What I learnt from teaching junior college
My teaching is informed by my previous teaching career in junior college, and by my hobby of reading cross-cultural studies of pedagogy. From these experiences I have reached two conclusions. Firstly, I didn’t start as a gifted teacher. Secondly, I now have faith that I can get a lot better at teaching anything, because I’ve done it before. If I can get seventeen-year-old Singaporeans not only to laugh at seventeenth-century comedy, but also confidently explain why it’s funny, one day I’ll have university students marvelling at the elegance of Articulatory Phonology. Thinking and trying really do pay off, given the patience to learn from experience. This is the same conclusion that I want my students to reach when learning linguistics.
Faith in the ability to learn was something I learnt from my high school students, but my colleagues taught me another very simple lesson: to begin with the end in mind. The idea is to set learning goals first, then figure out the activities that will support them. In practice, that means if I find myself yearning to play IPA Bingo with my class, then I need to sternly ask first whether it’s the most effective IPA review activity for that class. This principle saves a lot of time at the end of the day, but in order to avoid false starts, I’ve learnt to add a corollary: begin from where the students are. Students need to be convinced that there is an unsolved problem before they can engage with it fully. Distinctive feature theory, for example, can be a fun game with formatting, or a typological hypothesis to be engaged and challenged, depending on the way it is presented. It helps that I was a sceptical student myself, but since students’ minds are a moving target (also many-headed), it helps even more to take note of the facial expressions and questions I get while teaching.
What I have learnt from reading pedagogical anthropology
The two books that have influenced me the most in my teaching are The Teaching Gap and Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics (full references below). Both are comparative studies of mathematics teaching in different countries; both contrast the USA unfavourably with Japan and China respectively. As a Singaporean, I was dismayed to discover that my country’s teaching practices are intermediate on this scale. I think our vaunted edge in mathematics derives from a teaching culture of distilling algorithms (and a learning culture of enduring drills), rather than the teaching/learning culture of joyous, even courageous, critical thinking described in those studies.
But borrowing teaching practices is not a simple cut-and-paste operation; they are deeply culturally embedded, as are students’ learning practices. And, of course, those books are about elementary and junior high teaching. Some concepts have obvious applicability, such as interconnected ‘knowledge packages’: it’s quite clear that distinctive features and phonotactic constraints will only click into place if students have a firm foundation in natural classes, and it’s obviously sound pedagogy to recognise these dependencies. And I can certainly model myself on the teachers who respond to questions by analysing the possibilities logically, instead of saying, “Let’s look it up.” But there’s a lot more to getting students to do the thinking for themselves. And, sadly, there’s also a long history of failure in importing teaching reforms. I would like to learn from those failures, rather than repeat them.
My understanding of student-centred learning
I believe learning takes place in the student’s mind. But student-centred learning should not be about appearances. It’s not limited to activities that move hands and mouths. What students need from me is a hawk-eyed inquisitiveness about what is happening in their heads, minute by minute, week by week. They need clarity and scaffolding when I present new problems. They need doable challenges on which they can build authentic confidence. They need the motivation to keep going forward. If my incorrigible clowning helps, so much the better, but that’s not the most important thing I’m doing. My job is to create a space that sparks the hard work of real thinking, and to bring greater clarity to each step of their learning process. If I’m lucky, they’ll even go beyond the need for my encouragement, and find intrinsic motivation in discovery.
But perhaps my most important job as a teacher is to keep paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Next time round I want a better idea of what’s doable, what’s unclear, and what needs to be laid firmly in the foundation. And I need to encourage myself to keep paying attention, because I don’t want to stop getting better at this. If I expect my students to keep trying, I can do no less myself.
Ma, Liping. 1999. Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States. Routledge.
Stigler, James W. & James Hiebert. 1999. The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. Free Press.