invites me to be very present with the child I am working with. Yet as an educator, it is my responsibility to be aware of the child’s proximal zone of development, to always stretch the child a little beyond where the child is. That being said, I err too and at times misjudge a child’s level.

My hope is for the students to be comfortable with themselves. Even as they grow up, and they have to be conditioned a certain way, they will remember there was this phase when they were young, and go: ‘Hey, someone listened to me and my voice. And my voice mattered, and my voice felt and sounded like that. Any time that I want to return to this voice and state, I know how.’

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Reproduced with permission from Stories by Children. The electronic version of the completed book will be used to raise funds for The Bone Marrow Donor Programme to support its work.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.