What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was:

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

Here’s my answer:

My teaching philosophy is influenced heavily by the teachers I had growing up. I had teachers who looked out for the last, the lost, and the least, and they put in so much effort to ensure that the weaker students would not get left behind. And I have had the personal experience of having good teachers who, with their patience, nurturing qualities, and clear explanations, allowed me to go very far in my learning. My own life would have been very different if I had did not have the fortune of encountering them.

And so in many ways, my teaching philosophy is influenced by that, and I enjoy spending time with my students to help them learn better, and to help clear up whatever confusions that they have about their learning

The most profound lessons I gained as an educator were during my time as a Teaching Assistant for interdisciplinary modules. It was shocking to see the amount of fear and anxiety students had when it came to a discipline outside their major. Their fears were fuelled by the fact that it was a discipline alien to them. But at the heart of the fears and anxieties was the fear of failure.

And it occurred to me that so many of our university students have never experienced failure before in their lives. They succeeded in every major exam by pursuing what they can score well in. And so when an alien subject — which they have no confidence or experience in — is forced upon them, suddenly, they are faced with the prospects of failure.

And time and time again, I have seen how that fear of failure kept getting in the way of their learning. I encountered many students who were reluctant to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing. And so there’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really gave themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words.

There are many other examples I could cite of fear getting in the way of their learning. Suffice to say, these experiences shaped my approach to teaching. That if I want students to learn well, then I need to help mitigate the single biggest impediment to their learning, which is their fear and anxiety.

This insight comes from my own personal experience in learning. Years ago, I used to have a terrible command of the Chinese language. But I needed to work in China for a couple of weeks. I could not speak well, and I could not write well either. So I signed up for adult business Chinese classes. The teacher told me that since we only had a week before I had to fly, the focus would be on empowerment and making me confident. Lessons were less about grammar and vocabulary. She was perceptive and she saw that my struggle with the language was my lack of confidence in speaking, and in some aspects, anxieties in speaking in Mandarin. I was sceptical about it, but she did a surprisingly fantastic job at building confidence in me. I survived my work trip in China, and my command of the Chinese language improved vastly since then.

This made me realise just how far students can go in their learning once the impediment of fear and anxiety are alleviated. And so I provide a variety of support systems in my teaching to help alleviate that fear, such as the Telegram Helpline where they can always seek help when they’re stuck. In addition, I engage them with humour, and other fun activities as a way of alleviating the fear of failure so that they can focus their minds on the task at hand.

I also put them through simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they can and will have to fail and learn to evaluate and recover from those simulated failures. It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, and so they feel more empowered by these experiences to take risks and learn better.

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. 

Why are Singaporean students so silent in the classroom? And what can we do about it?

One of the amazing things about being both a teacher and a student for almost two years is that it has given me a privileged perspective to understand why students behave the way they do in class.

This became very apparent to me when I discuss issues with my teaching colleagues: when we’re so busy teaching or preparing for class, it’s so easy to forget how a student would perceive the things we do or say, or the reasons for certain behaviours.

One unique insight I gained from this privileged position of being simultaneously teacher-and-student, is the underlying cultural motivations for why students hold back from fully engaging in class. They do this by either remaining silent, not participating in any activity, or if they do, they would moderate and reduce the quality of their work/performance.

This presents a great challenge, at least here in Singapore, to efforts in engaging students in the classroom, or even in any attempts at successful student-teacher partnerships (a kind of pedagogical approach where students are not regarded merely as consumers of a lesson, but as co-creators who partake in the design and even teaching of the lesson itself).

Unlike the successful experiences reported by many teachers in the West, students here in Singapore appear to be quieter, and less participative. Many typically describe local students as passive or even conformist. But these do not get to the heart of why students behave this way.

Looking back at my own student experience, and from speaking personally to my students, I have come to realise that much of the lack of participation stem from issues surrounding the notion of “face” or pride/reputation. Singaporean students generally do not participate in class discussions or engage in teacher-student partnerships for the following reasons:

(1) Students are afraid that speaking up or volunteering might cause embarrassment to their peers, thereby making them “lose face.” Volunteering for something, or speaking out (especially if one speaks well) can make one appear outstanding. But at the same time, it creates a stark contrast with other students, thereby making them look bad by comparison. Those who volunteer or participate are usually labelled by their peers as “market spoilers” (i.e. those who raise the bar) or “extras.”

(2) Students are also afraid that speaking up or volunteering with the teacher may cause their peers to resent them, thereby leading to negative social consequences outside of class. It’s one thing to embarrass one’s peers by volunteering or participating in class. But it is another issue altogether if one does so repeatedly. Not only is the student repeatedly causing one’s peers to “lose face,” but the student is seen as someone who has raised the bar so much, that that student is showing off his/her abilities. This leads to a lot of resentment from one’s peers. Such students tend to receive harsh labels like “show off” or “smart aleck,” and be treated badly by their peers outside of class.

(3) Yet another motivation for silence or not volunteering is the fear that once one has done so, one has revealed one’s “true abilities” to one’s peers. It is worth noting that the phrase, “true abilities,” was mentioned multiple times by a few of my students when they explained reasons for disliking participation in class/online forum.

The fear of revealing one’s true abilities can come in two forms: (a) One is worse than one’s peers, in which case, revealing one’s ability causes one to immediately “lose face” and to embarrass one’s self in front of others. A more severe form being that one is afraid to discover that one is bad as a consequence of speaking out or volunteering, thereby “losing face” just by attempting.

(b) One is better than one’s peers, in which case, one now has to grapple with the stress of maintaining one’s reputation of having such a high ability, and not lose out to others (which would be highly embarrassing). This is driven largely by a desire for self-preservation. By not revealing one’s high ability, one does not draw attention from potential enemies, and can continue leisurely learning at one’s own pace without having to compete with someone else and risk losing.

These are the three key motivations for students remaining silent and not participating in class or for any extra activities organised by the teacher, including student-teacher partnerships.

Of course, a silent classroom is never tolerated, and there will always be moments where students are made to speak up or present. Here, the same motivations are manifested differently, and this is something we need to be aware of, especially when we involve students to present in front of class, or in any efforts at student-teacher partnerships.

As the lack of participation is motivated by issues of “face,” forced participation similarly compels students to reduce the quality of their work (or at least their outward performance) when they are required to present to the rest of the class. Again, this is to avoid embarrassing one’s peers, or to avoid being labeled as a show off and sanctioned by one’s peers, and also to avoid revealing one’s true abilities (especially if one has higher abilities). The way students do this is that they will use the first forced participant as the benchmark and mimic the quality of the materials and level of showmanship.

Of course, there will be students who are ignorant or do not abide by these rules at all. One good thing about this is that in doing so, hey help to reveal the dynamics of the benchmarking efforts that the others had been doing. Throughout my years as a student, whenever someone outperforms beyond the tacit benchmark, I often hear others complaining along the lines of: “If I knew he/she was going to present like this, I would have done more.” Such admissions of “would have done more,” are admissions of how one had scaled back in one’s work, indicative of a deliberate lowering of quality.

Clearly, for there to be any successful and unmoderated participation, especially with regards to student-teacher partnerships, more must be done in order to overcome such barriers. The teacher cannot just rely on the usual enthusiastic students who volunteer. There are students who are enthusiastic but have no regard for issues of “face,” and there are also enthusiastic students who are inhibited by their worries of “face.”

One thing I’ve learnt from my own discussions with students is that the teacher is an important facilitator in this regard, one who has the power to shape an environment: from a hostile and competitive environment to one that is friendly and relaxed.

The more friendly, uncompetitive, and relaxed the class environment is, the less worried students are about losing “face” or embarrassing themselves (and others) in class. Of course, the teacher does not have complete control over the classroom atmosphere. The presence of intimidating or highly competitive students can still cause other students to worry.

Since becoming aware of these motivations, I have made extra efforts in ensuring that the environment is as friendly and relaxed as possible, so that students are least worried about “face” and embarrassment in a classroom setting. One thing I’ve done and found much success with is introducing the element of role playing in class. When students are given roles to perform, they are given the opportunity to step out of who they are, to become someone else for a moment. That someone else (the assigned role) is then allowed to make embarrassing mistakes and even to embarrass others (involved in the role play), without consequence to one’s own personality and identity or social sanction. Role playing liberates students from concerns about “face” and allows them to engage each other in an uninhibited manner.

More importantly, role playing is a form of play, an uncompetitive play that by itself makes the environment less competitive and hostile, thereby creating a fun and relaxed environment in which students can engage, participate, and forge bonds with each other and with the teacher. This encourages students to take on an increased role in their involvement in class, and encourages them to take on an increased stake in their own learning in the classroom.