BEN LEONG

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 comp.nus.edu.sg

 

Teaching Statement (Dec 2015) 

It has been a practice and tradition of mine to spend some time reflecting on what I have learnt and believe in for my teaching every few years.

Reflection is intrinsically important for growth and learning, but I also find it interesting to take a snapshot so that I can track how my thoughts and perspectives evolve over time.  Think of it as an online diary. 

Teaching as a Craft

I think of teaching is a craft. And, when I think of craftsmanship, I think of Jiro, the 3-Michellin-starred sushi master.

With a craft, we get better over time, but we can also always do even better. Perfection is that elusive goal that will always be just a little out of reach. But I actually think it's not a real problem because the value is not so much in reaching the destination, but in the striving to a better place.

And we don't get better by simply doing the same thing over and over. Rather, it involves discipline, experimentation and constant reflection. Truth be told, it is often painful than fun.

Teaching also requires some amount of showmanship.

Lectures, especially, is like a performance. I have had a few occasions where I felt I was in the flow and nailed the lecture or talk, but those occasions are sadly rare. I never seem to find enough time to prepare -- and yet, there have been a few occasions where I probably over-prepared, if that is even possible. Moderation is key. 

Regardless of one's experience, a tremendous amount of focus and hard work is required to do it well.  In teaching, there are no short cuts.
 

Use of Technology and New Pedagogies

This brings me to a pet peeve. I suspect that many have been persuaded to believe that the use of technology implies better teaching or that new pedagogies are better than supposed "old" pedagogies like rote learning and lectures.

Problem-based learning was in vogue a couple of year ago. Now, it's flipped classroom. I have done some pioneering work in the application of gamification, but try very hard to ensure that people do not get this impression that gamification is like the next holy grail -- even though for people, it works.

Different things work for different people. There is no one way to teach.

I believe in the basics. I believe that all beginning teachers should start by learning how to give proper lectures and learning classroom management. It is only after the basic teaching skills have been mastered that they should move on to try to execute more advanced pedagogies.

There was a recent OECD report that said that employing more technology often led to worse outcomes (in terms of test scores). That is hardly surprising to me. The use of technology can sometimes complicate things for the uninitiated or the unskilled teachers. Technology can also distract the students.

That said, I do believe that technology is going to profoundly change education in the years to come and I am quite excited to be in the thick of the action. :-)
 

On Innovations in Teaching

To me, innovation should begin with a real teaching or learning problem and not with better technologies or new gadgets.  

While many of my teaching innovations involve technology, the only reason for that is because it is a convenient way for me to solve my teaching problem. It has nothing to do with technology being the best or only solution.  

The very act of innovation in teaching involves risk taking and failure. I have had a number of successes, but I probably have had ad many failures that were quietly discarded and buried.

Innovation also requires intellectual honesty. There are hardly any new ideas in teaching. But even if we are fortunate enough to come up with something new, it does not mean that different or new is necessarily better. Many ideas are bad and many work only in very limited conditions or environments. We have to fully understand the constraints or limitations of what we have invented. I try not to get too sentimental.

But in the pursuit of innovation, there is however a key principle that I have always abided by, and that is, even if a new idea or approach fail, we need to make sure that we do no harm. Students are not lab animals and as teachers, it is our duty to ensure that our students' learning is compromised even as we try new approaches.

Failure is hard and hardly pleasant. I comfort myself that failure is valuable as long as I ensured that I learnt something in every failure.  
 

Teaching -- An Affective rather than Intellectual Endeavour

"The teacher–student relationship is one of the most powerful elements within the learning environment. A major factor affecting students’ development, school engagement and academic motivation, teacher–student relationships form the basis of the social context in which learning takes place." (Hughes & Chen,2011; Roorda et al.,)

 

I believe that in about 20 years, we will have programs that can transmit knowledge more efficiently than what most human teachers can. Will take mark the end of the teaching profession?

I think not. 

There is actually a good reason why I believe that while technology will not and cannot be the holy of great teaching. 

The reason is that great teaching (where a teacher is directly able to touch lives) is very much an affective, rather than just intellectual, activity. The mere efficient transmission of knowledge does not a good teacher make.

At some level, teaching also requires the exercise of leadership. Students do not do what we say, but what we do, so there is a need to live a consistent life and model the sorts of behaviour we hope that our students will emulate.

Finally, much of teaching is about the management of motivation. Learning requires effort and struggle. Most students are not inclined struggle if left to their choice. How many people willingly run 10 miles a day, every day?

The holy grail is intrinsic motivation. We want students to be excited about learning. But it is hard to do so consistently and at scale. Every child is different. Much of teaching has a lot to do with context, over which we teachers have very little control. To be effective, we need to reach out to the students to understand their individual context. I do not know how else to do it.

I believe that the greatest gift that a teacher can give to a student is not knowledge, but his time.
 

Conclusion

Teaching is like kungfu. There are many styles and there is no one way to teach. The effectiveness depends more on the skill of the practitioner, rather than the style. It also depends on the student. Not every student is equally receptive to the same style.

However, I abide by three (there are probably more) universal principles:

1. The focus must be on the students, always.

2. We need to constantly focus on the basics. The focus must be on what works, not on what looks novel or good.

3. I also believe in attention to details and a focus on teaching logistics.

Teaching logistics are simple things like ensuring that the assignments have no typos to ensuring that the lecture slides are available for the students to download immediately after the lesson. There are also subtle things like reminding the students when there are changes in schedule, even though they were already told weeks in advance.

The point is to remove unnecessary impediments and distractions from the students' learning. When done right, good teaching logistics invisible, like air. The students would not even realise that some of things were done -- and their learning becomes a seamless experience.

Finally, I have come to accept that we will not always succeed in our teaching. There will be students who do not respond when we reach out to them, and there will be those who refuse or are not ready to listen. And, there will always be more than we can do for our students -- but we all only have 24 hours in a day.

I shared the following with a young teacher I recently had lunch with: "Our responsibility as a teachers is to help our students become the best versions of themselves with the resources we have at our disposal -- and we will never have enough resources. Deal with it."

In other words, I have learnt not to be too hard on myself. I still think after all these years that teaching is a really meaningful job -- and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve.


Afternote (30 Dec 2015):

If we will only pay attention to the things that bother us, we will learn new things and we can learn new things every day.

I learnt something new today.

One of the reasons why I am writing these statements is that I believe in discipline and it seemed like an awfully good idea to take some time to reflect on what I have learnt periodically (and every 3 years seemed reasonable).

But I found it very difficult to write this statement. I have amended this teaching statement a number of times. But no matter how hard I tried, it never felt good enough. it always felt like the teaching statement I wrote 3 years ago was better. 

But that did not make sense to me. Did I not get smarter over the last 3 years? Did I learn nothing over the last 3 years? Shouldn't I sound wiser now than before?

After agonizing over this for a couple of weeks, I had a Eureka moment during a random online conversation with a friend who is a writer: I realized that I can only activate my inner voice in my writing when I feel compelled to write.

Writing takes effort.  When I write, there is always a reason. Most times I write to persuade. In these teaching statements, I write to force clarity on my thoughts and position on teaching. I don't write for fun.

The sad truth is that I really didn't feel like I had anything particularly interesting that needed to be said. I wrote this statement only because it is already December and if I did not write now, it would be more than 3 years since my last statement and that would violate my "discipline".

The revelation I had is that without real conviction, I cannot activate my inner voice and my writing falls flat, which brings me to two key insights:

One, teaching often involves doing things simply because they are the right things to do and not because we feel like doing them. Some will say that this is just basic discipline and it applies to life in general and not just to teaching. One example is the grading of final exams. After teaching for some many years, I still dread grading final exams, but they are important for teaching, so I just grit my teeth and do it.

Another example that comes vividly to mind is CVWO. Next year will be our tenth year serving the Volunteer Welfare Organizations in Singapore. It might be fun and interesting in the first few years, but 10 years is a long time. I cannot recall exactly, but it stopped being fun a few years ago.

There have been times when I contemplated throwing in the towel and shutting it down, but that never happened -- because, well, CVWO is a good thing. My students are doing some serious good work in serving the greater community, but more importantly, the pedagogical value of the experience is invaluable to the training of my students and it is something I am not able to reproduce in a regular class.

This brings me to the second lesson, which is that this new revelation highlights that teaching innovations do not always come from actively trying to solve an obvious teaching problem, unlike what I seem to have implied above.

As teachers, we need to hold on to a sense of wonder and adventure, and be willing to try new things because they seem like a good idea without knowing exactly where they will lead and without worrying about failure.

CVWO has really been quite a success and if I told a story about my great vision and foresight when I started it, people might believe me. But it would be disingenuous and dishonest. The truth is: it was dumb luck that we got this far.

When we started in 2007, we really didn't know what we were doing and we just made things up as we went along.

Mistakes were made, we got smarter. Some projects failed, we try our best not to repeat the same mistakes. Raising money in the initial years was hard, especially during the recession in 2009. We did not know if we were going to survive. 

CVWO was much like a startup. It just seemed like a good idea. We didn't have all the answers and we didn't know how hard it was (which was fortunate 'cos if I did, I might not have started). The same also applies to JFDI Academy. It was an insane amount of work, but I didn't know better (which again was fortuitous 'cos I might not have started). But once we started, there was no backing out and the rest, as they say, is history.

I once said (and it's still true) that good teaching involves the exercise of leadership. I would like to add to that -- good teaching requires both leadership and entrepreneurship. We are in the business of education. :-)

 

Last updated $Date: 2015/12/29 20:08:30 $