I took my SAT2 maths and physics tests a couple of days ago, after just 4 days of preparation. I didn’t really plan to maximize the chance of myself getting prefect scores as I believe overdoing revision is a horrendous waste of time, especially when there are many more important things I have to work on, and they are a lot more interesting than just repeatedly stimulating the retrieval process of different sets of already-encoded data to enhance the performance of their corresponding search algorithms in my brain. And I can’t predict the future, and therefore I can’t say for sure that I will get 800 for both subjects. But it is highly unlikely that I won’t do well. The pre-university syllabi of mathematics and physics are rather elementary. (Topology is not even in the A-level H3 maths syllabus. And SAT maths L2 doesn’t even have calculus.)

Something pretty interesting happened before the test when I was in the examination room.

Awaiting the test to start was quite a mundane thing. Out of boredom, I decided to go through some maths and physics equations in my mind just to divert myself, only to realize that I had not made use of the formula for the surface area of a sphere for as long as I could remember. And I couldn’t recall it on the spot. While I was pondering whether I should try deriving it from doing a definite integration of the function that gives the circumference of a disk, or differentiating the function for the volume of sphere, a tall polished-looking figure in buttoned-up collared shirt walked into the room.

I supposed he is a maths teacher, in all likelihood of ACJC. He came in to double check the graphical calculators of the students that had brought it, and clear the stored data if there was any cached to prevent potential acts of dishonesty. His outfit gave me a good impression and he reminded me of a physics teacher that I like, who is really passionate about teaching. An idea struck me: why not conduct a little experiment and have him as the test subject without his knowledge like how the Stanford prison experiment and other social experiments are done?

I didn’t bring a graphical calculator as experience with SAT maths mock papers told me that a scientific calculator would suffice. Noticing the absence of graphical calculator on my table, he was about to walk pass me, and that was when this unpremeditated experiment began:

“Hi. Excuse me, can you tell me what the formula for the surface area of a sphere is?” I asked, trying to sound as polite as possible. Since I already knew I could easily derive it using different approaches in calculus, I was more interested in his reaction to this simple request of mine which I didn’t find inappropriate as the test had yet to start.

Upon hearing that, he turned his head and looked at me. I could see the indifference in his eyes, mingled with a slight expression of repulsion and astonishment. So I smiled amiably. “No,” he said coldly and walked away. Though I was expecting him not to answer my question, his single-word response and the way he delivered it took me by surprise. I thought he would reply me friendly with an “I don’t know” if he didn’t want to tell me the formula. Or something like that with a smile. I didn’t expect such an aloof turndown. And the irony was that minutes later the test started and I discovered the formula was on the first page of the test papers, resting harmonically with a few other formulas; the formula for the surface area of a sphere is one of the formulas that are provided to students in the SAT2 maths subject test.

Maybe he was not in a good mood. I hope his attitude isn’t like that when he is teaching because clearly this uncongenial attitude is not going to help. Teaching is an intensely psychological process and the way in which a teacher interacts with students has a profound impact on the learning process that takes place in the brains of students.

Teaching is also a creative profession and not an easy one. A person should not be qualified to be a teacher if salary is the only motivation behind his/her teaching which involves sharing of knowledge. If one shares what he/she knows with others only when paid, he/she is more of an information broker than a teacher. And in this case a mercenary one, since we now live in an era where textbook informations imparted by teachers are freely available on the Internet. I’m not implying that school teachers should all teach for free. School teachers should get paid not because of the information they share with students but because of how they share it – they should get paid because of the effort and precious time they spend on preparing and delivering the teaching. And to deliver creative and effective teaching, one has to be a genuine teacher who teaches not owing to money but due to passion, who will gladly share his/her knowledge with everyone on all occasions unless it is verboten such as during a closed-book test. Teachers are the lifeblood of school education and we can improve school education, on a microscopic scale, by hiring more genuine teachers that are suitable for this creative profession and encouraging information brokers in disguise to become more enthusiastic about teaching or simply firing them.

Or maybe he is a good teacher and he didn’t want to tell me the formula due to a principle he had to abide. In the name of fairness and equality, no student should be given any advantage before the start of a test when informations are generally inaccessible. Principles like this are created for good purposes. This one, for example, is created probably with the intention to improve the accuracy of the test, by having an interval of time wherein students are to do nothing before the test begins, so that its result can describe a person’s academic performance more authentically. But these principles should be deprecated and abandoned because they are based on the preconception that tests and test results are important, which is an overstatement, and they are not in favor of the big picture of education, teaching and learning. The dominant culture of education has come to focus on testing rather than teaching and learning. A test should be treated as just yet another element in the learning journey. We need to stop popularizing the belief that tests and test results are of immense significance. And that is the first step we can take to improve school education on a macroscopic scale.

Or maybe he had forgotten the formula because he is actually not a maths teacher. Then I will have to thank him for replying me with a “no” instead of an “I don’t know” and inspiring me to write this article. If this were not the case, then this experiment has successfully demonstrated that not all teachers are willing to impart knowledge to students even when there is actually nothing proscribing it.