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 (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 Stuff

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 remember today?

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 challenged.

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 gone wrong?”

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 make mistakes.

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 impossible.

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 Last 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 work.


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.

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