Sunday, March 1, 2009

New Teaching Statement

As it turns out, I found myself having to write a new teaching statement. The old one that I wrote before I started teaching at NUS and probably hardly knew what I was saying can be found here. Comments are welcome. :-)

The Challenge of Education Today

After teaching at NUS for slightly over two years, I have found that teaching is not too hard. However just because we can teach, or know how to teach, doesn’t mean that we have done our jobs, because takes two hands to clap.

In particular, I have found the greatest challenge of education is not so much teaching, but in persuading students that they want to learn. This problem is hard because of a combination of factors: (i) the allocation of students by the university admissions exercise doesn’t often assign students to their first-choice course; (ii) learning takes effort and it’s hard to persuade students to put in the effort; and (iii) most students are “lost” and don’t really know what they want in life.

It's About Learning How to Learn, Not About Stuff

I have always believed that teaching is never about stuff. I never saw myself as a professor of Computer Science, but just a teacher. The reason is simple. With high probability, 90% of what students will learn in school will not be relevant for their working lives.

This doesn’t mean that a college education is useless. What it means however is that the process matters more than the content.

In my teaching, I seek to find opportunities to “force” them to learn things by themselves. While much has been said about how reliant Singaporean students are on spoon-feeding, my experience has been quite positive.

I have found that if the assignments are structured “correctly”, it is possible to foster independent learning. Yes, there will inevitably be complaints from certain quarters, but if the students find that they really did get smarter at the end of a course, many actually appreciate being challenged.

Emphasis on Common Sense

I read some of the things that some young Singaporeans post online and I ask myself, “Where has our education system gone wrong?”

We have a lot of heavily-educated people, most likely with university degrees who can write fluently, who clearly demonstrate that they cannot think. Common sense is apparently not common.

It’s mind-boggling how common sense can be applied to analyze and solve many problems in life. It is equally mind-boggling how often common sense is not being applied.

Therefore, one of the elements that I attempt to emphasize in my classes is common sense. I try to explain how I think about issues to my students and to convince them that much of what I say isn’t rocket science, but intuitively obvious with the application of common sense.

To be Adventurous and Willing to Make Mistakes

I personally don’t believe that it is possible for me to become so good at teaching someday that I cannot improve. The corollary is that there is always room for improvement.

It is however hard to improve too much if we just focus on the basics, i.e. lecture and tutorials. Yes, it is possible to improve one’s lectures and tutorials, but there’s really so much we can do.

To really push our teaching to a higher level, there is a need to try new things. New things are scary because they might not work. The key is therefore the willingness to try and the willingness to make mistakes.

I have done my fair share of random stuff. Some things work; others don’t. The way I have managed the “failures” is to explain to students what I had hoped to achieve right at the beginning. As it turns out, our students are not unreasonable and many will appreciate the effort and will be quite forgiving if things don’t work out.

A related point is that as teachers, we don’t have a monopoly of the good ideas. Sometimes we just have to ask our students for ideas that they think might work. My experience has been good. There have been several occasion where I adopted some ideas proposed by students to good effect.

To Walk the Talk

Strangely enough, teaching also has a lot to do with leadership.

As teachers, we preach. Students today won’t just believe what we tell them just because we tell them. We can preach all we like and it can make absolutely no difference.

Personally, I believe that an effective teacher has to “walk the talk”.

If we want our students to be excited about what we’re teaching them, we had better be excited about what we teach.

If we want our students to believe our gospel, we had better believe it ourselves and be able to put that into practice.

If we want our students to reach certain standards, we might first be able to achieve the same.

There is No "Correct" Way to Teach

As teachers, our job cannot be to make every student a genius. That’s impossible.

My view is that we would have done our jobs if we are able to help our students reach their full potential.

Everyone has his strengths and weaknesses. I believe that we should try to help students discover and identify their strengths and to develop them.

Because no two students are alike, it is my belief that there is no “right” way to teach. What we teach and how we teach will depend on who we teach. By the same token, if we are good with a group of students, it says nothing about how good we would be with a different group if there are significant structural differences.

We are Salespeople

I learnt this from Randy Pausch in his Last Lecture – as teachers we are selling education and as I alluded to above in the challenge of education, we are sometimes stuck selling stuff that the students don’t really want to buy.

How do we sell stuff that they don’t really want, even though we know they need? I don’t exactly have an answer.

What I do know about sales however is that psychology matters, and so to be effective teachers, we need to spend time talking to the students to understand how they think and what matters to them.

The Belief that We Can Make a Difference

I believe that teaching is a calling and those who heed the call do so because they believe that they can make a difference.

There are many choices in life and we have many “lost” students. Teachers are in a unique position to guide and to help.

One of the reasons why I decided to become a teacher is because I agree with the philosophy of the “star fish story” where a boy is seen picking up starfishes and throwing them into the sea. Because there are so many starfishes, it all seems futile. The boy however picks up a starfish, tosses it into the ocean and says, “It sure made a difference to that one!”

As teachers, we have finite time and finite energy. We cannot hope to save the world or to teach everyone. What we can do however is to try to a small difference to the small number of students we work with and try to do our jobs. :-)


To conclude, my teaching philosophy remains as it has been from the beginning: I will strive not to teach, but to challenge the students to learn for themselves, to have their opinions about issues in life and to make themselves heard.


  1. there is one common denominator in your philosophy that is the most obvious for teaching, but unfortunately, not taken up by many teachers out there. sigh.

  2. really inspiring post but why did you have to rewrite your teaching statement?
    I find 2 statements mostly identical.

  3. >>I find 2 statements mostly identical.

    Haha, not exactly identical la. If you read carefully, the latest one reflect more insights after 2 years of teaching ;p

    >>It's About Learning How to Learn, Not About >.Stuff
    >>I never saw myself as a professor of Computer >>Science, but just a teacher.

    Learning how to learn is the buzzword in tertiary education in recent years. I have met countless educators emphasising on this concept. However, most of them don't know what they talking about. To me, learning how to learn is less of an ability but more of confidence. I guess as an educator, it's important to somehow give people the belief that they can do anything they want. How to do that? I don't know. ;p

  4. yanjie,

    there is one common denominator in your philosophy that is the most obvious for teaching, but unfortunately, not taken up by many teachers out there

    Which is the common denominator you are referring to?


    why did you have to rewrite your teaching statement?

    'cos I'm apply for a job as Hall Master and I need to submit a teaching statement. I read my old one and though it was somewhat naive, so I decided to write new one. I really don't think it's identical. I think I got a bit smarter along the way. :-)

    Kok Wee,

    Learning how to learn is the buzzword in tertiary education in recent years.

    Is that so? Which other class is using/doing it? Given the constraints of the material that has to be covered, it's typically hard to achieve. CS3216 is quite special 'cos I dun have a fixed syllabus. :-)

  5. Prof Ben,

    The common denominator in your philosophy? To know and understand your students. How? Talk to them, build rapport, as mentioned in your statement. Too bad many teachers out there assume they know better. :(

  6. most students are “lost” and don’t really know what they want in life.

    Very true...some experimentation actually helps when u don't want to feel that way... for nearly 6 years of school life, I wanted to become an aerospace engineer...but I really did not know much about a particular stream to decide what I wanted to do, whole heartedly...A year in common engineering was all it took to realise what my motives for that mindset were and which stream I wanted to major in. Since then, I take atleast one crazy module per sem jus to experiment...modes of invention last sem and cs3216 this sem :)

  7. >>Is that so? Which other class is using/doing it?

    The question should be which other class is not using. I can remember many educators using this phrase. Sounds good, but I don't think they know what they are talking. If you are interested, you can buy me coffee ;p

  8. This reminded me about my high school Physics-Olympiad teacher who can always train the best students. Everybody is curious about his secret of success and numerous parents want to pay very high fee to send their child to his home for tuition. But as far as I know, his secrete teaching secret is actually teach nothing. Every time I went for his class, I would bring a book and a sheet of newspaper. Then I read my book and he would read the newspaper. Other teachers might feel jealous or unfair. They sacrificed their own time to give extra tutorials and marked students’ homework diligently, but the results were often unsatisfied. The key reason here is really the difference of spoon-feeding and self-motivated study. Independent learning is good, but the result is heavily dependent on the intelligence of students. If this teaching theory is applied to the whole education system, good students will become but more people will fail, at least, in the short run. So, in China where every test is of crucial importance, most teachers wouldn’t risk to adopt this teaching style unless they have the best students. That’s why he can only succeed in Olympiad competition not normal A’ Level test, students are different. There is also anther issue about whether teachers have the courage to try new things. I really agree with your idea of “walk the talk”. If a teacher is mediocre, you cannot expect anything extraordinary about his/her students. Moreover, from my past experience, a teacher’s personality and spirit is more important than the teaching skills. Also in my high school, my English grade improved a lot after a talk given by an external tuition agent because the speaker’s personal story and spirit was really inspiring and I totally buy that. His one-hour talk worth more than thousands of English words that my normal teacher taught me. This was the difference. So, being a teacher is not easy and being a teacher that could make a difference is really really really not that easy.