Lan Heng

2 Jul 2019
ByJulia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

When Lan Heng’s son came home from first grade with a drawing he’d made on a computer, Heng was awed, she says with a broad grin. She had never used a computer — and the computers she’d experienced in school were massive machines filling an entire room. It was 1985. Personal computers were just entering the market, and Heng and her family had just moved to the US from Malaysia. Heng followed her son to school to see a desktop computer for herself. She sat down to explore the machine, “I was so curious. I was so excited. I loved every bit of it.” Sitting today on a low stool in the technology lab at Ethical Culture, she speaks with warmth and obvious joy. Her boundless energy is immediately apparent (It makes perfect sense that she and her husband play a spirited game of table tennis every day.)

The computer at her son’s school was complex and novel: Machines of the 1980s required complicated hookups and insertable cards — they barely resemble the personal computers of today. She said to herself: “I can’t teach my kid anything. I have to go back to school.”

In a stroke of kismet, the school bulletin board had flyers for technology courses at Bank Street, just around the corner from where Heng lived with her family. She enrolled right away. In 1987 — a year into her master’s program in Technology Education  — Heng joined Ethical Culture as its Computer Education teacher.

Heng’s position at Ethical Culture came just two years after her husband received a scholarship to pursue his doctorate at Columbia University. Born in a Malaysian resort town called Cameron Highlands, where her parents owned a small hotel and cafe, Heng grew up under British influence (Malaysia was a British colony until 1957), going to mission schools led by strict nuns. The sixth of seven siblings, Heng was the first female in her family to learn English. Heng especially liked math and needlework: “I’ve always focused on problem-solving, and I like to do things with my hands,” she says.

“Because of a lack of resources,” Heng says, high school in Malaysia is “very competitive.” Admission is predicated on a series of exams so challenging that Heng was one of only three students from her town accepted. In addition, enrolling required her to move alone to a neighboring town. When it came time for college, Heng was among the few to attend the local university.

The computer at her son’s school was complex and novel: Machines of the 1980s required complicated hookups and insertable cards — they barely resemble the personal computers of today. She said to herself: “I can’t teach my kid anything. I have to go back to school.”

In college, Heng studied education and liberal arts, setting the path to becoming a teacher. The experience was isolating. Heng was much farther from home, and unlike in American colleges, dorms are not guaranteed to students. So Heng ended up living alone for those four years in an off-campus apartment.

Heng started a career in education immediately after college, teaching English as a second language and social studies at the high school level. She taught for the better part of a decade in Malaysia, before immigrating to the United States with her husband and two young children.

During her second year of school there, Heng’s mentor told her about an open position for a computer education instructor at Ethical Culture. Until that point, computer education at the school had been spearheaded by a part-time consultant, and the school wanted to expand the position. But Heng was intimidated to apply. The role required that she model technology skills for other teachers, as well as for students. “I was just going to school to learn about technology and education. What do I know so that I can model it instantly, on the fly, with everybody watching me? And I had just moved to this country. I said ‘I can't do this. I’ve been teaching for many years but I can't do this.” She struck a compromise with the school: she would intern for the consultant for a year, learning from him and getting comfortable. “I learned so much in that year. That consultant was fantastic,” she says enthusiastically.

It took a few years to find her own voice as a teacher, especially around American students who often ask a barrage of questions, in contrast to Malaysian schooling, which is more lecture-based. Teaching in America also requires a kind of performance that differed from her experience teaching in Malaysia, where instruction is more formal. “I watch my music teacher and my drama teacher get on stage at assemblies and just perform. I can’t do that.” Thirty years later, Heng is teaching children whose parents also took her class.

In the three decades that Heng has taught at Ethical Culture, the curriculum has evolved — and also come full circle, in a sense. In the 80s, students learned basic computer literacy like word processing but also delved into coding, the biggest trend in computer education today. “Over the years, there were many game changers,” Heng says, her eyes wide with excitement. “First came multimedia, then came the internet, then mobile computing, and now cloud computing.” Today, Heng’s fourth and fifth-grade students code projects that integrate with their other academic subjects, like coding geometric shapes in concert with math instruction. Students also grapple with abstract topics (What is the internet? How does it work?) and focus on computer science — what happens under the hood and makes computers work. It’s a mix of “making, building, and designing,” Heng says.

“I always tell the kids ‘There are two things that are important to me: creativity and problem solving,’” Heng says. “‘Whatever I teach you in terms of technology is going to be obsolete by the time you move up to even high school.” The skills that will be most useful over time are the ones that enable students to approach issues and find solutions in their unique ways.

“You’re going to rely on technology more than I ever did, so it’s more important that you’re in control.”

Heng illustrates this idea with a deceptively simple activity: she gives each student the exact same set of Lego pieces and tells them to make a duck. After one minute, they lay their finished products out on the table. The project has produced hundreds of ducks over the years, and “no two ducks are ever the same,” she marvels. It’s a lesson in creative problem-solving, and a nod to the myriad ways to reach a solution.

Beyond problem-solving, Heng’s classes prepare students for a world that is increasingly being driven by rapidly-changing technology. “You’re going to rely on technology more than I ever did, so it’s more important that you’re in control,” she tells her students. And so the students grapple with bigger issues about the role of technology in their lives: privacy issues, social media, and the instant gratification consumer technology brings. It’s a way to equip them with today’s common language, one spoken all around the world, that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.