Monday, 15th July 2024

Monday, 15th July 2024

Going beyond the textbook: Encouraging my kids to enjoy learning for learning’s sake

31 May 2024

Father of two Ian Tan walks the talk as he constantly retrains and picks up new skills. It helped him to overcome retrenchment too. He has impressed on his children the importance of lifelong learning by example.

* AI-generated artwork courtesy of writer


Did you roll your eyes when you last heard someone say “lifelong learning”?

This mantra is heard more frequently now as we can see and even experience increasing disruption in many aspects of our lives. Lifelong learning is the continual process of renewing what we know and expanding our skillsets in a world that never stops changing.

Unfortunately, many people adopt the “one ear in, one ear out” response. As one friend said to me, “I don’t even have enough time for myself to relax after work, what do you want me to learn?”

I often encounter this type of response when I encourage others to keep on learning new things. I hear it even in my own home.

For example, when my daughter was studying for her A-levels in 2023, I showed her excitedly how Generative AI apps could reduce her workload. She said, “Maybe later, Pa”, because her schoolwork didn’t require or incorporate the use of Gen AI.

When I suggested an old friend in his early 50s to try out Canva (an easy-to-use online alternative to PowerPoint) he gave many excuses and I rolled my eyes at him.

Singapore is a very stable society and we don’t experience earthquakes or typhoons. Our economy has been resilient for decades and unemployment rates hover around 2%. This can lull people into thinking that our lives and careers are predictably smooth.

That predictability was shattered for me in Dec 2022 when I got retrenched from my tech sector job.

I was not retrenched because I lacked relevant skills. The tech industry experienced a steep downturn after the pandemic and the business division I managed was no longer as profitable. So my job disappeared.

Despite spending the last 20 years preaching and practising lifelong learning, my career was still upended.

So is lifelong learning actually useful? 

Yes, it gave me a collection of skill sets and a mindset that helped me to bounce back quickly.

The true meaning of lifelong learning

I worked in the media for 10 years and then in the tech industry for 15 years.

Over this period, I have changed my job role many times. Every new role meant I had to expand my skill set or start from scratch.

It was sometimes painful, but what inspired me to keep picking up new skills and experiences were a few role models.

One was author Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, a 1979 comedy science-fiction novel which has since become a classic.

Before he found success in his writing career, he took on odd jobs to survive — hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner and even bodyguard.

Another role model was my mum, who was a hospital nurse, but went into selling milk powder to clinics because she needed more income to bring up three kids on her own.

When I was a journalist, I got to interview many different people.

I saw how those who stuck to having only one skill often struggled to find work after they hit middle age, while there were the admirable few who seemed to have led several different lives with their multiple successful careers.

Over time I realised that lifelong learning isn’t simply a nice thing to do or talk about, but the very essence of workplace survival.

Call me dramatic, but I believe that if we stop learning and stop making ourselves more valuable to the economy at any time, we put ourselves at risk of becoming obsolete.

Many journalists worldwide have lost their jobs over the past two decades as the traditional media industry declined.

I enjoyed my journalism life, but what sort of career would I have had if I had stayed put?

Building a third career

Fast forward to my retrenchment in 2022.

The day I became jobless, I told my two kids, now aged 18 and 20, “Don’t worry. The tech industry isn’t hiring people like me now, but I can do different things. I am not cutting your allowance because I will build my third career.

Over the following months, I constantly updated my children at dinner time how my multiple skills helped me to generate income, even as I was constantly ghosted by recruiters. 

I took on different types of small projects in public relations and graphic design to keep the lights on.

“I am not cutting your allowance because I will build my third career.”

I have decided that my third career will be in education, so I pushed myself to learn how to teach well, becoming an adjunct lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic. In August 2023, I was offered a full-time lecturer role at Nanyang Technological University.

Through all these, I wanted to demonstrate to my children how being a lifelong learner helps us overcome unknown challenges in life.

How I got my kids on board with lifelong learning

How do we get our family members started with lifelong learning?

First, we have to practise lifelong learning as parents. Our children will model their behaviour on us whether we like it or not. Choose a skill that you are truly interested in and not a skill someone else told you is important.

Second, we have to teach them to learn things in the simplest ways. People often dive into the deep end too quickly, trying to master difficult things when they have not built a proper foundation.

On the other hand, anyone who has learnt a musical instrument knows they have to get each note right before they can play further. It is the same with learning many other skills – break the learning down to the simplest bits.

Finally, we have to provide patient coaching and encouragement. It is hard to learn anything new and it is easy to be discouraged when you do it alone.

So, for example, if your child wants to learn how to bake a cake, please don’t just throw them a recipe book and expect them to do it on their own.

Do it with them, guiding them through the basic steps of beating the eggs, mixing the ingredients and then putting the mixture into the oven.

If they find these steps overwhelming, pull back and let them practise, say, egg-beating first until they are comfortable to move ahead.

And if you do not know how to bake a cake?

Why, go learn from someone, then teach your children. Lifelong learning has to start with someone in the family — and it might just have to be you.

What not to say:

The worst thing you can tell your child when he or she makes a mistake in this learning process is, “Why didn’t you get this right? It’s so simple”.

I have done this many times. We must not kill the desire to learn from the start and extinguish the flame of curiosity in our children’s eyes. Learning takes time and constant practice.

Also, always make it stress free and fun. 

Once you get your children started, you can also encourage them to watch YouTube videos or take free online courses to discover and learn other skills. 

By instilling an understanding of, and using a practical approach to learning, my wife and I have helped our children pick up new skills gradually. My son now bakes brownies and cakes, which he sells, and my daughter has picked up photography to help her studies in A-level Art. Who knows how else these skills will help them in the future?