In Conversation with Dr. Syed Zahid Ali, Awardee Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2021-22
Dr. Zahid Ali is guided by the idea that teaching is his “gateway to learning”. He continuously ignites his students’ natural curiosity to learn through engaging storytelling that makes economics come to life. Dr. Zahid has also developed a unique problem-solving model that guides students in approaching complex and abstract concepts through intuition, mathematical foundation, and graphical representation. His novel teaching methods and attention to giving feedback are making a sizable difference to his students’ learning. As one student can attest, Dr. Zahid has “changed my perspective towards macroeconomics… and [we] respect you so much because you have given us a level of knowledge that we wouldn't have found anywhere else. I've never had a teacher put in such level of effort in making sure that their students get the concepts.” The support and mentoring that Dr. Zahid has offered students and colleagues over his 20 years at LUMS has been exceptional. His dedication to meaningful and enduring learning is unparalleled – he has truly evolved to be one of the most outstanding student-centered teachers at LUMS.
We sat down with Dr. Zahid to learn more about his teaching philosophy, his approach to learning and what he thinks about the awards. Here is what he had to say.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I believe a teacher is someone who will change your environment. If you manage to create an environment where students are detached from the outside world in your classroom, then you produce thinkers.
Albert Einstein used to say that what sets him apart is not his intelligence, but his curiosity. Until students have that curiosity, they won’t grow or discover something new. It is that curiosity and excitement that needs to be our goal.
How have interactions with your students informed your teaching?
Students often chase grades. I grade on a curve. The most important thing for me is that my students learn something. I explain to them that I will not let them down because I’m a tough teacher. When you stop chasing grades, you will search for the teachers who impart knowledge.
Are there any teachers in your life who inspired you?
So many! I was always fond of learning but could not memorise anything. I had to solve it or discover it for myself. The first time I found such an environment was at the Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad. There I met exceptional individuals like Dr. Anjum Nasim, Dr. Ejaz Nabi, and Dr. Aly Ercelan. Professor Ercelan was in fact a guru of mine. I have never met a more competent and intelligent mathematician, statistician or thinker than him. He taught me how to use my brain. I learnt the definition of a teacher from him. He showed me that a genuine teacher is one who can explain what is written between the lines. That is what stimulates the brain. He used to ask a lot of questions, and if you would answer correctly, he would change the question! He would keep changing the question until you got the answer wrong. I understand the value of this today: learning is about constantly searching. If you keep feeding the brain the correct answer, you kill the opportunity to learn.
Amongst your various achievements, what is one thing as a teacher that you are proud of?
It makes me proud to think that my students, many of whom were from humble backgrounds, are now doing their PhDs or are working in top organisations and are making positive contributions in their fields. It makes me happy to know that I taught someone how to think and had an impact on them. I’m glad that I am part of the learning process for somebody.
I remember a student who once told me very happily that she got a TA-ship. She was expecting me to congratulate her, but I told her that she has the calibre to pursue a PhD at Cambridge University. She got a strong message from me that day – that she must set her sights higher and strive for more. She ultimately did her masters from Cambridge! She wrote to me recently and informed me that she is going to pursue her PhD. It made me feel very proud and happy.
What value does the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence hold for you?
I was very excited to learn that I have won this award. Humans have an innate weakness for recognition. However, much we try to deny it, it exists in all of us. It feels good to be recognised and appreciated.
It is also good that an institution recognises its valuable employees. It builds trust and keeps you driven.
How do you envision teaching and learning in the country evolving?
We need to learn to have an appreciation for education. We need to move away from rote learning and build the ability to solve unseen questions. Our exam and grading systems need to encourage students to use different forms of learning that involve self-learning and critical thinking. Our schools should be places that attract learning; students should want to spend their time there.