Associate Professor
School of Computing

National University of Singapore

15 Computing Drive, COM2 Building, #03-20, S(117418)

Tel: (+65) 6516 4240 Fax: (+65) 6779 4580

Email: benleong at


Teaching Statement (2006) 


The Straits Times,  March 27, 2006
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 mediocre students.

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 home.

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 direction.

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.

Ben Leong
Cambridge, Massachusetts
With 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 century. 

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 worthless.

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:

  • Encourage 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
  • Emphasize academic integrity.

 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 for themselves.  

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.

Academic Integrity

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 students.

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.

Last updated $Date: 2015/02/26 13:12:28 $