Learning and teaching styles

MINI CRITIQUE - Isagani Cruz (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2015 - 12:00am

Last week, I gave this hypothetical case: Suppose the administrators of a Philippine school say that all classes should be online and a teacher insists on meeting students in a classroom on campus. How can we resolve the apparent conflict between the academic freedom of the school to determine “how lessons are taught” and the academic freedom of the individual teacher “to inquire, discover, publish and teach the truth as they see it in the field of their competence”?

On the practical level, there can be no question that the teacher has to be fired. Why? Because a school that conducts all classes online obviously does not have classrooms. To submit to the will of the teacher, it will have to construct a classroom and spend for electricity, janitors, and security guards. The local students, who are all expecting not to spend for transportation to go to the campus, will most likely not enroll anymore, causing the school to lose tuition income. Moreover, there will be no enrollees based in foreign countries. There will be, in short, a financial disadvantage for the school if the lessons would not be taught the way the school wants them taught.

On the theoretical level, the case is a bit trickier.

We can go back to the Supreme Court. The academic freedom of the individual teacher, according to the Court, “did not go beyond the concept of freedom of intellectual inquiry.” The teacher is free to think, publish, and say whatever s/he wants in the field of her/his competence, but how to teach the lesson is not exactly intellectual inquiry.

What is taught is not dependent on how it is taught. We can teach a child how to swim in at least two ways. We can first talk to the child about what swimming is all about, how to breathe, how to move the arms and legs, the dangers of drowning, and so on. Or we can just throw the child into the water. In both cases, the child will learn how to swim. (Yes, there are swimming schools where they just throw infants into the water.)

In the same way, we can teach a preschool student how to speak English in two ways. (Of course, there are a lot more ways.) We can use the student’s mother tongue to teach English words first, then phrases, then sentences. Or we can use English from Day One, even if the student cannot understand a single word we say. In both cases, the student will learn English eventually. (I assume, of course, that the teacher is competent, which may not necessarily be the case.)

In college (which is the context of our discussion), we can teach a student the Special Theory of Relativity by giving a lecture in a real classroom or we can let the student watch a lecture by a renowned professor in a world-class university through a MOOC. In both cases, the student will learn the theory.

In other words, there is no one correct way to teach something. Even in the classroom setting, we could lecture, have group discussions, simulate real-life situations, do cases, have exhibits, hold debates, dance, dramatize, sing, and so on. A good teacher, in fact, changes her or his mode of delivery or “teaching style” depending on the “learning styles” of students. It is not what the teacher is comfortable with that is important, but what the student prefers.

In short, even on the theoretical level and maybe even on the legal level (although this issue has been “rarely litigated”), the teacher in our hypothetical example should be fired.

What about the exceptional teacher whose wish administrators must honor? Brother Andrew Gonzalez used to say that every university worth its salt should have scholars he called prima donnas, who should not be subject to the rules binding the rest of us ordinary mortals.

Unfortunately for the prima donnas, administrative decisions are done for hundreds or thousands of students and dozens or hundreds of teachers. Administrators have no choice but to make policies for everybody, not just for the genius who is so good that all the students would leave and the school would close if s/he were to resign.

No, the computer-illiterate teacher cannot claim academic freedom in going against the school policy of not having classrooms. If s/he is really a good teacher, s/he can teach whatever s/he wants to teach online as well as inside a classroom.

Now, let us give a realistic example. Suppose a school says that a particular textbook should be used in a particular course. May a teacher prescribe a different textbook?

At first glance, the teacher may not do that, because that would mean that her/his way of teaching the lessons would be different from that prescribed by the school, which has the constitutionally-guaranteed academic freedom to determine how lessons should be taught.

But isn’t a textbook a crucial part of intellectual inquiry? What if the college teacher knows that the prescribed textbook has errors of fact or fallacious arguments? What if the teacher does not agree with the textbook writer?

 (To be continued)                         

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