Philip Johns

Assistant Professor, Science (Life Science)

What is special about teaching at Yale-NUS?

Johns: One thing that makes Yale-NUS students great is that most want to be challenged. That is not true everywhere. A lot of students at other schools have an attitude of checking-off-the-boxes, or, “just tell me what I have to do”. I think we want students to be more than merely consumers of information; we want students who are curious and intellectually adventurous. And we see that here, often.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Johns: When things are going well, good teaching is some kind of conversation. It isn’t just a dialogue — just a one-on-one interaction. But good teaching entails a lot of back-and-forth between the instructor and the students, and between the students and themselves. I try to remember that.

Can you recall a moment when you knew your class was going well?

Johns: Almost any time a student asks a question, a class is going well — especially if it is a question I hadn’t thought of before. A close second is when students help each other on some group task where they have to collectively get the right answer.

What have been some of your best moments teaching at Yale-NUS?

Johns: Week 7 LAB. Having students doing projects in the forests of Borneo is about as good as it gets. I want students to have the chance to ask questions and pursue their own ideas. Although that course was short, it was great to watch students think systematically about how to ask science-y questions.

What is the biggest challenge in regards to teaching?

Johns: Good teaching takes time.

What do you wish you knew about teaching when you started that you know now?

Johns: A million things. Here are a few.

First, that good teaching isn’t about showing off how clever the instructor is. It’s true that students respect smart profs more than ones who are clueless. But being the smartest person in the room is not the same as teaching well.

Second, that a lecture — even a great lecture — is not the same as good teaching. I really think we have to do more than broadcast information; students have textbooks for that, or online videos, or whatever. We learn by doing, and I think students need something to work on to really grasp a topic. And that means more than homework.

I think a lot of teaching entails figuring out ways for students to work with information as a means for them to understand what’s important. Almost anything that gets students engaged in a topic is better than letting students be stenographers.

Third, that it’s really important to figure out what students know beforehand. The easiest way is just to ask, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Students might not want to volunteer, or might not know how much they know, or the particulars of the class might keep some students from offering a useful answer.

Fourth — but not finally — that asking an open-ended question to start a conversation rarely works. There are so many tactics that can prime a class for discussion, but standing in front of a room and saying, “What do people think of X?”, isn’t one of them.

There are a million things I don’t know; I’m no expert. But I hope good teaching is, say, 75% skill and 25% talent. Maybe 80:20. That means we can keep honing our skills and adjusting how we teach — especially if we have some way to gauge what works. With a little luck, we get better.