Tuition centres of my generation had to be MOE-approved and their tutors and teachers be MOE-certified to be considered trustworthy, with some kiasu parents going so far as to say they were “more prestigious”.
But places that actually offer hands-on, immersive tuition classes are not heard of that often – or at least, successful ones that get parents raving.
A great example is the Study Room, a tuition centre that has invited a pilot, a vet, and even celebrity host, Pornsak, as guest speakers for the students.
From Ah Boys To Tutor-preneurs
The Study Room is founded by Weiyi Lim and Wallace Wong, both 37, who were buddies from their National Service days and have kept in touch through the years.
Wei was based in Taipei and Wallace was in the UK, but they would always find the time to meet up when they had work trips in each other’s cities or when they were both in Singapore.
“When I was in my 30s, I was a financial journalist at Bloomberg News – besides being tasked to report on the volatile A-shares market daily, I was also writing the emerging market enterprise stories, overnight stories for U.S. investors among others,” Wei recounted.
“Wallace was an exotics derivative trader then.”
We were both working really hard to make rich people richer. [But] one day, we decided we should work hard to change lives instead.
Wei told me that they had “reached midlife crisis” when they decided to go into education.
“We started our own education centre in a bid to revolutionise the Singapore system, pulling it away from drills and more towards fun and passion in learning,” Wei said.
“We want our students to question us critically. [To] never shy from questioning, regardless of whether or not he thinks it may be embarrassing, or may offend the teachers,” he explained.
“I encourage my students to call me by my first name because they should see me as a peer and not someone of a higher status that they cannot question.”
Tables in the classrooms are arranged in a round-table formation because it encourages interaction and learning cohesively, discouraging the rigid teacher-student exchange that we have all experienced in school.
Study Room first started out as a “project” in 2013, in the form of a now-defunct Facebook page for students to ask for help with questions and exam tips.
In 2014, they believed they could offer more than just “dispensing study tips online” and opened a one-day class on Saturdays at Waterloo Centre, near the National Library.
As demand poured in, they also opened classes at Novena on Fridays.
They decided that this was their “calling” in 2015 and quit their high-flying careers to focus on the Study Room full-time.
Learning Beyond The Walls At Study Room
The Study Room’s syllabi are not what you’d expect at a typical tuition centre.
For example, in some of their science experiments Wallace conducts with students, he used Oobleck, a type of non-Newtonian fluid, to teach them about liquid and solid states.
Bringing students to newsrooms, radio stations, and practising their interview skills with people on the streets are just some of the exercises to pique their interest in writing and public speaking.
Students also get to go on field trips to museums and attend quarterly talks at the centre held by industry professionals and people from all walks of life.
He wanted to let students know that “there is [no] fixed route in life” and to have the man himself explain to them on why he took the “less-travelled option in life”.
“Last year, a student was keen in becoming a pilot. I invited one to talk to them, so they have a better understanding of what is expected of being a pilot, what courses they should take and if the career is suitable for them,” Wei said.
Multilingual, serial entrepreneur, and popular TV host Pornsak also made a surprise appearance at one of Wei’s classes in 2014, and it gave students the chance to learn how to “express themselves” by asking questions, press conference-style.
Later on, I noticed that Pornsak was also listed as a team member, so I asked Wei about it.
He said Pornsak was a “good friend” he knew from the days when he worked part-time as a DJ at SPH Radio during his university years.
“As he has a degree in business management, a masters in early childhood education and is a successful serial entrepreneur, he is able to provide valuable advice in starting a business.”
Pornsak has made his way down a couple of times to speak with the graduating classes, Wei added.
He went on saying that they also organise a charity event every year “to teach students empathy”.
“We held a satellite station for Hair for Hope one year and garnered 20 other parents, teachers and students to shave [their heads] bald with us to raise awareness for children’s cancer,” he recalled.
“Last year, at our annual Halloween party, we raised funds for a Cambodian school. Parents and students came together to organise the event with us.”
Education Comes In Different Forms
People become teachers for various reasons; mostly, they teach because they care, or they are passionate in imparting knowledge, and because of various other reasons.
But life lessons don’t appear like a maths question on a piece of paper handed to you at the examination hall.
For one of his students who ran away from home because of an argument, he learnt his lesson from a night out with Wei.
“The parents could not find him as he did not attend school activities nor project meetings. In the end, they found him at Study Room because he was still interested in coming for lessons here despite being spiteful with their parents,” he told me.
“While we were worried for the child and told him off for running away from home, we were glad he saw Study Room as a sanctuary.”
I took the kid out for dinner the following week to explain to him the perspectives by his parents and why his act was irresponsible.
You know, sometimes, kids say the darnedest things but this story that Wei shared with me about this incident that happened to him in class made me feel a little sad.
“A student once asked why he was stupid. I was stumped for a second, as I did not know where that notion came from.”
Upon questioning, we realised he had been called ‘stupid’ and ‘naughty’ by his school teachers and had believed that he was ‘slower’.
“We spoke to him privately and…told him never to question himself, that he was not ‘stupid’ and has the aptitude as long as he tried. […] More importantly, he should feel fortunate to be healthy and he has the capacity to work hard towards his goals.”
Wei revealed that they are sometimes disgruntled by the “rigid system” but they continue to motivate their students to follow “what’s required by the system”.
He said, “For instance, I dislike how the system requires students to learn formal letter writing formats when in real life, they have been gradually abandoned. The content is still relevant and useful, but styles have changed with the fast-paced internet society.”
They prove that education doesn’t have to be fettered by a structure, doling out tips on how to identify fake news on their Facebook page that not only benefits their students, but their parents as well.
I can see why parents have left stellar reviews on the centre’s Facebook page.
They have an average of 4.9 stars with a total of 42 reviews at the time of writing.
“While we do follow the MOE curriculum, we make sure students enjoy learning and more importantly, know why they are learning.”
Plenty Of Room To Grow
In light of their success, however, also came an unscrupulous competitor.
They had started posting similar Facebook posts, displaying similar activities, and a while later, their website was even made to look as similar to Study Room’s website.
“Despite that, they did not succeed.”
“It helps to be original. Another centre attempted to change the same name as ours. We had to get ACRA to change their name as we had it first and it was blatantly leeching off our publicity,” he shared.
Besides competition, one of the challenges they face is having to do everything by themselves as they play the roles of the principal, teacher, accountant, marketeer, and janitor.
“We work seven days a week and sometimes till the wee hours. ”
“It’s getting better now – I aim to at least have Mondays off (though when work comes, it comes), we have 10 teachers and hence, more help,” Wei explained.
We still teach 22 hours over the weekend but at least that’s what we enjoy.
Study Room has taught over 1,000 students so far, and Wei has described the centre’s growth as “exponential” and has been steadily growing yearly.
He is positive that the trend will go on.
“Due to the saturated market, many peers have folded. We already feel blessed to be standing firm after half a decade of existence.”
The Study Room started offering Chinese language classes this year and hopes to open a new branch and begin teaching JC1 classes next year.
Wei expressed gratitude at finding two “experienced and passionate” Chinese language teachers and said that they took four years to start the classes.
Likewise, they are also taking their time to search for a new place for their second branch because they want it to be “perfect”.
“We do not want to rush into a project for the sake of it,” he said.
As for the new tertiary-level classes, he said, “It’s more for our own love for the children. We want to grow with the children.”
“Some of our first batch of P6 students is still with us, taking ‘O’ Levels now. We would want to grow up with them and guide them as long as they are willing.”
Finally, he shared with me his philosophy in teaching, “Students come first, business second.”
We may not become the richest or most successful in the industry, but we must remain true to ourselves and put students as our priority.
“In fact, it is not run like a corporation. We build relationships with students. We don’t reject weak students simply to boost our KPIs – we help anyone who is willing to learn. We want to be a business with a heart.”
Featured Image Credit: Study Room