“What I am going to tell you is my life story,” began Professor Lee Wing On, Dean of NIE’s Office of Education Research. What followed was a rich lesson in transforming teaching, inspiring learning and touching lives.
“I was not a bright student at all, but one teacher changed my life,” says Prof Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong. “I was very active in things other than my studies.”
In a bid to help her distracted student, Prof Lee’s teacher invited him into her home. She provided room and board for a month so that he could focus on preparing for the A-level examinations.
“I became part of her family – she cooked for me and I had meals with her family, I knew more about her, and of course she knew more about me. That was an unforgettable experience in my life.”
His teacher’s efforts certainly bore fruit – this “average student” was the only one in his school to get into the University of Hong Kong that year. That experience changed the course of his life.
“I think she saved me,” he says, “and because of that I decided to become a teacher.”
His journey as a teacher wasn’t easy. “I went through all the turbulence of a beginning teacher. I started off as a very strict teacher, and shifted to become a very lenient teacher. I went through very dramatic changes, but I grew and learned.”
Many lessons were gleaned especially from teaching under-achieving students. They were a challenge, with their short attention divs and weak language abilities. He quickly developed a “quality approach” to teaching them.
“Before I went into the classroom, I always asked – what is the main message for this class? If I leave the classroom and they forget everything, what is the main thing I want them to remember?”
He would spend the first quarter of the class time revising the previous lesson, then teach the next lesson, before spending the last quarter revising what he had just taught. His aim was for students to remember without having to do further revision.
“My students and their behaviour became better and better. They became more and more attentive because they knew what I was talking about, and they remembered what I taught them.”
– Prof Lee Wing On, Dean, Office of Education Research
To make things more interesting, he sometimes ran the class like a quiz. Dividing the class into two groups, students would take turns to ask the other group questions. His students were not only excited and engaged.
“I discovered something very interesting emerging – I found that the students began to ask very difficult questions because they wanted to win. They asked questions that were more difficult than what a teacher would normally ask.”
“I began to discover that they are not slow learners – they are smart learners, but they just did not learn, therefore they didn’t perform well.”
A self-professed “naughty teacher”, Prof Lee sometimes resorted to unorthodox methods to reduce his heavy workload.
Faced with the prospect of marking many poorly written compositions, he got the class to do group compositions. In groups of four, students took turns to suggest the next sentence. The rule was that everyone in the group had to agree to it.
The marking load was immediately reduced because there were fewer essays and shorter pieces. And to his surprise, most sentences were written correctly.
“Actually, the students know the correct answers. But if I ask them to write me something, they just try to complete their exercise without thinking. If they think, they can do it.”
Knowing that these “under-achieving” students could ask good questions if they put their minds to it, he got them to set their own test questions.
He asked students to create multiple-choice questions based on assigned pages from the textbook. They were told that the best questions would be included in their test paper.
“I found that their questions were no less capable than those from the commercial exercise books!” Over time, some of these “slow learners” gradually caught up with the average students.
In his 30 years as an educator, Prof Lee has come to an important realization: “Teaching is more than just the impartation of knowledge; it is life touching life.” He calls this “the human touch”.
it is life touching life.
– Prof Lee on the key to being a good teacher
The key to being a good teacher, he says, is to be a genuine one. Prof Lee was the kind of teacher who would give up 10 minutes of teaching time to let his tired students rest on a sleepy afternoon. He was the kind of teacher who would seek out unhappy students and ask what was wrong.
“We work excessively on the science of pedagogy, on the accountability of the school and teachers, and the measurability of their performance in tangible ways. That consumes a lot of our energy and efforts,” notes Prof Lee.
“Even if we do all those well, we are only doing half of the job. The other half of the job is intangible, but may be even more important,” he says. “If teachers really want to do a good job, they also need to be a good human being, rather than a good teacher.”