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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
Avoiding Spoon-Feeding: The Creative Teaching of Geography
Assistant Professor T.C. Chang
Department of Geography

The discipline of Geography lends itself very ably to the training of student creativity and imagination. As a discipline which relies much on participant observation and fieldwork, students and researchers in Geography are always encouraged to hunt for answers of their own and collect data out in the ‘field’. Although it is possible to spoon-feed students in any discipline, teaching and studying geography is very much about the art of independence where spoon-feeding can be avoided totally. Let me provide three examples of how a number of colleagues and myself in the Department have tried to veer away from spoon-feeding and focused instead on honing student creativity, observation skills, and fieldwork interpretation.

In one of our first-year modules that a number of colleagues teach, we bring the entire class of about 160 students down to the Singapore River/Raffles Place for a morning of fieldwork. The aim of this exercise is to explain to students the applicability of academic concepts to a real-life landscape, and to train them to observe the world in a more critical and engaged manner. Towards this end, a ‘treasure hunt’ exercise is given to the students (to be worked in groups of five) asking questions that they have to answer based on personal observations. One question, for example, asks them to interpret the meaning of a particular sculpture and how it adds to (or detracts from) the place identity of Raffles Place. Another asks them to propose an alternative development plan for Boat Quay. We stress to the students that there are no absolute right or wrong answers, and they should be creative in their interpretations and should back up their assertions with intelligent reasoning. Small prizes are given to the teams with the most creative answers at the end of the fieldwork.

A second way to avoid spoon-feeding is to give free rein to students working on their term essay and project. It is a common perception by many that for any prescribed question, there must be a stock answer. To rid this mindset, try asking students to devise their own essay and project topics. While most are initially uncomfortable to set the scope and conceptual focus of their own question (for fear of coming up with a poor question!), many ultimately rise to the challenge to work on topics on their immediate and personal interest. I have come across passionate essays on pets, aromatherapy, Manchester United and the Internet! I tell my students these topics are perfectly acceptable and advise them to try to apply geographical concepts to what they have chosen. Students are thus inspired to be proactive and to take control of their research; and as ‘experts’ in their own mini research terrain, nobody expects to be spoon-fed when I provide them with feedback on how to improve their essay/project.

Learning Geography is fun through role-playing and scenario acting. As much of what we teach in Geography concerns land use planning and development constraints (particularly in tourism and urban studies), I have tried to conduct tutorials in which students learn through playacting. As a tutor, I am merely an onlooker as the students take the lead in playing out the roles of, for example, policy makers, tourists, and business organisations. By assuming different roles, I hope the students appreciate the difficulties inherent in tourism planning which often involve different factions. Learning-by-doing is appreciated far more by my students than being told in a pedantic fashion during tutorial the problems of tourism planning. Needless to say, however, devising tutorial topics that veer away from spoon-feeding requires some effort and thought on the part of the tutor, but seeing the students getting excited in tutorials (for once!) is certainly rewarding enough.

It is indeed possible to avoid spoon-feeding students in many different ways. To do so, students must be encouraged to be imaginative with their answers, to independently devise their own essay and project topics, and to creatively role-play in tutorial settings. This way, learning becomes a far more personal, interactive, and enriching endeavour; and students leave the university, hopefully, with acquired skills of observation and creative thinking, and a more pro-active approach towards life-long learning.

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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)