Thursday, May 27, 2021

Why some engineers hate lifelong learning and end up driving Grab


I don't really understand my motivation to read Super Courses by Ken Bain. The courses are run and conducted by universities so may have limited application to my own programs. But what the heck, if I can find one useful nugget to improve my customer experience, the time and money spent on the book would break even immediately. 

Right off the bat, I saw an old NJC, NUS engineering faculty, and Raffles Hall mate, Manu Kapur, a brilliant Maths Olympiad student, featured as a thought leader in Learning and Education and I was hooked to the contents of the volume. 

( What the fuck am I doing with my life, right? )

One useful insight I gained from the book is that when universities conduct engineering courses there is too much focus on the technical details and too little on context. Because of this, engineers can't tie their work to greater business or societal goals. Because they've mostly taught math equations,  they can't appreciate the value of their beyond training cheaper foreign engineers to take over their jobs, they graduate without much love for lifelong learning. Without knowledge upgrades, a technical career cannot be sustained so that's why a lot of engineers find alternative employment - driving Grab, giving financial advice and selling real estate. Becoming a project engineer is the beginning of the end for most technical careers.

I still use a lot of maths in my job as an investment trainer and enjoy transferring the mathematical concept to analyse legal cases and financial investments, but I have reason to believe that I did not have the same education as my peers. I spent four years doing public speaking with the Toastmasters in NUS, so I had quite a bit of experience working with folks from different faculties to meet organization objectives and sharpen communication skills. I did this so much, my engineering professors who meet me in the industry had forgotten the research awards I won but remembered me primarily as a public speaker. 

I think the central problem in modern education is the transfer problem. How do you transfer your knowledge across different domains. This has not been solved by Singapore yet. 

Here are few personal examples I cracked :

  • If you understand the secretary problem in Computer Science and give yourself 10 years to find a wife. Then the optimal behaviour is to spend between 3-4 years just dating casually and shopping around. After that, marry if you find someone better than all those in your dating history.
  • Legal cases are often resolved by sharing and apportioning the liability between two parties. It's easy to apportion straight assets but hidden options can be apportioned as well. In shipping cases, the underlying volatility of asset values can be so high, these options can explain contradictions in judicial decisions. The Black-Scholes equation is an important tool to analyse judicial decisions. ( eg. The Achilleas )
  • Recovery of Singapore markets can be improved with an understanding of epidemiology. The question of whether we're hitting another crash will be answered if we know the R0 of B1617 in a vaccinated population. Another related useful concept is forest fires which tend to spread when trees are close to each other. Mathematical models can be used to predict at which point Singapore will become safe based on our vaccination numbers.  This may actually justify a large leveraged bet in the future.
The rest of the book really tells us what we intuitively know as educators. Real problem solving is multidisciplinary. Students who take personal ownership of their learning learn a lot more than others. Grading leads to undesirable behaviours like "grade grubbing" and erodes the willingness for life-long learning. 
I can imagine a Singaporean reader, especially a teacher in MOE, will wind up being exceedingly cynical after reading the book. Most of the ideas behind Super Courses cannot be executed without going through the massive MOE bureaucracy. 
  • Do these interventions justify the investment by the taxpayer? 
  • Will the teacher be rewarded for innovation or punished for skirting MOE guidelines?
  • Do students and parents even appreciate this?
Even the book admits that societies view lecturers as arbitrators of whoever gets to be rewarded by a meritocratic society.  So teachers are not just moulders of student's lives. Teachers are judges whoe decide that the intelligent conscientious guys get into the upper-middle class of society and the loafer gets into existence of sporadic unemployment. Companies rely on universities to grade their students to decide who to employ. So I can imagine grading to remain even though it harms the intrinsic motivation of the student in question.

Lastly, as a private course provider, I am actually quite excited by some of the suggestions. There is no administrative service mandarin to stop me if I execute some of the crazier suggestions in the book. All I need to do is to justify that the course pays for itself and bring my partners more money.  

Hopefully, cynicism and unhappiness will not stop my teacher pals from reading this book. At least they know what can be imagined in their philosophy to create a better course in Singapore. 


  1. Local education not holistic enough & too focused on the details/technicalities.

    Sinkies are exam smart & grades smart. A bit like data fitting & data mining to get the best performing strategy over the last 10 yrs.