Evidence of the increasing resistance that formal education institutions and teachers face these days, including in Nepal, is aplenty. The song “Teachers leave them kids alone” plays frequently and t-shirts flash: “I was born intelligent but education ruined me”. This development of resistance, particularly in higher education, forces educators to revisit the purpose of education and the relation between teachers and students.
Times have changed. Students no longer have to rely solely on the teacher for the course content. They have similar, if not the same, access to textbooks and online materials as teachers. So teaching as dissemination of information is gradually turning into an obsolete phenomenon. Teachers can no longer remain the ‘sage on the stage’ who transfer knowledge from their buckets to the vessels that students are thought to be.
This is particularly prominent in higher education where the students come with a broad range of academic and non-academic experiences and do not identify with empty vessels waiting to be filled. Neither do they appreciate the old-school teacher-student hierarchal relationship devoid of spaces to question the content and methods used in education.
The goal of education should be to help students learn; hence the focus should be on learning rather than teaching. Goldstein (2001) explains, “A Teaching Model is didactic, deductive, top-down—the typical classroom experience. A Learning Model … is an experience that involves one’s total self—mind and body, intellect and emotion, memory and foresight. It is an active and interactive process one experiences and engages in learning”.
A cursory look at the prominent higher education institutions in Nepal provides ample evidence that they largely follow the teaching instead of the learning model. Universities (in practice, a handful of people) design the curriculum without an active engagement of key stakeholders (the teachers and the students), conduct all or larger portions of student evaluation, and exercise authority over ‘monitoring’ education. Teachers have little or no space to engage students beyond this most often ‘content heavy’ curriculum or to even provide a deeper engagement, and students are largely passive recipients of education that lopsidedly happens within the physical classrooms. I believe that higher education in Nepal will benefit by shifting from the prevalent teaching model to a learning model—the sooner the better.
Although this shift throughout the nation would require policy changes (another top-down process area!) consuming a lot of time and other resources, higher education institutions and teachers can immediately benefit by incorporating elements of learner-centered education. Maryellen Weimer (2002) in Learner Centered Teaching points to five things that change when teaching is learner-centered: the balance of power, the function of content, the role of the teacher, the responsibility for learning, and the purpose and process of evaluation.
Weimer contends that faculty controlled learning diminish student motivation and results in dependent learners. She recommends a responsible power sharing with students to positively influence their motivation and learning. She believes excessive focus on covering the content (a ubiquitous phenomenon in Nepal) restricts the development of learning skills needed to function effectively on the job and in society. This might explain why many of our graduates lack the skills and struggle to perform at workplace despite having a ‘degree’ and good grades.
A learner-centered teaching focuses on using instead of covering the content to establish a knowledge foundation and develop learning skills. Such engagements might have implications on how much content can be covered in a course. Therefore curriculum developers in Nepal should aim at designing content that can provide deep engagement, with the focus on skill development rather than controlling students through expansive content.
In learner centered teaching, Weimer explains, teachers are guides, facilitators, and designers of learning experiences and not the ‘main performers’. Students are the focus of this approach and teachers are involved in careful design of experiences, activities and assignments through which students engage with the content. Learner centered teaching encourages students to understand and accept the responsibilities for learning, including coming to class—not because of the attendance policy but because they see the activities and events of class time making important contribution to their learning. Finally, Weimer advises using evaluation to promote learning and not merely to generate grades, and to encourage student involvement through self-evaluation and peer evaluation.
So teachers should stop teaching with the view that they are the experts and students are mere recipients of knowledge. They should critically revisit the idea that learning happens with transfer of information. To borrow Sir Ken Robinson’s words from his TED Talk “How to escape education’s death valley”, teachers should also mentor, stimulate, provoke, and engage.
The author is a PhD Scholar in the School of Social Work, Boston College, MA, USA