Learning, reflection & growth

November 01, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

STUDENT assignments, even at the advanced undergraduate and graduate levels, tell a relatively unhappy story about how students are (not) learning optimally from their readings and/or discussions within their classes.

There are those who outright plagiarise and hand in work that others have done. There are such students in all classes and/or universities, but I am not talking about these students here. These students have clearly opted out of the learning process, possibly in quest for just a degree/diploma, or for another reason, but I will ignore issues of how to engage this group if that is needed and leave that topic for another day.

When I read assignment papers, a substantial proportion of papers essentially consist of summaries of what students have read from the textbooks and/or papers they had been assigned. In the case of research papers, other than any empirical work they might have done themselves, most of the conceptual frame and analysis comes from other people’s thinking and writing.

In two decades of teaching, one of the things I have found hardest in my interactions with students is how to get them to reflect on their learning and how they learn. This is not about speed reading, speed comprehension and so on, it is about how readings are internalised, how they are synthesised, how they shape their understanding, and how this all eventually reflects in their knowledge and worldview.

The first problem is, of course, that there are many students who do not read widely. Sometimes, they do not even read assigned text and/or papers. But, more than that, most of the students do not read around their assigned reading. They do not have a context for their assigned readings; they do not have access to relevant examples, and do not have access to connecting thoughts that could have come from extra readings. Students are usually made to enrol in a number of courses so that the reading loads they carry are significant. But whatever the reason, it results in a lack of sufficient reading in and around the area of interest.

Students’ thinking remains in silos, and these silos tend to be quite narrow.

The course load also leads to scant time for reflection. Students need to think about what they read; they need to connect across readings, across topics and sometimes across subjects as well. But they never get the time to do that during semesters. And, even if they have free time, they might not — and most do not — know how to connect across readings, topics and subjects. Their thinking remains in silos, and these silos tend to be quite narrow.

In my teaching of economics, it has been easy to get students to give me definitions. It has been harder to get students to give examples of issues linking to the definition. It is even harder to get them to give examples other than those that are given in their textbooks, and it is very hard to make them come up with examples from their lives. The hardest part of all is to make them reflect on phenomena in the ‘real’ world around them and to get them to think of how the concepts they are reading about are reflected in the world around them.

But if students cannot internalise what they read to the point where they can use it to understand what is going on around them, it is not learning (or at least not full learning) and it is definitely not going to have an impact (or a sufficient impact) on their growth.

Part of the problem stems from early training at the school level. A lot of our teaching and learning, and testing of teaching and learning, is about reproduction and regurgitation. The mathematics method or the history lesson that was taught — do students remember it? And how do we test their ‘understanding’? By asking them to reproduce things. Students internalise this as the method of learning and believe this is what education is about.

When I teach a concept from economics, philosophy or education, the fields I teach in, I am not interested in hearing from students what Kant said about the issue. I want students to read Kant, yes, but I want them to read Kant to make sense of the concept we are dealing with. And then, when I want students to write papers on it, I want to know what students got out of their engagement with authors who have thought on the same issue before them. It is the views of the students, not of Kant, that are of interest to me.

Let me caution about another danger here. This is not to say that students can articulate their own opinions about a concept and/or issue without engaging with, as one author put it, “the best of what has been thought about this subject”. So, to continue with the example here, the issue might not be able to be understood and/or explored without engaging with Kant. An opinion without the requisite reading and engagement would be of little value. But an opinion that is only restricted to reproducing what Kant had to say about the subject is also of little value. The key is to engage with Kant and then to go ahead and make sense of the world using that engagement. This last step is usually missing.

Education and learning is about engaging with conversations that have been going on for a long time and that will continue to go on. Children grow into these conversations, and this is what education is about — this is what being human is all about as well. It is not just about learning specific skills, methods or any list of facts. It is also not about reproducing what others have said. There have been a lot of conversations on critical thinking and learning in Pakistan, and they continue. The article is an attempt to discuss some concerns within this broader conversation.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2019