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This issue of CDTL Brief is the first of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2005/2006 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.
August 2007, Vol. 10 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk: Teaching History at NUS
Associate Professor Brian P. Farrell
Department of History

Sometimes talking the talk and walking the walk seem like two contradictory goals, particularly when it comes to teaching history. Ours is a content heavy subject. There is simply no substitute for reading. So how do we maintain rigour and standards on the one hand, yet inspire enthusiasm about the subject among an often large number of students on the other? My answer is not to compromise either one for the sake of the other. These CDTL Briefs in which we share views on teaching often wind up recycling very widely accepted maxims, and I am not going to forego that here. We all agree students learn best from each other. We all agree it is better to inspire curiosity than to spoon feed content. We all agree problem-based learning is more challenging than didactic teaching and so on. But I too rarely notice anyone paying due attention to an unavoidable reality: we are the teachers, they are the students. My approach to teaching starts from accepting this fact.

To work from that starting point, I try always to be guided by three notions. First, the line between teacher and student is fluid and permeable at all levels. Though this may be more obvious in a graduate seminar than a level-one tutorial, it is always there. When I want to learn more about something, I teach it. Second, my students want a teacher, not a group leader. They want a teacher who will challenge them, motivate them and not bore them especially. Above all, students want someone who can persuade them that this is a subject worth exploring, and then let them do so. But as teachers, we need to give students some ideas about how they might do so effectively. Finally, I try to bear in mind that not all my students will engage my course with the same level of ability and motivation no matter what I do. Over the years, I have found that students respond to a teacher who not only wants them to learn for themselves but is also willing to teach, not just grade assignments. In other words, the challenge is always to reconcile things that seem to want to move in different directions on the surface.

That apparent tug of war surfaces every time you meet students. No one is going to want to listen or discuss if they are not interested. But no one, even mildly motivated, is going to be interested unless there is some challenge that requires students to stretch themselves. So I try to resist the temptation to play to the gallery. Making sense of history is hard work but that is also the reward. Everything I say and do is an effort to persuade my students to accept that reality and seek that reward. Let me cite three examples to make this more concrete.

First, how often do we hear the question, "Am I on the right track?" Students quickly learn not to ask me that question, because my answer is always the same, "What right track? This is not a treasure hunt." Instead, I ask students to present a credible, thoughtful, evidence-based interpretation and take their seats at the table of discussion. What is a credible interpretation and what is not? Well, that is what students are here to learn for themselves with my assistance. Second, I put my money where my mouth is. All good university history teachers problematise the topic of the day and discuss a variety of interpretations regarding any given topic. I always add my own opinion because I think my students deserve to know my views on the issues facing us. Students also need to know those views are never set in stone. We can all reconsider our interpretations as we learn more, read more widely, consider different issues and engage different theses. But students deserve to know that just because I respect the need to engage all interpretations does not mean I give them all equivalent value. Finally, I lay particular stress on evidence-based clarity in interpretation and explanation. I expect it in assignments and I try to provide it in seminar, tutorial and lecture. If you cannot be clear, you cannot engage.

All these seem rather far from any touchy feely rhetoric about providing student-centred learning. But that is exactly what it is. I see every module as a collection of different components, and I use each one in a different way. The idea is to provide a problem-based, question driven and participatory learning experience-one that sparks students' interest and curiosity in the subject as a whole. It takes an entire module to do that. So, sometimes I take the lead and on other occasions I push students out in front. This rests on a crucial assumption: my students are independent adults who will make up their own minds about what they want, what they need, what they will do and how they will take advantage of their time here at NUS. But some will do this more effectively than others. So I set them all a challenge and get them started. Then I nudge them to join me up front and make them walk the walk by justifying that they need to stretch or gain nothing of value. I think the fun comes from knowing that students have stretched themselves, grew, overcame challenges and not just endured. My teaching philosophy is to groom my students to discover how wonderful it is to be able to join the endless discussion in their own right, because they did the hard work everyone must in order to do this. If I were to meet them ten years later, I do not really care whether they still remembered the content I discussed, but I would care very much that they can use their critical faculties to make sense of history for themselves and others. I am their teacher, not their uncle.

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Inside this issue
Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk: Teaching History at NUS
Teaching: Share Your Passion and Have Fun
Taking Charge of Learning— Ownership, Learning and a Conducive Environment
Can Computer-aided Instruction Effectively Replace Cadaverbased Learning in the Study of Human Anatomy?
A Perspective on Medical Education
Excuse Me, Are You an Excellent Teacher?
The Empirics of Teaching Quality