In a recent article (The Daily Star, June 13) Professor Syed Saad Andaleeb argued in favour of smaller class size and blending research with teaching for quality education. What follows in this piece is a synopsis of my learning experiences in schools and beyond. My first question to our politicians and academicians:
Are we producing better qualified college graduates for future leadership in all areas of national life—given the development of modern innovative techniques of teaching and learning—compared to those who have aptly served the country and are now retiring or have already retired?
After two years of home schooling (between age 4 and 6) followed by 12 years of secondary and higher secondary (SSC and HSC) education, I studied physics at Dhaka University (M.Sc.), and Nuclear Technology (M.S.) at Islamabad University. My physics-related studies culminated with an M.S (nuclear engineering) degree at North Carolina State University. In the three academic curricula, a blend of theory, problem-solving, and research (thesis) was required for completion of my degrees. The transition that led to my PhD work in economics at the University of Kentucky represented the most arduous learning experience I had ever gone through, demanding the full leverage of my analytical skills and intuitive interpretation of facts and figures.
The learning experiences outlined above showed that no singular model fits all areas of teaching and learning. However, the common denominators for a successful learning environment are student preparedness for lecture-based college education, motivation to learn and assumption of responsibility for their educational outcomes.
In the US children in all 50 states and territories of the country attend kindergarten (pre-school), generally between the ages of 4 and 6. During this period they’re groomed to develop basic skills in reading, writing and math. These skills are further honed and advanced as children work their way through 12 years of high school (K-12: Kindergarten to 12th grade).
The transition from learning in schools and learning in colleges and universities is not a seamless one. Loosely speaking, the word “teaching” is more aptly applied to K-12 school teachers and students, while “instruction” is more pertinent to students beyond the higher secondary curriculum. During K-12 years of schooling (analogous to our combined SSC and HSC) students are taught almost everything in the classroom; this stands in contrast to the approach in most colleges and universities, where the traditional lecture is intended to broadly provide a platform, or starting point, for the student’s intellectual investigation into the various facets of the relevant discipline.
One may wonder: What are children capable of learning at various stages in their development? How do they develop the intellectual skills needed to react and interact with their environment and surroundings? How do these cognitive abilities progress and in what order?
These inquisitions were studied and analysed by French psychologist Jean Piaget in 1952 in his ground-breaking theory in cognitive development in children.
Piaget theorised that attention, short-term memory, and long-term memory begin to develop between the ages of two and five. Auditory processing, which is critical for good reading skills, develops between the ages of five and seven. Logic and reasoning become more perceptible after five years of age as a child becomes better able to decipher/connect competing ideas.
I’ve brought Piaget into the discussion to support the belief that “cognitive, emotional, and sensory domains that require higher-order thinking” are mostly done during 12 years of secondary and higher secondary schooling. That’s why the nexus between “teacher and the taught” is so paramount during a child’s school years. It may be too late to acquire and develop these cognitive and analytical faculties once one arrives on a college campus. At institutions of higher learning, students are expected to cultivate and harvest those attributes and keep expanding their domains.
By age 16, most teens develop the ability to think in theoretical terms and become able to conceptualise or compartmentalise multiple concepts at the same time and envision the future significance of their activities. They display an improved aptitude for grasping a more challenging high-school curriculum through time management, exam preparation, and study skills.
Lower class sizes and lesser teaching loads for faculty in colleges and universities will draw students’ attention and increase their interaction time with their instructors. That’ll help some students earn better test scores. However, the job of a college lecturer isn’t to simply be a conduit between the content of a textbook and the student, as it is in high school. College teachers give lectures and explain topics in the textbook and issues related to the textbook. They maintain some office hours outside the classroom to help students when they have difficulties with lecture contents—but they’re not there for tutoring. That’s the instructional model the faculty at American colleges and universities follow.
Children who enter institutions of higher learning with deficiencies in their analytical and intuitive interpretational skills are more likely to resort to memorising textbook materials and will be underperforming in almost all instances. Memorising also becomes a means for exam preparation if students’ language skills are underdeveloped. These students become the ultimate college drop-outs. That is why academic leaders and states put so much emphasis and focus on improving high school education in the western academic curriculum.
Teaching loads in schools are too high compared to those in colleges or universities. For non-research faculty, a four-class teaching load per week is appropriate while for research faculty a three-class load per semester is not too burdensome. Class size may not be arbitrarily capped—it should be a function of the subject being taught. For example, class size for science subjects can differ from that of liberal arts.
Research and teaching can be self-reinforcing at institutions of higher learning (masters and PhD levels). Conventional wisdom is that instructional effectiveness and research productivity are often complementary. Because textbooks may not be up-to-date in many fast-developing areas, research outcomes—even if unpublished—may therefore enhance teaching through the introduction of new topics and methodologies. Active researchers are more effective at instilling an actively critical approach to understanding complex research findings, rather than a passive acceptance of facts.
Going back to early education, we must not forget that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste”. The claim of a nearly 90 percent increase in enrolment rate at primary schools in Bangladesh is a spectacular feat. However, are there any statistics of how many of these children drop out and why? We’ll never know—given the opportunities—what one of those drop outs could have become.
Lastly, I strongly argue that to produce quality graduates in all areas of national life, the country must invest generously in school teachers at all levels by offering them higher salary, free family healthcare, and continuous training in modern teaching methods and tools.
Dr Abdullah A Dewan, formerly a physicist and a nuclear engineer at BAEC, is professor of economics at Eastern Michigan University, USA.