After a successful pilot programme with Malaysia’s Learning Adventure Resource Network in 2015, I was delighted to be asked back to Petaling Jaya in the summer of 2016 to represent as creatives again. This second programme was to see five days of creative learning workshops, exploring maths, literacy, science and history, with a group of children and young people from seven to fifteen years of age …

Day 1: Students, Skills and Stinky Beans

My alarm goes off at six am; knowing from years of bitter experience the dangers of grabbing an extra few minutes, I’m out of bed in a flash and pulling back the curtains. And it’s dark outside. It’s pitch black. This can’t be right. Theory 1 (which isn’t too troubling): I’ve set the time incorrectly and it’s still the middle of the night. Theory 2 (which is when panic begins to set in): after a total of no more than thirty minutes dozing in the previous thirty six hours, I’ve managed to sleep right through to the evening. Then realisation dawns (even if dawn itself doesn’t): Malaysia is in the Southern Hemisphere – so this is their season of long nights. Which is a relief.

And it’s brilliant to be back. The journey had been uneventful (if long) – and contrary to most of the reviews I’d read, Jeddah isn’t actually the worst airport in the world for a layover. The vegetarian food provided by Saudi Airlines had been more than acceptable (apart from the mid-flight sandwich on the first leg: “We thought you could just take the chicken out” was all the advice I got from the cabin crew). I was prepared for the astonishing humidity of Kuala Lumpur this time – so stepping out of the air-conditioned airport didn’t quite take my breath away in the way it had done on my first visit. And, after settling into my hotel (with the One World being a world away from Travelodge, my usual abode away from home), I met my hosts from the Learning Adventure Resource Network for a delicious array of curries (Indian being only one of a whole variety of cuisines that the area offers). And quite apart from the most exquisite mushroom pakora that I’ve ever tasted, it was fantastic to meet Cordelia and Cassandra again, to reflect on 2015, to plan 2016 – and to explore potential programmes for further ahead.

So it was six o’clock on Monday morning, I’d slept like a log and was raring to go. A sumptuous shower in my enormous bathroom, a beautiful breakfast in the Cinnamon Coffee House – and all in good time to meet Cassandra for my lift to the year’s venue: the myIGCSE Learning Centre in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail. Although, as I’ve said, the week would explore a range of curriculum areas, we’d also planned to link everything together through the as creatives approach to the 5Rs: Relationships, Resourcefulness, Risk Taking, Resilience and Reflection. So Day 1 would focus on introducing the children to this powerful framework. And, unlike the previous year, many of the students wouldn’t know each other – so I was also keen to place a strong emphasis on building and maintaining trust.

And the Five Rs went down like one of the tropical storms that are so prevalent in these parts. We explored them …

Through role models, with Leonardo Fibonacci representing Relationships, Isaac Newton standing in for Resourcefulness, Marie Curie taking up the mantle of Risk Taking, Mahatma Gandhi waving a flag for Resilience, Martin Luther King mirroring Reflection – and William Shakespeare acting as “The Raft” of all five (Newton, as championed by Zhao Ryan, Zhee Ming and Darren was deemed the most influential)…

Through tableaux representing powerful learning moments – with Xi-Eu’s group providing a terrifying recreation of his near death experience as he teetered on the edge of a cliff as a small child …

Through our ever-popular Trading Game, a busy and noisy demonstration of the 5Rs in action. Recently described by Charles Darwin School as “a great success … and the greatest thing was that students were using a multitude of skills without realising it!”, The Trading Game proved hugely enjoyable – with Shyan Ann and Nicholas experts in watching the market!

I’ve got to admit I was delighted by how well this first day had gone. In line with our usual practice at as creatives, I’d constantly shifted the groupings – so by the time it came to home time, every student had worked happily with every other student. They’d become used to the open questioning techniques that we employ – and they were all completely fluent in the language of The 5Rs!

After a swim in the hotel’s open-air pool, it was time to meet up with for another meal with Cordelia and Cassandra. And as they’d opted for Yishensu, I was delighted. I’d encountered this vegetarian and vegan restaurant the previous year, so knew just how good the food was going to be. The sisters wondered if I might like to try petai beans, while warning me that, although a favourite in South East Asia, these particular legumes are popularly known as Stinky Beans (while the beans themselves do give off an undeniably pungent aroma, their nickname has more to do with their effects on the human body than anything else).

Stinky Beans, I can report, are deservedly a favourite with the local populace: crunchy, earthy and with a taste quite unlike anything else I’ve experienced. As for the accuracy of their nom de plume … well, only time will tell.

Day 2: Patterns, Priorities and Pandan Leaves

I must have had an unusually guilt-free conscience last night, as I slept like Rip Van Winkle. I’m putting it down to the petai beans – although I suppose delayed jet lag might have had something to do with it.

Day 2 was Maths Day, with two half-day workshops awaiting the students. And as we wanted to shift them away from the idea that maths is merely numbers and towards an appreciation that it’s more the art of identifying and analysing patterns, we began with The Bunker. Inspired by the work of mathematicians at Bletchley Park in World War II, this set them the task of finding the whereabouts of an enemy spy. Through working in small teams to crack a series of increasingly fiendish codes, they had to identify the agent’s general location before eliminating landmarks one by one until only the hiding place remained. They knew they’d have to use all of the Five Rs and that, as they’d be given fewer and fewer instructions as they progressed through the experience, their abilities to both be resilient and learn through reflection would be severely tested. Not only did they all more than rise to the challenge, but, as British students do, they spurred themselves on by perceiving it as a competition to be the first to discover where the enemy agent was hidden. The lead changed hands several times – and as it was, the teachers only just beat the rest to first place!

Lunchtime brought another deliciously new culinary experience: pandan cake. Resembling at first sight a sliced and grossly overgrown kiwi, this sponge cake owes its flavour (and its colour) to juice extracted from pandan leaves. The teachers declared this particular specimen a tad on the dry side. I, however, thought it amazing.

The afternoon saw the students engaging in The Expedition, a workshop demanding calculation and prioritisation skills as teams spend a meagre budget on resources for a two week expedition to the rainforest (after conducting the necessary conversion from Malaysian ringgits to American dollars, of course), then dealing with a series of catastrophes both at the airport and at camp itself before competing for the right to visit specified sites of (pecuniary) interest. The part of the workshop that I always most enjoy is listening to the sometimes heated debates as teams decide on their priorities for their Shopping Lists. And those priorities always differ widely. So while Sena and Kirtanna opted for the luxury of both tents and sleeping bags, Harris, Ling and Zhee Ming decided to take just one pack of toilet rolls, reasoning that leaves would suffice once they’d got used to the conditions. I never did get round to asking if they had their eyes on pandan leaves …

And so back to the hotel, sitting in the gathering dusk in what I’m now calling my Outdoor Office. And, surrounded by birdsong, there’s just one question on my mind. Seriously, I’m actually getting paid to do this?