THE THINK TANK

The founders of Arch Academy, JENNIFER MA and JENNIFER YU, are changing the way our next generation is educated. CHRISTINA KO gets some more-than-textbook answers

IF THERE'S ONE thing there’s no shortage of in Hong Kong, it’s after-school education, whether it’s the centres of tutoring “superheroes” aggrandised in ads, school-sanctioned extracurricular activity clubs or the door-to-door services offered by solo operators. Most of these programmes have very specific goals: an increase in test scores, or a pursuit that rounds out some university application criteria.
Few tackle the more esoteric concepts that Arch Academy does. An education centre founded by two Jennifers – Jennifer Ma and Jennifer Yu – it started with a classroom of seven students, and in less than four years has grown to encompass citywide implementation and a participant count that exceeds 4,000.
Ma and Yu come from different but equally impressive education backgrounds. Ma did boarding school in the UK, then attended Oxford. Yu did her secondary years in the US before joining Columbia University. Both entered the world of banking with few issues following their undergraduate educations, but stayed involved in recruitment of students for their respective alma maters.
Through conversations, the friends realised that “the profiles of the students were very good in terms of academics and the extracurriculars. But what we found really differentiated those who were quite successful in the workplace versus other groups that were more successful academically were certain skills: in critical thinking, creativity and communication. And so this was the inspiration for our first programme,” says Yu.
The idea was formulated over a dinner, but percolated over eight months of research, looking at what was offered in Hong Kong and in key overseas education markets. “We went to the UK and looked at how they teach thinking skills in the more cuttingedge way and with different pedagogies,” says Ma. “So with that, we came back. We taught at a school first and we really saw the needs from the students’ perspective. Like, why were they so creative and so inquisitive when they’re young? What happened during secondary school that limited that kind of growth and that kind of development? So with that, then, we developed our first programme on thinking skills and global awareness.”
Obviously, Ma and Yu had the research to back up their observations. But it isn’t a natural leap for parents to enrol their children in classes that preach this kind of intangible learning. Explains Yu: “The ‘thinking’ aspect may be abstract, but we have students apply [these skills] into essay writing or debating. The parents can see the results, both through the communication and the writing skills.” Increasingly, preuniversity programmes are also making these skills a pre-requisite, whether it’s the International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge requirement, or the Thinking Skills Assessment for Oxbridge admission.
Even better, Arch Academy has numbers to back it all up – out of 15 Oxbridge applications from its students, there were 11 offers, as compared to a 10-20 percent admission rate for even the top schools. “It’s really down to instilling flexible thinking and impromptu brainstorming skills, which are transferable across all subjects,” says Ma.
Beyond simply teaching, Arch’s services also include assessment and preparation for higher education, which provides indispensible guidance for any parent or student navigating the complicated and ever-evolving process of university applications. Much of what Arch does today, in fact, is based on feedback from parents about services lacking in today’s market, or initiatives that arose organically from relationships with parents and schools.
The work split also came about organically – “What Jen [Yu] is good at, I’m allergic to. What she doesn’t prefer, I like,” says Ma, laughing; her role encompasses curriculum development and teaching aspects as well as consultations for all UK and Hong Kongrelated matters, while Yu leads the USeducation team and oversees the business side and operations.
They also envisioned Arch Community Outreach, a separate charitable entity. “Its mission is to help high-achieving students from under-resourced communities,” explains Yu.“Two years ago, the charity was officially established, and we ran our first pilot careers programmes where we recruited 12 students from certain participating schools that met our underresourced requirements. Students went into firms such as international banks, hospitals, architecture, law, media and hospitality firms. It was great exposure for them.”
Going forward, the duo hopes to add further university collaborations to their already long list of associations. But no matter what is added to the plate, the students will always come first: “When you see how they transform and gain from that process, that’s what attracts you to education. I think we work much, much harder now [compared to when we were in banking], not only because it’s our own company, but because of the commitment you have to the students.”