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
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
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.