Yusuf Mahbubul Islam's MIDT Journey

My Journey as a Teacher

First Job: My first job as a Lecturer was at the Department of Applied Physics and Electronics, Dhaka University. This was the beginning of my career immediately after graduating in Electronics and Electrical Engineering from Heriot-Watt University, UK in 1978. I was asked to teach “Electrical Technology”. At this point, I had a feeling that as a teacher I had to be well prepared and I spent about 3 hours to prepare for each lecture – I did not want to be ‘caught out’ by awkward questions from students.

First Contacts with Students: Having graduated abroad, I gained two years on my batch mates who lost two years because of political disturbances in Bangladesh. As a result, the students in my first course as a Lecturer were essentially my age. A common friend introduced me to two students who happened to be in my class. Having become friends, they were forthright in giving me feedback regarding my teaching. Apparently, they liked my spoken English, however, I needed to give them more time to learn. Fired by the appreciation of my English, I strived to speak even better. At the same time I puzzled at how I could help the students ‘learn’.

First Clue: In 1976, when I was in UK studying for my Bachelor’s Degree, I happened to watch a program by Tony Buzon. I watched with interest how in his perception the mind stores things by linking. At that time, it did not exactly click how this concept could be applied to teaching/learning, but somehow this made a big impression and was, so to speak, on a slow burner at the back of my mind. Little did I know that in my later years, this was to make a major contribution to my teaching style.

First Industrial Experience: Soon afterwards I got a chance to work for Philips in Bangladesh, as an Assistant Manager in the Audio/Video production lines. I found a great teacher in a fellow from Singapore Philips called Ter Chai Seng. He taught me to roll up my sleeves, get down, observe, analyse and test. Another great teacher was a Bangladeshi technician called Abdur Rahman. He was very good with his hands. He offered the simplest of production solutions to the most complex of problems. He had no ‘mental blocks’. Together we solved many production problems and were responsible for two production innovations. One such innovation reduced in-line production faults from 400 to 12 per 100 sets and bumped production of good TV sets from 28 to 70 with the same manpower.

My PhD: While working for Philips, I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to do Masters and PhD from Strathclyde University in UK. It was very hard to satisfy my supervisor, Dr Raj Balendra. After a mathematics professor from Cambridge approved my mathematical model, he had me change the model four times. Above all, this taught me patience and at the same time, the difficulties students face while working and learning.

Software Industry: Upon return from UK, I had the opportunity to do four large software projects in the rudimentary stages of the software industry in Bangladesh and doing two software consultancies with the Government. Having realized the serious implementation problems, I took an interest in teaching the subject of Systems Analysis and Design. With this I slowly drifted back to the teaching career that started in 1978.

Impact on my Teaching Career: All the above have had an impact on my teaching career in the following ways:
Books: To help introduction of Computing Studies as a subject at school level, leading to a GCE ‘O’ Level in the subject, I authored 16 lesson wise workbooks for classes I to X over a period of three years. During teaching, I realized early on that students had trouble in reading and comprehension in English. To get around this problem, each workbook lesson was therefore prepared in pictures first. Once the pictures were ready (generally three per lesson), accompanying text with questions and fill-in-blanks were prepared. All the 16 books followed the same format. Each picture page was placed on the right side of each lesson/facing page, with the accompanying text on the left. Using these books, computing studies as a subject was successfully introduced in 14 schools in Dhaka, 3 in Chittagong and 1 in Sylhet. Both schoolteachers and hired teachers were easily trained and students appreciated the books. The Principal of AnandaNiketan School, Jaddon Park reported that his students found the books “engaging”.

Learning Programming: Being put in charge of the Computing Science and Engineering Department of BRAC University in 2001, I chose to teach CSE101, Fundamentals of Computing. The idea was that if I could give the students a solid foundation, they would be better equipped to face the more challenging computing subjects in subsequent years. The challenge I faced was to get students to get a hang of the logic behind programming. They seemed to memorise language code words and would be totally lost when trying to debug or fix a failed code written by them. To help students I designed the course around manually tracing or dry running variety of programs on paper. I got students to debug programs by doing dry runs on paper. Not only High Level programs but also assembly language programs were similarly debugged on paper. Two boys who have now become top programmers, Nausher and Muktadir, came to me after attending an ACM competition for programmers and said that their habit of tracing (taught in CSE101) saved the day for them!

Challenging students to perform: Getting students to talk in English and also present their group work were posing a serious problem. I fell into a scheme where both the groups presenting and the groups listening had an opportunity to get marks. To get marks in any particular session marks would also be awarded to each member of the listening groups for the nature of question asked. One mark for a relevant question and the second mark would be given for the question being relevant to the presentation at hand. This created a competition between the presenters and the listeners. The presenters did not want to face embarrassing questions from their peers while the audience listened carefully to work out questions relevant to the presentation being given. Also, half a mark would be deducted for every non-English word spoken. Since such presentation sessions were held in every alternate class, the communication skills of participating students really shot up. The Chair of the English Department commented, “Yusuf, I don’t know what you do to these kids, their spoken English skills really improve during your course!”

Getting students to take ownership of course and contents: I attended a workshop that used a technique called, “Question Based Planning through Participation”. As part of this technique, each member responds on a 6” x 4” card to Questions posed by the facilitator. The responses are recorded in large lettering in the form of phrases; one idea per card. Volunteers from the group collect and group the cards on a pin board. With the help of the audience each cluster or group of similar ideas is given a representative name. This simple technique, of having everybody’s response represented, I realized gave a powerful sense of ownership of what was being planned. I decided to borrow this technique and apply it to my CSE471 Systems Analysis and Design class. At the beginning of the course I asked the following two questions:
· What do you wish to learn in this course?
· How do you wish to learn this (i.e. what you have decided upon)?

With a little facilitation, the cluster names come up with major areas of the course and in answer to the second question, the students usually want real projects to work on. I then get the students to find real projects in groups and help them along throughout the semester. Just after midterm and just before the finals I ask another two sets of questions:
· What learning problems are you facing?
· How can you solve these problems? And finally,
· How can you continue learning? And
· In what ways can the course or your learning be improved?

I took the Vice Chancellor’s consent to conduct the course with these questions. The result was that I was able to give the students a huge amount of work; they would stay up nights to finish without complaining. Student evaluations include comments like, “Awesome teacher”, “The only course where I really learnt something” and “I want to become a Systems Analyst”.

For solving ‘real problems’ I get the students to work with ‘working prototypes’ that allows both the client and the student to come to an agreement. This technique is now well as students get letters of appreciation for their understanding of clients needs.

Study Skills, Team Building and Solving Student Problems: The students joining BRAC University are essentially the products of a ‘rote learning’ system. ‘Learning’ to them is memorizing. To help students improve their study skills, I have introduced Mind Maps and Mind Mapping, a technique crafted by Tony Buzan, to the students. This has become part of a “Life Skills Self Development” course that is now being piloted at BRAC University. For team building in groups that are doing thesis work under me, each member draws a Mind Map of the problem, explains the Mind Map to his/her team members and then the group collectively comes up with a complete Mind Map. This way each team member gets to understand each other and participation is more effective. I get students with problems to craft Mind Maps of their problem. Many students are able then to see things more clearly and embark on a solution.

Teacher Training: From the beginning of BRAC University, which I joined three months before it started in 2001, I have been holding New Teacher Orientation workshops every semester. The University has recognized my efforts by making me the Director of the new Teaching Learning Center. In this new position the new teacher orientation has been totally redesigned. The program is totally participatory. The facilitators are fairly new teachers themselves and the program is designed every semester in response to the needs felt by the facilitators. In the last workshop there were 10 facilitators and 20 participants. The facilitators learnt as much as the participants. The teachers have reported to their Chairs that they learnt a lot and enjoyed the retreat workshop. The program is now being evaluated by Annika Anderson of Orebro University to find out whether teaching techniques have indeed improved as a result of the workshop.

Current Challenges: Establishing the new Teaching Learning Center is my current challenge. I am exploring the kind of work done at universities in the US to support teachers and students.

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