Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Know thyself: A reflection on teaching and learning

Another semester of teaching has come to an end. How many have I been through? Let me see: At NUS, only three. But as a full-time teacher/ lecturer/ professor at a university in Asia? Oh my. Nine in the last four and half years? Before that, 13 years worth of quarters and then semesters for the Minnesota program in Japan. Then there were five years in Malaysia. Before that, back in the US at Ohio State. Etc.

So what have I learned through these decades? On the macro level, what has this experience taught me about university education?

That's an odd question, when one considers that when I reflect upon my own education, from about sixth grade in elementary school to my third or fourth year in the university, I feel a terrible void. That feeling comes from a remembrance of too many mediocre classroom experiences, where bored teachers talked sports rather than academics, where naughty students set the rules, or where an esteemed professor read from yellow note cards, or forced me to memorize page after page of vocabulary items, or assigned homework that was labored over and submitted but never commented upon. As a wee lad, I had been encouraged and was anxious to study and to learn. I was as hungry for knowledge as I was for any sweet. But at some point playing "the game" and gaining "social acceptance" became more imperative. My tolerance for mediocrity became deeply ingrained.

My experience jumps back to my own teaching, which--- just in the last 23 years in Asia---has presented me with a huge mixed bag of experience.

How can I be so tentative about a university education? Quite simply, because I have seen it all, from enlightenment to tomfoolery, from excellence to the insane. In some of the first classes I worked in back in Japan, at the entry stage of the language program, I had students who could not write words in English any more accurately than American kindergarten students could. They couldn't read the lowest level of the SRA Reading Lab. But they and their parents had been guaranteed by the university administration that they would get an American university degree in four to five years. "Okay, kiddies, now let me hear you pronounce the phrase 'sell out'...."

Earlier, in Malaysia, in yet another American degree program, when teaching in an English for academic purposes course focused on the history of science, I once had a male "Bumi" student tell me that Americans could not have really reached the moon , because the earth was surrounded by glass spheres, and no mortal object could have pierced them. (Celestial spheres was not a novel idea, mind you. Eudoxus supposedly originated this thought some 2000 years ago, and it was further articulated by Aristotle and Ptolemy, among others.) The earnest young fellow, as adamant of his beliefs as I was of mine, was one of thousands on full government scholarship. He was also being prepped for studies in, imagine this, aeronautical engineering --and he may very well be one today! (That was the same program where, in a first-day icebreaker activity, a student reported that he had two heroes: Ayatollah Khomeini was the male, and Brooke Shields was the female!)

Though I have this deep archive of the absurd in my background, I have also witnessed amazing educational strides. For example, one young lady I taught in Akita, a girl who had never graduated from a Japanese high school because of unspecified "social and psychological problems" within the Japanese system, worked with such determination that I feared for her well being. After frequent counseling sessions, she got control over her study habits, and she excelled; the last thing I heard of her, she had been accepted into the University of Minnesota's medical school.

The truth is that what I have witnessed in university education in Asia has largely been success stories. In Akita I knew hundreds of students who had arrived on an American-style university branch campus with very modest English language skills (and evident gaps in cultural understanding), only to slave away on grammar exercises, readings, writing assignments and other activities, for thousands of hours over the course of many years, to the point where they could eventually read and discuss articles from the New York Times and Newsweek, participate in academic lectures and take exams, and even write research papers with the same level of accomplishment as the typical undergraduate at a state university in the US. I finally saw many of these same students beam with a grand sense of accomplishment upon graduation, and then get jobs with multinational corporations where they would communicate in English every day.

Now in Singapore, my wonder at the intellectual curiosity, diligence, ambition and raw talent of students from a dozen countries where English is either a "second" or "foreign" language has become commonplace. I interact with young people on a daily basis whose command of concepts is stronger and display of tech and critical thinking skills broader than that of many of the American working adults I have known over the last thirty years. Sadly, this may be because I come from a country where sports are given more weight in many local schools than science labs, where mathematics plays second fiddle to cheerleading, and where study has become something only geeks do.

Over the years, I've been pushed by the demands of those students in my courses, I've been moved by their stories and dreams in a way that, if my wilting memory serves me correctly, I was rarely stimulated as a student back in Ohio. Ironically, surrounded by these teachers, I have become the student I was once encouraged to be, I've been inspired to become the teacher I always wanted.


Woody said...

Gosh Brad, your entry made me feel very guilty about the comments that I had made about NUS in our last lesson.
I guess that most students in Singapore do come to the university bearing positive learning attitudes. However, the rigours of studying in NUS really wears away our passion of studying, to the point of us getting jaded and cynical of education.
My question is, are we just being ungrateful, lazy, and our complaints unfounded?
And how do we keep that passion for our further education alive in such a demanding and competitive environment?

Brad Blackstone said...

Dear Woody,

I don't think your complaints are "unfounded," nor do I see you as being "lazy." I understand that many of my students are working extremely hard (and I see that in action). When I hear multiple stories about lecture halls filled with 400 students facing a lecturer mumbling to himself, I pause for reflection. Is that an education? You have every right to ask questions like this and to make your thoughts known through the standard evaluation system. Only when your voice is heard can possible wrongs be righted.

As for passion, I think that's what dreams are for. They are the fire. By collaborating with others on similar journeys you keep those flames fanned. If a teacher isn't there to help you, then get into the groove with like-minded classmates, or a good buddy.

People often forget that the best learning is social (but small group, not assembly line). Before there were books, there were group efforts. The Beatles were a foursome and pushed each other. Lennon and McCartney meet Rogers and Hammerstein.

The same is true in science and engineering. In the best think-tanks in the world, teams of highly motivated and insightful individuals create sparks with each other. Look at all the Noble prize-winning teams. At NASA, Microsoft and Apple, the fires of amazing dreams have been fanned by teams.

The same trend has been true even in an area like literature. Many of the best writers through history have competed with others, or worked in conjunction with one another. Tolstoy had his wife not just to bounce ideas off of, but to copy his manuscripts. Some argue that Shakespeare was a conglomerate. In movie script terms, think Matrix, Oh Brother Where are Thou, and more recently, No Country for Old Men. Even in the arts: The Sistine Chapel was not painted by one man, but by a group of people. And look at all the artists at Disney and Pixar.

So my advice is this: Don't let anyone hold you back! You've got your dreams, and you're surrounded by so much energy---I saw that in our classes---so go for it!

Guo Cheng said...

From my experience, it is the same for big class and small class. I only sit in the middle of the first row in order to have better communications with teachers. In lecture theater even there is no body sitting in the second or third row, I still sit in the first row. No matter how many students are in the lecture, it doesn't make a big difference for me.