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The Courage to Slow Down: Sam Zheng Ming Chan, MBE'20

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Mind, Brain, and Education reflects on his time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Sam Zheng Ming Chan

Sam Zheng Ming Chan (center, blue collar): "This is a photograph of some of my cohort mates from the MBE Program .... I have learned much from my conversations and exchanges with my cohort mates in the program, as well as others I had the chance to work with over projects and classes."

Photo courtesy of Sam Zheng Ming Chan

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 13 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Sam Zheng Ming Chan will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 28.

Lecturer Ola Ozernov-Palchik, faculty director of MBE, comments on Chan's selection: “Sam has made an invaluable contribution to the intellectual community at MBE. His observations are always sharp and precise. In our discussions of scientific findings throughout the year, Sam critically analyzed evidence and theory, noticing both methodological and logical flaws, while making an effort to look into past literature in order to deepen his understanding (and ours) of the topic of discussion. Sam is intellectually curious, humble, and committed to the advancement of learning. His classmates commented on how Sam has enriched their experience at HGSE through lively discussions and expanded their knowledge on a particular topic by offering additional resources."

Adjunct Lecturer Linda Nathan: “Sam is one of the best observers I have ever met, and I've been at this work for over 40 years. I was always so excited to read his weekly papers after we visited a school since I knew that his observations, questions, and insights would be enormously helpful and provocative. I so enjoyed his final presentation that drew on the course readings and experiences but also enabled him to think about his own next steps. He truly has a unique mind and a very careful eye for detail and nuance.”

Adjunct Lecturer Courtney Pollack: “Sam made excellent contributions throughout — deeply engaging with course material, making connections across readings and to his own work, and pushing other students' thinking."

We spoke to Chan about his time at HGSE, his future plans, and what the new normal in education might look like:

What does the photo above mean to you?  

Sam Chan: This is a photograph of some of my cohort mates from the Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) Program. I chose this photograph as upon my reflection, I have learned much from my conversations and exchanges with my cohort mates in the program, as well as others I had the chance to work with over projects and classes. Many of the “a-ha!” moments came over these casual conversations and sharing of ideas. I wish to acknowledge their generosity in sharing their perspectives and learning with me!

What are your post-HGSE plans?

SC: I will be taking up a role as a vice principal in a high school (grades 11 and 12) in Singapore. 

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

SC: There are many takeaways I had from my time at HGSE, and I will highlight two of them here. First, having the “courage” to slow down and understand the problem and context better in education. There is much to be learnt from better understanding the problem by collecting data and listening to a diverse range of stakeholders. HGSE has provided me with tools to collect data in an inclusive manner and analyse them in a critical manner. This helps us craft better research questions, action plans and/or improvement projects, which will go to the root of the issue. The “courage” here is to resist the pressure within and from stakeholders to act fast, while being cognizant of not falling prey to “analysis paralysis.”

Second, I will resolve to look at issues, both in and outside of education, through an equity lens. I was struck by a book chapter from Biag (2019), in which he described the “well-being of vulnerable students as the ‘true north’ in all improvement journeys.” I think this extends beyond improvement journeys to whichever issues we might tackle in education, and even beyond education.

"There is much to be learnt from better understanding the problem by collecting data and listening to a diverse range of stakeholders." – Sam Chan

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

SC: There are three instructors/classes that have significantly shaped my experience and perspectives at HGSE. First, Ola Ozernov-Palchik, our MBE program director and MBE seminar instructor, who has carefully curated a year-long series of seminars with invited speakers for our MBE cohort to discuss the various methods in MBE research. This included experimental, clinical, neuroimaging, and qualitative methods. The discussions across the different methods built my skills and confidence in being a critical consumer of research and my appreciation in the potential of strong research-practice partnerships in bringing about changes in education.

Second, the statistics courses in HGSE (S040 and S052), taught by Joe McIntyre and Andrew Ho respectively, has equipped me with the tools to make use of data to answer some of the research questions in education. The skills that I learnt through these courses have also helped me become a more critical consumer of education research, especially those dealing with quantitative data and analysis.

Third, Linda Nathan, who I got to know through her Schools in Action course. I learnt about the context of schooling in the U.S. and practiced observational skills through the school visits. These observations involve putting aside judgment and taking in the school and classroom settings as they are, which forms an important line of inquiry when we reflect upon these observations. Linda has also been generous in connecting me with contacts and resources that are useful in my future role.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

SC: The pandemic has reinforced two views I had of education. First, the pandemic has exposed many of the inequity issues that we have been trying to tackle over the years, including inequitable access to resources to make full use of home-based learning. One of the challenges schools and teachers face in the coming years will be to address the uneven learning loss that has come from this extended school closure.

Second, before this pandemic, I have had the opportunity to work with many teachers and students in high schools in Singapore and have always been amazed by the resilience and resourcefulness of teachers and students when faced with challenges. This pandemic has reinforced my view, as many teachers have risen to the occasion to prepare online lessons at short notice, while students have persevered with their learning even as the pandemic may have taken a toll on both the teachers’ and students’ mental and emotional well-being. I hope to be able to support teachers and students in their learning, while ensuring that they have the time and space to take care of their well-being.