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This issue of CDTL Brief discusses various issues and aspects of Independent Learning, incorporating views from NUS faculty and a student.
January 2008, Vol. 11 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
The Art of Not Learning: Two Versions
Dr Gwee Li Sui
Department of English Language & Literature

Possibly everyone in the business of teaching becomes familiar at some point with the saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for life". Yet, in any protracted discussion on education, the axiom is bound to be raised again as if it were an end in itself, the final word on all that has fallen rather fashionably under the term independent learning. Its folk attribution to Laozi notwithstanding, a statement so frequently repeated in glee has the effect of encouraging one to feel less and less impressed. In my case, it has already put me off fishing as a hobby altogether.

Let me clarify at length my sense of discomfort here. To be sure, I do grant that fishing can have very profound recreational values; if this is debatable, I fall back on its status at least among the oldest professions to have given the human species a chance at mastering its own survival and future. In fact, for every fish I consume, I find myself compulsively grateful to the fish, the fisherman, and the fisherman who taught that fisherman. A proverb's life is quite a different matter: it begins with a glimpse of truth via its wit, what combines-often in equal measures-novelty and extremely good sense. Once understood though, its words feel old almost too soon, at which stage very little can be gained from regurgitation alone. The pleasure it now offers lies elsewhere, in the way one is able to rediscover its underlying truth through careful and regular self-correction.

If mere citation then guarantees not a speaker's but mostly a hearer's engagement, you can see why showy public repetition is a rather worrying development. Indeed, when the speaking context itself appears increasingly to confuse "giving a fish" and "teaching how to fish", this worry surges even further. I have always thought that "getting a fish" means not just being spoon-fed but also getting to the end speedily, with minimal struggle, while "learning to fish" acknowledges hard work and the risk of not even getting fish on some days. Yet, in this strange age, the saying has been bent often in support of flashy self-congratulatory slogans that invert the relation, such as 'teach less, learn more'. From my own experiences, whenever I teach less, my listeners learn even lesser, but I have been assured that inspiring-not usefully differentiated from entertaining-does amount to teaching less. That puzzles me as surely helping someone to fish, as opposed to just giving fish, concerns teaching something and so teaching more.

An advocate of this 'new pedagogy' may correct me here by explaining that the dictate 'teach less' really means 'teach smart'-another lamentable catchphrase. One is supposedly a smart teacher who plans lessons in a way that lets students regularly enjoy what they are encountering. The key assumption seems to be that fun is a reliable gateway to learning independently, that someone excited on milk will go on to eat meat better than another who cuts his or her gums on meat. It implies, in other words, that a long and rough process of learning is often so soul-destroying that it can at best produce a healthy independent thinker by chance. Keeping students happy may be very rewarding for some, but my only point here is that the fisherman proverb does not say this at all. Everyone knows just how good one lazy hour feels, and so it baffles me that a lesson in fishing should be deemed naturally more enjoyable than a plate of free fish. Indeed, if one bothers to ask any Laozi critic, one will also realise that the application would not amuse Laozi much either.

The maxim is, quite simply, not about teaching less or smart but about teaching what is essential. Essence here is determined not by what is of interest to know but by what needs to be learnt, not by how fun fishing can be or how funny a fisherman is but by the mere fact that fishing is taught. No claim is made for the centrality of entertaining, simplifying or beautifying knowledge, or creating convenient closures, or, to be sure, the inverse right of a teacher to be indifferent, rude or sadistic. Nor is a link asserted between a student's willingness to learn and an instructor's competence and integrity: did not Laozi himself-if we are still engaging his wisdom-believe that real knowledge could be learnt but never taught? The fact that all these irrelevant meanings are added says a lot about our own modern classrooms where educators seem too consumed by the ranging opinions of their charges. As such, even if a teacher knows better, he or she feels compelled to choose this path of quick validation, where one can be loved more readily, openly and directly, over that on which any appreciation for teaching what matters may at best trickle in late, from thoughtful hindsight.

That the former option has grown to a point where it can socially devalue the latter is indeed regrettable, although its current sway is not absolute. Especially when a proverb's radical sense is so compromised that one cannot hear it again without mishearing, something original always remains to be rediscovered by just thinking contrarily. The last time I encountered the saying in a discussion on lesson planning with gimmicks, I found myself imagining a man who was precisely given a fish and slept very happy that night. When nothing came his way the following few days, his own hunger and curiosity led him to start experimenting and exploring independently. At first, he worked on methods of finding fish, and the process taught him skills relating to intuiting, devising and fine-tuning. When fish and fishing could no longer please him, he turned this knowledge to looking for new sources of food via methods such as hunting, planting, cultivating, domesticating and so on. My daydreaming broke off here, but its revelation should be obvious: there can also be a form of spoon-feeding in means that equate learning with angling for easy consumption. However, if challenge is a central concern, then even the gift of a fish can be effective; conversely, teach a man to fish, and he may still be eating fish at the end of his life.

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Inside this issue
The Art of Not Learning: Two Versions
The Bookends of USP Learning: From WCT to ISM
Using Wiki to Write Lectures Notes Independently and Collaboratively
A Self-directed Learning Experience
Flashcards and the Leitner Cardfile System: A Useful Tool for Learning Human Anatomy Independently
Self-learning is Self-reliance
Service Learning: Where the World is Your Classroom