“I am not a Science person”
When you were young, did you believe that anything was possible? When you grew up, did you want to be an astronaut, an athlete, or a professional gamer? But at what point did you decide that these beliefs are childish and unrealistic? (Or perhaps, you’re still chasing that dream, or even better, fulfilling that dream?) We cannot deny that the harshness of our education system has a role to play. As kids struggle to cope in school, they start telling themselves that they are just not smart enough. That they are just “not a Science person”, “not an Arts person”, “not an Athletic person”.
“I am not a Science person.” I have heard this statement countless times as I grew up and these words always brought about an emotional turmoil within. I hold an unwavering belief that our potential is limitless and it feels wrong to make such statements that limit ourselves. Some might think that I am one of those individuals who were “born smart” and just understood things quickly. But the truth is, there have been countless occasions where I have struggled to learn and lost faith in my abilities as well.
Understanding abstract concepts has never been my forte. When in Secondary One, I struggled to learn Algebra. I still recall being extremely confused by a fundamental principle we learnt: when we bring the variable “x” over to the other side of the equation, it becomes negative.
The inability to understand Algebra led me to refuse to adopt it to solve problems. So during Math exams, I was adamant on solving problems using the Model method (which we learnt in Primary school).
My results were not fantastic. My teacher even called me out in class saying that my methods were wrong. As we dived deeper into Algebra, things got even more confusing.
But somehow, I was curious: can I understand Algebra if I could express Algebra visually? I was quite lucky to have a like-minded table-mate. We would challenge each other to visualise algebraic equations we learnt. And the turning point came was when we figured out how to visualise the Pythagoras’ Theorem.
Something clicked. My curiosity helped me find confidence in my learning abilities. I realised that I developed a much deeper understanding of Math, Formulas and Algebra. Since then, Math somehow became a lot easier to understand and my grades improved significantly.
My first “Discovery”
Science concepts became a lot tougher in Secondary School. It was a struggle to understand what the teacher was saying in class. One of the most challenging topics was light.
I never understood why light can be represented by lines. Does light exist in solid straight lines? If so, then why can’t we see these lines? And if the focal point is so small, does that mean that I can see nothing at the focal point? It was a very puzzling concept. Even though I completely could not catch up in class, I let my curiosity get the better of me. For one whole month, I read up online to figure out how this diagram was discovered.
The “aha” moment came when I sat in a car with my Dad, debating about this topic. I realised that there were infinite light rays around us, but it would be madness to draw all of them. The lines were simply an abstraction of the world. And the focal point represents only one out of a million other points that were formed by the convex lens.
With that understanding, I had a hypothesis: so if I placed a convex lens in front of a light source, I can project the light source onto a screen. Coincidentally, we had a Physics lab experiment that week. I abandoned the school experiment to test out my hypothesis.
I placed the lens outside the window and placed a sheet of translucent paper within. The moment when the window projected onto the translucent paper, I felt like I made a major discovery that could change the world (later on I discovered that this has already been discovered). The feeling was indescribable.
This was a major turning point in my Education. I was constantly raving to my friends about Physics concepts, even as early as 6 am. Physics exams were quite manageable from then on. This made me realise that just because I could not understand what my teacher was saying, does not make me “dumb”. Once again, my curiosity helped me overcome my struggles in learning in school.
Challenging the way we teach Physics
I was surrounded by many friends who exclaimed that they did not understand Physics. It was incredibly frustrating to see them lose confidence in their learning abilities and I was completely against how Physics was being taught in school. Physics is about understanding the world around us, how can we expect students to learn through lifeless images inside textbooks?
I still remember in Secondary 4, my Physics teacher called in sick. So I went up to the front of the class and said: “Ok friends, can I be your relief teacher? Let’s go through the Physics exam papers together!”. To be honest, I do not think I have the guts to do that now. But back then, it was simply an opportunity to make a difference. If only we changed the way we taught Physics back then, then my classmates could have loved Physics as well.
Tripping over expectations
Later on, when I studied in Junior College, I took on a research project at NUS. I proposed to animate the physics concepts behind launching a rocket to Mars. The hypothesis was if we could visualise these university-level concepts, then even secondary school students can understand them.
But this project posed a huge challenge to my belief. When I realised I could not visualise the concepts because I did not understand them, doubts in my learning abilities started to set in. I had unknowingly formed expectations on how I must learn. That marked the start of me losing my curious mind.
Later at University, I studied Engineering. I had no idea what the Professors were saying. Being surrounded by incredibly smart individuals made it worse. They were extremely hard working and incredibly fast learners. I was constantly telling myself that I had to learn as fast as them, but I could not. Constant comparison with those around me set me off thinking that “I‘m just not meant for Engineering” and I just gave up.
The search for confidence
At that point, my confidence in myself was extremely low. Science and Math was my “identity” and my source of confidence. So I set off to find a completely different field to identify myself with. And miraculously, that was Design. I always yearned to create beautiful things but held the perception that it requires inborn talent. Interestingly, I chanced upon an elective called Graphic Design Principles. That changed it all. It taught me the language of Design and I realised that Design can be learnt. It started to rekindle the faith that maybe we can learn anything we want? This set off an obsession: to teach myself design.
Later on, during my exchange programme at UC Berkeley, there were student-run modules called DeCals and one of them was on Graphic Design Principles. I knew I could not match up to many other Designers. Nonetheless, I still applied to be an instructor, because I was motivated to share with others (who felt they were not talented) that they too can learn the language of design.
Design helped me find my curiosity again. Upon reflection, I realised I had completely lost my inquisitive mind to the Education system. Being stressed about performing in exams and matching up to others got the better of me. Eventually, I started being more open to learning Engineering as well.
University taught me a very big lesson: expectations hinder learning. We hold expectations that we have to be as good as others. That students need to understand what a teacher is saying. If they do not understand, they are either lazy, not trying hard enough or they are just dumb. I am extremely lucky to have grown up in a family that has been extremely supportive and have met friends who never made me feel ashamed to be who I am. Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky.
When we were young, we were curious about the world around us. We would ask “why” all the time. But as we grow up, we rarely hear these words anymore. We start saying “how”. The biggest tragedy is to see a child grow up and lose the spark of curiosity in their eyes. Do we want our younger generation to grow up in a system that stifles a kid’s natural inclination to learn? To be curious? We really can learn anything we put our mind to. This starts with helping each other to keep hold of our curiosity as we grow up. Thus, I am on a personal mission to reset education because the dream of a world where all kids love to learn makes it all worth it.