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This issue of CDTL Brief is the second of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2005/2006 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.
September 2007, Vol. 10 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Plus est en vous *
 
Dr Madalena Cruz-Ferreira
Department of English Language and Literature
 

I did not know I had a teaching philosophy until one student took the trouble to spell it out for me. This happened in my very first year as a university lecturer, when I was a freshly-baked linguist aged 21 and just beginning to fathom the immense consequences that the 6-month-old political revolution in my country was carrying.

I announced to my first class on my first teaching day something to the effect that my purpose in life was to impart to all and sundry my own fascination with linguistics. One particular student stood out from the very beginning, and throughout the three terms of that academic year, facing me with comments and a general attitude in class that I perceived as hostility towards me and the fulfilment of my stated goal. He was a school teacher several years my senior, whose entitlement to further education had fallen within the first batch of legislation issued by the newly instated educational authorities, intent on raising educational standards across professionals and across the country. On the last teaching day after I dismissed class, the student came to me wearing his usual displeased frown. "I just want to tell you" he said, "that I still hate linguistics." And he added: "But taking this subject has taught me to think." He then walked away without waiting for a response from me.

The full implications of what this student said to me that day took their time to sink in, but they have been with me ever since. He made me realise two things. One, that knowing about is secondary to knowing how to, so that useful teaching should conform to this hierarchy. And the other, that students can be made to think-and to make their teachers think-something that was unheard-of within the deposed parroting-will-grant-you-highgrades schooling system by which I (and he) had been shaped since childhood. Throughout my teaching life, these two realisations have fused into one overarching guideline: teaching means activating resources that are there, which in turn means that students must engage with what they have, not with what I can supply to them. I now discuss how these realisations have influenced the way I teach.

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all. Thomas Szasz (1920-)

The theory-how do we know?

Socrates is credited with saying that he only knew that he knew nothing. Will Durant (1885-1981) later added to this insight by stating that "education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance". I agree with both.

The question, 'How do we know?' pervades my teaching. As stated, how matters rank above what matters in my pedagogy on my realisation that knowledge is measured by qualitative criteria, not quantitative. Regardless of 'how much' some people may know, if the sources of their knowledge are questionable, so is the knowledge itself. Questionable sources are besides what perpetuates myths, not least myths about language, languages and their users.

What do we know and how do we know symbolise for me the crucial difference between accessing information and accessing knowledge. I therefore see it as my obligation to make it clear to students that they should question the sources of all their knowledge. This includes questioning me and the sources that I may provide for their learning. I actively protect my students against myself and my own ideas. The reason is that I do not believe in cloning, intellectual cloning included.

The goal-unsettle

All learning should be unsettling. If we always know exactly what to do with our learning and what to expect from it, we are either boring or bored (or both).

I start by introducing accepted ways, theories and models of dealing with language issues. Depending on the module, the stated goal may be that students understand what makes up language, just like a biologist understands what makes up a living organism or a geologist understands what makes up the structure of the earth, or what we know about language ontogeny and why that matters.

I then deliberately face students with questions and puzzles which lack answers, or agreement among available answers. I decided to write a textbook for my linguistics exposure module (EL1101E "The Nature of Language") precisely to implement this goal-the authors of available introductory linguistics textbooks brainwash readers from page one with their pet theories and methods, with no word about alternatives.

I also require that students actively look for counterevidence to accepted ways of solving language puzzles. That is, students, particularly youths, are required to do what they can do best, which is to challenge authority through informed ways of doing so. This includes offering counterevidence to principles or data introduced in class, so that I can be unsettled in turn and therefore learn. One instance of student-to-teacher feedback of this kind resulted in my founding, in 2005, of a Special Interest Group dedicated to Singapore child language (SCLSIG), which has now expanded its membership to include NUS students as well as child language experts in Asia, Europe, the US and Australia.

The method-get involved

We do not learn by listening to lecturers, revising lessons or mugging for tests and exams. We learn by doing.

This is why all my teaching involves fieldwork, where students are required to gather and analyse real life data on their own. I favour materials with which students can easily identify, be it clips from local newspapers or uses of language found in Singapore.

This choice makes a point of letting students experience first-hand the pleasure of discovery, whether their findings confirm or disconfirm what they already knew or what the available literature has to offer. Two overarching goals pervade this teaching method: respect for data and respect for intellectual honesty. Both goals mean that every single student is made to contribute to everyone else's learning. I do not identify extraordinary students as benchmarks or leaders of whatever outcomes I propose to attain, nor do I endorse as extraordinary any students who may have been pointed out to me as such. I make all students aware that anyone can do extraordinary things instead. To achieve this goal, I find invaluable support in the IVLE facilities, which allow constant, lively and informal interaction among students and me. My email address is another 'hotline' for students to channel their queries or book consultations.

Fieldwork is the major assessment component in my modules. Assessment, not learning, is the often unstated primary goal of the teaching-learning contract, where learning is often synonymous with rote learning. Since I believe that people only need to memorise what makes no sense to them, all assessment is open-book where students have access to any printed material (NUS directives bar access to electronic material, which I would willingly allow). This means that my focus for traditional assessment pieces like tests and exams, is on individual application of gathered knowledge to novel material and tasks, because I assess thinking and analytical skills, not the perfect reproductions of which certain machines are capable.

In Semester 2 Academic Year 2005/2006, I was able to implement full CA assessment for one of my modules (EL3207 "Child Language"). Regrettably, the continued enforcement of final examinations for other modules is beyond my control, although I have managed to have their weightage in final grades reduced to the minimum 30%. My reasons to reject/minimise the weight of final examinations for assessment purposes are that a couple of hours at the end of term contribute nothing to (a) gauge students' intellectual engagement and academic development throughout term and (b) students' learning.

The practice-think big, work small

The cornerstone of solid learning is to realise that everyone needs to take small steps before they can run. In my experience, freshmen and PhD students alike become firm believers in two things as soon as they familiarise themselves with basic information on their topics. One, that they will solve to everyone's satisfaction any age-old problematic issues in those topics. And the other, that the hallmark of credible intellectual work lies in the use of massive obscure jargon.

I therefore spend a lot of time in class and in private consultations making it clear that anyone's proposal about a problem, beginner or expert, is one solution among others, and that any finding worthy of the name is there to be communicated. If we cannot explain what we are doing in straightforward language, then we do not know what we are doing.

I also spend time making it clear that any intellectual work worthy of the name must have a purpose that goes beyond itself. If one's research contributes nothing to an extant body of knowledge, then it is not worth pursuing.

Lastly, I keep in mind and in my students' minds a quote by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): "Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught". Teaching is showing the way to what the learner may find worth knowing.


* 'There is more in you than you think'-founder of the United World Colleges, Kurt Hahn's motto.
 
 
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Teaching the Weightier Matters of the Law
   
Plus est en vous
   
Joining the Dots
   
Teaching: A Learning Process for Both the Teacher and Student Alike
   
My Contributions to the International Mission for Pharmacy Education
   
The First Few Moments