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Glean pointers on teaching and learning as winners of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award share their teaching experiences and
views in this issue of CDTL Brief.

February 2003, Vol. 6 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Feeding Them for Life
 
Assistant Professor Sunita Abraham
Department of English Language & Literature
 

We have all heard the adage, “Give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. Teach them how to fish, and you feed them for life.” The knowledge-transmission model of education gives students fish. The knowledge-construction model teaches them how to fish, feeding them for life. And, that is what I hope to do as a teacher—help students acquire the mindset and know-how to construct, critique and communicate knowledge. How? By designing a range of activities which encourage learners to question the very traditions and structures they are being initiated into, thereby promoting productive interaction between self and other, past and future, conformity and originality.

The Latin çducâre, meaning “to draw out”, from which we get the verb “educate”, offers another clue to the goal of education, i.e. to draw out the wealth of knowledge that students bring, based on their lived experience and prior learning, and help them make connections between the old and the new. I spend the first class clarifying not just the module’s learning outcomes, but also the goals of university education and the type of learning students should be aiming for—understanding how the ideas accepted/rejected by a disciplinary community are interconnected as well as the arguments for their acceptance/rejection (see http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellkpmoh/educ/NIE.rtf and http://nus.edu.sg/gem/about_what_is_ge.htm).

This discussion allows me to underscore the idea of our being a learning community—that each of us brings different kinds (and levels) of expertise which need to be pooled to get the best out of our joint exploration of a subject. To drive this message home, I identify different students as ‘resource person/specialists’ for particular areas, based on their expertise and interest. I also spell out what I enjoy most about the teaching/learning situation (the give-and-take of ideas in an environment where everyone understands that knowledge, while empowering, is fallible, and that no one has a monopoly on good ideas), and clarify my own preferred learning style, while inviting students to reflect on their own learning styles.

In terms of the educational triangle (teacher, student, subject for joint exploration), my goal is to foster mutual respect between fellow explorers (teacher and students), and shared passion for the subject of our exploration. In order to create a conducive environment for learning, I underscore the need for discipline and a clear understanding of our mutual roles and responsibilities (e.g. in terms of preparation, participation, absence, meeting deadlines), circulating a written ‘code of conduct’ on which the class reaches consensus through negotiation.

Turning to module design, my syllabi tend to be question-driven in that the module usually seeks to answer one or two overarching questions, in the process of answering which, students explore other questions and concepts. I have written elsewhere (http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/publications/CDTLINK/Nov2001.pdf) about the central role of language, and writing in particular, in knowledge construction, viz. that knowledge of an academic discipline crucially involves the discursive ability to speak, read and write the discourses of that discipline. Consequently, my main assignments typically require students to find a significant problem/question for independent exploration, targeted at an audience and publication site of the student’s choosing, in negotiation with me. In this assignment, students experience a complete writing spiral, starting with a proposal indicating their research problem/plan before moving on to draft their papers. The draft receives oral and written feedback from the student’s peers and me, based on which it undergoes further revision. Students submit a final draft together with earlier drafts (so I can see how much progress has been made) and a brief cover letter in which each student reflects on the strengths/weaknesses of his/her paper (meant to promote the extremely difficult skill of auto-critique).

Collaborative learning is further encouraged in a group mini-project, culminating in an oral presentation, evaluated by peers and teacher, and through the formation of affinity groups for practical, moral and intellectual support. The groups comprise five students each, to provide a tie-breaker and to discourage sleeping partners. To help students take ownership of their own learning, I create multiple opportunities for them to interact without me, using a variety of web-based resources.

All my classes tend to be interactive. Since class-time is at a premium, I do not lecture. Instead, students are introduced to key ideas through their required readings. Each workshop begins with an opportunity for students to clarify ideas before we move on to a variety of tasks that call for thoughtful application of the concepts introduced.

Given there is no one best method of teaching/learning, asking for mid-semester module feedback allows me both to probe students’ learning processes (e.g. how much time they spend on this module in comparison to others, and why; how much time they spend on specific activities like reading and assignments) and to discover the elements within and outside the module conducive/disruptive to deep learning. Some of the former include providing reading packets to eliminate time wastage at the Recommended Book Room (RBR); specifying the learning goals of each activity; returning assignments quickly, and analysing the class’s performance on each assignment so they have a clear sense of their progress as individuals and as a cohort.

Finally, since teaching for me is about relationships, I try to get to know my students as individuals, as quickly as possible. A class poster, with photos culled from the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE), distributed to the various affinity groups helps both the students and I put faces and names together of the members of our learning community. I also distribute profile sheets to get a sense of each student’s academic profile (e.g. how many modules they are reading that semester, which ones they are majoring in) as well as overall aspirations, interests and concerns. Based on the information shared, I often email students to reassure, encourage or congratulate—a time-intensive activity, but well-worth it, given that it makes students feel valued as individuals and well rewarded by students’ genuine appreciation, hearing from their busy professors.

References

Abraham, S.A. (2001, November). ‘Using Writing to Drive Learning’. CDTLink. Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 1 & 6. [Electronic Citation]. http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/publications/CDTLINK/Nov2001.pdf. (Last Accessed: 19 December 2002).

Mohanan, K.P. (Undated). ‘How does Education Paralyze Independent Thinking?: Critical Understanding and Critical Thinking in Science Education’. [Electronic Citation]. http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellkpmoh/educ/NIE.rtf. (Last Accessed: 1 November 2002).

National University of Singapore. (2001). About the Program: What is GE? [Electronic Citation]. http://nus.edu.sg/gem/about_what_is_ge.htm. (Last Accessed: 1 November 2002).


Assistant Professor Sunita Abraham is a winner of the 2000/2001 Outstanding Educator Award.

 
 
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My Secret of Winning Students to My Side
   
Learning Communities
   
Teaching Insights
   
Teaching Tips: Developing the Curriculum for a Professional Clinical Course
   
Teaching Freshman Chemistry
   
Feeding Them for Life