As a teacher, I spend much effort finding out what my students
have learnt in the past, how they had learnt these things,
and how to facilitate their learning now. This is because
I consider that knowledge is not simply statements or facts
that students acquire. The word ‘knowledge’ actually
means ‘to sport with ideas’. A knowledgeable person
is someone who can play with ideas, not simply someone who
can win a quiz game or score highly in a retention test. Hence,
‘to know’ something is never as important as ‘to
understand’ something. To understand means that students
have to select, organise, integrate the information obtained,
and generalise through a process of reflection in the mind.
Consequently, the most important task I often have to do
is to change the way students learn, because many of them
take learning as the acquisition of knowledge from the teacher
or from books. They do not understand the importance of connecting
and integrating the information within the mind to construct
knowledge. In fact, most students are so obedient and respectful
to their teachers that they do not question what is being
taught, preventing them from developing critical and creative
thinking skills and strategies. This is especially true for
the first year students in my BL1103 class.
In contrast, I believe students should always doubt the
information that they receive, question what they thought
they have understood, as well as try hard to unlearn and relearn.
When they unlearn and relearn, they should think deeply about
the matter and undergo a critical thinking process.
So in my lectures, I expose students to ‘academic controversy’
and present certain facts that seem to demonstrate or contradict
certain principles. For instance, I pose certain queries like
- Objects fall spontaneously; but why does the column of
water in a traditional osmometer apparently rise spontaneously?
- Fever means an increase in body temperature; but why
do you feel cold during the onset of a fever?
- Diffusion is the movement of a substance from a region
of high concentration to a region of low concentration.
So, when no concentration gradient exists, does the diffusion
of molecules stop? Will there be any more movement of molecules?
The answer to the last set of questions is ‘No’,
which would then prompt students to realise that the definition
they have learnt about diffusion must either be wrong or inadequate.
When posed such queries, the students may at first be confused.
But it is precisely through this confusion that their minds
get the necessary exercise to construct their knowledge. By
raising their curiosity, students will naturally start to
question the validity of their existing knowledge (i.e. what
they think they have understood before) or even perhaps existing
theories or dogma. By questioning, students will then unlearn
and relearn, understand and thereby develop new insights to
either construct new explanations or to invent new ways to
apply what they have understood about the ‘real world’.
It is through the process of searching for answers that they
become independent thinkers—truly knowledgeable persons
who are able to critique what they hear and what they read.
By comparison, the laboratory is a more suitable occasion
than the lecture period to challenge students to develop creative
thinking skills. Most of the time, experiments do not really
work out as they should. It is only when students obtain results
that deviate from others and those available in the literature
that they have to come up with their own analysis and interpretation.
Hence, when I design the practicals, I try to build in the
elements of variability and uncertainty that are necessary
to stimulate students to look out for new answers.
To be an effective teacher, one must take into account the
students’ different cultural and educational backgrounds
and be interested in finding out how they learn. Even if I
teach the same subject every year, I treat it as a new challenge
for each new term as the students’ doubts and the questions
they come up with vary from year to year. I maintain ‘a
spirit of enquiry’ to find out new, if not novel, ways
to raise the students’ curiosity in the subject matter,
to question what they have learnt, and to integrate new ideas
with existing information in their minds. To be able to exert
my influence on their attitudes towards learning, I believe
in my own sense of competency in handling the students. Once
I feel that the students have picked up the necessary learning
and thinking skills to learn on their own, I make myself redundant,
for ultimately they must develop as independent learners and
practise life-long learning since I will not be with them
Professor Y.K. Ip is a winner of the 2000/2001 Outstanding