July 2018 Issue-Jesus Our Teacher

by Prof Freddy Boey

Prof Freddy Boey was the keynote speaker at the Teachers’ Dedication Service organised by Teachers’ Christian Fellowship, NIE Christian Fellowship, and Fellowship of Evangelical Students (FES) on 26 May 2018 at the Multipurpose Hall, Church of the Ascension, St Andrew’s Village. He is Professor of Materials Science & Engineering and Senior Vice President for Research Translation and Graduate Studies at the National University Singapore. He previously completed his seven years’ appointment as Provost of Nanyang Technological University.

A Bible teacher for 30 years, Prof Boey spoke on “Jesus, Our Teacher”. His message was in two parts.  The first was generally about the subject of teaching and learning while the second part focussed in on the life and example of Jesus Christ as our teacher.

Learning by institution, inspiration and interaction
He noted that one could learn by institution, inspiration and interaction. 
Institutional learning comes with the discipline of learning from and the development of the culture of the particular institute; both of which may not exist when one self learns.  St Andrews, for example, with its Christian values and openness to students from all walks of life taught him about institutional learning.
He shared how inspiration lit a fire in him, which caused him to want to learn on his own.  He was the sort of student who, if feeling bored at a lecture, would wander over to another lecture to see what it was about. It was the experience of hearing an inspiring lecture on materials science that caused him to change his study to this field. “You can’t quite follow the teacher but you are so excited that you learn by yourself,” he observed. 
Finally, he noted that the most impactful learning happened through interactive learning, where the process or journey of learning with fellow students is as important as the content learnt.  Prof Boey chose to focus his message on this last point – learning by interaction.  
He invited us to focus on our students and not on ourselves as teachers, and to ask: “How can the kids learn better?” rather than to ask: “How can I teach better?”
“The human brain is wired to learn by trial and error,” Prof Boey pointed out.  He asked us to pay attention to how fast the brain can work when it is allowed to work.  He asked us to focus on the “how” of learning and in particular:
-            how to process knowledge;
-            how to relate to people; and
-            how to relate knowledge to others.
Prof Boey reflected on the nature of learning at university.  He sked: “What did I actually learn at university? The knowledge could have been acquired in less than two years. But that does not mean that a university education should only take two years.  Two years more are needed for an education.”  He pointed out that one should not merely get a degree, but should have an education.
He summed up the point of education as “learning to see yourself in society”. To educate a person was to see him become a useful member of society.  He reiterated the feelings of many that Singapore has become so examination-focussed and expressed concern that we are “getting cleverer at examining learners rather than educating them”.
He pointed out that there was a place for assessment – formative assessment and that there were exciting ways in which technology could support this through enabling truly formative assessment.  For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) and large data analytics could be leveraged to gather data on the learner as he made attempts, sought solutions, and got stuck in progressing through an online course.  Technology today can enable very interactive and dynamic learning, in contrast to passive lecturing. It can also track every individual’s learning journey and adjust the pace and depth of the course to the individual better than a classroom teacher could.  Both will lead to significantly better learning efficiencies. He also surmised that with technology, one can actually do away with conventional examinations, since we have the technology to assess the both the pace and depth of understanding of the learner, even while he is interactively learning.
There is, of course, still a need for human teachers (perhaps now better called facilitators or mentors).  The teacher’s role is not going to be an examiner but an educator, which it should always have been.  One key role remains for a teacher/ mentor -- teaching our students to fail well. “Fail quickly in order to succeed fast,” Prof Boey advised.
“The grace of God is that we failed in a setting in which there was someone to pick us up. We have the “parakletos” – the Holy Spirit – alongside us,” he said.
Prof Boey shared that experiencing a positive relationship saved him as a young man.  “I came from a poor family one of 11 children.  We lived in a hut in Kolam Ayer.  I went to church for the first time at the age of 12 and was welcomed at the door by Mr Tan Song Thiam.  He stretched out his hand and shook mine and even gave me a little King James Version (KJV) Bible.  No one had ever shaken my hand before.  Crumpled and old clothes with a bit of a smell – these things did not bother Mr Tan. And I still have that little Bible he gave in in 1968!
Jesus’ example as a teacher
a)        Demon-possessed man

 Turning to the Bible, Prof Boey read from the KJV the account of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man. (Mark 5:1-20)
He painted a picture of the life experiences of the young man.  Possibly beginning to behave oddly, he was at first kept at home.  After a while, his behaviour may have caused his family to keep him in some shelter and removed from the house. 
Rejected for his strange ways, he was soon cast out from the village. In fear, they tried to confine him to the graves on the hillside, tying him up there. But in his rage and agony, he tore free of his bonds.   “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” (v5) In his crazy state, he nevertheless knew who Jesus was “and when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him”.  Prof Boey reminded us that this was a Jewish demon-possessed man.  For him to cry out that Jesus was the Son of God would have gone against everything he had been raised to believe – you do not worship anyone or anything but God.  Yet, he recognised the Son of God.
Jesus spoke with him and cast out the demons into the nearby herd of swine.  The people were afraid because when they came to Jesus, they saw the young man “that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind….” (Mark 5:15)
Prof Boey observed that the demon-possessed man went on to become the first missionary.  “Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.”
“ And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel.” (v19-20)  Prof Boey drew our attention to the purpose and the commissioning of Christ upon this troubled young man.  Jesus restored him and sent him forth as His missionary. Jesus turned a failure and discard in society into a man with a godly cause.  He asked us to reflect on what that commissioning must have done for this young man, who had been rejected by everyone.
b)        Woman with haemorrhage
Prof Boey then drew our focus onto the woman whom Jesus healed of a haemorrhage. (Mark 5:25-34)  He alerted us to the fact that Jesus did not force people to come to Him.  He waited for His students to come to Him.
When the woman touched Him and power left Him, after identifying her, He said to her, “Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.”(v34)
Prof Boey drew our attention to Jesus calling the woman “daughter”.  He alerted us to how much it must have meant to this lonely woman whose “unclean” condition would have denied her the comforts of a relationship with others.  He said that Jesus told her with just one word that she had someone who cared.  He observed that for many of us, we remember our teachers not because of what they taught but because of what they meant to us relationally.  He said that the late educator, Dr Ruth Wong had done this for him.  She paid attention to him, a total nobody when young, and inspired him to do something for God and society.
c)     The leper
He gave another example of the leper whom Jesus healed with His touch (Mark 1:40-45).  He drew our attention to the fact that the leper, in keeping with Jewish laws, would have called out to Jesus from a distance.  Lepers then were forbidden on pain of death to come near to other people.  He pointed out that to touch and heal him, Jesus would have needed to walk some distance just to come up to the man.  He asked us to reflect on the impact it must have had on the leper, who had to keep his distance from others all his life, to have Jesus walked to him and reached out his hand to touch and heal him. We too should learn to walk towards our students to establish a relationship, which will inspire and educate them.
Communicating worth
Prof Boey invited us to recognise that the interaction with teachers which brings about true inspiration, comes about not by teachers saying clever things.  Rather, it comes when a teacher communicates worth. Jesus was saying to the demon-possessed man, the woman with bleeding and the leper: “You are worthy.”  His commissioning of the young man, His calling the woman “daughter” and His reaching out and touching the leper all communicated the worth these individuals had in His eyes.  As teachers, we must do the same.
He recounted his experience with his economics teacher at St Andrew’s School.  His first experience was being humiliated by her in front of his class when he answered a question wrongly.  He noted that after this episode, his appreciation for the subject of economics dropped not to zero but to about minus one hundred.  But then, his classmate, the captain of the school, Samuel Owen, somehow let the teacher know that the young Prof Boey was a new boy who had been sick for a while.  The economics teacher took him under her wing and taught him after school every day.  Later, when he received the top student award from the school’s board of governors, they observed that he should take up economics as he had done so well.  The impact of this teacher finding worth in him changed his whole outlook on her subject.
Allowing failure in order to succeed
Prof Boey came back to the earlier theme of failing in order to succeed.  He said that educational institutes are supposed to be safe environments -- the best place to fail was in schools. What happened to people after they failed (and everyone will fail, sooner or later) was vital.  When the disciples completed their three-year course with Jesus, they did not get a degree.  They received a commission. 

Peter failed and failed again and in his final examination, he failed big time.  Jesus never once mentioned about Peter’s failures.   Prof Boey asked us what Jesus said to him afterwards:  “Do you love me?” He asked, not “What are your grades?” And Peter’s response was a heartfelt: “You know (deep inside my heart), I love you...”

What our Lord asks for is a heart orientation towards Him and not an absence of failure. 

Teaching for life

Communicating worth and allowing failure were hallmarks of our Lord Jesus as He taught.  A third characteristic was that He taught for life.  He asked: ” This meant that we were called to walk with Jesus for life with or without the miracles -- the calling upon us is for a lifetime through thick and thin – because of our love for Him, not because of what we can get from Him.

Prof Boey reminded us that the purpose of our walk is for His name’s sake.  “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3) And the promise is that we will have two sheepdogs called “mercy” and “goodness” that will walk beside us all the days of our lives (v 6).  As we had a tendency to behave like sheep, we really needed these sheepdogs.  John was one of the two sons of Zebedee.  He and his brother James were also known as the sons of thunder because they would do things like ask Jesus if they could call down fire on the unbelieving villages of Samaria (Luke 9:54)!  However, these failing young men were given worth in Jesus’ eyes and He taught them for life.  If we walked with the Lord with our hearts oriented towards Him, we could aspire to be like the apostle John, who at the age of 90 could recall with crystal clarity what he had touched, seen and experienced at 19.  
Let us be like John at the end of a long life of walking with Jesus, our teacher, amazed not by the miracles but by His love.  And let us teach by communicating worth, by allowing failure and by teaching for life.
Questions and Answers
The talk concluded with questions and answers. Among the questions Prof Boey responded to were two on the emphasis on summative assessment in our education system and on how to change the culture of the place where you work.
He encouraged the teachers to be persistent.  He observed that he was an optimist.  In his life, he had often found himself stuck and unable to change the way things were but that if something is good, then it will happen.  We had to believe in that.  So in areas such as the obsession with summative assessment or other aspects of institutional culture which we felt should change, we should not lose heart but persist in following Christ.  The changes that needed to happen would happen in His time.   
(This talk was given at the Teachers’ Dedication Service 2018)