Interview with Desmond Lau
By Gene Chan
Not just your average tuition teacher, Desmond Lau has accumulated over 10 years of teaching Physics, loving the process of helping his students gain confidence and overcoming their limits. A PSC-MOE teaching scholar, he is known as an approachable down-to-earth teacher who effectively turns the most complicated concept into a simple bite-sized one.
What are your strengths as a teacher? What sets you apart?
What I teach. To decide what to teach, I catalog a large database of ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exam questions that are relevant to the current syllabus. These exam questions go beyond the available ten year series today. From this database, I figure out the conceptual knowledge and problem-solving skills that my students would need. I then break them up into bite-sized learning objectives and plan my lessons around them. My lessons are always relevant to the exams because they are derived straight from the exam questions.
How I teach. I have a collection of images, videos and demonstrations relating to Physics concepts and exam questions. For example, a common exam question on forces requires students to draw the direction of frictional forces on the wheel as it is driven by the engine. I would pull out a bicycle wheel from my collection of Physics resources to use this as a live demonstration. Being able to hold and turn the wheel and feel the forces help my students learn Physics interactively – and do well for their exams.
How does your experience help you to help your students effectively?
From my experience, the “connectedness” between various parts of the learning experience is crucial. When teaching concepts or problem solving skills, I keep my presentations short. My students will then attempt a question based on the learning objective just presented. If they face any difficulty, I will help them with it right away. In this way, they will surely be able to understand the learning objective – be it a concept or problem-solving skill.
How varied are the mix of students you have taught?
Over the past 10 years, I have covered quite a spectrum of students. Most of my students have been those struggling to pass. But eventually, they saw large improvements in their grades. It is actually quite common for students who fail Physics to score distinctions in their ‘O’ or ‘A’ level exams. I give them the confidence that they can do it. And I provide the expert guidance to see it through.
Due to my location along the circle line (Caldecott MRT), students from schools in Bukit Timah and Buona Vista find it quite easy to come after school via the circle line. Other students come from the Toa Payoh neighbourhood where I’m located, or along the North-South line via Braddell MRT.
What has been most rewarding in your journey of teaching?
Last year, I did a month of teaching at NUS High. They gave me an appreciation card, and on it they drew a stick figure where I was doing one of my favorite demonstrations – swinging a pail of water in a vertical circle. Being smart kids, they could solve the equations. But I decided to engage their knowledge in a real-life practical way. What is interesting about doing Physics is that one could write a few equations, and it would predict something in the real world. Helping my students make that connection is rewarding.
For many students, they start off lacking confidence. Seeing them build up their confidence and believing that when they worked on the right things, they could improve – is rewarding.
How do you keep yourself up-to-date as a Physics teacher?
There’s a slight change in syllabus coming up in 2017. So I am going to be needing to do some minor revisions.
I like learning from other educators. Derek Muller (Youtuber – veritasium, PhD Physics Education) has written an excellent thesis regarding the use of Physics videos in education. I read many parts of his thesis and his research is excellent. He has even built his own Youtube channel around his research, and it is the best Physics channel around.
Currently, I’m reading “Succeeding in Inquiry in Science and Maths Classrooms.” (Jeff. C. Marshall). Learning about other educator’s experiences in implementation adds to my own experience.
I recently watched some of Adam Khoo’s videos on note-taking and whole-brain learning. I was surprised to find out how much his techniques in those videos overlap with my approach. Both of us emphasise the need to link a concept with an image to trigger memory. I like his presentation and organisation.
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants..” Sir Isaac Newton
Any tips for students to excel in their studies?
Success = determination x focus + feedback
Determination alone is not enough. You may work hard but you may not be working on the right things. For that, you need focus. Focus is the ability to work with clarity on what truly matters. If you have difficulty with problem-solving, you need to know what type of questions you need to solve (database), and practice at solving them. If you have a time issue, work on the time issue. And sometimes, that is where you need a coach to walk along with you on this journey to success.