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 (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 work.

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.

Integrity Matters

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, authenticity matters.

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 bad researchers.

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 motivation.

People do stuff for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons are external or what's called extrinsic motivation. For example, most students in the Singapore system are that way. They have been trained that way. 

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 for learning.

What can we expect when they grow up?

Moulding Mindsets

At this point, I am utterly convinced that what really matters is mindset.

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.


Last updated $Date: 2015/12/22 13:59:37 $