Saturday, April 17, 2010

Teaching as a Learning Process

As students are "forced" to reflect on what they have learnt this past semester as their swan song, I thought that it would be helpful for me to do the same -- but more than that, I decided that I would reflect not only on the current semester, but on the three-year journey that is CS3216.

At the heart of CS3216 is my belief that Singapore is much too mediocre a society and what we really lack are peaks. By mediocrity, I don't actually mean bad. Mediocre actually means "average" and in the context of Singapore, it's a pretty high average.

However, what I had come to realize by observing what's been happening in recent times is that a high average isn't going to cut it. Not by a long shot. :-(

The world at large is getting increasingly complex. We are slowly but steadily running out of oil. China is fast becoming bigger and more unstable. US is fast moving towards implosion and bankruptcy. The picture really isn't pretty.

In this light, what I felt what that what Singapore really needs are peaks.

I also had a very dim view of the old farts like myself. I've missed my chance to be a Page or Zuckerberg. The future really belongs to the youth of today and the leaders of tomorrow. Education is the answer.

Then the question was: how in the world do we go about creating those peaks?

Then I watched The Last Lecture and decided that maybe Randy Pausch knew what he was talking about and saw that Facebook was like the best thing since sliced bread and created CS3216 - because I thought, maybe if we did something different, some good might come out of it.

Now that I have the whole system up and running, I can obviously tell a story about how brilliant I was when I "conceived" of CS3216. However, the truth of the matter is much less glamorous. I hardly knew what I was doing and I was mostly making things up as I went along. :-)

What I DID know however was that what I really wanted to do was to help facilitate the formation (not creation) of those peaks that we need so badly. The idea is that the peaks were already there, but we just haven't quite been able to bring them out or the systems and structures we have in place were perhaps and impediment.

I really didn't know but as Randy says, "Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you."

Because I didn't really know what I was doing, I ended up talking to a lot of people, mostly successful people --- and it wasn't too long before it became conclusive that there is no "formula" for success. The unfortunate corollary of this finding is that we can't really create peaks the way we used to train engineers.

What I did find however was that successful people tend to think differently from the regular folks. It's really not about IQ. It's all about mindset.

I think Anthony Robbins articulates this in a way that I cannot possibly:

"Guess how many emotions people typically experience? Less than 12 and half of them make them feel like sh*t".

Along the way, I have indeed found that notwithstanding differences in natural talent (or what's typically referred to as "Nature"), that people are products of their own experiences (or "Nurture"). Nurture is not just about how many tuition teachers one has had in the past. It's *much* deeper and more profound.

Much of this I sort of figured out along the way as a scientist observing the world and the people that run around in it. In recent times, I've come to learn about this thing known as "Neural Linguistic Programming" and I'm in the midst of figuring out how it all works. :-) It's nice to have someone else work out the theory for you instead of having to start from first principles.

The theory here is that most people typically have a lot of potential to do a lot more, except that they are "programmed wrongly". Well, it turns out that I'm a Computer Scientist. If it's just a buggy program, then I'm right at home. Debugging is probably no sweat lah. Just have to figure out how the heck to load the darn thing into memory without frying someone's brains. :-)

Teaching CS3216 has been really rewarding for me because I've also actually gotten a lot smarter about a whole bunch of random things along the way. It's sometimes not even clear to me (like it's not clear to the students) that I've actually been teaching, but I've definitely learnt a lot.

It's funny, but I came up with this conjecture earlier this evening that maybe CS3216 is just a class I created for myself to learn stuff I wanted to learn..... and along the way, I just sort of collected some students to learn with me? :-P

I really like to learn stuff. I hope that to a small extent, some of the students this past semester have also started to appreciate the value of keeping their eyes open and learning random stuff. :-)

The motto for CS3216 is "make a difference". Now that the course is coming to an end and we're moving on to bigger and badder things next year, it might be timely for me to share my views on this matter.

I think it's HARD to actually make a difference. Like I said during the Last Lecture, most people are a lot less important than they think they are and our existence in this world is really quite transient. What is a 100 years in the face of eternity? Anyone knows his/her great-grandfather?

Does it therefore mean that we should therefore give up and life an "ordinary life"? Well, that's a choice that each and every person must make for himself/herself.

What I do think however is that to stand a chance at making a difference, we first have to BELIEVE that WE CAN MAKE a DIFFERENCE.

At the very least, we can try (though I also say "Do or Do Not, There is no Try".... maybe I'm a bit schizophrenic :-P).

Trying doesn't guarantee success. Sometimes the Gods will seem to conspire against us. What can mere mortals do? :-)

That said, what I do know is that if we don't try, we fail by default.

To conclude, I shall leave the students with one (hard) question that they should attempt as homework: WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
Not to worry. It's not graded - at least not by me. ;-)

This question doesn't have a model answer I think. Because everyone is built differently, it's likely that the answer will be different for each student. But this is actually an important question because the answer will reveal the sort of person we are and also be a guiding force to our short existence.

To make the point more poignant (sorry this is a bit morbid), imagine yourself lying in your deathbed with hours left to go and someone asks you: "what the heck have you been doing with your life?" What will your answer be?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On Wealth and Execution

I haven't blogged for a while and I realized that many students haven't blogged as well - but we'd talk about that later.

I also wanted to do an experiment to test if students would blog if I didn't blog. Sad to say, not many did. :-(

What came to me earlier today is something quite philosophical, and thats the question: what is wealth?

I recently get in touch with Nipun Mehta who has an interesting perspective on this question:

His solution is the "gift economy", which attempts to "redefine wealth as contributions, not possessions".

While interesting, and perhaps noble, such a definition is a little too abstract for me.

So I approached this question from a more basic angle: if I can have an infinite amount of anything I want, what would it be? Money?

Sometimes when you ask questions the "right way", you the get the "right" answers.

My answer was pretty obvious: TIME.

If only I had more time. I have so many thing I have to do. I have so many things I wanna do. I never seem to have enough time to do them all. :-( Simple as that. Instead of a daily struggle to pay the bills, mine is a struggle to stay afloat.

Let's try to get everything squared away without blowing anything up yeah?

If you will think a little deeper. There are two things that the world cares about: energy and money. To some extent, the two are actually interchangeable. Energy is money, albeit in a different form.

Why do we need money or energy? Basically to buy time.

Because we have money, we can take a plane or drive a car instead of walking on foot. That saves us hellaluvalot of time.

Because we have money, we can go to the restaurants, we don't need to hunt down the animal, skin it and cook it ourselves.

Because we have money, we can hire a maid to take care of the housework so that we don't have to do the laundry.

Because we have money, we might be able to pump ourselves with more advanced medical treatments so that we don't die so early and have more time.

You get the point. But suppose we all agree that wealth is really time, then there are two obvious corollaries:

One, life is very fair, because regardless of king or pauper, we all have the same amount of time everyday: only 24 hours. No more. No less.

Two, what should we do with our time?

I am not about to suggest that there is a model answer to the second question. To each his own. I am merely sharing a perspective.

The second point I want to touch on in this blog entry is execution, which coincidentally is the theme for the second part of CS3216, if people still remember.

It turns out that CS3216 is not the easiest class to teach. Because of the way it is structured, there are a lot of random variables.

I don't know beforehand who I can get as speakers. I don't know who will turn me down. I don't know who will agree to come talk to the class, but have to cancel and/or reschedule.

I don't know whether the new Google Wave assignment will work out. I didn't even know what Google Wave was about when we started. Thank God it worked out. :-P

Because I am teaching this class for the third time, I am obviously much smarter than when I started, but there are (always) surprises.

For example, while I had expected all the teams to do well for the milestone portion of the Facebook assignment, some teams blew up on and I had to make up some new rules to remedy the situation and to put the course back on track.

Now that we're nearing the end of the semester, I must say that I'm quite pleased to see how things have turned out and as far and I'm concerned, we're pretty much cruising to the end.

There's still the poster session next Wed, but it's quite manageable.

The only other loose end that I need to tie up is the Blogging King/Queen business. As it turns out, this current batch of students dun really like to blog and dun blog consistently. This is very different from the last batch -- but why am I surprised? :-)

Upon careful deliberation, I hereby declare MYSELF the Blog King for this batch 'cos I think I have blogged much more consistently and conscientiously than any of the students.

Because there can only be one, and I'm the one, this means that the no one gets a free A by blogging for this batch. At least not the way it was envisioned at the start of the semester. Sorry.

Am I upset that blogging didn't quite work out this semester? Actually, no 'cos the point of the class is not about blogging. Everything that's done for CS3216 is supposed to go towards promoting learning. While the blogging component this year hasn't been quite so successful, some good has come out of it and that's about as good as it gets.

In case people are wondering if this means it's the end of blogging for the rest of the semester. The answer is no. However. more will be revealed at the Last Lecture on Monday. Akan datang.

People should not forget that I'm the evil prof. >:-P

To conclude, the point I'm trying to make about execution is that it involves focussing on the big picture and high-level goal, without losing sight of the details and begin able to adapt to unexpected events and being able to improvise as you go along. Yeah, it's a mouthful. Go chew on it. :-)