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Much debate has generated over the issue of Spoon-Feeding. What is spoon-feeding? Are we spoon-feeding our students? Do they expect us to do so? Is spoon-feeding necessarily harmful? Can we break away from it? These are some of the issues discussed at the CDTL workshop on spoon-feeding held on 30 October 1999. In this issue of CDTL Brief, we present several viewpoints on this topic and the concerns raised at the workshop.

May 2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Spoon-Feeding in ‘Do’ Disciplines
Associate Professor W.A.M. Alwis
Department of Civil Engineering

‘Do’ disciplines are those in which the main interest is in succeeding in and/or completing physical tasks. Examples are engineering, medicine and dentistry. Other activities such as driving motor vehicles, playing musical instruments and operating machines also fall into this category.

Key Aspects

The following four aspects of personal achievement are associated with ‘do’ disciplines:

  1. Being able to do (e.g. Peter is able to design a bridge.)

  2. Having the experience of doing (e.g. Paul has designed a bridge.)

  3. Knowing why it is done the way it is (e.g. Harry knows why bridges are designed the way they are.)

  4. Understanding the underlying principles (e.g. Thomas understands the principles of bridge design.)

In ‘do’ disciplines, being able to do matters a lot. If you visit a dentist, he being able to do matters a lot. If the dentist knows only principles, it does not mean anything much. But actually there is a subtle difference between being able to do something, and having the experience of doing it. If somebody asks me: “Can you calculate the stresses in a chamber of an aircraft?” My answer is: “I can, I am able to do it.” But that does not mean I have done it before.

In the ‘do’ disciplines, having the experience of doing it at least once is important. That was the original idea of setting up lab experiments and so on. But somehow over the years, some academics have converted lab experiments to routines. They give students a nice sheet with some blanks. The students do not know what they are doing, but they fill in the blanks with numbers. They take down the numbers shown in the meters. Thereafter, they plot the graphs and hand in the report. It is then considered done, but I do not think they have got the experience of doing the actual thing, although the original idea was to give them the experience of having done it once at least.

The third level is knowing why something is done the way it is. There is a reason and theory behind everything. But this is not the same as understanding the underlying principles. Actually if you understand the underlying principles, you can devise another way to do the same thing; even a completely different one. So we hope that in the university, we can go to the fourth level because there is no institute of education higher than the university. We have to be responsible enough to provide the highest possible education.

How to Do and Why?—The Difference

The following poem written over a century ago summarises some important issues about doing things, especially the difference between methods and principles:

Without ambition one starts nothing.
Without work one finishes nothing.
The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.

The man who knows how will always have a job.
The man who also knows why will always be his boss.

As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few.
The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.

The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

—Emerson (1803–1882)

Some Observations

The following general observations are broadly valid at least in engineering disciplines:

  • Teachers believe that merely being able to show (1) is enough proof for (2), (3) and (4). This is evident in examinations. We believe that if students are able to solve an exam question, they know why it is done in a particular way. This is a false premise.

  • How to do is taught in component form using neatly trimmed and packaged examples. But in real life, things do not exist in nicely trimmed packages. Yet we believe that somehow, students will be able to put things together and handle other situations.

  • Detailed demonstrations using multitudes of examples are done to teach how to do. Students end up being able to solve problems of the type that are demonstrated but fail to consider changes and differences in other problems and variations.

  • Teachers give multitudes of exercises to students to practise with. The teacher’s way of doing them is later made known by posting solutions on notice boards or through the web. Adopting the teachers’ answers and format will lead to the next observation.

  • Students feel they ‘can do’ after such ‘successful’ teaching.

  • Grades are awarded on the basis of the ability to do a set of familiar (predictable) neatly packaged problems. It becomes almost a necessity because if you vary, either the students will complain, or your bosses will because the grades are too low.

  • However, snap-tests several months later reveal that the majority of students are not capable of solving even the classroom problems they did during that ‘successful’ teaching.

This is the pattern of behaviour we have established, at least in Engineering.

Like parallel parking, you will be able to do things after being trained. So if the objective is training, it is justified that you give a routine to practise, practise, and practise. Otherwise, teachers should not set patterned situations through tutorials and examinations. If they do that, then they will create a situation that finally constitutes spoon-feeding.

Principles cannot be understood to a sufficient degree by carrying out a set of operations according to a fixed routine. (Therefore, the teacher should not set up situations that would motivate the student do such routine operations unless the objective is training.)

Principles can be understood by undertaking a task that offers a mental challenge. (There has to be a mental challenge—a struggle, as mentioned by Mohanan. Therefore, the teacher should do things that will motivate students to undertake mental challenges whenever the objective is a higher form of learning.)

Intellectual development is a result of mental challenges. Intellectual development must be at least one of the objectives of higher education at university level.

How Do We Know a Particular Act is an Instance of Spoon-Feeding?

It is not possible to determine whether a case of spoon-feeding is occurring just by examining a single instance during a teaching process. There should be a sequence of happenings forming a pattern known to match one that can be considered as spoon-feeding. Take the case of a student who has not been enabled/empowered despite undergoing a teaching process and being successful at examinations—a possible cause is spoon-feeding.

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Inside this issue
Spoon-Feeding in 'Do' Disciplines
Spoon-Feeding in Higher Education
Avoiding Spoon-Feeding: The Creative Teaching of Geography
Issues Discussed at the Q-&-A Session (at the 30 October 1999 CDTL Workshop)