Shaheed Salim

Life. Education. Books. Films.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

No Short Cut To Success



Every learner needs to put in the effort, time and energy to learn and master new knowledge and skills. There is no short-cut to learning. You cannot take a pill and expect to attain higher levels of mastery. Such pills only exist in the world of fiction, not reality. If you want to master any difficult knowledge or skill, you need to put in the effort, energy and persevere through the difficult period called the learning process.


Thursday, 13 May 2021

Teaching Math Strugglers Via Zoom

It takes a whole set of skills and the right attitude to teach and inspire students who are weak at Math. To do it via an online platform like Zoom can make it tougher. But it is not impossible. To those who are interested as to how this is possible, watch a glimpse of it here. 



Thursday, 21 January 2021

Learning What We Learn, Teaching What We Teach




"What is ml?" Unsure. Litre? "How many millilitres is equal to 1 litre?" Unsure again. So I taught the student the conversion from litres to millilitres and the reverse. Some students will be able to master the formula and “prove” to us that they understand, but do they? As teachers, tutors and adults, will you deceive yourselves and move on to the next skill, telling yourself that the student understands the concept? You should test him for his true understanding.


“Look at this packet drink? How much liquid is in it?” Silence. “Guess. Come on.” Silence again. “Come on, just guess.” What sort of Math teacher is this man?" the kid was probably wondering. “I don’t how,” the student finally replied. “I know you don’t know, but just guess.” The kid guessed a number, which was wrong, and then I said, “Look at the packet drink and see how much liquid there is in it.” The child picked up the packet drink and turned it this way and that, searching for a number.  “100!” he said. “Nope, that’s the number of calories per serving.” Finally, I pointed out "250 ml" to him, making sure he saw the number 250 and the “ml” unit. The beginning of real understanding about litres and millilitres had just begun. But I will not deceive myself into thinking that I have done a good job. Real understanding and Math mastery are still a distance away.


“Now, 4 packets drinks, each 250 ml, makes 1000 ml, which is equal to 1 litre of liquid.” Confusion. “Go to your fridge. Take out the milk.” He walked up to the fridge and removed the requested item and lay it down on the table in front of us. “You see this – “1 litre” – you know what it means?” He looked at me without revealing whether he knew it or not. I took the 250 ml packet drink and explained that the liquid from 4 packet drinks could fit into the 1-litre milk carton. From his eyes, I saw that understanding was being built. The child needed more activities to help him make the connections between Math concepts and the real world. This is the process of injecting meaning into a child's learning. 


I scanned the kitchen, looking for an appropriate measuring container to reinforce the concept. Ha! A blender with millilitre markings! “Bring that blender over here,” I requested. Obediently, the child carried the heavy glass blender over. And I spent some time getting the student to pour water from a bottle into the blender and so on. Why? Because the question in his textbook stated that someone poured x amount of juice from one container into another. I was simulating the process so that the child could imagine what the question was about. Children must see meaning in the sums they are doing. This is crucial. But do we have time for this? Some may say - Since the PSLE is just less than 9 months away, isn't spending such precious time doing activities when the child has so, so much content to master an unwise move? They emphasise that is especially true when there is so little time left before the big exam. Yes, many adults panic in year 6 of the primary school study.


Think how foolish it is to continue teaching and moving to the next skill for a child who does not understand the earlier levels. The child does not understand the basic concepts and the teacher would like to teach him to master the concepts at a higher level? Can true mastery of any concept even be attained without real understanding? Shouldn't we realise that it is because the child did not truly comprehend the concepts at earlier levels of study that he is in dire straits now at Primary 6? The logical solution is to help him master the concept in its meaning first. Only then there is hope that he can master the concept at higher levels.  


We have to teach for meaning. Why is Mathematics in our school curricula if it is not meaningful? How can we then teach a meaningful subject in a meaningless way? Strange. Stranger still when this is happening in a first world country where the public education budget is relatively high. But I am not surprised. Why? When I was a student, I asked my teachers for the purpose and meaning of the subjects they taught. A common answer they could give me was this – “focus on the tests and exams first and we will discuss this after the exams”. What an answer! Perhaps the teachers did not know how the subjects they taught were meaningful. Perhaps. 


As a teacher, I cannot teach without the meaning. Mathematics must be meaningful. 


Wednesday, 9 December 2020

A Glimpse Into My World

 Recently, Suria TV (a Mediacorp channel) made a short documentary about me. You can watch it below.



Sunday, 4 October 2020

A Reunion With A Student From More Than 2 Decades Ago!

Memory is a strange thing. Although we are the main actors in our recall of the past, all the main actors suffer from selective recall, remembering only a small slice of the past and forgetting the many incidents that are wedged permanently in the minds of some. I suffer from this too, all the time. But this time, I remembered more than some of the other actors. It seems that they have forgotten much.


Only yesterday, some 23, 24 years ago, I was a slim school teacher tutoring a 12-year old boy by the name of CGY (ie. his initials). We reunited today at Fork and Spoon in Toa Payoh. “Wah! You are gemuk (fat)!” Mdm Chua remarked on seeing me. Yes, I am now the no-longer-embarrassed owner of a bulging XXL tummy. Don’t believe I have an XXL tummy? Try sticking your finger into the navel and you might lose your finger in its depth and dirt. 




CGY was a small young boy who was weak in Math. I remember his complaints well. “Teacher, teacher, headache, headache!” This happened whenever I stretched him to the limit. The playful lad had exercised his body with wushu and dragon dance but his mind had lazed around for far too long. And so I pushed him to the limit, making him memorise the timetables until he could regurgitate them within 2 minutes or so, at the speed of 1 time table card per second or two. This was the same boy who could not recite his time tables within 10 long minutes a few months earlier.  


And so I met CGY, and we recalled what we each remembered. I was surprised they could not recall the many glimpses I had stored in my mind. You see, CGY was one of my first Math students whom I had impacted, and in turn, his transformation impacted me. Glimpses of him as my Primary 6 student still dance in my mind. He was able to pursue a 5-year Normal Academic Secondary programme despite studying at the EM3 level (what we call Foundation PSLE programme today) in Primary 6. Few EM3 students made it to the Normal Academic stream. When I looked at him, superimposed over his face was that small, often shirtless boy who loved practising his dragon dance moves. This is not the student that I had taught more than 2 decades ago! The boy that I knew could not speak English well and was not as polite as this associate architect. Indeed time has passed and CGY has blossomed into a caring gentleman. I smiled when 35-year old CGY declared that he had graduated from NUS with a Master Degree in Architecture. 


Towards the end of our reunion, CGY’s mother enquired whether I could teach her niece who was struggling with Math. My first question was - was she failing? Was this a strange question? To make sure they understood my mission, I messaged him - “about tuition…I look at myself as a place of last resort, where hope is given to students and parents who are approaching hopelessness. This makes the work meaningful for me, and I need that - so because of this, the students I take are mostly failing in Math.” I am glad I have defined my work in tuition in this manner because whenever I succeed in my efforts to help a failing or weak child, I make an impact. And this impact is worth more than the dollars that are paid to me. So, with the reunion I had today, and the fact that CGY’s mother wanted to meet me after all these years, deep inside me, I felt something that money could not buy - that warm feeling and assurance that I had played a small role in the journey to success of a human being. It is indeed a joy to meet a soul from the past with whom I had shared a transformative journey. May God bless CGY, his mother and his family with success and truth.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Frederick Douglass Story: A Revolutionary Idea For Our So-Called Modern Education System


The life of a slave is pitiful but Frederick Douglass, although a slave in the early years of his life, shows us that any person can become an inspiration to humanity; he also showed how important a role education plays to the freedom and empowerment of a human being.

The turning point came in his life came when the new, kind wife of his owner saw him with a soft heart and taught him the English alphabet and how to spell very short words. This process carried on for a few days before the owner found out that his wife had been teaching a slave the written word. He stopped her from doing so and explained, A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”

 From that day onwards, his mistress changed from a loving lamb to a strict tigress; love and kindness for the slaves had left her heart. She stopped teaching Douglass and he observed, “Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper.”

At this stage, Douglass’s life story gets more interesting. He only knew the English alphabet and a few words. He was still an illiterate person like the way I am in Arabic; I can recognise the Arabic alphabet and I can spell, read and understand a few words in Arabic, and in addition this, as a Muslim, I recite my prayers in Arabic for over 4 decades; yet I have not progress beyond this very low literacy level in Arabic. But Douglass was different. He would not only master the alphabet but he would be literate, articulate, fluent in speech and writing. Where Douglass succeeded, many of us have failed in our mastery of second and third languages. So how did little Douglass master the English language without a teacher?
Frederick Douglass in 1879

So how did Douglass master the written word without an adult teaching him? Let’s hear his story in his own words.

“The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids; not that it would injure  me, but it might embarrass  them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.” (Extract from Chapter 7 of Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave).

As a tutor of mostly 11 and 12 year olds, I am impressed by what Douglass had achieved at the age of 12; he was paying the poor white children with bread for teaching him to read.  This can be likened to a child paying his tutor the tuition fees with the little money he has. However, in the Singapore reality, many children are reluctant to learn during individualized tuition  sessions.  For me, when this is prolonged, I sometimes drop the student, often feeling frustrated. 

So why was Frederick Douglass so eager to learn while our children with relative lives of ease are often reluctant? I leave Frederick Douglass to explain this to you (but I have underlined the sentences that contain the essence).

"Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.  To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.  A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.  Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm.  It would make him discontented and unhappy.”  These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought.  It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain.  I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man."

"It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly.  From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.  It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it.  Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.  Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.  The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering.  It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read.  What he most dreaded, that I most desired.  What he most loved, that I most hated.  That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.  In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress.  I acknowledge the benefit of both."

If I have to choose a word from Douglass's writing which points to the answer of the question asked above, I would say "meaningful" or "purposeful". Real learning takes place when the learner sees purpose or meaning in the learning activity. Yet this simple word would stump many teachers. How do I know so? Because as a youth, I had asked my teachers, "How is this Subject meaningful?" None could answer this question then, and very few can answer them today. 

A few decades have passed and today, I realise that if a teacher does not know how or why a subject is meaningful, it is unlikely that the students he teaches will find the subjects he teaches meaningful. This ignorance on the part of the teacher is a key reason why many students find their schooling meaningless. If you are a teacher reading this, ask yourself why and how the subjects you are teaching are meaningful; do not stop searching until you have found the answers. And when you do, relook at why and how you teach. Have you been teaching the subjects in ways to make them meaningful? If yes, well and good. If no, revolutionize the ways you teach.