Teaching Statement (Mar 2012)
“The best way to teach somebody something is to
have them think they’re learning something else.”
- Randy Pausch (1960-2008)
Ostensibly, I am supposed to be teaching Computer Science. However,
mostly I see myself just as a teacher, not so much teaching Computer
Science, but helping students learn “how to learn,” and perhaps, if I get
lucky, lead better lives after they leave school.
The saying goes, “give a man a fish and he can eat for a day; teach the
man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.” Times have changed. We don’t
actually know that there will be fish tomorrow and instead of simply
learning how to fish, it is more important for our students to learn how to
learn how to fish.
In this case, if the future is one where there are no more fish and only
buffalo are left, we hope that the students will be able to figure out how
to learn how to hunt buffalo.
Teaching is the Business of Inspiration
I had a conversation with a student a couple of weeks ago. I don't recall
for what reason, but we ended up talking about education and what education
is about. In that conversation, I was trying to articulate what I thought
education is about and somehow what came out naturally was that education
is not so much about knowledge or information transfer, but it really is the
business of inspiration.
It seems to me that many people lead pretty uninspired lives. Many people are doing
jobs day-in-day-out without actually finding any meaning in what they do.
That's quite sad.
If education can successfully inspire an entire nation of people to lead inspired
lives, that nation will be great indeed.
I believe that inspiration is not confined only to the
artists and inventors. I believe that even janitors can be inspired in their
This world needs more inspiration.
Teaching is Learning
It might sound odd, but teachers need to be good learners.
The reason for this is that children (and students) don't do what we say,
but do what we do.
Teachers are supposed to convince students that learning is fun. How are
they going to do that if they themselves do not find learning fun and engage
in lifelong learning themselves? Quite elementary, really.
It turns out that like politicians, teachers are also in the business of
influencing people (their students).
In this light, teaching is also a form of leadership and for leadership,
To succeed in this endeavour, there is a need to build trust and there is
little choice but for teacher to be role models. While teachers should not
be expected to be like Gandhi, they have little choice but to conduct
themselves in a manner that is beyond reproach.
Such is the burden of our profession.
Teaching is about Heart
At the heart of it all, teaching is also fundamentally the business of people. Teachers must
care and believe that they can make a difference.
I had a discussion with a colleague the other day about the difference
between teaching and research. It is my view that it is myth that good researchers
will necessarily be bad teachers or that good teachers will necessarily be
There are commonalities between teaching and research, and
that's curiosity. Both good teachers and good researcher must be curious
people. It is unfortunately perfectly possible (and some say common) for good researchers to
be terrible teachers. What separates the two, is "heart".
Focus on Creating a "Learning Experience"
Looking back, there has been a obviously shift in the way I approach teaching over the years.
Really early in my teaching career, I looked at teaching as the problem
of how to help students understand the material better and to communicate
information more efficiently and effectively.
Then, I moved on to try to work on improving motivation and interest,
because it gradually became clear that content didn't really matter.
Now, I view teaching as the creation of a "learning experience".
I was explaining to a colleague a couple of months ago that one way to look
at designing a class is to think of it like a movie and we are the director.
We want to create a overarching story arc where there are little tension points
in the middle and hopefully a climax right at the end.
Sadly, few will remember much of what they learnt five years after
graduation, but what they experience, they can't really forget.
Holy Grail: Intrinsic Motivation
I am of the view that goal of education at the highest level is to help our students fulfill their full potential and become contributing members of
the greater society.
Sad to say, teachers really don't do miracles. They cannot do miracles.
We cannot actually ensure that students fulfill their full potential. Only they themselves can do it.
After many years at this job, I have come to realize that the crux is
this thing called intrinsic motivation. Some folks call it passion, but
that's really too amorphous. I believe that passion is really just a manifestation of intrinsic
People do stuff for a variety of reasons. The most
common reasons are external or what's called extrinsic motivation. For
most students in the Singapore system are that way. They have been trained
A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that the Education Minister met
with some CEOs and these CEOs complained that Singaporean workers lack
drive. The Minister was puzzled because our students are among the most
hardworking in the world, so how can it be?
My view: it is because our students are typically motivated by the wrong
things while they are in the school system. They work hard because they are
worried that they will do badly in their exams. They worry that if they do
badly in school, they will grow up and end up as road sweepers. They are
driven by fear, which is a common (and powerful) source of extrinsic
motivation. They are not driven to work hard because of curiosity and a love
What can we expect when they grow up?
At this point, I am utterly convinced that what really matters is
To fulfill their full potential, students also need to cultivate what's
commonly called a "growth mindset". We also need people with more grit.
With the right mindset and the right motivations, I believe that
everything will take care of itself.
Values Matter Too
While education is often focussed on equipping students to help them
succeed in whatever they choose to do later in life, it is important to
remember what Spiderman said.
"With great powers, comes great responsibility."
If our students are equipped for success but they lack the moral compass
with which to guide their paths, we might inadvertently be creating more
Enrons and increasing social inequality.
But it's really hard to cultivate and encourage values like integrity and
honour in the context of a school. Parents in our modern society are only
too quick to abdicate this responsible and hand it over to the schools. I
really don't think that ethics classes really work. Still, we have to try.
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 great privilege and an awesome responsibility.