Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reflection on Teaching and Learning at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia




Reflection on Teaching and Learning at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia

“Nations will march towards their greatness in the direction given by its education. Nations will soar if its education soars; will regress if it regresses. Nations will fall and sink in darkness if education is corrupted or completely abandoned,” said Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), a South American Liberator.

The key to the future is in the hands of the students of Cambodia. But, to use that key they must work hard and be supported and nurtured by the educational institutions of their homeland. They deserve the very best education, but they must be willing to fully participate in the process. I want to do my part. I want to give and share something priceless, the gift of learning. I want to fulfill my social responsibility to assist the young generation becomes responsible learners and develop their full potential. I want to help these young scholars find their role in making a lasting contribution to Cambodia’s future. These fully educated students are future leaders, key decisions makers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, managers, economists, entrepreneurs, artists, writers and intellectuals through whose contribution we will see Cambodia prosper and flourish. These young scholars have a gift to give us and the world if only we help them along the way.

"Our prime purpose in this life is to help others, and if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them," said Dalai Lama. I have tried to live this tenet by providing quality education to the poor and destitute children at Buddhism Education For Peace Center at Wat Unnalum and now by lecturing at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia (PUC). I wholeheartedly want to express my kataññū katavedī (gratefulness and humility) to Dr. Kol Pheng, PUC Founding Father, for offering me the unique opportunity to make a positive difference. I have been assigned to work with students and faculty in order to make lasting contributions to my beloved country. I teach English Communication, Introducing Cultural Anthropology, Introduction to Ethics, Academic Reading and Writing English, and Fundamentals of Communication to the foundation year students; a good number of them are well off. Most importantly, though, I teach those young scholars to think, to solve problems, to view new situations by acquiring and using knowledge, facts, and techniques. I firmly believe all of them can learn, and they learn more by encouraging their interests. I understand first-hand the great needs our students and programs experience. At the same time, I also witness the full impact PUC education can have on our students and our society.

My task at the university is to set the course, not to steer the ship for the young intellectuals of Cambodia. More specifically, I focus on student innate personal strength, developing critical and creative thinking, establishing integrated learning, instilling academic growth, and helping to develop relevant teaching materials. I also provide input on curriculum and assessment designs on the specifics of student learning that faculty most value and that reflect using what one knows presently. Furthermore, I propose that while the conventional interactions among faculty are rewarding and comforting, there is a need to move from interesting conversations to intentionally planning as a basis for developing a solid foundation for collaborative work. New faculty orientation and initial training, regular staff meeting and development, curriculum planning workshop, and faculty retreat must take place on a regular basis to weave together approaches to teaching, learning, assessment, and curricular design. I hope through these efforts, we are founding a learning community through partnership with all faculty members.

As idealistic as I am, I am also a realist. I encounter many ‘cultural’ difficulties (lack of culture of learning) and intricate challenges (different learners cultural background). I constantly look for creative, and subtle ways to achieve my objectives by focusing on my teaching approach, classroom management, and using practical research based solutions to learning (integrated learning for students). I try to create a learning ‘milieu’ where the educational environment should be a caring, nurturing, yet challenging place in which all students feel free, safe, and comfortable to express views, ask questions, and seek answers without fear of rejection or criticism. All my instructions and assessments are organized around the students’ needs, abilities, skills, interests and intended outcomes. After all, what students understand and how well they understand it is deeply connected to my teaching practices (Gillies Malnarich and Emily Decker Lardner, Designing Integrated Learning for Students, Winter 2003).

Teaching at the university level gives me an ample opportunity to learn about the higher educational system in Cambodia where most students are passive recipients of knowledge and skills. They are capable but unwilling to put in the hard work required at the university level. Most of them are lack of intrinsic motivation. They wait for an instructor to tell them what to do, study, and act. They wait for me to tell them what to learn and follow. They copy everything I write on the white board. They are dependent learners. In the instant gratification Cambodian society, they have forgotten that anything valuable takes time to produce. I believe that who they want become is formed by key components and elements that take years, decades, and lifetimes to perfect. Good study habits, morality, ‘ethical’ character and integrity don't materialize overnight, especially in today’s polluted Cambodian society where the immoral become acceptable and the impossible become possible (bribery). I constantly remind them there are no shortcuts and no substitution to hard work and creativity. Those skills must be learned and built step-by-step, stone-by-stone, and instance-by-instance over time. They must learn to do the right things. They must understand and value the importance of hard work, disciplines, and strong determination (adhitthāna). After all, the majestic temple of Angkor Wat wasn’t built in a day, neither is their good reputation, their honor and their moral character.

As an academic lecturer at PUC, I believe that all students are capable of accomplishing greatness, but few ever do. Only them know what they are capable of achieving. According to Buddha, they are their own master (in learning); they make their own future (Attā hi attano nātho. Attā hi attano gatti). I have noticed while most students are eager and capable to learn, they also carry some negative values and futile habits that allow the culture of cheating and dishonesty to thrive when they move to university. I believe they lack a sense of integrity and pride in academia because they live in a corrupted society that does not value real education (hard earned diploma). For instance, very few value the importance of reading and writing. A good number of them often miss classes or arrive late. They come unprepared because they are not taught to read the required textbook and supplemental materials prior to class, which are part of real and advanced learning. They frequently fail to complete their necessary assignments to master the subject. Most of them are capable but unwilling to put in the hours and the dedication. They believe the best way to get good grades is not through hard work but through cheating and personal connection. They seem unwilling to study hard and persevere. If they don't change their attitudes about the value of knowledge and learning they will be left behind. They must be taught that no life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, and disciplines.

Those habits and work ethic have grave consequences. It will make students’ higher education worthless and reflect on the poor quality of education and the human resources. There is a real cost to this behavior. Will investors want to invest in a country with a sub-standard work force? I think not. The effect to our national development, economy and general wellbeing are at risk with the lack of quality of our human resources. These poor ethical work habits must be transformed and replaced with the culture of hard work and developing the right attitude to achieve their desired goal. Students learn what they study, and how much they learn in large measure determined by how much time they are engaged in that study. They must recognize and abide that reading and writing assignments, homework, class participation, research, exams, and all the other difficult parts of learning are essential and necessary. They must understand that results don’t just happen they are the product of time, energy, and commitment.

We, as educators, parents, government officials and citizens must do what we can to improve both the cultural as well as the practical aspect of education. We must strive to coordinate our efforts, to help each other improve our teaching methods. We must work with parents to give them better tools to motivate their children and show them that getting a college education is a path and key to success. I applaud the government stand on wanting to improve the quality of higher education (tertiary education) and capacity building project (World Bank Project). We must all recognize that without an educated and competent workforce, Cambodia cannot compete on an equal scale with our neighbors. Providing quality education for all is one of the most important developmental tools to combat poverty, promote prosperity, and create a better Cambodia where inequality and lack of opportunity devastate families, hamper growth and cause instability. As citizens, we must demand from our government as well as our higher educational institutions a commitment to knowledge, rational and critical thinking. We need to do better to support these young scholars personal and intellectual development if we do not want to sink further into darkness and despair. Students are the seeds and we are the soil. No matter how vigorous the seeds are, if the soil does not provide nourishment of the heart and mind, the seeds will not grow and flourish.

Buddha once said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I believe the primary function of education is to not only imparting knowledge, but also to supporting and developing students’ innate wisdom (paññā) throughout the entire time they are in school. I also believe good teaching never comes from fear or force. The best teaching sermons are lived not preached. Often, in a classroom setting, the instructor makes decisions regarding the information that is covered and the skills that are developed. However, I think students learn best when they can be part of decisions regarding what materials or strategies should or should not be taught. Learners should be full participants and engage in the learning process. Decisions should be made with the learners, not for the learners. All the contents and activities will be learner-centered. Students need to gain their own skills not just see a demonstration of the skills an instructor possesses. They ought to be able to use what they know as evidence of learning.

At the university, we need these students to be the best they can be. And that means making Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia the best it can be. We must work on developing a wide range of creative solutions together using learner-center approach, combined with communicative method and resiliency. This kind of teaching is different from traditional education. To develop responsible learners, one must listen to the students’ interests. Listening is learning. Consequently, listening to students will prompt the students to begin to listen to teachers and teachers begin to listen to students. From this great mutual understanding and respect develop. Students will learn to manage their learning, discover their own learning needs, think and problem solve by themselves. They will begin to see the whole picture. They become proactive learners, self-motivated, and competent lifelong learners. Furthermore, since learning is an inside job, I encourage students to explore, experiment, reflect and answer their own questions through critical thinking activities. After students become convinced through resilient strengths they have what it takes to succeed; they persevere in the face of adversity and rebound from setbacks, emerge stronger and become self directed. This way, they learn how to think and believe in themselves. Then, real learning and understanding start taking root; students learn to make good choices and start being accountable and responsible for their own behaviors (check my article on “Liberating Education”). In that case, according to the Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire, "Education is a constant process for the liberation of human beings.”

Academic life is fascinating and challenging. While teaching at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia is a rewarding experience; working with the youngsters and faculty is a paradox where the “Commitment to Excellence” (PUC’s slogan and ideal culture) and the lack of standards, discipline and learning values among students clash. The wonderful opportunity to share my knowledge with students, make new friends, and establish collegial relationships in my own country is always fulfilling, professionally and personally. I hope that this exercise will serve as a means to communicate a reflective inquiry for enhancing the quality of higher education, offer suggestions and possible solutions to the critical problems Cambodia faces such as:

• Strengthening institutional capacities,
• Improving university management and governance,
• Providing a living wage for faculty and incentive,
• Delivering high quality education through heuristic teaching and learning,
• Supporting higher caliber research activities,
• Providing integrative experiences of learning to students,
• Designing substantive curriculum and assessments,
• Modernizing buildings, libraries and classrooms to improve efficiency
• Using relevant textbooks and latest information technology,
• Investing in training and professional development
• Involving parents, community members and all stakeholders.

The views, opinions, and interpretations expressed in this paper are personal and not reflective of others. They are only intended to reflect on my own experience so that others may learn from my efforts.

May the next generation of Khmer students grow up to be an ideal generation with the seed of Dhamma (natural and capable sentient being). May all experience the joy of ‘integrated’ learning (pariyatti and patipatti).

2 comments:

Norith said...

Congratulation for your dedication to teach our people to become the best they can be.
Norith

Alyssa said...

Thank you for that beautiful and insightful reflection! I myself find great meaning in teaching others. What helps me greatly is the guidance of special mentors who are not only intellectually capable but full of wisdom as well.

In your journey as teacher and learner, do you also have special mentors? What makes them special? :)