Interview with Ms Cheng Hwee Yeang, Principal of Cedar Girls’ Secondary School

Jun 8, 2017


Cedar Girls’ Secondary School is one of the first schools in Singapore to launch a social innovation initiative. They adopted the Design Thinking approach to help students understand community issues and address social challenges. Through this initiative, the school aims to build a more inclusive and innovative society.


1. What did you study in your earlier days? How did you get to know about design thinking (DT)? 

I have a degree in mathematics, which helped to develop my competency in seeing patterns and making connections. We know that there are many approaches to solving a problem sum, and the process of getting to the solution is as important as getting the answer. I often ask, what if the ‘what if’ the variable was different? How would that change my approach to the problem? Would ‘what if’ alter the outcome of the solution?

In my 25 years of teaching experience, the notion of 'what if' has become my lens to guide me to view issues from a different perspective, be it in the area of teaching, learning, student development or staff engagement.

I first heard about Design Thinking (DT) in 2004. There wasn't much talk about it, and DT stayed as a theoretical construct for me. After I joined Cedar in 2013, I came across DT again. It has evolved into a problem-solving approach that is used to better understand the needs of the users first. As I start to learn more about DT and appreciate its intent, it dawned on me that this is similar to putting on my ‘what if’ lens, and how we can meet users’ needs.
2. Please share with us some of the DT programmes and initiatives the school has implemented. How were they conceptualised?

Cedar’s social innovation journey began in 2011. We asked ourselves, “How might we inspire our students to become social innovators with the passion, attributes and ability to design innovative solutions to social challenges?”  


The school decided to adopt a DT process and identified the social innovation programme as a key driver. The curriculum was then developed by teachers who were trained at Stanford University’s and Henry Ford Learning Institute in Detroit. We also conducted study trips to Denmark and US San Francisco to find out how DT is applied in schools and the private sector. We have also established partnerships with government agencies and volunteer welfare organisations to seek opportunities for our students to work on social challenges. 


At last year’s Cedar Social Innovation Day, we celebrated our collective achievements of students who worked on themed projects. This platform gave rise to over 100 solutions, each making an impact on communities all over Singapore.


3. Are the students from all levels required to work on DT projects and/or design-thinking infused subjects? What are some of the interesting projects the school has embarked on?

The design thinking process is implemented as a school-wide approach, with DT projects spanning across classes from secondary 1 to 4, in core subjects and co-curricular activities.


One interesting project was a partnership with National Environment Agency and Southeast Community Development Council on raising awareness of keeping the environment clean. In 2015, a group of secondary 2 students felt that it was important to cultivate right habits from young. They applied design thinking and came up with the concept through two stories, ‘Stubborn Stacy’ and ‘Responsible Roy’, after interacting with pre-schoolers. They also realised that children are excellent conduits to influence and positively change the behaviour of adults towards keeping the environment clean. Subsequently in 2016, our secondary 4 students then shared the stories with 24 kindergartens during Cedar Social Innovation Day.


Cedar also organised a national cyber-wellness conference last year. Our students conducted a training workshop with their peers from other secondary schools on the use of DT to develop programmes promoting cyber-wellness.


4. Are there any plans to build on current DT programmes? How does the school continue to encourage the students to apply DT?

We are seeing more uses of DT in education policies in the last 10 years. These include the flexibility to allow students to take up out-of-level subjects, development of school-based curriculum and electives that cater to the needs and interests of the students, and students’ opinions in the organisation of school programmes.


We want to focus on strengthening and infusing design thinking into the existing programmes. This will enhance students’ mindset and disposition as they need to develop empathy and understand the social issues in order to make a positive impact on the community.


5. Cedar Girls’ School will be 60 years old this year. Congratulations! What are your aims/goals as a Principal? What do you envision for the students?

Cedar has grown from strength to strength since our founding in 1957. We are privileged that our students have strong academic foundation and are anchored by sound values. There is also a sense of service ethos among the students - they reach out to the community enthusiastically and serve sincerely.


As we celebrate Cedar's 60th Anniversary, I hope to leverage on our strengths to continue cultivating the social agency in Cedarians. As teachers of Cedarians, we have a similar, if not greater, responsibility to nurture our students so that they will realise their full potential, and believe in what they can achieve. Together, we will work towards our vision of ‘Bringing out the Best in our People: Social Innovators, Passionate Learners’.