Teaching as Facilitating Learning
Unpacking Learning
Who is an Excellent Teacher?
How do we Evaluate Teaching and Teachers?
Unpacking Learning

Four Aspects of Learning

What is the learning that teaching activity should aim at? As the first step in our exploration, we may identify the bare minimum as follows:

  • Learning the knowledge content.
  • Learning the ability to apply the knowledge to solve standard classroom problems.

A competent teacher facilitates the learning of the required knowledge content and the ability to apply the knowledge to the types of situations familiar in classrooms and textbooks. An excellent teacher, however, goes beyond this, and aims at higher order learning that involves the following aspects as well:

  • Learning the ability to apply the knowledge to novel types of problems and situations which may not have been encountered in the textbook scenarios.
  • Learning to learn, that is, to become self directed, independent, life-long learners.

Take, for example, the mathematical formula for the volume of a sphere. A student who can correctly answer the question, "State the formula for the volume of a sphere." has acquired the knowledge content. A student who can correctly answer the question "If the diameter of a ball is five inches, what is its volume?" has learnt to apply the knowledge to solve standard classroom problems. In contrast to these relatively lower order accomplishments, a student who can answer the question "Describe a reliable process to estimate the quantity of juice in an apple without actually squeezing out the juice." would have acquired the ability to apply the knowledge to novel types of situations, provided the juice issue has not been discussed in class. Suppose the student comes up with the idea of modelling an apple as a sphere, and finds ways of discounting the volume of the pulp. The exploration of this path goes beyond the direct routinized application of the kind required for standard textbook problems.

The distinction between the two kinds of application is profound. In The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (1993), Howard Gardner cites a number of studies that indicate that "students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested." Take the following question:

What are the forces acting on a coin that has been tossed straight up and is still continuing to move up?

This question does not belong to the normal textbook template of college physics. An untrained person has the intuitive view that the coin is acted upon by both the downward force of gravity, and the upward force of the hand. Someone who has genuinely understood Newtonian physics should realize that the common sense intuition of the force of the hand is wrong, and gravity is the only player (ignoring air resistance). Yet, 70 percent of college students who had completed a course in mechanics gave the same naive answer as untrained students, indicating that they had not achieved genuine understanding. Michael McCloskey provides a large number of additional examples of this kind in his article "Intuitive Physics" in Scientific American. April 1993, pp.114-22.

Citing a wide variety of examples from subjects ranging from physics and biology to sociology and history, Gardner demonstrates a serious failure of the modern educational system in helping students move towards genuine understanding:

"... essentially the same situation has been encountered in every scholastic domain in which inquiries have been conducted. In mathematics, college students fail even simple algebra problems when these are expressed in wording that differs slightly from the expected form. In biology, the most basic assumptions of evolutionary theory elude otherwise able students who insist that the process of evolution is guided by a striving towards perfection. College students who have studied economics offer explanations of market forces that are essentially identical to those proffered by college students who have never taken an economics course."

Gardner (1993: 4)

In his "Teaching Real Science," Scientific American, October 1992, pp. 79-86, Tim Beardsley documents an extensive list of similar concerns. The 1991 Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government states that the situation is "a chronic and serious threat" to the future. The requirement of the application of knowledge to novel types of scenarios is part of an answer to respond to this threat.

Turning to the last item, let us ask what is meant by "self directed independent life-long learning." Imagine the following scenarios.

Deo Nari, a graduate in biology, becomes a member of parliament. In order to function efficiently as an MP, Deo would need to know the essentials of history, politics, economics, statistics, which she will have to learn without help from a teacher. She will have to set her own agenda in deciding what to learn, which books to read, exercise critical thinking in accepting or rejecting what is stated in the books, select the pieces of knowledge that are of special relevance to her purposes, and apply them to the novel situation facing her.

Nan Sinuk, a graduate in sociology, is sick, and his doctor has recommended an expensive and risky operation. Nan will have to get additional information about the diagnosed disease as well as the operation, say, from medical encyclopaedias and the web. He will have to seek a second opinion, and finally make a decision on whether or not he should undergo the operation.

Reejan Helm, a graduate in English literature, is appointed as the high commissioner of a country whose history, politics, and cultural patterns have not been studied in the literature. In order to function successfully as a diplomat, it would be useful for Reejan to make a study of these topics, which calls for doing research as an amateur historian, political scientist and sociologist.

We expect university education to empower graduates to meet such challenges, helping learners develop the mental capacity to continue learning both in the subject of specialization and in other subjects, critically evaluate what is presented as knowledge, and apply the knowledge to make informed decisions in novel situations.

An important pre-requisite to genuine understanding and self-directed independent life-long learning is what one may call a personal response and commitment to knowledge. Having a personal response entails constantly asking oneself, "Should I believe this?" and " How significant is this?" Personal commitment involves developing opinions and convictions rooted in one's system of beliefs. Students who are able to write a coherent essay on Darwin's theory of evolution or Piaget's theory of learning may have acquired the necessary knowledge, but if this knowledge has not resulted in a reorganization of their personal beliefs, they have not developed a personal response and commitment. Without the personal response and commitment, the knowledge remains an unintegrated, inert piece in the mind of the learner.

Summarizing the above discussion, we may characterize competent and excellent teachers as follows:

Teaching is facilitating learning. A competent teacher helps learners to acquire:

  1. high quality knowledge content, and

  2. ability to apply the knowledge to standard classroom problems.

    In addition to accomplishing the above, an excellent teacher also helps learners to:

  3. acquire the ability to apply knowledge to novel types of problems and situations, and

  4. become self-directed independent life-long learners.

Traditional teaching seeks to accomplish goal A through lectures, but it can be accomplished equally well or better through well designed teaching materials (textbooks, lecture notes, videotapes, cd-rom or the Web). Goal B calls for training and practice in application. Goal C demands genuine understanding and an integration of what is presented as knowledge into the belief system of the learner. Goal D involves helping learners develop an understanding of the modes of inquiry that characterize the discipline, and extending these domain specific modes of inquiry to other domains. While goals A and B may be achieved through frequent trips to the library and a small amount of initiative, goals C and D are difficult to achieve without personal interaction with a teacher. Therefore, these items must be given greater priority in the classrooms.

If goal D is central to undergraduate education, then we need to understand what makes a self-directed independent life-long learner. In the following sections, we address this issue.

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Four Sources of Learning

All learning must have a source. Sources of learning can be characterized as follows:

Source 1: experts (e.g. teachers, specialists)

Source 2: printed or electronic documents

Source 3: collaboration with peers

Source 4: one's own observation and reasoning

An intelligent lawyer should be able to read and understand an introductory book on sociology or an article on the Big Bang in Scientific American (source 2). If a 4th year undergraduate student cannot do likewise, but has to depend on his sociology and physics teachers (source 1), we would consider him/her a poor learner. In several disciplines, especially in the sciences, progress crucially relies on collaborative learning, where no single individual can have access to all the different pieces of a puzzle. A student who can learn through peer interaction (source 3) is obviously a better learner than one who cannot. Finally, the highest form of independent learning is through one's own research (source 4), as illustrated by the scenario of the high commissioner producing from scratch an account of the history, politics and society of a country.

A learner who is limited to source 1 is a dependent learner. Such a learner will find it difficult to engage in life-long learning. A learner who has the capacity to learn from all the sources is maximally independent, and is maximally capable of life-long learning. Thus, ultimately, the best learner is one who is capable of learning from all the four sources of learning listed above. By implication, the best form of teaching is one that inculcates in learners the capacity to learn from all these sources.

If we accept what is said above, it follows that:

An excellent teacher helps learners to acquire the ability to learn from

  1. experienced people,

  2. printed or electronic documents,

  3. collaboration with peers, and

  4. their own experience.

To illustrate, consider spoon feeding, which is handing down to the learners what they could have acquired on their own through their own effort. Given a choice between summarizing the contents of a printed source (an article, a chapter in a textbook, teaching materials prepared by the teacher) in a lecture (item a), and guiding learners to read and understand the printed source on their own (item b), a teacher who chooses to summarize the knowledge content engages in spoon feeding. Given a choice between exposing the learners to a conclusion through oral or printed sources (items a and b) on the one hand, and on the other, guiding them to arrive at a conclusion on their own by thinking about a body of information (item d) and discussing it among themselves (item c), a teacher who chooses the former mode (items a and b) engages in spoon feeding. The effect of spoon feeding is to promote dependent learning, which goes against the very spirit of education.

The above conclusion differs from the traditional view in an interesting way. In traditional teaching, a teacher who communicates information successfully through lecturing or reading materials is considered an excellent teacher. Given what we have said above, a teacher whose repertoire is limited to lecturing and reading materials is at best a competent teacher, but not an excellent teacher.

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Seven Facets of Independent Learning

Let us approach the issue of independent learning from another angle. The various types of independence in learning can be thought of in terms of facets of learning ability, characterized as follows:

  1. Supplementary Learning
    The ability to go beyond the lectures and prescribed readings to look for additional educational material to supplement and enrich what is learnt from a course.
  2. School-Independent Learning
    The ability to acquire knowledge from various sources independently of educational institutions: books, encyclopedias, journals, newspapers, the Internet, and knowledgeable people. School-independent learners can set their own learning targets and achieve these targets without intervention or guidance from the teacher.
  3. Learning to Integrate Knowledge
    The ability to integrate and synthesize knowledge from different sources, making connections, and checking for internal consistency. In the mind of a poor learner, different pieces of knowledge remain unconnected in different compartments.
  4. Learning to Extend Knowledge
    The ability to add, correct, or transform the knowledge received from external sources, say, adding an additional ingredient of intelligence to someone's list of intelligences.
  5. Learning to Create Knowledge
    The ability to generate new knowledge on the basis of one's own experience, constructing knowledge where none is available.
  6. Learning to be Critical
    The ability to critically engage with what is presented as knowledge before accepting it. Uncritical learners accept what other people tell them. Critical learners are aware that textbooks and specialists are fallible, and can be prejudiced or misleading.
  7. Learning to be Self-critical
    The ability to critically evaluate one's own current "knowledge" (what one believes to be true), and modify or reject previously held beliefs. This involves the highest form of critical thinking, the ability to subject one's own convictions to critical scrutiny, combined with an awareness of one's own fallibility. Self-critical thinking calls for a high degree of openness of mind, tentativeness, willingness to doubt and question, tolerance of uncertainty, and ability to entertain alternative possibilities.

Progressing through each facet, it is clear that attaining a combination of all seven facets is the highest form of independent learning.

We may say that a dependent learner is a surface learner, and an independent learner is a deep learner. The depth of learning abilities that a teacher is successful in instilling among students is a measure of the quality of the teaching. For instance, someone who helps students to become self-critical is a better teacher than someone who helps them only to be critical of others. Likewise, someone who instils school-independent learning in students is better than someone who can lead them only to supplementary learning. Given our premise that an excellent teacher is one who maximizes the quality of learning, it follows from the above account that the best teacher is one who is able to lead learners to all seven facets of learning ability.

An excellent teacher helps learners to acquire all facets of learning ability: to supplement school based learning, learn independently of schools; to integrate, extend and create knowledge; and to be critical as well as self-critical.

With the addition of each facet of learning capability, the quality of knowledge itself becomes deeper and more meaningful. Thus, knowledge combined with the ability to integrate different elements of knowledge yields integrated understanding, and knowledge combined with the ability to critically evaluate that knowledge yields critical understanding. Independent lifelong learning is the pursuit of living knowledge, as opposed to inert knowledge. Living knowledge lends itself to integration, application, modification and growth, all of which require deep conceptual and critical understanding.

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The Core Learning Outcome: Profile of a University Graduate

Having explored learning abilities, we turn to the question of the core of what university education minimally must accomplish by defining the core learning outcome in terms of the notion of "educatedness". Who is a university educated individual? What is the kind of learning that has to take place in individuals for them to deserve the title "university educated"? The answer to this question leads to the profile of a university graduate. Let us characterize the overall learning outcome of undergraduate education as follows:

Profile of a University Graduate

Independently of the area of specialization, a university graduate should possess the knowledge, abilities and attitudes necessary to function effectively in familiar and novel situations in personal, intellectual and professional life. In order to function effectively, one needs to acquire the following:

  1. Knowledge: the non-specialized broad-based knowledge that we expect an educated person to have, including an appreciation of the evidence that bears upon this knowledge;
  2. Application: the capacity to draw upon available knowledge and apply it successfully in familiar as well as novel situations;
  3. Thinking: the general thinking abilities involved in knowledge building, knowledge critiquing, and decision making, as well as the global habits of critical and independent thinking;
  4. Independent learning: the capability for independent life-long learning with respect to (a)-(c), including the capability to engage in independent inquiry;
  5. Articulateness: the general language abilities needed for articulating ideas, opinions, proposals, and values in a clear and effective manner.
  6. Mind set and values: the mind set and values that facilitate (a)-(e), including (i) an awareness of the uncertainty and fallibility of knowledge as well as the social basis of the evolution of knowledge, (ii) an open mind, (iii) willingness and ability to doubt and question beliefs, especially one's own, (iv) intellectual curiosity, and (v) motivation to learn.
  7. Interpersonal skills: the interpersonal skills that facilitate the effective employment of (a)-(f) in a team or community.

Some of the properties of this profile such as applicational ability and critical thinking, have already been dealt with in the previous sections. From the above characterization of the learning outcome, it follows that the greater the number and quality of the ingredients of university education that a university teacher successfully facilitates, the greater the quality of his/her teaching. We may therefore say that:

An excellent teacher helps learners to acquire the greatest number and quality of the core ingredients of education: knowledge, application, thinking, independent learning, communication, mind set and values, and interpersonal skills.

[The details of (a)-(g) above are fleshed out in "Who is an Educated Person: Ingredients of Educatedness"

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Summary: Facilitating Excellent Learning

A competent teacher helps learners to acquire:

  1. high quality knowledge content, and

  2. ability to apply the knowledge to standard classroom problems.

    In addition, an excellent teacher also helps learners to:

  3. acquire the ability to apply knowledge to novel types of problems and situations, and

  4. become self-directed independent life-long learners.

Accomplishing goal D (learning to learn) calls for helping learners to acquire:

  1. ability to learn from

    1. expert people (teachers, specialists)

    2. printed or electronic documents,

    3. collaboration with peers, and

    4. one's own observation and reasoning.

  2. various facets of learning ability, including the ability to:

    1. supplement school based learning,

    2. learn independently of schools,

    3. integrate and synthesize different aspects of knowledge,

    4. extend and create knowledge,

    5. think critically, and

    6. engage in earnest self-critical thought.

  3. ability to articulate ideas clearly and effectively.

    In addition, an excellent teacher instills among students

  4. mental qualities that enhance the learning of (1)-(3) above, namely:

    1. motivation to learn

    2. intellectual curiosity and joy of learning, and

    3. interpersonal skills that enhance all of the above.




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