Igniting sparks

Young educator introduces alternative education model

BY KIMONE THOMPSON
Associate Editor — Features
thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 02, 2018

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IT only takes a spark to get a fire going. That's exactly what education strategist Brittany Singh Williams is banking on with her new venture — an individualised after-school learning programme designed to build 21st-century skills in students from grades four to six.

The model uses students' individual learning profiles — to include such metrics as individual strengths, learning styles and interests, and social and emotional wellness — to develop skills like depth of inquiry, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Its main feature is a lab in which students get to solve actual problems presented by existing corporate clients or NGOs, a process which builds on their knowledge in maths, English language, science and social studies.

“By pairing academic skills with authentic experiences, children will develop important life-success skills in conjunction with academic success. Our students will discover their gifts and learn to use them to solve difficult problems,” Singh Williams told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

The business, aptly called Spark Education Limited, first opened its doors during the summer, focusing on testing kids and building their learning profiles. The formal programme began two months ago, on October 1.

In addition to the lab, which will also incorporate field trips to the organisations in question, Spark offers assistance with completing school projects. There are plans for a summer studio to help students transition from prep/primary to high school, as well as sessions akin to academic and career counselling for ninth-graders.

It's the realisation of a childhood dream for Singh Williams, a trained educator who tells the story of running a school camp — which she called Flame — in her community as a child. But more than that, Spark is the beginning of Singh Williams' ambitions to offer alternative methods to the mainstream education model, and inspire children to want to become education professionals.

“The reason I got into education is that I think education should bring out the best in somebody. That's what Spark embodies to me — that pulling out of who you are and your purpose. Education should help you develop your purpose-driven life.

“I've always wanted to have a school; and I've always wanted to have an alternative school where children learn differently and it's more fun and exciting than the standard chalk-and-talk-type environment. I decided to make it a little smaller to introduce Jamaica to the concept of alternative learning, hence the look and feel of it as an afterschool programme, but the long-term plan, in about three-to five yeras, is to have a school from kinder to grade six, where they won't have to take unnecessary exams,” she shared.

Singh Williams' perspective is shaped primarily by two things: a brother to whom she says traditional schooling did not cater, and worldwide travel to schools that showcased educational best practices.

“My brother wasn't thriving in the current education system and my parents had to keep moving him from school to school. Luckily, they could afford to do that, but as a result he didn't do GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test), and I don't think he did CXCs (exams offered by Caribbean Examinations Council). He learns with his hands. He can deconstruct anything and rebuild it, but nothing was catering to that. I had always wanted to be a teacher but that was really what drove the passion for doing something different, because we're all not made equally,” she told Career & Education.

“I'm part of the Global Shapers, which is the youth Group of World Economic Forum, and through my travels I've been able to attend a lot of education conferences and visit schools around the world, and Jamaica just doesn't have educational facilities that are amazing and that make children excited to learn and want to become teachers. So I want to be a catalyst for that change; I want to see education as one of those sought-after professions. It doesn't mean they have to be teachers; it can manifest in different ways because I don't consider myself as a teacher — I'm just so passionate about education that I feel like I can do anythng in the field,” Singh Williams says.

And she likely could.

Academically, she holds a Masters in Global and International Education from Drexel University, and a Bachelor's in early childhood and special education from Layola University. On the policy side of things, she is an advisor to the Minister of state in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, a member of the Early Childhood Commision, part of the NCTVET Council, and was chair for Youth Month, observed in November.

She has volunteered with th eViolenec ePrevention Alliance and worked in a number of inner-city schools.

Before Spark, 30-year-old Singh-Williams was manager of the PanJaM Foundation.

“Turning down the pay cheque has been rough” she admits, “but waking up every morning doing what I am called to do, you can't quantify it. And I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing. Every prophetic word I've ever gotten, is this.”

That, plus the conditioning at Layola to reflect on the reason for doing a particular course and how it helped humanity, is why she puts her all into Spark.

“I find that we underestimate the potential of our children. So, for example, a lot of the things I've seen children in grade one and two doing [in some of the schools I've visited overseas], we wouldn't let our children in Jamaica do that until grade seven. I was at a school in DC, for example, and the theme for the first term was theatre and the children were building lights, hammering and making the stage. Why can't we do that here?” she asked rhetorically.

“The activities that we do in Spark are those that allow the children to, if they want to ahieve something, figure out on their own how they're going to get there; I'm not handing it to them,” she says.

The setting is intimate, the rooms bright and colourful, the furniture kid-friendly and built to suit a variety of preferences. There is what's referred to as a maker space, an idea lab, and a board room.

And although the approach to learning is individualised, Singh Williams explains that the students don't work by themselves, but in small groups to build skills of collaboration and community.

“Our programme utilises what their strengths are and how they learn [in order to] develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. So, for example, some of them are tactile learners; they work with their hands. We use problem-solving ativities that require them to move around and touch things, and create.

“If they are auditory, we speak to them and make sure they are processing the information. We let them read information to themselves through these phones. They are hearing what they are saying so they process better.

“If they are kinesthetic, we allow them to bounce around while they work; and if they are visual, we make sure to write things down so they can see,” she explained.

Also, Singh Williams says she ties the students' projects to the sustainable development goals in order to sensitise them to Jamaica's Vision 2030 development targets.

“Our tagline is igniting future leaders, because I see children as matchsticks just waiting to be lit and ignited,” she said.

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