‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes

19 June 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Michael Hammond. Read time 7 min.
Assoc Prof Jeff Murugan is one of two 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipients at UCT.
Assoc Prof Jeff Murugan is one of two 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipients at UCT.
 

Long before he was Associate Professor Jeff Murugan, he was just a high school learner at Buffelsdale Secondary School in Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal, struggling to understand the point of mathematics.

“I found mathematics very difficult, and I had to work very hard at it; it didn’t come naturally,” Murugan, one of two recipients of a 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award from the University of Cape Town (UCT), revealed.

He excelled at physics, however, with marks as high as 100%, but his mathematics grades paled in comparison – until two excellent teachers changed everything.

One of the teachers, Murugan said, was the first to awaken him to his potential. The second was a science teacher, who helped him realise that “mathematics is the language of the universe”.

Together, the two helped mould him into the mathematician and teacher he is today, and now it’s Murugan’s turn to impact young lives in the same way.

Today, Murugan has overcome his early struggles with mathematics to become Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Science and an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at UCT. He also heads the Laboratory for Quantum Gravity and Strings.

The 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award, the highest accolade awarded in recognition of teaching excellence at UCT, was accorded to Murugan and his colleague Dr Anneliese Schauerte for “outstanding teaching at UCT and … the promotion of teaching and learning excellence at our university”.

Curiosity and change

Murugan began his teaching career in 1998, when he was a master’s student at UCT, teaching first-year mathematics. He put teaching on hold while he was a visiting PhD student at Worcester College at the University of Oxford, but later returned to the field at Brown University, teaching introductory astronomy. In 2006, Murugan came home to teach again at UCT.

 

“Curiosity is at the centre of all of this.”

Among the wise words that have guided Murugan throughout his teaching career, he said, was the Albert Einstein quote: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

“That’s how I learn things, and that’s how I like my students to learn things.

“My philosophy on teaching is that you learn best by asking questions.”

In his classes, there are no stupid questions; all have some level of importance. Creating an environment where students feel safe to ask questions is key to what Murugan understands a successful teaching and learning space to be.

“I really, truly believe that curiosity is at the centre of all of this. If we can convey to our students that it is okay to be curious, then that sets up the foundation for a good environment.”

Equally important to him is adapting to the needs of an ever-changing student cohort. Society, students and culture change – and teachers must adapt.

“A syllabus that worked in one class will not necessarily translate in the next year. I have had to change the things I think about and how I teach [them] many, many times over the past couple of years,” said Murugan.

“You have to learn to adapt to the students who come in.”

Critical technology

Technology is critical to this process, he said, so while he describes himself as a “chalk and talk” teacher who prefers blackboards over whiteboards, and writing over lecture slides, he has pioneered the university’s efforts to combine teaching with technology.

In the early 2000s, Murugan began using podcasts and video recordings to supplement his classes, a practice UCT has since rolled out across campus.

He was also part of a research programme that studied how students whose first language was not English engaged with technical material that was recorded and then dubbed into an indigenous South African language.

 

“Lectures are recorded and subtitled in English with the aim of improving the learning experience for those who face barriers, including language and hearing.”

In his latest use of technology to boost teaching and learning, Murugan is part of another research programme being conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching and the Centre for Higher Education Development. Lectures are recorded and subtitled in English with the aim of improving the learning experience for those who face barriers, including language and hearing.

Beyond the lecture halls

Life outside the lecture hall is as important to Murugan as it is within.

He is flattening structures by ensuring he and his students share a floor, with easy flow from his office to a discussion area. He also maintains a strict open-door policy, which often sees students walk into his office while the questions are still formulating.

But there are times that door is closed; Murugan makes a point of heading home at 16:00 to spend time with his wife, Associate Professor Amanda Weltman, and their two children. And it’s important that his students understand the reason for this.

“It’s important to do that. I want them to have a good work-life balance as well.”

This balance is equally important for his undergraduate students. At the beginning of each year, Murugan talks to them about the need for good nutrition, appropriate sleep and study times, and maintaining friendships.

This, along with curiosity, adaptation and the smart use of technology, is as important to Murugan as mathematics. It’s seeing the student in his or her entirety that separates the ordinary from the Distinguished Teacher Award recipient.

“I think the main thing that makes an excellent teacher is empathy.

“It’s realising that you are not talking to the walls, you’re talking to people. And if you can understand where they are coming from and empathise with them, it makes it that much easier to convey the kind of information you’re trying to pass on.”


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