Teaching Statement (2006)
The Straits Times, March 27, 2006With globalization and a
relatively mature economy, our nation is under siege. Education remains the
only hope for our nation’s survival as we move together into the twenty-first
All-rounder student mould is pointless
I, TOO, am heartened by the
breadth and depth of the Ministry of Education's recent policies and I believe
that our policies are indeed progressive.
People are different and few
are truly 'all rounded'.
To expect our students to
conform to the mould of an 'all rounder' model student is like expecting
Singapore women to diet till they all look like Ally McBeal: It is
self-defeating and pointless, unless what we want is a whole generation of
We have to let a thousand
flowers bloom. Then perhaps a garden might grow on our doorstep.
Young Singaporeans have to
understand that the world has changed since their parents' generation: Singapore
is now a global city and they will have to compete with foreigners for jobs at
Protectionism is not an
option. We have no oil. We have no natural resources. If we drive up our already
high labour costs, we are toast.
Let us not forget also that
there are 1.3 billion hungry people, in the emergent China, who are willing to
do the same jobs for less; they are even willing to do jobs that Singaporeans
are not willing to do.
In some ways, our situation
may seem bleak but I believe in our future; among all the people in our region,
I believe that Singaporeans have access to the most opportunities.
The question is: Will our
people fully exploit the available opportunities to excel in a profession that
they truly care about, or will they cave in to peer pressure and continue the
blind pursuit of good academic grades and co-curricular activity records,
believing that paper qualifications are the key to a secure future?
To me, the truly worrying part
is the expectations that the parents impose upon their children.
MOE has done its part by
reducing the syllabus, and it has improved the testing system by introducing
questions that cannot be answered by simply regurgitating from a 10-year series.
These are steps in the right
This move has, however,
unnerved many parents, who seem to prefer the good old days, where their
children can safely spend their entire lives buried in their books, but thereby
'guarantee' good grades at the national examinations.
Like Ally McBeal, Singaporeans
may need to take a look in the mirror.
The Goals of Education
The problem we face in
Singapore is not a lack of emphasis on the value of education. It is a problem
of misplaced emphasis on education as a means to an end. To my knowledge, many
of our students are only interested in getting a degree because they believe
that a degree equates to a good job and a secure future. This is a problem not
with the education system; it is a problem with the mindset of our society. As
the national university, it is contingent upon us to disabuse the students who
come through our doors of the notion that they should care only about grades and
their degrees and not about learning. If we do not succeed in teaching our
students to think, the degree that we confer on them will eventually become
While Computer Science will
most certainly be my medium of instruction, my goal is not to teach
students Computer Science. My plan is to teach them how to think. When I
was an undergraduate more than ten years ago, I first learnt to program in C.
Today, we have Java and C#. The world wide web (WWW) only started to be
popularized by Mosaic during my sophomore year. What is the future of Computer
Science and networking? I have no idea. What I do know however is that in ten
years, Java and C# will likely cease to be fashionable and the Internet will
look drastically different from what we have today. I also know that 90% of the
students will take up jobs that have preciously little to do with Computer
Science, unless we count email and SMS. The key is to develop in our students
the ability to cope with change, and to equip them not with facts, but teach
them how to learn on their own.
While I believe in an
all-rounded education, I do not believe that it is reasonable to expect our
students to do well in everything – and there is no reason for us to try to
encourage them to try. Instead, I believe that the key is to inspire curiosity
for learning and to encourage them to focus their energies and excel at what
they are already naturally good at.
Achieving the Goals
How do we inspire students to
want to learn? That's a question that I am hardly qualified to answer at this
point, but I do have some ideas. In particular, I believe that there following
strategies may help:
students to speak up and to have an opinion;
- Make lessons
relevant (or at least seem relevant);
- Ensure that the
assessment strategy provides students with the right incentive to learn, instead
of simply memorizing and regurgitating; and
Teaching – A Two-way Street
It is hard to give good
lectures. Talking to large class of students is an art. It is not just the
articulation of words, it is a show. A teacher is not very different from an
actor. However, he must seek not only to entertain, but to educate as well.
That said, I have no plans to hold a weekly talk-show. Teaching is not a
one-way street; it is a two-way interaction between the teacher and the
student. Sometimes, the distinction between the teacher and the student may not
even be clear. I hope that the students to interrupt me during my lectures, but
not in a disruptive way; I want them to participate and contribute and not just
be passive listeners.
Students must not be afraid
to speak up and a teacher must not be afraid of hard questions. Neither should a
teacher pretend to know all the answers. The teacher is a mentor/facilitator
and not a magic mirror that spouts all the right answers. In fact, I would be
pleased if a student is able to ask a question so hard and it stumps me. This
means that the student is thinking – and I would not embarrassed to admit that I
do not know the answer. I would commend the student for asking a good question,
admit that I do not know the answer and ask the student how he thinks he might
go about finding out the answer to his question for himself. This will be my
window of opportunity to demonstrate to the students that life is full of hard
questions with no easy answers. What is important is not that they know the
answers, but that they understand that while it is acceptable not to have an
answer in the hat, it is not acceptable to be shocked into state of hapless
paralysis. Students have learn how to not to panic when faced with a question
or problem that they have never seen before and to learn how to find out answers
Making Lessons Relevant
My own time in school has
taught me that taking classes and doing homework is usually boring. When I was
younger, I learned how to do Fourier Transforms. Unfortunately, until today,
have no idea what they are good for – and that perhaps is the reason why I chose
to do graduate school in Computer Science instead of Electrical Engineering. It
is this experience that perhaps has caused me to believe in the importance of
making lessons relevant and applicable. In this regard, the fact that I will
likely be teaching networking classes makes the task somewhat easier. Where
possible, I will try to have the students do projects where the write simple and
cute distributed applications. One of my research interests is also “networking
support for massively-multiplayer online games”. Once I can get my research
project off the ground, one idea is to work in some game into the class project,
so that the students will not only learn something, but they will have fun at
the same time.
Another idea to bring lessons
to life is to invite professionals in the industry to give guest lectures. This
can be done for both networking and software engineering. While there are some
basic techniques that we can teach them in school, the industry is always
evolving and we should not pretend to know everything, when it is truly
impossible to keep pace with the industry. Under such circumstances, the most
natural approach is to have the real experts from industry come share their
experiences. This also demonstrates to the students that what they are learning
is in fact alive and practical.
With regard to assessment, I
must admit that I am not a fan of exams. While I believe that tests are
necessary to keep the students on their toes and import as feedback to the
teacher as to whether the students are keeping up with the class, I am against
comprehensive final examinations that force students to regurgitate facts. I
hope to write exams that can be completed in half the allocated time and
students will be encouraged to leave as soon as they are done. Exams should
test understanding and not memory or whether students can write quickly under
time pressure. I also favour open-book examinations.
In addition to exams, I
believe that students should also be assessed on regular homework and through
class projects. The reason is that assessment is only a necessary evil but what
is important is learning and I believe that most of the learning takes place
under such conditions. While there are risks in class projects that some
students might slack off and ride on the tailcoats of the other students, I
believe that these are risks worth taking. It is never too early for them to
start learning how to collaborate with other people.
I plan also to reserve some
credit for class participation. Students will be rewarded for speaking up in
class. It is important that the students be disabused of the notion that good
grades and a degree from NUS is the key to success in life. Paper
qualifications mean little and education is not a destination; it is a journey.
In working life, the people who get ahead are not the ones who work hard. They
are the ones who work smart and make themselves heard. It is never too early to
train our students for success. I also believe that writing skills are crucial,
but that is an issue that should be tackled at the level of the university and
it is not a subject that I believe I am qualified to teach.
Finally, I want to make a
short statement about my stand on academic integrity. I will not tolerate
any form of cheating. I will make clear to the students this stand at the
beginning of the term. My view is that students who are caught cheating on their
homework in the first instance will be issued a formal letter of warning and be
awarded no credit for the assignment. Subsequent offences and any cheating
during tests and exams should be referred to the University for disciplinary
action. It is important for the University to make a stand on this matter
because the students who get away with cheating on small things while they are
in school, may possibly grow up to become big crooks. Hence integrity is key,
and cheating is an issue that must be nipped in the bid, when the students are
still young and impressionable. Of course, these are only my views and I’d be
happy to apply the established procedures for NUS.
I have outlined the broad
principles of my personal philosophy of education. I however have no experience
with NUS and I have no illusions that it will be easy to achieve the said
goals. In fact, it is impossible for me to gauge exactly what is wishful
thinking and what is practical at this point. My plan is do things the
regular way, whatever that may be, for a term or two to get a sense of what
the students are like and how they think before I try to figure out how best to
achieve my goals given the constraints. After all, talk is cheap – and there is
no right way to teach: I believe that teaching methods must be flexible
and remain so, and that we have to adapt to the aptitude and interests of the
To conclude, the summary of
my teaching philosophy is as follows: 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.