Hwa Chong Institution's neoclassical clock tower and columns are an imposing throwback to Singapore's past. The school has been gazetted as a national monument to mark its historical significance as the first Chinese-medium secondary school in Southeast Asia. But there is nothing traditional about the style of education offered within its walls today, where a radical rethink of how children should learn and be taught is being pioneered. It involves tearing down the traditional subject department walls, abandoning O-levels in favour of more time for learning, studying the leadership techniques of Bill Gates and Adolf Hitler, and instilling ethics. Science and literature students study Frankenstein and stem cell research together. Dropping O-levels in particular is a bold departure from the exam-driven culture of many East Asian schools. 'We are creating space for students to pursue their passions,' said Ang Wee Hiong, Hwa Chong's principal and chief executive. 'We want Hwa Chong students to hone their leadership skills, build character and excel in what they do.' The aim is to give students broader, more holistic learning experiences. Hwa Chong is the result of a merger four years ago between the Chinese High School, formed in 1918, and Hwa Chong Junior College, established at the same 79-acre campus on a knoll in Bukit Timah in 1974. The resulting institution is the first school in Singapore to create a seamless 13-18 curriculum, known as the Integrated Programme, in which students flow through senior secondary school and junior college without taking O-levels. Instead, students spend up to six months studying at a Beijing satellite campus and collaborate on research projects with peers around the world as part of a school of the future project. 'Not preparing for O-level exams gives them time to spend doing research and leadership training,' said Melvyn Lim, the school's director of communications. This is a top-performing independent school where seven out of 10 students gain three A-levels with distinction or better. It also claims to have the highest number of students from Singapore winning scholarships at top universities in the mainland and Taiwan, Britain, the United States, Japan and Germany. The 4,000 pupils are drawn from the top 3 per cent of the national cohort, as well as from the mainland and Malaysia. More than half have their S$300 (HK$1,600) monthly fees are paid for by scholarships. Hwa Chong is divided into four small schools within the school called consortiums, each led by a director. There are no subject departments. Year masters have become 'senior affective consultants', responsible for assessment and the design and structure of the curriculum, which students study via cross-disciplinary topics and projects in addition to being given accelerated grounding in subject disciplines. 'Students approach topics in an interdisciplinary way, using core concepts,' said Clarinda Choh, director of iSpark, the consortium for gifted and talented pupils at Hwa Chong. 'So for example they might work on biology and geography together with a starting concept of change, and undertake an in-depth study on climate change. 'The skills and content in both subjects would be addressed from that thematic, topical and conceptual level.' The new style of learning reflects the integrated way that knowledge is increasingly used in the world of work. 'We no longer have students coming to us and saying, 'I want to be a doctor, or I want to get into theoretical physics, so why in the world should I study humanities'' Ms Choh said. 'They are able to marry subjects, issues and concepts and do the largest parameter thinking quicker than before. With highly able students, it turns them on a lot more.' Teachers collaborate to provide learning programmes adapted to the needs of particular pupils, enabling them to choose accelerated programmes in areas such as languages or maths. Hwa Chong does not have the luxury of building and designing a new school to match this flexible menu. But it copes by banding some classes across the timetable and holding some next door to each other, so that pupils can be pulled out and put together for particular activities. In this way, Hwa Chong pupils are still given a grounding in key disciplines that cover Putonghua and English to first language level, maths, general sciences, integrated humanities, critical thinking, logical argument, information communication, creative arts, leadership, and community service. But they are encouraged to think not only about what they are learning, but also how they learn, and to work creatively and independently. This addresses a key problem of our times. Instead of learning particular skills which may no longer be applicable by the time pupils leave school due to changes in industry, they may benefit more from picking up new skills and drawing on knowledge from a range of disciplines as required for particular projects. International education expert Brian Caldwell said this was a valuable approach. 'Many schools we have studied in our international project confirm this,' said Mr Caldwell, a former dean of education at Melbourne University. 'If you look at what cutting-edge schools are doing now, they maintain a strong disciplinary base but increasingly use interdisciplinary studies and focus on generic skills of problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship.' This means encouraging pupils to take risks and cope with failure. In their middle two years Hwa Chong pupils have ample opportunity to develop their passion for areas of special interest. In fact, because Hwa Chong is a pioneer of the FutureSchools@Singapore initiative, an experiment to see how schools can adapt to the future, its pupils collaborate on research projects with peers across the globe. In response to this initiative, Hwa Chong is building a virtual global academy, complemented by real satellite campuses in the mainland, India and the US. The Beijing campus is already up and running, enabling all pupils aged 15 or 16 to spend between six weeks and six months there, engaging with Chinese language and culture while still following Hwa Chong's curriculum. The US campus is due to be built next but collaboration with US students has already begun. Teo Tse Yean, 17, has been studying the evolutionary divergence of crickets in a science research partnership between students at Hwa Chong and peers at the Loudon County Academy of Science in Virginia. They are mapping the differences in wave patterns in the trills of crickets in temperate and tropical climates. 'Our aim is to find the differences and provide an explanation of whether the crickets have changed based on where they are found,' Teo said. The students, communicating via e-mail and instant messaging, are exploring ways to alter the crickets' mating song to change their reproductive rate. Both sets of students have visited each other, staying with their counterparts' families and visiting heritage sites, as well as planning the research. Teo's appraisal of the collaboration reveals how well Hwa Chong gets its students to think about how they learn, which in their final years includes studying philosophy heavyweights such as John Locke and Bertrand Russell. Teo said the benefits of collaborating across 12 time zones included learning how people in other cultures work differently. 'The Americans are more inquisitive and less rigorous. They are focused on inquiry, where students are asked to generate questions and answer them through research,' he said. 'But in Singapore we focus more on the practical aspects of science.' According to Mr Caldwell's studies published in Why Not the Best Schools?, transformative schools not only focus on academic results but also personalise learning, build self-esteem and provide pupils with broad experiences that can assist them in their future lives. At Hwa Chong this is achieved by weaving leadership, ethics and community service into the curriculum. Students gain practical leadership experience by taking on roles in the consortium or at the school. Senior students study leadership theories and role models such as IT entrepreneur Bill Gates, idealists Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi and authoritarians Mao Zedong and Hitler. This might raise eyebrows among parents but Ms Choh said there were important lessons to be learned by studying dictators. 'These are influential people and we need our students to recognise that powerful leaders can use their influence in a negative way.' Hwa Chong pupils are groomed to deal with the ethical issues of leadership through the emphasis in the curriculum on developing a sense of morality, aided by an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, the ethics of stem cell research and genome therapy are examined jointly by biology and literature students in one module using Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein as a reference point. 'The science teachers found it difficult to do that as an offshoot of biology. But with the literature and philosophy teachers it came naturally,' Ms Choh said. The school also pursues its philosophy of 'live with passion, lead with compassion' by sending pupils to work on community service projects. Teo will visit Nepal to teach English and help a local school set up a library management system and build new toilets. He has a keen sense of the value of ethics in the modern world. 'I think this emphasis on moral values and giving back to society is important for Singapore, given the focus on new technology,' he said. 'Without integrity, students will not benefit from the use of the internet to get information.'