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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Teaching students to learn

A long time ago, in another life, I was asked by a journalism professor if I practised “national development’’ journalism. I had no idea what he was talking about. He told me somewhat sheepishly later that that was one thing academics do – look at real life and try to frame it based on concepts. I thought the only concept that was needed was common sense and that framing it in a particular way was, well, academic. 

The boot is now on the other foot since I am, ahem, a (pseudo) academic. 

I don’t teach students with an interest in journalism the various concepts that underpin the work, except ethics. I was employed as a “practitioner”, which means I put a premium on principles and practices, and not paradigms and parameters. A university is a place to train the brain, and not fill it with content that cannot or will not be used later in life. 

So the news that my employer, the National University of Singapore, will be setting up a College of Humanities and Sciences filled me with great interest, especially the line about having a format to teach students the foundations of literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. I think many people would do a double-take reading this. It sounds so basic doesn’t it? That after so many years of schooling, students will be taught their A, B, Cs and one, two, threes? As for critical thinking, hasn’t that been the buzz phrase for some time in the mainstream education system? 

After close to eight years of teaching, I can tell you that our undergraduates have their A, B, Cs and one, two, threes down pat. The trouble is, some of them only want to learn more about A, B, Cs, and others want to focus on numbers. So you have this great divide with humanities students fainting at the sight of data and those in the hard sciences swooning at the thought of writing an essay. One thing they have in common: they don’t ask questions. They’d rather give answers. 

If the two-year foundational modules can train the brain to think in cross-sections, cut through spaces, connect the dots and see the blanks, I think we have the makings of a student ready to delve into a specialisation that would ready him or her for the workforce. 

I’ve made it sound too easy. Here’s the academic way: expose them to different intellectual approaches and inter-disciplinary frameworks and acquire deep knowledge and key competencies relevant for the 21st century and in line with their aspirations. 

Chope. They should also be able to express themselves, orally or in writing. 

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Although the two faculties, arts and social sciences and science, will be retained, it seems that some drastic pruning of modules and tweaking of mindsets will have to take place. With two years of a common curriculum, departments would have to squeeze more into its specialist subjects for those who want to major in them in their third and final years. 

They will also have to keep an eye on the hiring market.

It has always been the case that their graduates have difficulty finding jobs on graduation and if they do, would collect a smaller paycheck than their peers. 

To put it bluntly, what does a degree in history or chemistry equip you for in the real world? Is this a prerequisite for any kind of job? I recall that when a whole cohort of us graduated during the mid-80s recession, most entered the, you guessed it, teaching profession. Of course, they are those who become real experts, collecting higher-level degrees that enable them to teach others or to join think tanks. That’s not many. 

Generalist degrees make you a Jack/Jill of all trades and master of none. Your generalist training might enable you to switch from one job to another, train and retrain for some other role but the fact is that, these days, everybody must have something special to offer in the marketplace, especially the digital marketplace. What this means is that someone who intends to major in literature would need some knowledge of, say, data analysis and artificial intelligence, if he hopes to be of use to tomorrow’s employer. This would apply even if the graduate decides to go into business for himself or herself.

It’s no surprise to me that my employer National University of Singapore, wants to change tack. It doesn’t have a choice given the competition against five other universities now in steady state phase. It can expect falling enrolments, along with falling subsidies. Without changes to the academic structure, faculties and departments risk becoming boutiques for the few who are intent on pursuing passion and not paycheck. 

The question is whether this is good or bad for our young people’s future. 

I have always thought that our graduates come out “imbalanced’’. We do not deliver the confident young person, equipped to think deeply and express themselves. An arts student might write beautiful prose conjured out of nowhere, but will have difficulty writing about, say, the results of a survey because the data looks frightening. A science student can probably roll chemical compounds off his tongue, but be tongue-tied when asked to make a sentence with them. What’s worse is that some are terribly proud of being literate but not numerate, or numerate but not literate. Too bad, folks, both are considered necessary assets these days. 

I’m not even going to talk about expressing ideas or reporting what they know or have read. Their written phrases sound like they have come out of a textbook, while immediate oral answers leave you wondering about the point being made. I happen to think there is too much stress on academic writing, when they have not even mastered the basics of writing clearly and simply.

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I daresay most people would think I am exaggerating. I am not. Most students I know aren’t reading beyond “essential references’’. There is not enough unique thinking especially towards open-ended questions, much less a tradition of enquiry. There are very, very few students I have come across who can frame a question clearly. 

I think the principle behind the proposed changes is for the good (and I am not saying that just because I am an employee). We will be equipping students with the ability to…learn. I hope to see results when students complete the two years and start on their majors. What sort of insights will they bring to the subject? Will they view stuff differently from their older counterparts?

More importantly, will I get a livelier class?

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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