Teachers must ensure that learners feel safe and belong to the community of learning.

I DID not really enjoy pursuing the Bachelor of Chemical Engineering programme in the United Kingdom. Most of the lecturers at my school were highly teacher-centred, and they just lectured us.

Imagine a Russian lecturer, who can barely speak fluent English, teaching thermodynamics. It was a painful experience. I still wonder how I scored very high marks in the subject but, thanks to him, I realised I had to do self-learning to ensure that I succeeded.

Schooled in the “do not ask and argue in class” mindset, I was not ready to ask questions because I was afraid that perhaps I would be asking stupid ones.

I was deprived of learning. I was absolutely bored with chemical engineering and I did not really understand the subject until my final year when we were tasked to design a plant. Although we were supervised by our lecturers, most of the time we had to learn to solve problems on our own in the hands-on project.

I also remember a class on process safety 15 years ago when the lecturer played a video on the 1984 Bhopal disaster and used the incident as a case study on toxic gas exposure. Although not all of the students were involved in the discussion, it was one of my most meaningful learning experiences at university.

Malaysian students pursuing the same degree at the university initiated their own study groups. Every semester we assigned ourselves a course each and made sure that we never missed classes on the designated course.

Fortunately, we had long breaks before the examinations and had plenty of time for group revision. Each group member prepared study notes, made photocopies and distributed them to the rest. We took turns to teach each other the topics covered in class, followed by reviews of tutorials (that we did not have to submit answers to because the courses were mostly final examination-based) and went over the past year papers together.

And these were the best learning experiences, which helped me to understand the essence of my programme. However, when there were things that we were not sure about, we just kept to ourselves, using mnemonics for the sake of the examination!

I managed to secure a borderline first class honours in my programme. The chalk-and-talk method that my lecturers adopted made me feel unsure about my understanding of the topics. There were times when some of my classmates asked questions in class, but those were not pleasant experiences.

Though I am an extrovert, I shied away when it came to the classroom. I felt that none of my lecturers recognised me during the course because we never had a relationship in the first place. I only made friends with Malaysians and my housemates (who were also fellow countrymen).

When I became a lecturer, I made a promise to enrich my students’ experience in class. I want to interact and make a connection with them and get to know them better.

The chalk-and-talk teaching method will never be able to realise that dream. When the teacher is always in the spotlight and students only focus on what he says in the front of the classroom and expect to be spoonfed, a true understanding of a subject does not take place.

We can make students to become another parrot, but they will not be able to internalise their learning experience. Perhaps an exception applies to those already skilled in deep learning, which is a rarity nowadays.

In How People Learn, John D. Bransford says that lenses centred on four areas — knowledge, learner, assessment and community — have to be observed by educators to ensure learning takes place.

As for the knowledge-centred lens, educators must ascertain learners’ previous knowledge and connect it with the current context as well as relate it to the future application of the knowledge.

For the learner-centred lens, teachers must ensure that the learner’s background such as his culture, learning style and personality is acknowledged.

Educators must also ensure the assessments are designed not only for the sake of awarding marks (summative assessment) but also to give students formative assessment to ensure they have instant feedback.

Finally, teachers must ensure that learners feel safe and belong to the community of learning, which includes the educators themselves. When students feel safe to learn, they will be able to interact with the community of learners as well as the educators.

The aspiration of the Education Ministry and Higher Education Ministry to nurture 21st century learners is highly lauded with the implementation of the education blueprints.

However, how many educators realise the challenge that our future generation will face when Industry 4.0 is put in the context? How do we make our education stay relevant with the advent of Internet of Things, big data and 21st century challenges?

The answer is to adopt the student-centred learning approach that emphasises outcome rather than content. It is an approach that must be adopted by educators, be they at schools or higher institutions. Instead of putting teachers and lecturers in the spotlight, that we have to focus on student learning.

According to Professor Richard Felder, a guru of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, teaching is defined as “making learning happen”. Teaching is not just disseminating knowledge. If teachers make learning happen, their profession stays relevant in the 21st century.

If teachers choose to practise the traditional chalk-and-talk approach, they will become obsolete and be replaced by online learning content such as Massive Open Online Courseware and YouTube videos featuring top-notch professors from universities such as Harvard and Cambridge.

Many established pedagogical approaches have been introduced by educationists in the past 40 years to nurture students to become deep and self-directed learners.

We can provide a meaningful learning experience for students that will make them cherish university life. As the number of secondary students enrolling in STEM is declining, we can help teachers to entice them to take up the subjects by changing the way lessons are taught at schools.

One of the reasons for the decline is due to the low interest of the students, who feel that the STEM-related subjects are difficult. The students’ perception needs to be changed so they will acquire the growth mindset, a term introduced by Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University. A student-centred approach at schools may help to change students’ misconception.

There is no better feeling than seeing students growing up, graduating from tertiary institutions and becoming future leaders in a discipline that they are passionate about. We can help them to become better and a meaningful learning experience starts with us.

The writer is head of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Universiti Teknologi Petronas. Email him at education@nst.com.my

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