Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Wings like Eagles

...but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

In a moment of self reflection I look towards my future and ask: what do I wish to be?

The future Me answers, without hesitation: A Writer.

And then I ask: Why?

As a teenager I am sure many of us know how malleable our identities are at this age. To have such a strong conviction is rare. Who we are, who we want to be, between the ages of twelve to sixteen, is largely formed by the people around us: our families, friends and teachers.

And it is the third of the three that I wish to write about now.

I look back and wonder: why do I love writing so much? I recall a time in primary school where English was my third weakest subject, the strongest being Maths and Science (Chinese being my one and only bane to a perfect 90+ score) I remember at that time, how much I loved the science textbooks, almost as much as I loved the various Magic School-Bus and Horrible Science books shelved in the family collection.

But as I grew, to secondary school, to Junior College, to now – something changed. I look at Physics and Chemistry, and feel an odd sense of disdain. Where did it come from? Why is it there?

I look at some of my friends: back then in Secondary 1 and 2, where my passion for science burned strong, I was considered an oddball. Many people I knew then had an open hatred for the sciences. Perhaps it was them? But that can’t be right either. Many people then had an open hatred for English as well.

Then, looking at my term reports, my past classes, the people I knew, it dawned upon me: it wasn’t the subject, or the friends I had.

It was the teachers.

Since secondary school I’ve had a series of wonderful English teachers, men and women of character and intellect, whose influence continues with me even today. Grace Lim, my form teacher and English teacher in Year 1, who was the first teacher to give me a leadership position, to encourage me in class, whose mantra: quantity not quality, we may not finish first, but we never give up the race, sticks with me to this day. Mr. Andrew Wong, with his powerful use of language and patient explanations, who showed me how a single passage could possess so much depth within a few mere lines of text. And now Mr Ferdinand Quek, whose quirky behavior, creativity and viewpoints continue to amaze and stretch my imagination to this day.

Compare this to the types of Physics teachers I have had. Without naming names, or pointing fingers, let me just say this: one of whom did not teach, asking questions but confirming no answers, whose unapproachable attitude made him difficult to understand. Another who treated the class like children, and me like a disabled child, who refused to challenge our intellect our spark our interest, whose seeming lack of knowledge lost us all confidence we had in her. And now a teacher who refuses to let us learn from our mistakes, who insists that the subject is mere memory and copying, who thinks that teaching a class of intellectually bright students is an excuse for not putting in effort to teach well. All of them, as far as I recall, have only shown me a lack of interest in the subject, a lack of interest in the student, and a lack of motivation beyond their own paycheck.

Yes I am offering a rather disparate view of the two. But somehow I cannot really put it any other way. True, I have had good Physics teachers. True, some of my English teachers were hardly inspiring. Yet when I look back now and think about my impressions, the overall outcome is as above.

Let us look at the successful men and women of the past. Great writers, famous scientists, geniuses (or is it genii?), whose passion and creativity changed the world. One common element amongst many of them, when recounting tales of their past, was a teacher or parent, a single person, or even a group of people, whose passion and drive inspired them at first.

That’s the world. Inspire.

It’s a moot point that I’m sure everyone agrees with. Today in education, teaching is more than simply imparting knowledge, more than just exams and tests. Today, a teacher must be able to inspire their students, to encourage them to learn, to seek for themselves.

What my English teachers have taught me that the science teachers have not was the importance of self-study. While a certain…Buddha was harping on about how this and that was "unnecessary knowledge", it not being in the rubrics, another was sending me emails regarding writing competitions and groups with suggestions for me to join.

If you need further proof, I only have to point to a science subject in which my passion, indeed, my entire class’s passion, interest and confidence has not died. Certainly, in teaching this subject our teacher constantly emphasizes the importance of the rubrics, the requirements, the learning outcomes. But equally important, he emphasizes the need for understanding, for creativity, for independent thinking The questions he gives us have no answer that can be copied from within the book - their secret lies in the careful application of previously learned concepts, after which understanding only requires a single, creative step. Each time he does this, he reminds us not to take it too seriously, that it is not relevant to the exams. And yet he continues to give them to us, so that we can (as quoted) "appreciate the subject better", "appreciate the mechanisms involved", so that even as I memorize three pages of complex chemical formula, I can see the beauty and relevance within every single one of them.

He prints notes for us. Constantly asks if we need more time, if he should slow down. All his knowledge, his experience, his time goes into teaching. His standards are so high that the guidebook he wrote for our level, that masterpiece of teaching, became one of the most sought-after study books that students across Singapore are fighting to photocopy and use.

How can one see such passion and not feel inspired to learn?

The issue here is that many teachers simply see teaching as that: simply imparting the knowledge, the skills, and then marking the exam papers. Perhaps I am being an immature child for thinking that teachers own it to the students to teach well. Perhaps I’m not. But that is not the point.

Teaching, learning, it goes both ways. What teachers have to teach now, what students have to learn, is not the mere knowledge of a subject. What all of us have to understand, is that education today is not just about imparting facts and doing quizzes.

It is about teaching students to teach themselves.

And that is what I learnt today.

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