18 February 2009

Good teaching – a viewpoint

By Associate Professor Dr Wang Su Chen

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Is there anyone that does NOT have an opinion about what good teaching is? Most people do, although it probably means different things to different people.

To understand good teaching, it might be a good idea to visit poor teaching first. What might poor teaching be like? Let us imagine a teaching situation in a war-torn, famine stricken place such as Darfur. Suppose that some starving pupils and you the teacher are seated on the cracked, dusty ground under a leafless, straggly tree with only one tattered book for you to teach from. Would it be possible to distinguish between good and bad teaching under these circumstances? I think it would. If the teacher is insensitive to the pupils’ immediate needs, does nothing to assuage their gnawing hunger, but goes straight into “covering the syllabus” (a common but deadly teaching approach), there is very little chance that the pupils will see a connection between the teacher’s lesson and their felt needs.

Good teaching in those desert-like conditions could be something like this: the teacher uses twig and dust to write down instructions, sets the pupils on a rabbit hunt, firewood gathering, skinning wild game and cooking all in the day’s lesson, cleverly weaving into them the language of negotiation, teamwork and fair sharing.

Good teaching is realistic and practical. It makes the best use of the givens – the pupils, bright or dull, their interests and boredoms, their immediate concerns, their learning habits, the actual classroom, whether it is a bare room or fully equipped, and the surrounding environment.

Good teaching is always prepared teaching. Good teachers have done the preparatory work, mastered the content they plan to teach and read extensively beyond that, ensuring that their own knowledge is deep, holistic and connected knowledge. They set clear goals towards which they gently but deliberately nudge their charges. They understand that their pupils proceed at different paces and they do not just teach to the middle range, but also tailor their lessons to encourage the slow learners, while simultaneously setting tougher and shorter-timed tasks to challenge the faster learners and keep them interested.

While good teaching is prepared teaching, it is opportunistic in the sense that it recognizes learning opportunities that present themselves and seizes them to create teaching points to grip the learners’ attention. For instance, if the pupils have just returned to school after a week of flood at home and have received assistance from several sources, the English teacher has the opportune moment to teach the pupils how to write letters of thank you for the help they have received from different people. The letters would be an English language learning tool that serves a real communicative purpose.

Good teaching also knows that not all learning is enjoyable and exciting. So, it knows how to strew the plodding parts of learning with unexpected sparkles – with little rewards, jokes, anecdotes, recognition and praise – to keep the learners going until they come to the moment of serendipity – the eureka moment when they discover a new thing for themselves. Every science pupil is likely to remember the story of Archimedes and how he discovered Archimedes’ Principle. In layman’s terms, the principle says that a body that is immersed in a fluid experiences a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. Put this way, it sounds dull. However, read on.

Archimedes ran naked in the streets, shouting “Eureka!” which means “I’ve found it!”

The story goes like this: King Hiero of Syracuse wanted to know whether his new crown was made of pure, unadulterated gold or whether the goldsmith had been cheating him, so he summoned Archimedes to find out. Archimedes had to find the answer without breaking the crown. While puzzling over the problem, he stripped himself naked and climbed into a bathtub filled to the brim. The water splashed over, and Archimedes felt the water buoyancy lighten his body. In a flash, he realized that he had found the answer – the water displaced by the crown would give him the volume of the crown and its weight could be easily measured, giving him the density of gold. He dashed out dripping wet into the street, shouting “Eureka!”

Whatever the subject, learning should be like that. And conversely good teaching should create moments like that for the pupils. They will not be as spectacular as Archimedes’ nor will they cause the pupils to run naked in the streets, but without doubt, most readers will have experienced such similar moments of discovery learning which brought joy to their lives and fired in them a desire to pursue that stream of knowledge long after the good teacher has moved on to another topic.

This brief article barely skims the surface of the meaning of good teaching and it presents just a single layperson’s opinion. There are surely many other thoughts about the characteristics of good teaching that readers have and if they would share them with others, we could have a lively discussion thread running!

Associate Professor Dr Wang Su Chen is Head of the School of language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at swang@swinburne.edu.my.