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?


  1. Hey the Anthony Robins video is really mind-boggling!

    "along the way, I just sort of collected some students to learn with me? :-P"

    Haha, now I feel like being used... LOL

    "What is the meaning of life" - you've asked this in the first lecture!

  2. Way to go Prof, walking the talk!

    I've come to learn about this thing known as "Neural Linguistic Programming"

    I see where this is going. Future versions of Prof Ben could have powerful IDEs for NLP languages, where they can write code to fix mindsets.

    CS3216 is just a class I created for myself to learn stuff I wanted to learn

    A quick comparison with other classes tells me that the more active, exploratory and multi-directional the classes are, the more the Prof learns. (Common sense, no?)

  3. Indeed, I guess you are deserving of your self-proclaimed "Blog King" title. =P

    "I've missed my chance to be a Page or Zuckerberg."

    You might have missed the chance to make it SUPER BIG at tender age like theirs back then. Given that you mentioned you have grasped the essence of virality, I am wondering what's holding you back from making your killer app now. Different destiny? No offense. Just curious. =P

  4. I heard teaching is the highest form of learning.

    Googled around, and found that Aristotle said, "Teaching is the highest form of understanding."

  5. @joshua: I feel privileged instead, to learn together with everyone else.

    Hey Prof,

    The question you posted at the very end..."imagine yourself on a deathbed..." is one question I ask myself quite periodically (perhaps about every 3 - 6 months) and interestingly the abstraction of my answer is "to make the world a better place having lived" Of course there are details, and I would be happy to share them with anyone anytime. (= Asking this question makes me view time in a long-term perspective and it keeps be float from all the hussle, glam and distractions that are about me. It helps me identify my principles and orientate my growth towards my Life's mission. (Xp, I do have an exacting goal, but not a well-formed solution yet, on why I wanted to do combio) It helps me from being blindedsided by Life in case a season or a day turns sour.

    Thanks for sharing. And I do think that you have found your answer too ( perhaps in moderate clarity) to that question you posted.