Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Of teachers, doers and thinkers

This was my (hmmm, edited) letter published in Straits Times  on 18th February 2017  as:

Sometimes, sheer brilliance can make up for pedagogy

My latest challenge is teaching computer skills to seniors (my oldest students are 90).

From not knowing how to switch on their computers, they can now create, save and edit documents, send e-mails, and upload and open attachments. It is such a joy.

I agree with Ms Maria Loh Mun Foong ("University lecturers need to be trained to teach"; Feb 11). Once one has been trained to teach, one can teach (almost) anything.

I have attended lectures by my thesis supervisor in London, and marvelled at how well he illuminated any topic ,compared to most other lecturers who only showed off their knowledge. I later learnt that he had trained originally as a high school teacher.

But the lecturer who left the deepest impression on my own academic journey must surely be National University of Singapore philosophy lecturer Robert Stecker, who came to class to - literally - think aloud.

He asked questions such as: "Is a watch still the same watch if all its parts have been changed?"

After classes, my friends and I used to scratch our heads, just as he scratched his while he spoke with his meandering but sound logic. We asked one another: "What was that all about?" The few scribbles on our notepads gave little evidence of what transpired in the past hour.

But what inspiration! I knew I was in the presence of brilliance. It caused me to hurry to the library to look up texts to reinforce the bits of new knowledge I had gathered.

Most university lecturers, like medical doctors, have merely been apprenticed for a long time in a certain branch of knowledge.

Academics choose to focus on what interests them. They then expound on it to captive audiences.

What listeners make of it is entirely up to them.

While I agree that lecturers should be given a grounding in pedagogy, I would not wish students to miss the experience of being "untaught" by unconventional teachers.

There is a time and place for everything.

We need lecturers who will ensure that we learn the nuts and bolts. But we also need the Dr Steckers of this world to challenge students to unlearn and think outside the box.