Are polytechnic graduates inferior to junior college graduates in University?

A student wrote to me:

I’m curious about your opinion of polytechnic graduates entering university. I am a student who came from poly and I have experienced (to quite a great extent) the discrimination towards undergrads who didn’t follow the cookie-cutter local education route. I even had a tutor who looked down on us in class. Are we really that inferior? Sometimes it feels like we are just tokens of inclusive education that the University tries to promote. And sometimes it feels like we need to try so much harder just to prove that we’re just as deserving or as good as the rest :(

I have the greatest respect for polytechnic graduates studying in University. In general, the students that amaze me most with their independent learning, boldness to try new things, and overall great people skills are the ones who come from poly. (That said, the impressive students from junior colleges amaze me in very different ways. The different educational routes have trained you to be good in very different things, and so the two are really incommensurable – not comparable at all.)

Let me address the real issue at heart here: Petty people exist anywhere and everywhere and they are driven by insecurity to want to make the minority look bad. They will find some arbitrary factor to class you as the “other” in their “us-versus-them” narrative, and so use that to look down on you. 

If you were surrounded by only polytechnic graduates, statistically, some of them will be petty people too, and they will use some other arbitrary factor, like secondary school, or the course of study in poly, or something lame as that, to use as a reason to put you down.

Don’t let them get to your heads. Every time you come across such petty people, remind yourself that you must strive to be better than them. Nothing pisses petty people off more than seeing their target victim unaffected by their words. So deny them that pleasure by being totally chill about it. If you can make a joke out of it and get them to laugh with you, you might win them over.

Anyway, because you didn’t go through the cookie-cutter route, you have so much to contribute and share with by virtue of your background. You have no idea how much of a difference you can make by sharing your experience and ideas. Just opening your mouth to let them hear a different perspective is itself very refreshing and eye-opening.

So don’t buy into that sad narrative that you’re just a token. No, don’t let them break you. You have so much to contribute and share with your peers. And the fact that you made it to Uni through the much tougher route makes you really incredible to have persevered and come this far. 

So stay amazing, stay awesome!

My Experiences in Using the Telegram Messaging App as a Teaching Tool

In this article, I wish to reflect on my experience using the messaging app, Telegram, as a teaching tool. I will begin on the motivations for adopting Telegram, and then proceed to discuss how I carried out the use of Telegram in my teaching, and my observations of how students responded to it.

In the past 3.5 years of teaching here in NUS, I have learnt through my conversations with many local students that so many students perceive barriers to various modes of consultation that are typically available to them. These obstacles revolve around fear and issues of ‘face.’

In public settings, like asking questions in class or on the online forums, students are afraid of making a fool of themselves by asking a “stupid” question in front of everyone else, or at least saying the wrong thing, and risk the embarrassment of being corrected in front of everyone. In other words, they fear losing ‘face’ by asking questions in a public setting.

On that same line of thought, there is also a fear that speaking out or asking certain questions can make one stand out so much that it creates pressure on the student to maintain that expectation or risk losing ‘face.’

Three years ago, I commended a student for her excellent writing on the online forums. After class, she approached me saying how she wished I did not do that as it had “revealed her true abilities” to the rest of the class. As it is, the forums were already very stressful as she did not want to stand out from the crowd, nor did she want to embarrass herself by saying anything wrong. But now that she had been “outed” by me as having excellent writing, she now has to deal with the added stress of maintaining the same standards. In a competitive culture, many students perceive this as a bad thing, because they worry that doing so would mean having to work extra hard to maintain that reputation. Failing to meet that public expectation, would result in a huge loss of ‘face.’

And while our local students prefer to seek help in a more private setting (face-to-face consults or e-mail), there is still an obstacle that puts them off: they perceive these modes of consultations as too formal, and they feel that this apparent “formality” requires them to prepare well beforehand so that they do not waste the teacher’s time, or to say or do something that will cause them to look bad before the instructor.

This became very apparent to me two years ago when I had to tutor a module on computational thinking to FASS undergraduate students. Because the nature of the subject was so alien to these students, many of them simply did not know how to articulate their questions. The ones who asked for consultations (or e-mailed me for help) knew how to articulate their questions, or at least questions on issues they were clear about. But it was apparent to me that many students did not understand. They wanted help, but they were too afraid to ask. And when I asked what kept them from seeking consultations with me, they said that they wanted to get everything in order, that they wanted to compile a list of questions before approaching me. They thought that it would be a waste of my time and that it would be embarrassing to reveal how much they did not understand.

This was the same answer I got from many students. And because they struggled on such a fundamental level, they could not achieve the level of preparedness they wanted before they saw it fit to arrange for a consultation, or even draft an e-mail with their questions. In other words, the formality of a face-to-face consultation, or even a private e-mail was an obstacle for students to seek help even when they urgently needed it. The fear of losing ‘face’ was just too great.

To summarise: many local students feel that the act of asking questions or seeking help is an act that risks losing ‘face,’ or tarnishing their reputation before their peers or teachers.

When I was tasked to develop and teach a new compulsory module for FASS students – GET1050 “Computational Reasoning” (which was, once again, an area alien to most FASS students) – I remembered the experiences and conversations I had with my former students, many of whom felt that questioning was a terrifying act of risking one’s ‘face.’

I decided to experiment with setting up a Helpline chat group on Telegram, a popular instant messaging app that allows for the creation of large chat groups. The helpline would serve several functions: (1) it would be an informal setting and to some extent, an almost anonymous platform where students can ask questions without drawing too much embarrassment to themselves; (2) if students were afraid to post questions on the helpline, they can still reach out to me privately on Telegram; (3) since the module is a blended-learning course, Telegram was the one platform that allowed me to engage and interact with my students on a regular basis (especially for students who are not in my tutorial groups); (4) the platform is the ideal means for cultivating a safe and positive learning culture where students should not feel afraid to seek help; and (5) the instant communication allows me to converse with students so as to help those struggling to articulate their questions.

I have since used Telegram for two semesters with great success. Here, I’d like to document what I did and several observations I made:

In the first two weeks, Telegram was rather quiet. There were not many queries. That was because students were still exploring and wondering what sorts of questions they could safely ask on the platform. The first couple of questions were sent privately to me on Telegram, and I made it a point to post the Q&A to the Helpline, even though students may have felt that the question was silly, pointless, or irrelevant. Nonetheless, I did it anyway because it served two purposes: (1) it allowed me to share the knowledge as I believed that there were other students with similar questions; and (2) it was a way of educating the cohort about the kinds of questions they could ask, and I wanted them to know that they can always expect a safe environment where I would answer them without judgement.

Every few days, I would also post light-hearted remarks and other jokes, or joke around with students on the Helpline. This was my way of interacting with students and building rapport with them. After all, I don’t have the luxury of interacting with all the students in a lecture setting (all my lectures are in the form of videos online). I also made a point to involve my TAs in the chat. They would help to answer queries, and occasionally post light-hearted content. This was my way of reinforcing the idea that this is an informal setting, a safe environment where we can learn together and be silly together. That this helpline was a community of learning.

As the weeks went by, not only were there more students joining the Helpline, but there were also more students daring to ask questions publicly on the chat group. I believe the interactions that my TAs and I carried out in the first few weeks of the semester were very critical in establishing that trust in students, that they could trust us enough to ask questions without fear.

And what was most amazing, was that by the time we got to Recess Week, there was a sense that the community on the Helpline had grown and matured. There were moments where I would inform the Helpline that I’m too busy to respond to queries. Not long after, I’ll find students rising up to the occasion, and answering queries from their peers. The same happens when students ask questions very late into the night.

So not only is there an increased sense of trust and respect for all on the Helpline, but I believe that students have begun to feel safe to seek help and to help others on such a platform. That is, of course, once the culture and environment has been set right at the start, and continually maintained.

In both semesters, the feedback from students have been incredible positive about the use of Telegram. Here I’d like to conclude with an excerpt of a reflection that a student wrote that best summarises how the use of Telegram and the Helpline played a critical role role in helping students grow comfortable with seeking help:

“My main learning point is summarized by the phrase: ‘No one can push you if you don’t want to push yourself; we all grow through struggles’. Having a good attitude towards learning is important. I particularly got this takeaway because this module is by-far the most encouraging, most-interaction (during tutorial) and most interesting module I took . The instructor and my TAs from tutorial class are really encouraging and I like how they always assure us that they are very willing to help us as long as we seek help. It really motivates me to want to do well for this module since I know that I am equipped with all the resources that I need and in addition, I have approachable people that I can turn to when I need help. However this also means that it is a test of self-discipline as we take charge of our own learning progress. If I choose not to help myself, then I will not learn to the best of my ability no matter how encouraging the instructors and TAs are. This module made me realized that I cannot have excuses to justify as to why I didn’t do well for this module because I can no longer say that I find it hard to seek help/the professors are not approachable, thus a good learning attitude is important.”

The Encounter with a Great Teacher and How It Influenced My Teaching

I find it really incredible how fast time flies. One year ago, I joined the Department of Philosophy, and I had been so incredibly busy creating lecture videos, assignments, and other educational resources, that I haven’t had much time to sit and reflect on my teaching, or even document the thought processes, insights, and challenges that arose along the way. 

I want to begin by discussing one significant event that shaped the way I teach my course. And it has to do with the book project that I worked on last year, where I helped to write “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger,” with Captain Ho Weng Toh (who at this moment of writing, is now 100 years young and still very much active and alive).

Captain Ho fought against the Japanese in WW2 as a bomber pilot, and later came to Singapore as the first of four pioneer pilots for the then Malayan Airways, the precursor of Singapore International Airlines (SIA). You could call him the father, or even the grandfather of SIA because he trained the first 300 local pilots for the airline. 

While writing the book, I was struck by the fact that Captain Ho still keeps in touch with his students, even though he had retired 40 years ago in 1980. To say, “keep in touch” is quite an understatement. Because Captain Ho made it a point to become almost like a family friend to his students. He doesn’t just know them, he knows every member of their family – their parents, their spouses, their children. And in turn, these students of his have been introducing Captain Ho to many of the newer pilots who joined SIA since his retirement. It’s almost as if they are one big aviation family. 

I had to interview a few of his former students for the book, and I was particularly struck by one recurring comment: “Captain Ho is a great teacher.”

I couldn’t help but to ask them: “What makes Captain Ho such a great teacher?”

The answers surprised me because they had little to do with his teaching. Instead, it was all about the mundane things that make up our daily social interactions. It was the simple acts of kindness that made a deep impact on them. 

He was a father figure to his students. He made it a point to know them beyond superficial details, and he tried to be acquainted with their families and friends. He made the new cadets feel welcome and comfortable, and always assures them that they are doing ok (as they were nervous about crashing the aircraft). He regularly invited them for meals and he treated them as respectable equals, as friends. And he always pushed them to go further in life. And with patience and kindness, he kept encouraging them to go against their own perceived limits (for both work and personal matters) until they finally accomplished it. 

I find it so incredible that simple gestures like this can form long-lasting bonds with one’s students, to the extent that these bonds have remained for 50, 60, 70 years even! And even though some of his former students have passed on before him, Captain Ho still makes it a point to catch up with their families, visiting them, or even having meals with them. It’s just so incredible.

I was very struck by all these and I counted myself lucky that I got to learn about his way of teaching while I was setting up a brand new course. I told myself that I want to emulate the greatness of this man: I want to be as great a teacher as he is, and I want to have the same kinds of friendships with my students (and their families perhaps) that endure for decades.

I am glad to have had the chance to meet such a great teacher, and he taught me to put a personal touch in my interactions with my students, even though much of the learning takes place online for my course. This is why I am so happy to invest a lot of effort in interacting with my students both online and offline.

In fact, it was learning about the importance of simple gestures and extending little acts of kindness whenever possible, and how all that made a big difference in students’ learning, that I found the courage to make myself available on instant messaging (Telegram) to 800 students each semester. I was originally quite afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the volume. 

It is tiring work, but I do find it incredibly rewarding knowing that I could be touching lives and making a big difference to my students’ lives through simple gestures like a text message. 

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

Oh, there are so many things I wish to say in response to this question, but I’ll just focus on one major point.

Many undergraduates don’t understand the point of a university education. The degree is not meant to train you to work for in a specific job or a class of jobs. And when you think about it, isn’t it absurd that people expect you to know what you want to do with your life as such a young age? You haven’t even acquired enough information or experience to make a well-informed decision about the matter!

The truth is that most of us will graduate and work in jobs that have almost zero relevance to what we studied. And you won’t be disappointing your professors – we know this to be a fact of life.

Why? Because, as I said earlier, the whole point of a university education is not to train you to work in a specific job (or class of jobs). Rather, the point of a university education is to develop you holistically as a matured and responsible adult, one with ideals and vision so that you can lead and manage other people to make the world a better place.

It’s sad that many students don’t understand this lofty vision of university education and instead see it as training to become just a mundane worker in someone’s organisation, another cog in the corporate machine, so to speak. That’s sad!

So you must be wondering, what are universities doing to develop you into that amazing person?

(1) Your programme is designed to teach you a set of problem-solving skills. Different disciplines will analyse problems different, and conceptualise solutions very differently too. This is something that is often taught and reinforced by subtly in the 3 or 4 years of undergraduate studies. We often don’t realise this until we talk to people from different disciplines and discover that the way we think about problems is very different. That’s the result of the education you received.

(2) Your programme is designed to broaden your perspective so that you appreciate not only the endless possibilities that exists, but to try and connect ideas that seem so separate and unrelated to create new ideas and innovations. You cannot create something out of nothing. Those 3 or 4 years of undergraduate life is meant to fill you with all kinds of interesting and amazing ideas – maybe even ideas that excite you – and you are often encouraged to critique and even synthesise these ideas. The reason is that the training is meant to prepare you for the future where you can then synthesise these ideas to create exciting new possibilities for yourself and other people. Beyond academic studies, this also includes other programmes like exchange programmes, internships, living/working on campus, and other initiatives. Just being exposed to a variety of situations is already perspective-broadening in itself.

(3) You are also being trained to challenge the status quo and to defend your own position in a rational and systematic manner. This is not just in the form of written assignments, but also in the form of presentations and seminar discussions. Take the discourses you find online. A lot of them may attempt to challenge the status quo, but the discourse is often unproductive (and maybe even toxic). We cannot advance or make a real change in society if we employ such unenlightened methods at work, or on a societal level. A university education trains you to do this well according to how your discipline does it best, and again, in a very subtle way that most students don’t realise is happening.

(4) To get anywhere and to make real change in this world, we must know how to interact and work with other people. This is where the University creates a multitude of opportunities for you to explore and acquire the critical people skills to do this. Whether it is in the form of group projects, clubs and societies, residential college/hall life, or other student-led initiatives. Unlike secondary school or JC, you are given lots of free time to hang around on campus with other students. Because the informal kinds of interactions, like chatting with friends about studies or work or life, or just getting together to play – these are all essential to your development and growth as a team leader and team player. You learn to manage people from diverse backgrounds in the process.

There’s more to say, but I wish to highlight these four areas. I find that because many students don’t understand the point of their university education, they take these aspects of their student life for granted. If you want to grow up to be a highly respected and influential leader, then you must know how to take advantage of the opportunities that a university education presents you to help you develop these aspects of your being. Otherwise, these will be missed opportunities for your own personal and professional development.

Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Can I ask what’s your CAP when you were an undergrad if you don’t mind sharing? I want to pursue an academic life but I don’t know if I am smart enough. My CAP currently stands at the bare minimum for a first class honours. Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

Hello, I don’t mind sharing. Here’s how my CAP evolved from start to end as an undergrad:

Year 1 Sem 1: 3.88
Year 1 Sem 2: 3.89
Year 2 Sem 1: 4.11
Year 2 Sem 2: 4.29
Year 3 Sem 1: 4.31
Year 3 Sem 2: 4.41
Year 3 Sem 3: 4.43 (Special Term)
Year 4 Sem 1: 4.45
Year 4 Sem 2: 4.52

I succeeded in getting First Class Honours in my final semester. And as you can see, every semester has been a constant process of improvement.

In general, most people enter academia with either First Class Honours or Second Upper, i.e. CAP ≥ 4.0). (FYI: Once you get your postgraduate degree, people don’t really care much about what you did in undergrad. They will look more at what you did for your postgraduate studies instead.)

CAP is not necessarily a measure of your intellect. In fact, I am very wary of people boasting First Class or Second Upper CAP. The reason being that there are many students able to secure a high CAP because they are so scared of screwing their CAP that they take “safe” modules or modules that are “easy to score.” So these people have effectively screwed up their chance at a real education. Without that challenge, they graduate no different from the person they were when they first matriculated, both in terms of intellect, and also in terms of mental and emotional maturity.

I know this sounds harsh. But the reason why I wrote this is because if you want to do well in academia (or the working world, for that matter), you must be willing to challenge yourself, you must be willing to take risks (and of course, know how to mitigate these risks as well).

The kinds of people who score high CAPs because of “safe” decisions cannot make it in academia (or the professional world for that matter). I say this because of people I personally know. They scored First Class Honours because they wrote “safe” paper topics for “safe” modules. Their mentality is one driven by fear: “I am afraid to try other things because I don’t want my CAP to suffer.”

And I’ve seen them continue that trend in postgraduate studies. In the end, they didn’t make it because their work is so “safe” that it is uninspiring (boring) and doesn’t make much of a difference to the world (because it was written not to challenge one’s self or anyone for that matter, and so it had no potential to change anything).

So if you are willing to challenge yourself to constantly improve rather than take safe options just to maintain a high CAP, then I’ll say you have the personal qualities to do well in academia, and you’ll go very far for that matter. :)

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

One student wrote in and asked:

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

Here’s my thoughts:

Do it only if you are passionate about teaching and actually want to nurture and cultivate people.

If your motivation is (1) you want an iron rice bowl, or (2) you can’t think of anything else to do, don’t go into teaching. Find another iron rice bowl, or read up about other kinds of professions. Teaching is one where lives will be in your care. You really shouldn’t screw with peoples’ lives just for job security or a lack of imagination on what to do in life.

I find it interesting to hear this remark repeated by several TAs in the past year: “I’ve come to realise that anyone can teach. And it’s really easy. But it’s really difficult to teach well. Not everyone can do that well.” And unfortunately, we tend to be the worst evaluators of our teaching abilities. I’ve seen some educators who are so bad, but are very happy to pat themselves on the shoulder thinking they did great.

Two questions to ask yourself: (1) How far are you willing to go for one student, or for one class of students? And (2) how do you plan to treat the weaker students?

For (1), if you’re reluctant or your answer is no, then teaching is really not for you. I’m not saying you die-die must sacrifice every day of your life. But to be a good teacher, sometimes you do have to go the extra mile to fight for or fight together with a student or a class so that they can succeed in their learning journey. My JC teachers fought hard for me and my friends when it came to our learning and competitions. That was like 15ish years ago, and it left a very deep impact on me and how I treat others. That’s what good teaching does. It changes lives.

For (2), if your answer is to leave the weaker students and let them die, then you really don’t have the right values to be a good teacher. Unfortunately, I know teachers/profs/TAs (outside my module) who think this way. In fact, it is this thinking that generates a lot of fear and over-competitiveness that plagues our education system. I do believe that we need more nurturing teachers with a heart for the last, lost, and the least, if we want to educate people well.

Learning (學 Xue)


Wrote this today with a new calligraphy pen brush that I bought from Daiso (I just love this Japanese shop a lot!)

This is another favourite word of mine.

學 refers to learning/studying.

This word has a very beautiful etymology.

On the left and right of the top portion, is a pair of hands. But what are the hands holding? It’s holding this thing that is signified by the character, 爻, which refers to two things. (1) It refers to dried grass used for divination. (2) It also refers to the Book of Changes (an ancient book that records the changes in seasons and what should and shouldn’t be done). Both of which are associated with religious practices.

In the middle, is the character, 冖, which represents a table.

At the bottom, is the character, 子, which represents a person. But it is not just any person, but a child.

So, what we have is a child, holding the dried grass or Book of Changes, on top of a table.

What’s do all these mean?

Learning (學) is a religious act! St. Thomas Aquinas himself said that when learning takes place, the God’s light of Truth shines into one’s mind, raising the knowledge from potential knowledge to actual knowledge!

But learning not just about simply memorising what’s before you. One of my professors said that if learning is simply about memorising, there’s this thing in the world that does exactly the same task, but even better – a scanner!

Learning involves the study and contemplation of the subject, and being able to apply it in day-to-day life, just as how the ancient Chinese would closely study the Book of Changes (or the dried grass) and use it for the application of their daily life.

But why is a child (子) in the the word? It does not literally mean that learning is confined to children. In fact, the great masters of Chinese philosophy have the title, 子, after their names. E.g. Confucius (孔子), Mencius (孟子), Hsün Tsu (荀子), Lao Tzu (老子), Chuang Tzu (莊子) and more.

Learning requires us to be like little children, who with great inquisitiveness, seek out knowledge for itself, and be marvelled and wondered at the beauty of newly acquired knowledge. When was the last time you went “WOW!” at something that you just learnt? If it had been a long time back, perhaps it’s time to be like a little child once again, and marvel at the beauty of Truth.

A child is, more often than adults, open to what comes his way. As we grow older, we become more narrow minded. As such learning becomes harder as we tend to mis-interpret or simply brush aside things based on whatever biasness we may have developed.

The great masters of philosophy were open to the study of whatever came their way. They were open to see what the other side has to say, and if there was any merit to their arguments worth learning.