On Teaching and Teaching Assistants

I read an article in the Guardian a few days ago on the Finnish education system which is often cited in the western world as one example of a successful education system (in spite of some rather angry bold negative deltas in PISA 2015 – however reliable said tests are as a form of assessment). I’ve been through the table-topping Singapore education system, and while it certainly is rigorous (especially in mathematics – I recently looked at an A level Thinking Skills problem-solving question that, chillingly, wouldn’t be too out of place on the Mathematics PSLE in Singapore) there are valid concerns regarding excessive stress levels, teaching not being perceived as a high-profile job and a lack of time for students to explore things on their own. I would certainly understand a desire not to bring some of these elements into an education system.

The headline message being trust your teachers is something I can appreciate to some extent, even though I was never explicitly a teacher, at least in terms of profession. I had the privilege of being an undergraduate teaching assistant during my third and fourth years at Imperial, and I like to think that the professors and lecturers who were supervising me placed a lot of trust in me; they certainly gave me a fair bit of latitude in the content I could cover (perhaps not the “unfettered flexibility” mentioned in the article, but I was supposed to teach rather specific modules – Logic, Discrete Mathematics, Reasoning about Programs, and Data Structures and Algorithms).

I was given high ability groups in both years, and this resulted in advanced tutorials that introduced students to various slightly more advanced topics they would see soon (concurrency, temporal logics, optimisation algorithms), as well as stretched their abilities in applying the concepts and knowledge learnt (okay, you know what a loop invariant is – how can we extend it to nested loops? Functions containing loops that could be recursive?). I believe these were appreciated, and did collect feedback on them (though, of course, it’s difficult to be sure how much negative feedback was swept under the rug with these kinds of questionnaires).

Unfortunately, I did also indulge in some “teaching to the test”, explaining strategies for tackling the various exams that were certainly not a part of the syllabus. Thankfully, Imperial’s examinations don’t have too much exploitability here, as far as I can recall; I think much effort was spent identifying common pitfalls and explaining how to avoid them (e.g. unnecessary quantifier movement in Logic, and telling students to clearly demonstrate their thought processes even if they couldn’t answer the question). Some of this was certainly backed by popular demand, and it did pay off in that my students did win multiple prizes. I certainly wasn’t in a position to change the assessment system at Imperial!

I did encounter minimal bureaucracy, mainly around marking the attendance of students (some of this is part of the Home Office’s “expected contacts” requirement for non-EU students). I can’t remember if a DBS check was necessary, though I already had one from year 1, in any case. Thankfully, there was nothing along the scale of what was being described in the article:

Contrast this with the UK, where schools have data managers, where some teachers are told which colour pens to use for marking, and where books are periodically checked to ensure that learning intentions are neatly stuck in place.

Not necessarily sure that the existence of data managers is a bad thing (after all, I do work for a company that helps others make data-driven decisions!) – but that said, drawing conclusions from data that doesn’t truly reflect students’ abilities (if that is what is going on) is very unlikely to be effective (“garbage in, garbage out” springs to mind).

I did do a stint as a volunteer student helper with a few schools near Imperial as part of the Pimlico Connection programme. Although I didn’t witness said book checks, I certainly did notice teachers explicitly reference curricular objectives and the level system (this was pre-September 2014 changes). Obviously, I’m not sure how representative this is in schools in general, though. I think the only time I recall encountering this in Singapore was when preparing for the Computer Science IB HL exams.

The article concludes with an expansion of this notion of trusting individual teachers to societal trends towards trust in general, though not much evidence or data is presented on this. I guess some connections can be drawn to a point raised earlier on relative economic homogeneity. Looking at an issue of trust in the UK in specific, there is interestingly a series of studies that attempt to collect data on this. Slide 19 on the linked page suggests that 55% of British people trust the British people to “do the right thing”, whatever that entails.

In terms of trusting individual teachers, I’d probably be comfortable with that only if there was a good process for selecting teachers. That’s a difficult problem – simply going for the “best and brightest” in terms of students’ academic results certainly isn’t enough, as the Finnish process acknowledges. We did do that at Imperial, though in some sense the stakes are lower there as there is a supervisor monitoring the process and it is, still, one of the “least worst” indicators one can use. However, I think once one acquires confidence and skill such that one will not struggle with the concepts one is teaching, and one can answer students’ questions comfortably (within reason), there are many other more important traits. My knowledge of tricky automata theory or familiarity with theoretical complexity classes, or for that matter ability to knock in a 96% in the Logic and Reasoning about Programs exams (as opposed to say an 85 or 90) were generally not directly relevant to doing my job as a teaching assistant!

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