3 September 2008

Progressive education for tertiary students

By Dr Yong Fung Lan

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

To achieve all their academic endeavors, tertiary students need to be treated as unique individuals who are an integral part of their society. Tertiary education should therefore emphasize both the individuals and the society they live in, transmitting the knowledge and skills that students can fully integrate into their lives.  Further, it should be progressive and pragmatic whereby students are encouraged to learn by doing. They should aim at broadening students’ intellect and developing their problem solving and critical thinking skills.      

The writer’s philosophy of teaching tertiary students is based on the epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics espoused by John Dewey.  With regards to epistemology, he believes that tertiary students can acquire knowledge effectively through inquiry and experimental logic. They can acquire knowledge by adapting their responses to the environment and by restructuring its conditions.  

Since knowledge is primarily the product of students’ own interaction with the environment, it has the practical instrumentality to help them solve problems.  In addition, tertiary students should be encouraged to interact with the world through self-guided activity that coordinates both their sensory and motor responses. 
They should vigorously manipulate the environment, as knowledge can only be gained by actively perceiving the world.

Tertiary students learn best through scientific inquiry that requires them to follow three basic steps. First, they should identify the problem, which is a situation where their responses to the environment are inadequate to fulfill their needs.

Second, they should isolate the data required for reconstruction or problem solving.

Third, they should consider various ideas, suppositions, and theories as hypothetical solutions to the problem. 

Finally, they should test these hypotheses to see if they are useful to get the desired results. 

In brief, tertiary studies should be treated as practical problem solving, encouraging students to test rival hypotheses to get the best solutions. Since scientific inquiry permits criticism and revision, tertiary students are encouraged to respond creatively to constant changes.

With regards to metaphysics, the writer believes that tertiary students should relate reality to empirical things that have a practical character.  It should be based on their perceptions of the world and their interrelationship with it.  Tertiary students can best understand reality through inquiry, by resolving the problematic aspects of every situation, and subsequently, settling its demands.

With regards to ethics, the writer believes that tertiary students should treat knowledge as a tool to achieve social aims and to uphold the values of their society.  Tertiary students should be considered as unique social beings whose individual satisfaction and achievement can better be realized within the context of their own society.  Their individual efforts should be attuned to the promotion of social good. 

In brief, they should learn how to resolve conflicts both within themselves and society to gain satisfaction in life.

To resolve ethical problems, tertiary students should use the empirical method or method of intelligence. They should adopt an open-ended, flexible, and experimental approach.  Tertiary students should be encouraged to identify ethical problems, gather relevant data, and consider possible solutions to bring about reconstruction and resolution of the original problems.  They should also critically examine the consequences of their actions to successfully attain individual and social goals.

With regards to aesthetics, the writer believes that art and beauty can be found in all aspects of the human experience that can bring enjoyment, harmony, and meaning.  Tertiary students can gain a sense of aesthetics through the ordinary experiences found in the course of their lives. To experience satisfaction in life, they should engage in positive activities that involve the intelligent use of materials and creative development of possible solutions.  Further, they should develop the ability to marshal and refine the vast resources of human life, meanings, and values.  In addition, tertiary students should not only focus on the sense qualities of the physical media and their meanings, but also their own unique experiences.   

Tertiary students should engage in rigorous inquiry, as it is the crux of intelligence in human life. They should be active in social, cultural, technological, and philosophical experimentation to gain pragmatic knowledge. 

In addition, tertiary education should be process-oriented, equipping students with a sociologically conscious world view.  Tertiary students should reconstruct past doctrines to be useful in a society affected by rapid globalization.  In brief, tertiary education should be transactional so that students are encouraged to be experimental, instrumental, empirical, and functional in their learning.

Finally, tertiary education should be progressive and relevant to society in general, encouraging students to focus on the present and the future without forgetting the past.  As an effective instrument for progress and change, tertiary education should aim at developing balanced human qualities among students.  Further, it should reflect real-life situations, focusing on environmental circumstances, realities, and problems.  It should inspire students to relate effectively with real-life situations and integrate confidently into society by developing the ability to think critically on real life issues.

Dr Yong Fung Lan are lecturers with the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. They can be contacted at fyong@swinburne.edu.my.