Teaching Statement (Feb 2009)
Over time, we grow older and hopefully wiser. As we grow somewhat
wiser, we sometimes have news ideas - but that doesn't mean that the old
ones are bad or wrong. After teaching at NUS for three years, I decided to
write a new teaching statement that better reflected my current thinking
about teaching. Instead of updating my teaching statement, I decided
that I would just write a new one and keep the previous one for reference.
- Ben Leong
The Challenge of Education Today
After teaching at NUS for three 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 necessarily done our jobs. It 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 does not often assign
students to their first-choice course; (ii) learning takes effort and it is
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
I have always believed that teaching is never about stuff. I have never
seen 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 is often more important than the content. Let’s
just ask ourselves: how much of what we learnt in college do we still
In my teaching, I seek opportunities to “force” students 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 in the right way, 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
I take comfort in the fact that teaching is not a popularity contest and
that our students are actually quite enlightened. Urban legend says that if
we set assignments and tests that are too challenging, our teaching feedback
will suffer. My own experiences do not support this theory.
Emphasis on Common Sense
When I read some of the things that some young Singaporeans post online
and some Forum Page letters, I ask myself, “Where has our education system
We have a lot of heavily-educated people, most likely with university
degrees who can write fluently, but who demonstrate in their writing that
they clearly cannot think. Common sense is apparently not common.
It’s mind-boggling how common sense can be applied to understand the world 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 is not rocket science, and that
I am merely an expert at stating the obvious. Most issues will become
intuitively obvious with the application of common sense.
To be Adventurous and Willing to Make Mistakes
I personally do not believe that it is possible for me to become so good
at teaching someday that I cannot improve. The corollary obviously 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 a combination of the willingness to try and the willingness to
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, I have also come to the realization that teaching has a
lot to do with leadership.
As teachers, we preach. Students today will not 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
My view is that we would have done our jobs and earned our pay 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.
It’s a sales job
I learnt this from the late Prof Randy Pausch (of CMU) in his
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 do not entirely convinced that they need.
How do we sell stuff that they don’t really want, even though we know
they need it? I actually don’t 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. How we go about applying
this understanding to our teaching is an art rather than a science.
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 that we come across in our
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.
I believe that the future of our nation lies not so much in the GDP
growth but in education. As teachers, we have the future of our nation in
our hands. It is both a privilege and an awesome responsibility.