31 March 2010

Setting free the classroom

By Professor D. P. Dash

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

As a teacher who has been in this profession for many years, I can see how my approach to teaching has changed over time. Now, I am less a “giver of knowledge,” but more a “facilitator of learning.”  My journey has been one of learning how to set free my classroom from the clutches of my old ideas.

One learns to teach by doing it, making all the mistakes generations of teachers have made before. With experience, feedback, self-criticism, and some readings on education, I have become aware of the ways in which I was stifling the teaching-learning process. In retrospect, one of the key blocks to my effectiveness was my artificial separation between teaching and learning. I used to think, teachers teach and students learn.

The process taking place in a classroom is better described as an undifferentiated teaching-learning process. Both the teacher and the student contribute by participating fully, without restricting each other to any stereotypical roles.

Like many teachers, I too have gone through my share of good and bad times in the classroom. There have been times when the harder I work, the worse would be the classroom experience! It has taken some patience and some courage to detach myself from my old ideas and develop new ones, like the following:

Teacher Not the Only Resource Person: If you treat students as empty buckets to be filled with your knowledge, you have to try very hard, because not all students will oblige equally. There can be resistance. On the other hand, you can unleash a lot of energy by treating everyone present in a classroom as a potential resource person. However, as the designated facilitator of that process, one must create the right atmosphere for this to happen.

Teacher Stays Open to Learning: An effective teacher stays open to learning at least at three levels: (a) learning about the topics assigned to the class, (b) learning about self, and (c) learning about the teaching-learning process. In this, one of the things that used to obstruct me was my earlier tendency to be extremely evaluative. I would be prompt to point out when I think a student is “wrong” of “off the mark.” Gradually, I have become aware of the possible negative impacts of such negative comments.

Learning Can be a Risky Venture: For the teacher, as also for the students, learning can be experienced as a risky affair, especially if one is afraid of appearing foolish. The more one seeks to protect a more-knowledgeable-than-thou image, the more one avoids this risk. Of course, right or wrong, students make their own quick assessment of how knowledgeable you are and they can see if you are acting more knowledgeable than they think you actually are. So, by not being open to learning, one also runs a different kind of risk–one of being perceived as pretentious.
Individual Learners are Different: Some of us stress conceptual learning; some stress experiential or behavioural learning. I found, it is well to remember that each student is different with respect to how they learn. Initially, my excessively conceptual style would reach only about 10-20 per cent of the class. For many years, I struggled with the question: How can I reach more students? Gradually, I learnt that I must open up multiple pathways of learning. Currently, I try to mix different kinds of element, structured and unstructured, conceptual and experiential, textual and non-textual, face-to-face and Web based, and so forth.

Students Can “Teach Back”: As the old adage goes, “The best way to learn is to teach.” This idea is used by some teachers to promote “teaching” by the students, for example, through short teaching-like engagements. I have found that this idea can be adapted and applied in many creative ways to enhance classroom experience.

Sense of Collaboration: Developing a sense of collaboration is important. Some teachers do it well through classroom discussions. A lot of ideas and information would be generated in the class. Sometimes, if not always, the teacher would succeed in synthesising all the inputs into a meaningful whole that one can take away from the class. For students, the most encouraging thing would be to recognise their individual contributions in that final synthesis.

I continue to experiment with these ideas. For one subject, I used to maintain a Web page where I would summarise the sessions after each class. Diligent me! One day, I chose to open this task to student volunteers. I noticed, some students got interested in this and it became an important part of their learning process. Of course, it would be naive to expect all students to participate in the same way–they are entitled to follow different pathways of learning.

Professor D. P. Dash is Head, School of Business and Design, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at ddash@swinburne.edu.my.