Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Creative versus textbook learning

By Herbert Hanreich

Teachers’ Day, the annual appreciation of teachers in Taiwan and elsewhere on the assumed birthday of Confucius on Sept. 28, is an occasion to reflect on some of the local practices that take place under the label of an education which derives its core principles from the so-called “Sage.” There is no doubt that education is of high priority for most parents, who often sacrifice a huge share of their income to enable their children to have a better education than they themselves had when they were young. In this aspect, the efforts in Taiwan deserve global recognition.

However, there are some things money can’t buy: for instance, a good education. Most of a good education’s success depends on the personal attitude of the learner, immune to financial incentives. Learning is an individual process that exclusively and incessantly happens in the mind of the learner. The teacher’s role is, among others, to create a learning environment that encourages students to gradually take over individual responsibility for their own personal intellectual development.

This is best achieved when students learn how to actively integrate what is being learned into their own mental world, ie, to transfer problems they encounter in their study into their own world as problems that need to be solved. An active mind permanently translates problems of the world into problems within one’s mind. The more such translations take place, the more learning takes place. The more learning takes place, the more the problems of the world change for the learner. This is so because the minds understanding these problems are changing as well. Learning always means changing one’s mind.

Good learners need to be creative. Learning is a process which takes time, freedom and passion.

Unfortunately, such a process of learning hardly takes place in the daily teaching routines at universities in Taiwan. There are many reasons for this educational malaise, and much has been written on this topic. One issue, however, deserves more attention when it comes to identifying the many culprits of a failed education system: textbooks.

The use of textbooks makes sense in fields of science, engineering or the law, where you have a generally accepted canon of knowledge needed as a prerequisite for further studies. However, further studies, ie, studies that reach beyond textbooks, hardly ever happen during undergraduate years; textbooks remain the only source of knowledge for most students. The result is the creation of an exclusive textbook culture in classrooms with teachings of basic introductions for disengaged students who just need to memorize well-prepared materials often alien to their minds. Learning as an individual process doesn’t happen in this way.

When it comes to the subjects of humanities studies with their interpretative nature (history, literature, philosophy, language), the negative effects on learning caused by textbooks are even more serious.

The local textbook culture as it is practiced especially in higher studies is a major contributor to the existence of fake universities in Taiwan, where fake students are taught by fake university teachers.

First, professors following textbooks implicitly admit that they are not good enough, or not willing, to design courses based on their own ideas. In either case, they are employed at the wrong institutions; additionally, textbook teaching is a cheap way of teaching — proceeding from chapter to chapter, with the conceptual work already done by others. Textbooks reward intellectually lazy teachers.

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