Is there love in learning?

By Associate Professor Beena Giridharan

No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness – so enthused Kahlil Gibran while expressing his poetic thoughts on teaching in his book ‘The Prophet’.

So how do teachers or educators lead learners along sacred paths towards creating their own wisdom?

According to Plato, knowledge demands an emotional response and should stimulate love. This revelation may indeed startle most students and some teachers alike. And not all students may agree with what Shakespeare wondrously exclaimed “O this learning, what a thing it is!”

The pursuit of knowledge can only be cultivated by those who understand its significance, and therein lays the challenge. While we may never be able to underestimate the power that rests with teachers and educators in creating lasting impressions on student minds, what we need to ensure is that educators are equipped with the skills and knowledge that they can rely on to motivate learners to aspire towards greater heights.

The ages of students notwithstanding, the impact that educators have on their wards remains long after the acquaintance is made. Sometimes educators may even be pleasantly surprised to receive messages from students who profess that they have had some role in shaping their student’s character or contributing to their growth. The genuine acknowledgement and even reverence teachers receive throughout their careers from appreciative students is testimony to the deep influences they have on them.
Higher education is said to celebrate the life of the mind. At entry point, most tertiary students, excluding mature learners, are adolescents and understanding adolescent minds can be quite complex as they have multiple perspectives and do not respond uniformly to teaching approaches taken.

The beliefs that students hold, particularly about themselves and their abilities, the strategies they resort to in academic situations and the support they receive from adults have profound effects over their success. Adolescent learning involves interactive, purposeful, and meaningful engagement. Adolescents need to be respected, supported, and mentored to be transformed into rational, caring adults. Learners respond positively to teachers who respect differences, create caring classroom communities and are considerate, in addition to being subject experts.

Then, there are statements you hear occasionally from within academia, such as “Students these days can barely read… they can’t write coherently… they don’t respect authority… they really can’t be helped”. This is generally termed ‘student bashing’ and is ingrained by misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, if colleagues share problems encountered in classrooms and learning environments or ask for advice from more experienced colleagues on how they should respond to attitudes of indifference or disinterest among students, there is an acknowledgement that both students and staff can transform and advance, and have the potential to grow.

There is a creation of a community of practice where colleagues work together on action research projects delving into problems encountered with student learning, which subsequently leads to problem solving and better understanding of pedagogy and practice.

If there is an art to learning then there is certainly an art to teaching as well. Knowing something and teaching it are two very different mechanisms. Maxine Greene, the American thought leader in the fields of aesthetic education and philosophy, contends that “students who have been provoked to reach beyond themselves, to wonder, to imagine, to pose their own questions are the ones most likely to learn to learn”.

The key phrase here is “to be provoked to reach beyond themselves”which means the abilities of the learners are extended or maximised through intellectual interactions and educational experiences.

Some educators envision teaching as having control over the mastery of content knowledge and efficient delivery of prescribed content. In this almost sanitised approach, devoid of risk taking or lack of revealing of oneself, of inventive capacity, and lack of imagination, any love of inquiry or discovery of learning may clearly be decimated.

Albert Einstein expressed his thoughts determinedly when he advocated love of inquiry, by stating “It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry…” Love of inquiry is sustained in learning spaces where students feel almost compelled to respond because of the teacher’s passionate engagement, where the teacher demonstrates effective instructional practices that cultivate a depth of learning.

Academics cannot entirely have control over pedagogical relationships nor can they be assured that their teaching will in fact convey the meaning intended for students. Lesson plans may guide academics on activities to be carried out during student engagement sessions but do not guarantee success of attainment. For the development of human dignity, vulnerability and humility must exist in the teaching and learning environment.

Some educators even go on to argue that the love of learning requires vulnerability and humility. I would like to add ‘friendship’ to the list. In particular, the friendship categorised by Aristotle, ‘virtue friendship’ which refers to lasting friendship rooted in knowledge and appreciation of the other as a complete human being.

Setting high expectations for student performance is integral to student learning. A learning environment that emphasises respect among students nurtures dignity. Students gain knowledge and skills at university, and as young individuals, also shape their character emotionally, morally and spiritually through learning to connect and relate and act in a mature manner.

Respect is earned when a teacher takes student opinions into consideration for their own learning and allows more freedom to act. The inclusion of student views in the way curriculum is structured and delivered promotes equality, learner autonomy, and ownership of learning, which in turn allows students to develop their values, their own identity, and sense of purpose.

The love of learning may not be delivered through mastery of content knowledge. The suggestion here is that if learning leads to knowledge, then a love of learning has to be motivated by the particular value that knowledge possesses. “The good cannot be apprehended independently of knowledge: it is through knowing that one learns what is of value”.

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. She can be contacted at +60 85 443847 or by e-mail to beena@curtin.edu.my

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