HKBU Enews Eyes on HKBU
Feb 2012 | Issue 17

Professor Albert Lee: Education is student-centred, not student-driven

Recipient of the President’s Award for Outstanding Performance in Teaching 2001

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” So said Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University. It’s also the motto for Professor Albert Lee, Chair Professor in Chemistry at HKBU. He acknowledges that education is indeed very expensive, not simply in monetary terms, but also because of the input of human capital required. To achieve harmonious interaction between students and teachers, he says, “We need to dedicate our heart and time.”

Professor Lee has pursued his career in education for almost 30 years, but his passion for teaching remains undiminished. He is also unwavering in his insistence that his duty is to coach his students to become good ones, and not just be satisfied with teaching those students who are already good.

Winning the trust of students
The first thing that meets the eye when entering Professor Lee’s office is a reproduction of the painting The Doctor and The Doll (Norman Rockwell, 1926) hanging on the wall. Professor Lee says that this painting has been a great source of inspiration for him. According to his interpretation of the work, the doctor in the painting has been called to the home of the sick child, and the kid worries that she has transmitted her illness to the doll. Therefore she has asked the doctor to treat the doll first. The doctor may look frustrated but nevertheless he is still going to "diagnose" the doll first, because by doing so he successfully gains the trust of the little girl.

The message of the painting is that even in childishly innocent situations such as this, the importance of empathy is vital, Professor Lee says. “The kid really thought that her doll was infected.” His point is that as a teacher, one should behave like the doctor and be able to appreciate the mindset of students and consider situations from their point of view instead of being high-handed and dismissing their problems. “If we have the trust of the students, and understand what they need and what their difficulties are, we can communicate with them easily,” he says.

Teaching with humour
Professor Lee has a unique technique that he always uses in classes, and that is to make jokes that tie in with what he is teaching. He believes that this helps students enjoy their class work. One example of his humour goes as follows; "How do you find out if someone has studied Chemistry? Answer: ask him to pronounce the word ‘unionized’. Most people will just say ‘union-ized’, but the Chemistry person will pronounce it ‘un-ION-ized’." This always makes students laugh, so much so that and they try out the joke on their language teachers. “They remember the jokes, and they also like my friendliness, and this helps to warm up the atmosphere in the classroom,” Professor Lee laughs.

Sleeping dragons in Kowloon Tong
"The first year of their university lives is crucial to students,” says Professor Lee, who is always eager to teach Year 1 students. “Science may not be their first choice of subject, and this may be unsettling for them, creating uncertainty about their futures and giving them negative sentiments.” Hence he believes that his prime responsibility is to motivate those students who are passive and make them more proactive. He holds firmly to the view that the virtue of Whole Person Education is not only that it equips students with knowledge, but it also stimulates their interest in study and campus life, helping them to become high-quality graduates. It gives him the greatest satisfaction when this goal is achieved.

Professor Lee describes freshmen as being like “sleeping dragons” who tend to think that they are somehow trapped in Kowloon Tong (it literally means Nine Dragons Pond). Therefore he always encourages students that some day they will able to fly away, and that they should have a positive approach to life. He always makes sure that he communicates fully with his students so as to find out their background and what their future plans are. His aim is to help them shake off any sense of inferiority and sad feelings they may have.

Likes telling stories, loves teaching
It is vital for a teacher to have enthusiasm. Only enthusiasm enables a teacher to be truly devoted to teaching. “I always encounter setbacks when I’m doing experiments and research. But every time I finish teaching a class, I feel happy and satisfied.” In addition to having enthusiasm, Professor Lee says, a successful teacher must be a good story-teller who can explain complicated topics in clear, simple and attractive ways, and also try to set the issues in a context that is familiar in daily life. He suggests that teachers should elaborate in-depth on the historical background and development of Chemistry theories, helping students to understand the origins and advances of scientific concepts.

Professor Lee cites an example to explain the serendipity in many technological innovations: Viagra, the drug for male erectile dysfunction, was discovered accidently by Pfizer while developing medication to treat cardiovascular disease.

"Involve me, I learn”
When students have difficulties during class, he does not mind slowing down the pace to help them clarify problems before pressing ahead. To keep students interested and keep them engaged in his lectures, Professor Lee designs his lecture notes with just a few simple words or graphics, and gives the students time to "complete" the notes as they listen. His principle is: “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I learn.” He never provides answers to students. Instead he asks them to find out for themselves from what they have heard in lectures and read from books.

Professor Lee respects the fact that students may have different aspirations. He knows that some of them aim high for good results, while others may be satisfied with only passing scores. He also understands that in addition to their academic studies, students can develop in many other fields, through extra-circular activities, student organizations, and so on. “I don’t mind if they can’t achieve good results in Chemistry, because this doesn’t mean that they can’t be outstanding in other areas.” He restrains from saying things like: “This generation is worse than the last one”. His belief is only that: “This generation is not the same as the previous one”. And as he often says: “All I want is to coach students to be good, not just teach students who are already good.”