The biggest ‘need’ identified by many of us hoping to improve the status of higher education is resources. We need more classrooms or more teachers — is the typical request. The rooms are overcrowded and the teachers overburdened, we are told. Indeed, that is the case in many scenarios. But many places that have both teachers and classrooms are unable to deliver quality and insightful education. That, unfortunately, leaves us with the following question: are a lack of resources the real reason for the poor quality of teaching and instruction or is there something deeper that is wrong about how we approach our classes?
We can argue and blame the administrators for a lack of vision on the goals of an institution, but unfortunately, similar problems exist at the level of our classes. This is true, both in public and private institutions. How often do we ask what the goal of a class is, or specify what we aim to achieve in a term? The aim often is to cover a particular topic, or set of topics, and get into a race to finish those topics from the onset of the term, hoping that we win that race before the term ends. The aim in the classroom, unfortunately, is to provide information and not knowledge. There was a time when information was scarce and only available in the classroom. The lack of books, absence of libraries and other resources meant that the classroom was a unique place to get that information. In those times, the instructor was not only a source of knowledge, but a source of information as well. Times have long changed, but our educational models have not. Information is readily available, and while a filter may be needed to separate good information from bad, good quality materials for nearly all classes in science and engineering are available online. So both students and teachers should ask what is the value, then, of having an instructor repeat the same material that is available elsewhere? Why should you pay, or spend your time listening to something that is already available for free? What is the value of the classroom in our time?
The answer lies in understanding the subtle differences between information and knowledge. There should be no pride for a teacher using the same notes, year after year, that he or she created a decade ago, on paper that is now turning yellow. Creating a powerpoint presentation from images in Wikipedia and reading off of that in a classroom is shameful. The classroom should no longer be a place of a monologue, a script that starts with chapter one, section one and goes on until the last chapter of the book. Instead, the purpose of the class should be for the students to engage with the material — to develop analytical skills that allow for creative thinking, analysis and inquiry. The goal should be to understand the material, reflect on the concepts and solve problems that are multi-dimensional and complex. Students should be encouraged to look at problems that may have many solutions, or no solutions whatsoever.
The evolution of the modern classroom is already being reflected in numerous places around the world that are rethinking and revisiting the idea of instruction. This is true both in undergraduate and graduate education. Emory University in Atlanta, for instance, is getting rid of classrooms altogether in several subjects, where the goal is for students to learn and solve problems in small groups in studio-like environments. The teams continue to change throughout the term. The aim is for students to learn from one another, develop skills of team work, focus on the fundamental concepts and see how they apply to real problems. Harvard Medical School recently announced a complete overhaul of its curriculum, which now de-emphasises memorisation and combines multiple disciplines together in a single course, and focuses almost exclusively on creative thinking, problem-based instruction and active learning.
We have to ask ourselves honest questions about our modes of instruction in Pakistan. Is a university classroom about education and knowledge or is it simply an exercise of passing of information from one end of the classroom to the other?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2015.