The student as an individual ‘being’

by Dr. Beena Giridharan

Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher, deliberated on and explored answers to a singular question in his rather complex epic book ‘Being and Time’, that is, the meaning of being.

In everything that human beings do, they encounter a wide variety of objects, processes, events and other phenomena that make up the world around them. Throughout our lives we manifest an implicit capacity for comprehending interactions with entities as actual and as possessed of a distinctive nature.

For example, when we walk on the beach and come across a shell and marvel at its intricate shape and delicateness, we may find linguistic expression regarding ‘its elegant appearance’. When a poet writes eloquently about the beauty of dawn, literary studies of the poem ponder on the conception of its text.

In essence, Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ focuses on ontological enquiries on the being of entities. In other words, ‘being’ is not a being, or a particular phenomenon we encounter in our active engagement with the world. We arrive at our concept of it by gradual impressions from our encounters with specific beings, which brings me to the context of ‘being’ in learning and teaching.

The impressions created by students about their learning are formed as a result of their collective experiences and engagements in learning with other learners and their facilitators. If life-long learning is learning that occurs in different spaces throughout one’s lifetime ‘from cradle to grave’, then life-wide learning is learning that occurs in different spaces simultaneously (Barnett, 2010).

The idea of life-wide learning suggests that of liquid learning, a multiplicity of forms of learning experienced by the learner concurrently. Echoes of life-wide learning can be discerned in the words of Mahatma Gandhi who encouraged ‘education for life, education through life, and education throughout life’.

Learning takes place within a course, while the student is engaged in a cognitive activity such as writing an essay, conducting a lab experiment, or while participating in an academic discussion online with their peers via a learning management system.

Learning also happens when students engage in campus activities that are not academic, such as editing a campus newsletter or participating in voluntary activities that help the wider community.

Learners and teachers must understand the significance of academic and non-academic learning experiences, and opportunities must be created for students to engage in activities that inculcate both types of learning. Learning happens regardless of conditions, but learning experiences can be perceived as positive or negative based on the nature of the experience.

Many things can shatter the fragility of an individual – words, gestures, a turned back, or a deaf ear. Teachers or facilitators must develop acute consciousness of the impact their words or actions, or lack of actions, will have on learners. Similarly, students must be conscious of how their words and actions may be interpreted by their peers and their teaching faculty.

Higher education experts like Professor Ronald Barnett advocates the notion of life-wide education as a transformative concept for higher education.

Quality education refers to learning situations in which knowledge, skills, and abilities are developed in the best possible ways in order to promote students’ personal growth, vocational success, and future contributions to society (UNESCO Report, 2005).

A growing number of researchers and educators contend that high quality education should take into account students’ individual differences, and provide optimised learning experiences for each learner. The quest in educational circles for a curriculum delivery method that maximizes student learning and application of learned concepts is an ongoing process.

Understanding students’ approaches to learning, be it surface, deep or strategic, is important as students may adopt different approaches to learning in different courses or even within a single course.

Successful facilitators are able to produce outstanding results displaying problem-solving, creative and critical thinking skills from the same students who may have failed in certain subjects within a course. This further reinforces the belief in understanding students as individuals and extending their skills and abilities.

At Curtin University, learners are recognised as individuals, and among the teaching and learning strategic priorities of the university, enhancing student learning experiences is a primary focus.

The university has introduced a number of initiatives to develop students as individuals through the provision of intellectually challenging learning activities, assessments that align with learning outcomes, and a systematic evaluation of teaching and learning which allows both students and staff to reflect on their experiences.

Reflective observation is known to support deep learning. Good teaching as well as scholarship of teaching and learning is invariably rewarded at Curtin through the award of points granted as teaching performance index for each academic staff member.

These points translated into funds may be availed upon for professional or personal development of the individual staff member or their students. Many academics support student attendance at conferences using their own teaching performance index points, a commendable practice that shows their commitment and engagement towards developing students as individuals.

Curtin’s Graduate Attributes state the distinct characteristics of a Curtin graduate. They encourage the achievement of both intellectual and professional competence in students.

At the Curtin Sarawak campus, students participate in a number of student clubs which have professional alliances or are artistic, social or cultural in nature. Professional clubs are supported by industry professional bodies and a number of events are conducted on and off campus by student bodies.

The domains of students’ skills and knowledge are supplemented by a sense of their ‘being’ through valuable learning experiences in and outside of the classroom and the encouragement to learn about oneself while at the university.

Curtin Sarawak also provides students with the opportunity to develop leadership skills through the John Curtin Leadership Academy (JCLA) where participation in the one-year leadership programme requires students to design solutions for real-world problems and implement them successfully.

Communicating clearly to students as individuals is an imperative in good teaching as much as it is to inspire scholarship encompassing both knowledge and habits of mind which endures in individuals over a lifetime.

Developing students as responsible individuals necessitates fostering intellectual and personal growth and helping them gain confidence in their own abilities and leading them onto discovering themselves and their ‘being’.

Dr. Beena Giridharan is an Associate Professor and Dean of Teaching and Learning at Curtin Sarawak. She is a recipient of the 2006 Carrick Award for Australian University Teaching, and the 2006 Curtin Excellence in Teaching Award, and has been a fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society Australasia (HERDSA) since 2006. She is the project member at Curtin Sarawak for an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) project entitled “Learning Without Borders”. Dr. Beena can be contacted at +60 85 443939 or by e-mail to beena@curtin.edu.my.

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