This father of two is bringing up his boys to enjoy a simpler and cleaner life.
Born and raised in a small town in the Highlands of Scotland, Stewart Ross moved to Hong Kong nine years ago. In the middle of this bustling city, constantly surrounded by happy and energetic children at Malvern College Hong Kong, a leading international school where he teaches, he has found a way to tune out and reconnect with the beauty and wonder of nature. We caught up with this multi-faceted Sassy Papa.
How long were you planning to stay in Hong Kong when you first landed here?
I returned to the UK in 2006 after three years living in Asia (South Korea and Japan) and I did my teaching qualification and taught in London. I loved my time so much in Asia however that I was constantly online looking at international teaching opportunities back in Asia. After four years teaching in London, I was fortunate to be offered a position teaching Design in Hong Kong. It’s been nine years now, which is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere – we are permanent residents and my kids were born here. If it were not for the insane property prices I would happily retire here.
Have you always shown an interest in design and teaching?
I have a Bachelors in Graphic Design, a PGCE and a Masters in Education. I’ve always been interested in Design, particularly its role in education. It’s an important discipline that can allow pupils to prepare themselves for the future with crucial capabilities such as adaptability, empathy, resilience, entrepreneurship and curiosity.
What do you teach at Malvern and why do you enjoy it?
I teach Design through the International Baccalaureate (IB) framework. MYP (Middle Years Programme) and DP (Diploma Programme). I love teaching at Malvern College as it is an IB through school with a focus on inquiry-based learning which really suits my educational pedagogy. IB supplies a framework for the curriculum and the assessment rubric but I have the freedom to design educational experiences for my pupils around that. It is much more important than just acquiring information to regurgitate in an exam hall.
In what way do you try to engage students with new technologies and why?
Most of the educational experiences I create are based around the concept of Design Thinking, which is a powerful model for problem finding. I try and expose my students to real humans with real human stories. By building empathy, pupils can find problems that they can then solve through the iterative process of ideating and prototyping. New technologies can help with this process.
For example, one year I accompanied our students on a service trip to teach in a school in rural Cambodia. During that trip, I gave our students a 360-degree camera and asked them to film life around the school. Those 360 videos were viewed by my Design students back in Hong Kong to experience the rural Cambodian school life in VR, to feel what it was like to be a student in a classroom at that rural Cambodian school. That empathy was used as a starting point for those students to design and build prototypes of educational toys and games from sustainable materials which were then taken to Cambodia to be tested by the Cambodian children. That’s a really powerful, authentic educational experience.
Do your kids go to Malvern as well? What do you like about being a Malvern parent?
Elgin is almost three and he goes to the pre-school in Kowloon which he loves. Hugo is seven and attends Malvern College. His classroom is directly below mine so it is great having him so close. We use the swimming pool and play football on the sky pitch after school. I really value Malvern’s strong ethos in outdoor education. Both the pre-school and Malvern College have Forest School. The Malvern Qualities also resonate with me. The college places an emphasis on empathy, resilience, curiosity, integrity along with other important capabilities. Entrepreneurship is recognised as key, as is pupil agency and ownership of learning. These are all the things I am passionate about both as a parent and an educator.
I also love where Malvern College is located. One recent Friday after school, I walked with two colleagues to a pier close by and we kayaked over to a deserted island and camped there. There aren’t many big cities in the world you can do that sort of thing!
Have you always been passionate about hiking, camping and the outdoors?
When I was young and growing up in Scotland, my parents took me camping a fair bit. It was so beautiful but I didn’t really appreciate it back then. I only started hiking seriously when I came to Hong Kong. I started on the main trails then gradually started doing tougher stuff, overgrown trails, coastal rope courses, swim hiking around islands, stream and waterfall hiking.
What is thru-hiking? How did you start thru-hiking in HK?
Thru-hiking is basically multi-day, long-distance hiking where you sleep and eat on the trail. A couple of years ago I somehow convinced three friends of mine to join me thru-hiking the Maclehose Trail, which we completed in four days. It was hard but I wanted more, and we ended up doing all four major HK trails that year. There is information on the internet for hiking stages of those trails but not much information if you want to complete them in one go. So, I started a website thruhikinghk.com with maps and details on camping, water sources and food.
The Wilson was the toughest, we did it in June so it was super hot and there is only one official campsite on the trail so we slept on mats at the top of mountains, in pagodas, wherever we could find a spot really. It was a hard few days but it really broadened my perspective on where you can sleep in the wild in Hong Kong.
How easy or difficult is it to live an outdoorsy life in Hong Kong and develop a sense of adventure in your kids?
It’s really not difficult to get into that stuff in Hong Kong, but moving to Plover Cove certainly has opened up more opportunities in terms of access to the outdoors. Some of my strongest memories growing up are embedded in the outdoors, so I think it’s important to get the kids outdoors doing as much as possible. My eldest says he hates it but he will look back and appreciate those times when he is older.
I think you need to get around and explore every inch of Hong Kong, particularly because we can’t travel at the moment. I am constantly finding interesting little bits of Hong Kong which surprise and amaze me. It’s a really good place to bring up kids, especially if you enjoy the outdoors.
How do you involve your kids and your wife in your outdoor adventures?
Most of the stuff I do now is with the kids. We started a YouTube channel where we film some of the mad stuff we get up to and that’s a real motivator for my eldest son. We’ve done kayaking to uninhabited islands, cycling across the New Territories, wild camping, and we are planning a stream hike, sleeping in hammocks next to waterfalls, perfect for the heat of the summer. It’s really about survivalism, not glamping. You won’t see any fairy lights or cool boxes on our trips. We drink from streams and cook on a fire. It’s not a comfortable experience. It’s really about the sense of achievement the kids get when they find that water, or start that fire with sparks from a ferrocerium rod. My wife, Rina, doesn’t get on well with mosquitoes, and enjoys her own time when I take the kids off into the wild but she does appreciate the camping when she comes.
Are you trying actively to live a “simpler life”?
I am interested in self-reliance and survivalism. Modern life makes it difficult to avoid pollution, microplastics, pesticides and chemicals although I think you can mitigate it, to some extent. That’s why I collect water to drink from the stream next to my house and grow my own vegetables. In the future, I definitely want to be fully self-sustainable though I am not there yet.
Do you make and do a lot of things at home? And with your kids?
Not as much as I should do, but I have introduced Hugo to the Microbit, which is a little circuit board that can be coded to do lots of interesting things. Making comes in many forms, however, and he enjoys making in Minecraft.
You’re a published educational author with Harper Collins and a public speaker. Can you tell us a bit more about these achievements?
I wrote two books for IGCSE Design and Technology (the teachers’ guide and the students’ book) a few years ago. But I was far more honoured recently to be invited to write a chapter for a book on Free Learning which is an educational concept developed by an incredible educator called Ross Parker. Pre-Covid, I presented at the Asia International Schools Conference and the 21st Century Learning Conference. Presenting is a really rewarding experience and I have met some fantastic international educators whom I have learnt from and been inspired by. I hope other educators have been inspired by me too.
COVID has impacted families in many ways. Has it affected yours?
At the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of panic. I sent Rina to Japan with the kids when it looked like Hong Kong was going to fall to the virus, then Japan got hit hard and went into a state of emergency and so they flew back to Hong Kong. I think most families have stories like this, but we have learnt that you just can’t second guess this virus and it’s best to just stay put. I feel safe in Hong Kong.
I had to adapt to online teaching, and Hugo had to adapt to online learning very quickly. It annoys me to hear about lost learning. While we all know that online learning is less than ideal, I do think we need to focus on and celebrate the incredible adaptability, resilience and independence our young people have shown in the last year.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
I am a senior examiner and examinations author for IB, and I am involved in designing the assessment for the new syllabus and I am proud that I have been trusted to have a key role in shaping the educational experience of the next generation of Design students. I was also proud when one of my students won the SCMP Visual Artist of the Year award and he nominated me for the mentor award. I never really saw myself as his mentor, I just gave him space and opportunities to develop himself into the incredible person he is today.
What do you enjoy most about being a father? And what is the most challenging aspect of being a father?
I like being outdoors with my kids, putting them in situations that make them challenge themselves mentally and physically. It helps them develop their appreciation for what they have and helps them grow. I feel challenged by technology and screens, those are difficult things to navigate for parents and can be a real cause of stress and tension. But then I think back to when I was a kid, playing Nintendo all day instead of being outside running around. So I suppose that they will, in time, develop a love for the outdoors.
How similar or different are your children?
Other than being half Japanese, half Scottish, they have attributes from us both. They are both shy but stubborn, both are polite but in a really aggressive way!
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Sitting on my rooftop, looking out across Plover Cove with a cold beverage and no kids around. As much as I love being with the boys, I am surrounded by children all day every day and need time off to unwind!