Appreciating the magic of Special Needs Education outfit Swords And Stationery with Shaun Low

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 5 March 2018.)

Swords And Stationery is a knight in shining armour to the the rescue of children and youths profiled with specific learning difficulties (SpLD) aka 'special needs' - these span an umbrella of conditions including dyslexia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Founded by Shaun Low, an Economics graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS) as well as a certified educational therapist, he has been helping young folks sort things out since 2013.

Swords And Stationery offers a program(s) structured to elicit efficient learning outcomes as far as the acquisition of the English language and its derivative subjects are concerned. It seeks to achieve this by means of an unconventional mix of games alongside highly personal, interactive experiences, hence its slogan "Playing One's Way To Academic Success".

Suffice to say, the rather noble endeavors of this education vendor piqued our interest, and we therefore reached out to Shaun for a one to one interview, which he graciously agreed to. Provided below is a full reproduction of our conversation.

QN: Hi Shaun, a big thank you for chatting with us. Out of curiosity, why the name Swords And Stationery? Might you also happen to sell various stationery at your premises?

ANS: The name "Swords & Stationery" was inspired by the literary genre "Sword & Sorcery" (sometimes called "Sword & Sandals"). It's one of my favourite fiction genres, and was what got me into reading voraciously post-secondary school. If you've heard of Conan (the barbarian) or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser -- that's the genre they're in. This same genre also birthed a lot of great works in fiction, including Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and A Song of Ice and Fire, and games like Wizardry and Dungeons & Dragons.

Starting a programme called "Swords & Stationery" was therefore my way of paying homage to this genre. At the same time, it was also meant to be symbolic, with "Swords" representing the fun aspect of the programme, and "Stationery" representing its learning aspect.

QN: Were there a specific set of circumstances that spurred you on to envision the creation of Swords And Stationery ? Any significant logistical or financial challenges encountered along the way? In hindsight what would you have done differently?

ANS: I first conceptualised this programme while in my previous company (the Dyslexia Association of Singapore), working with dyslexic children and youths. A lot of them were weak and unmotivated writers; I, on the other hand, loved reading and writing, and I wanted to inculcate this passion in the younger generation.

While at the DAS, I had learned a lot about teaching methodologies and best practices, but one important element remained elusive -- how could one make the learning process fun? There were some ideas being used commonly, like Word Splashes, but they wouldn't fly with the older kids (and I did teach a lot of them). I wanted a better alternative.

I wanted to use actual games, and have lessons integrated into them.

This process, also known as gamification, was what led me to the initial conceptualisation of the S&S programme.

Regarding financial and logistical challenges when first starting up the S&S learning centre, there were a few, but none too major. Counting every cent was a must; I couldn't afford to splurge on luxurious furnishings. Thankfully, I had a friend who was able to help me with renovations on the cheap. I was also lucky, in that I had found a few great people to work with (shout-out to my associates at Trinity Consultancy & Practice and The Gifted Lab, and my buddies at Singapore Open Gaming and Have Dice Will Travel).

Looking back, it's hard to say if I would have done anything differently. I like to think that I've been making the best decisions, going forward. There were times when it would seem like I had made a really bad business decision, but I have learned to draw strength and knowledge from these experiences, and just keep moving. And as a businessperson, that's what's important.

QN: How has public reception been towards Swords And Stationery since it hit the ground running?

ANS: Reception has been great. At times, it's a hard sell to convince parents that the game-based learning approach works, but the proof is in the pudding when the kids improve academically and cognitively 2-3 months into the programme. In fact, most of my existing students' parents have been nothing short of supportive, and I'm very grateful for that.

The general public (particularly fellow gamers and educators) has been very encouraging as well. I have been doing all sorts of marketing here and there. Sometimes it's related to S&S's pedagogy, sometimes it's more gaming-related. Regardless, whenever I get a cheer from someone on Twitter, Facebook or Discord, it just makes my week and keeps me going.

QN: Obviously Swords and Stationery isn't your run-of-the-mill tuition center. For the benefit of our readers, might you articulate in greater detail the core differences between your resident program(s) and mainstream private tuition classes?

ANS: For one, I don't use the white board. Every class gets its own digital presentation (kinda like a Youtube video, except with a live commentator) that delivers information in a clear and visually appealing manner.

I also use games and anecdotes to teach various concepts like semantics and the Story Mountain. Our frameworks and techniques are highly flexible and modular. I could teach speech-writing to one student and letter-writing to another, all using the same framework but with different bits added on. This allows me to teach anything under the sun (including History and Social Studies) so long as it's functionally related to linguistics.

Finally, all our resources are created in-house. This allows us to fine-tune them to suit each and every student's need.

As an example, imagine I'm teaching the concept of the subject-verb agreement to John and Jane. Let's assume John understands subordinate clauses, but Jane does not.

In John's case, I can set the sentence to be so: "The dogs [bark / barks] when the sun rises."

In Jane's case, I might tweak it to be: "The dogs [bark / barks]."

This flexibility allows me to optimise my lesson plans to the highest degree. In fact, after a lesson or two, I can tell you what needs to be done to help the child improve. This is also why Swords & Stationery is advocated as an educational therapy and specialist tuition programme first and foremost, rather than as a tuition centre.

QN: Swords and Stationery places a premium on learning through role-playing games and board games. Certainly an unusual pedagogical style to say the least, then again why does it work well in the context of children you are helping?

ANS: The kids who come to me have one or more learning difficulties, be they dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, etc. Due to their learning difficulties, they can be unmotivated to learn, and a lot of times, traditional rote learning simply does not work for them. Doing practice after practice won't cut it, and may instead frustrate them even more.

With tabletop games, it's a whole new level altogether. There is virtually a ton of concepts and learning value that can be mined from games, to be used in the classroom. By default, games already tap on the player's executive functioning skills, cognitive ability, and imagination. Think about how much more one can learn when you incorporate academic elements!

It also does wonders for their motivation. Kids enjoy games; ergo, if games equate to learning, kids will enjoy the learning process.

QN: You specifically cited using the Orton-Gillingham and morphological training awareness methods in your program(s). In layman's terms, what exactly are these all about? How do they contribute tangibly towards making them students better learners?

ANS: The Orton-Gillingham approach, which we've incorporated into our programme, uses phonics to help struggling readers and writers. Following its principles, our approach is multi-sensorial, cumulative, structured, sequential, and diagnostic and prescriptive. Lessons are all the more fun and engaging because of these principles, but more importantly, being trained in OG means I can identify a student's weakness just like that *snaps finger*.

Morphological awareness training is the teaching of morphemes (e.g. affixes like "pre-"), and the skills needed to identify them. What this does for students is that it turns them into walking dictionaries. When presented with a complex word (e.g. "antidisestablishmentarianism"), students can make an educated guess as to its meaning, simply by being able to identify and define its morphemes. Even if they can't, however, they'll still be able to memorise the word more easily.

QN: You also took care to indicate both curricula and in-house worksheets are lovingly crafted by qualified educators to suit the individual's learning needs. Might you have an actual sample at hand to showcase to our readers?

ANS: Sure. Here are some samples:

To provide some context, the "will/would" worksheet trains weaker students to memorise "will" and "would" by sight. The "Business As Usual" worksheet was designed to be part of a sci-fi game called Traveller, in which players were fugitives on the run. Although thematically it reflected the narrative of our game, format-wise it was modelled in accordance with the N-level syllabus.

QN: Academically speaking. how rigorous are the program(s) offered at Swords and Stationery? Are they aligned with the current Ministry of Education (MOE) syllabus and are students also coached to eventually sit for relevant subjects in major examinations such as the PSLE and the 'O' Levels?

ANS: The S&S programme is rigorous indeed! Sure the promise of games excites the students, but they are only used 20%-30% of the time. The remaining 70% consists of gruelling classwork that really stretches students' understanding of the language to the limit, and then some. I never give them the easy stuff (but I'm always careful to keep assignments manageable), because one of my goals is to help them do well in school. You can see that transformation when they start to top their class or ace a subject that they never could before. In this, their confidence is also boosted, and that will inevitably extend to other aspects of their life.

Learning does not have to be solely academic, and I'm always happy to see my students grow in all aspects -- academically, cognitively, behaviourally and emotionally.

QN: What would you say constitute the proudest achievements of Swords And Stationery thus far? On the flip-side, any particular instance or individual which gets your goat, say, refusal on a student's part to abide by rules in the classroom, or a blatant trouble-maker who has caused you quite a few migraines?

I'm proud of each and every student, but a few cases do stand out.

I1) I had one student who was very weak academically. He was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, and I suspect he had ASD as well (he never got diagnosed for that). When he first started out with me, it took a whopping 10 minutes to get him to write his name. He would pen down a part of the first letter of his name, then become sidetracked. Here's the really interesting thing though: you could tell he was bright, from the way he expressed his ideas. We frequently played RPGs, and he would come up with creative solutions to get past obstacles. He could also recreate objects in Minecraft by memory. We stopped midway when he was in P6, and last I heard, he managed to get into a mainstream secondary school.

I2) I had a group of Secondary 5 students whom I'd been teaching for about 2-3 years. They got an L1R5 of 12-16 points for their 'O' Levels, qualifying them for Junior College and some of the best courses in Polytechnic. Keep in mind, these were students with dyslexia and other co-morbidities like ADHD, and who had gotten 150-170 for their PSLE.

I3) There was another youth who used to get into trouble quite a fair bit. He was the sweetest kid though, and till today still wishes me 'Happy Birthday' every year. Anyway, we used to play this RPG called 'Leverage' (based off the TV series). He played as a rough character who would punch anyone that got in his way. Eventually, the team had to beat a retreat because of all the fighting that took place, which had gathered the cops' attention. From then on, he learned that violence might not be the best solution to a problem. A few months later, he got into a confrontation with some teens outside. Later that week, he came to class to tell me about it. Naturally, I had to ask, "So what did you do?" and he said this: "I shrugged and laughed and asked them to sit down to drink kopi. I remembered what you told me about fighting. And you were right. Just staying calm solved the problem."

Anyway, all of that being said, my proudest achievement would be that most of my ex-students are doing exceedingly well right now. Can't ask for more than that.

QN: Looking forward, what is your game plan for Swords And Stationery? Opening more branches perhaps, or even a franchise arrangement arising in the foreseeable future?

ANS: To be honest, I haven't thought that far ahead. I just want to help as many students as I can.

QN: Over the years the Singapore government has invested considerable resources to better engage students with special educational needs-these include the deployment of allied educators trained to provide learning and behavioural support in institutions across the nation and the expansion of Government-funded SPED schools. Not forgetting an important piece of legislation being introduced- the Compulsory Education Act for all special needs children which takes effect next year. What else in your professional opinion do you reckon can be done?

ANS: I'm really happy to see more support being rendered to students with learning challenges. It certainly makes the learning process much more meaningful for them. At this point, it's hard to say what else can be done until we have a more complete picture down the road, but awareness spreading (including advocation against bullying) is something I firmly believe in. Empathy, peer support, inclusivity -- these are extremely important values that we should inculcate in the younger generation.

QN: Before we conclude things, how about some parting words for our readers?

ANS: If you're a parent of a child with a specific learning difference, don't panic. You're not alone on this journey. There are people out there who can help you.

If you're a student with a specific learning difference, never ever give up. Always keep your head above the water, find a method that works for you, and stick with it. The world is larger than you think, and you will find your true calling eventually.

We are most grateful for the thoroughly honest insights you have shared with us, and kindly allow us to accord yo sincere wishes for continued success in running Swords and Stationery. You are awesome and you know it! :)