Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaching or Research?


This topic on teaching-research nexus has always been at the back of my mind for some time. I wanted to blog about this topic, so I started some research to find out whether teaching and research are intertwined or otherwise. Wow, what did I find? I didn't realize that hundreds of researches have been carried out on the research-teaching nexus and how it relates to ways in which research supports teaching and vice versa. The verdict? Hmmm...interesting...but I will try to summarize the research findings in my future article. Anyway, Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Chemistry Nobel laureate, remarks: “Why do today’s university faculty so rarely apply the same innovation and energy to their teaching that they invest in their research? There is no mystery here. Good teaching may be appreciated, even applauded, but good research is at the heart of the reward structure” (Science 299, 165, 2003).

So is this about monetary or material reward? Can we get more great teachers and educate more lifelong long learners by giving material incentives to teachers? Hmm...Everything seems to be driven by money. Ah, well...reality of life. But wait...read the latest research on the impact of giving incentives to teachers. Daniel H. Pink (author of the book 'Drive') has written an article "Does giving teachers bonuses improve student performance?" based on the latest research finding. Go ahead and read the gist of the finding - you can download the original research article as well.

To start the ball rolling, I have interviewed two of my colleagues, Professor Fong Soon Fook and Associate Professor Mahamad Hakimi Ibrahim. Fong is a Professor of Multimedia Education at the School of Educational Studies and Hakimi is a lecturer with Chemical Engineering background from the School of Industrial Technology.

1. What is your idea about “transforming higher education”? Is it really necessary?

PROF FONG: Quality of Public Higher Education in Malaysia is dynamically being redefined again and again based upon the changes in the top-down policies of the Government and The Ministry of Higher Education.  I am of the opinion that the players in the Public and Private Higher Education are compartmentalized and playing their own local R&D game. Such an “inbreeding” might sporadically bring in some surprises once in a while by some individuals. Such a pattern has been going on and will continue with poor return-of-investment.

Is transforming higher education necessary? YES! We need an aggressive and dynamic transformation. The talents in the Malaysian higher education institutes are plenty. Let us tear down the “territorial” fences & slogans and be governed by a corporate-consensus of one vision and one goal to bring this small but dynamic nation forward. As we blend and cross-breed academically, I strongly believed that the “hybrids” and synergy generated by like-minded researchers and academics will result in a “tipping-point” to suddenly transform the landscape of higher education in Malaysia. 

DR HAKIMI: Yes, current higher education seems to serve the market forces/hegemony, where our students are basically ‘manufactured’ for a conveyor belted society. Some called it academic capitalism.(By the way do you think people are on the same wave length as to what constitutes education, higher education and hence transforming higher education?).

2. Do you think there is a conflict between teaching and research at a research-intensive university like Universiti Sains Malaysia?

PROF FONG: Research ought to complement teaching. There are plenty of researches conducted in the Public Universities. The findings and implications of the studies are more often than not, resting on the shelves in the libraries and resource-rooms.  USM as a research-intensive university should take the initiative to conduct an annual “review and upgrading” of the course curriculum.  Such current curriculum with added values from research findings will be a great advantage to our main key stakeholders – our graduates.

DR HAKIMI: No. Both are complementary.

3. In the context of USM, do you think research has been given special attention at the expense on teaching?

PROF FONG: As long as the promotion criteria give more emphasis to publications and conference presentations related to research, it will be more than natural that academics will be inclined towards spending more time and efforts in research at the expense on teaching.  At this point, I suggest that the administrators of higher education help academics balance their management of time and efforts. To this effect, the paper chase for KPIs needs to be reviewed. Let us be reminded that our core-business is indeed “teaching and learning” and raising a breed of 21st century skilled graduates to help realized the growth and vision of our nation.  Alvin Toffler phrased it very well – “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.  May we be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn the art of balancing teaching with research.

DR HAKIMI: Not quite. In fact the so called attention has arrived rather late. The acceleration in research activities goes together with the greater accessibility to internet based research materials and better staff global networking. We are responding to the changes happening globally.

4. Do you think research can enhance the quality of faculty’s teaching and students’ learning?

PROF FONG: On one hand, university graduates must be grounded with basic foundations of various disciplines.  On the other hand, our undergraduates should be kept in pace with the latest in research-findings related to their core disciplines. For all you know, such graduates will stand above the crowd and is “market-ready” to lead with the latest findings from the faculty’s research. I am always reminded a quote come from John Dewey “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”.

DR HAKIMI: Of course.

5. Do you think we should have a separate track for teaching and research? I mean a staff can opt to focus only on teaching OR on research.

PROF FONG: In the university, teaching and research ought to be in the same track. Having been a  school teacher for 20 years before joining the university,  my first love and passion have been teaching. Since joining USM as a lecturer-cum-researcher, my teaching contents have been frequently upgraded with current findings which in turn help upgrade the competency of my students in various aspects. Teaching and research should indeed go hand in hand.

DR HAKIMI: Possible. But the choice is up to the lecturers – to do singly or both.However we should allow the lecturers to ‘discover themselves’ and not to force a track to ‘manufacture’ an automaton in teaching or research or both. Part of research is the staff ‘researching’ into themselves. To discover their raison d'ĂȘtre. It is to answer the quranic question ‘fa-aina tazhabun’ – where are you going? Part of teaching is to know that we have to learn for knowledge and wisdom. All these should bring us to the One with knowledge and wisdom – AlAleem and AlHakeem. This is where the transformation of higher education should bring us to. Bringing us back to the realization that Allah is The Lord and we are His servants and caliphs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Learning – from cradle to grave


"Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...and without knowledge many experiences in life remain very narrow and very shallow..." - Professor Walter Lewin, Professor of Physics, MIT.

While browsing the internet recently, I came across a picture of the giant mainframe computer of the early '80s. While staring at the picture, I was reminiscing the time back in 1988 during my time as a master's student at the University of Reading, England. For the first time in my life, I had to use a computer to prepare a linear regression plot using a software called Lotus 123. That was still the early days of computer and it marks the beginning of my exploration into the wonderful creation of modern time  computer. It was indeed an exciting and thrilling experience for me to be able to plot a graph and derive the equation so easily. I remember using a software called 'Chi-Square' (if I'm not mistaken) as word processor as well as for drawing a simple flow chart. To draw a simple rectangle or square, I had to press the keyboard key several times horizontally and vertically  just to get a simple box shape! Then Word Perfect came to the fore and later became a very popular word processor (apart from Word Star). It has very basic features, just enough to get your work done. It doesn't have What You See is What You Get (WYSWYG) interface but rather what you see is totally different from what you actually get when printed. So on the screen you see yellow text to represent underlined text, green text to represent bold text, etc.  and you have to memorize a few key commands (so rote learning has its role!).

I became very interested and fascinated with computer, partly because I had to use it to analyze data from my research work. So my acquaintance with computer was partly by default but it was also by choice because somehow I could sense the potential of the technology and how I could leverage it for my work. I started to 'indulge' in computer and tried to get my hand on any form of learning materials (mainly book and magazine which are very scarce). My other learning resources include a few very helpful technical staff from the computer centre. There's no formal training  it's mainly learning by reading, asking and DOING!

What's the point of telling this story? Well, there are a few points relevant to knowledge and learning...

First, all of us are learners  and lifelong learners. We learn new things every day. In a publication of the World Bank entitled, "Lifelong Learning in the Global Knowledge Economy: Challenges for Developing Countries", lifelong learning is defined as follows: "A lifelong learning framework encompasses learning throughout the lifecycle, from early childhood to retirement. It encompasses formal learning (schools, training institutions, universities); nonformal learning (structured on-the-job training); and informal learning (skills learned from family members or people in the community).  It allows people to access learning opportunities as they need them rather than because they have reached a certain age".

According to Hargreaves (2004), "Lifelong learning should mean what the term plainly says: learning lasts for life – cradle to grave – and so begins when we are born and embark on the adventure we are well programmed to pursue: learning. The principal function of formal education, therefore, should be to help people to learn, embracing both content (knowledge, skill and understanding of various kinds) and process (the motivation and ability to learn successfully)".

My experience of learning about computer fits in the definition of lifelong learning. I didn't learn computer as a subject in the curriculum but rather it was through informal learning. I constructed my knowledge and skills on using computer practically from zero and build up or accumulate the knowledge over time. I applied my computer skills in my work (as a research student at that time), so I have the opportunity to hone the skills. Soon I became quite good and knowledgable and I spent many hours to help (basically teach) fellow students using computer. All educators would agree, 'the best way to learn is to teach'. Every time when we teach, the knowledge become deeper and deeper and the knowledge expanded. As Professor Walter Lewin said, "Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...". The learning process continues because now I have to learn not only about computer but also new development in various forms of educational technology.

In the context of teaching, teachers have the advantage over their students because they are more experienced learners. Teachers are supposed to have the skills of searching for the right information in the large pool of knowledge in various domains and constructing that knowledge for meaningful learning. It is important that we pass on the skills to our students. The students of the 21st century are going to need the skills of inquiry  of research  if they are to be able to investigate and to learn and hence be employable in the future. The greatest challenge would be to make our students understand that learning new knowledge is not for the sake of getting good grade in the examination. It's easier said than done especially in the examination oriented systems that are prevailing in most institutions but I guess we have to try very hard to change their mind set. We have to convince our students that they need to have a larger sense of purpose beyond personal achievement in examination. Students have to understand that it is the learning skills that they have to develop to prepare them for a future in which learning will occur in a greater range of contexts.

I believe our role as educators goes beyond transmitting knowledge  our role is to nurture our students to become lifelong learners  to teach them the skills of 'learn how to learn' and to teach them the appreciation and the love for knowledge. This is the essence that would enable our students to become successful lifelong learners. Before we can do this, however, we have to be honest and truthful with ourselves  are we a real lifelong learner? Educators must set examples for students by becoming lifelong learners themselves. They have to keep up-to-date with new knowledge, pedagogical ideas, and technology. If students are to become better learners, it is essential for teachers to become better at what they do. As teachers, we should not sit in our comfort zone but we should continue to grow by challenging ourselves to new skills and new knowledge. This can be achieved through a continuous professional development programme or through own initiative to learn through reading, attending short courses and workshops, etc.

Further readings:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Waiting for 'Superman'



"In almost every area of human endeavor, the practice improves over time," says Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. "That hasn't been the case for teaching." This is an excerpt of his interview by PARADE – read the full interview on the Parade website. In the interview, Gates shares his insight about the crisis of American Education system and the movie Waiting for ‘Superman’, a documentary from An Inconvenient Truth's Davis Guggenheim. I have not watched the movie yet but I would surely try to get the DVD and hopefully learn a few things. In the meantime, have a look at the trailer and reviews.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Climbing Bloom’s Ladder of Learning


A Google search on “Bloom’s taxonomy” recently returned an impressive 1.63 million results! Apparently the literature available on the internet is replete with resources about the famous Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. I don’t intend to repeat what Bloom taxonomy is about and how it evolves because I believe you can find wealth of information on various aspects on the topic among the 1.63 million results in the internet. I have selected a few articles (link at the end of this article) for those interested to know more about the various domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) in the original and the revised Bloom’s taxonomy. What I’m interested to talk about in this article is the issue of implementing and infusing the various domains in the curriculum. I’m aware that certain facets of Bloom’s taxonomy have been challenged (for example the hierarchical cognitive domain) but to me this is more of intellectual academic arguments that do not reduce the overall value of the concept. For educators, to teach and not be aware of the value of Bloom’s taxonomy (original or modified from) will do injustice to our students because the taxonomy provides important perspectives that could improve the quality of teaching and learning at all levels.

So what’s the fuss about Bloom’s taxonomy? In a nutshell, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning focused teachers on the educational (learning) outcomes – what students should know and be able to do. How does the taxonomy relates learning outcomes to teaching? For any given curriculum, knowing the intended learning outcomes determine the what, how, and when of teaching. The focus of this article is on the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy although affective and psychomotor domains are equally important. The six components in the original cognitive domain are arranged in hierarchical manner that form ‘a ladder of learning’ that moves stepwise upwards in terms of levels of complexity, i.e., from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract. In this hierarchy form, it is assumed that abilities or competencies needed at the lower levels are also needed as prerequisite to the mastery of skills at higher levels. 


Each step in cognitive domain involves a specific kind of competence that supposedly can be tested with appropriate questions, each of which requires some “action” to demonstrate mastery of the material. The six-tiered steps are:
  1. Knowledge – recall of information, remembering facts and information; tested by questions asking that a student list, define, tabulate, name or identify who, what, when, where, and so on;
  2. Comprehension – understanding of information (considered as the lowest level of understanding), tested by questions with verbs such as summarize, contrast, interpret, estimate, discuss, predict and the like;
  3. Application – use of information to solve problems, ability to apply information or concepts in a new situation; tested by requiring students to demonstrate, calculate, illustrate, examine, show, modify and classify;
  4. Analysis – recognition of patterns, components, organization, both manifest and latent meanings and functions, with verbal cues such as explain, connect, compare, separate and classify; 
  5. Synthesis – generalization and integration of knowledge including generation of new ideas from old ones, relating knowledge across disciplines, drawing conclusions and predicting, according to instructions such as combine, integrate, modify, plan, create, design, generalize and rewrite;
  6. Evaluation – assessment and decision making in response to demands to discriminate among ideas, test hypotheses, appraise theories, construct arguments in support of, or in opposition to, various propositions, verify evidence and recognize bias and subjectivity.
The first three components constitute ‘lower order thinking’ and the last three constitute ‘higher order thinking’ abilities. The original Bloom’s taxonomy has undergone various modifications to reflect new development in cognitive research. The new (modified) Bloom’s Taxonomy was based on the work of Anderson and Krathwohl who incorporates knowledge from contemporary research on learning and human cognition into its model. The components in revised taxonomy are: Remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, and create. The major differences are the revised taxonomy modifies the original vocabulary to make each word more consistent with how it should be used; the new levels are now listed as verbs. For example, the term ‘synthesis’ was changed to ‘create’ because in order to demonstrate synthesis then there need to be a new creation. 


Thoughtful application of Bloom’s taxonomy could serves as a useful structure for writing measurable learning objectives and learning outcomes (LOs). The taxonomy helped to establish a shared, common language for academic assessment and the construction of clear and consistent learning objectives. In fact, detailed schemes and impressive schematic diagrams are available to help educators to write the LOs using specific verbs for each domain. (Fellow blogger, Zaid, has written an impressive and comprehensive article on his blog here). The LOs of the course with all the glory details (matrices, etc.) look nice and impressive on paper but the BIG QUESTION is whether teachers/lecturers are well guided and trained to implement teaching strategies that will help students to achieve the highest cognitive skills. From my discussion with colleagues and educators the general feeling is that the process of writing LOs now has become very mechanistic and to some extent trivialized because now almost anyone can do it without understanding the underlying philosophy that Bloom and others originally intended to achieve in terms of students’ learning. My main concern is that when any process becomes too mechanistic and standardized, there’s a tendency for ‘automation’ and the attitude of ‘just follow the template’, a practice that add little value to either instructional design or the assessment of learning.

I believe that most educators would like their students to function at the highest cognitive levels (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) because these would make them successful lifelong learners (successful beyond the examination hall, hopefully). However, in practice and in reality we have to honestly examine whether our students have enough opportunity to develop these cognitive skills or we (educators) have provided the environment that help to promote the skills. We have to examine and reflect on the way our curriculum is designed and how it is structured and delivered – can we really achieve the higher order learning/thinking or is it barely rising above the comprehension level? I don’t have a definite answer and I’m just throwing this question here for the sake of discussion – if the answer to this question is YES then obviously there is a disconnection between teachers’ sincere hopes and the actual expectations and we need to address this issue.

Let me paraphrase the question to ponder upon: How do we help students to climb the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy to reach the high order cognitive skills? How do we design/approach the teaching and learning process to create an environment that would go beyond the comprehension (understand) and ‘apply’ levels? How do we operationalize the different learning stages into at curriculum and course level? 

I think a good point to start is to change the mind-set of educators that learning involves a simple acquisition of knowledge. Mayer (2002) argued that when taking a knowledge acquisition view of learning, teachers sometimes emphasize one kind of cognitive processing in instruction and assessment—what we call ‘Remembering’. This is basically the lowest level in the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. He asserted that any education system should be based on a broader vision of learning that includes not only acquiring knowledge but also being able to use knowledge in a variety of new situations. 

If I could offer my humble opinion on the issue of ‘climbing the Bloom’s taxonomy ladder’, I would suggest that we take a close look at suggestion by Paulsen (2001) and Shulman (1986) that teachers should master three types of knowledge and competencies: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term coined by Shulman (1986) to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline. I believe that any teacher equipped with these three elements would be able to help students climbing to the top of cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. 

Specific examples on strategies to incorporate and infuse high order cognitive skills can be found from the work of educators from various disciplines. I didn’t do exhaustive search but a few that I found are listed in the reading list at the end of this article. One interesting article that I read with interest was “Teaching Introductory Organic Chemistry: ‘Blooming’ beyond a Simple Taxonomy” by Pungente & Badger (2003). This article provides detailed approach that other educators can take as an example of best practices that can be adopted and adapted in their own classroom. Let me quote two paragraphs (verbatim) from this article:
Our primary goal when teaching introductory organic chemistry is to take students beyond the simple cognitive levels of knowledge and comprehension. We take a mechanistic approach to teaching organic chemistry. This is reinforced by connections to fundamental chemical principles emphasizing a unification of knowledge. Once students begin to appreciate the explanation of organic reaction mechanisms, they start to see these fundamental principles reappear regularly throughout the study of organic chemistry. True connections emerge and students begin to view organic reactions and interactions from a basis of understanding—using skills of synthesis and analysis—rather than rote memory. This ability to understand the connections between general principles and how they unlock the seemingly complex and confusing reactions in organic chemistry is an empowering experience for students. As empowerment replaces the fear, student confidence grows”. 
Like learning a new language, introductory organic chemistry typically begins with the grammar or taxonomy of organic chemistry. This introduction allows the instructor to speak the language of organic chemistry, re-examine principles, and lay the groundwork for advancement into reactions and mechanisms (applications and analysis). However, too often when the instructor kicks into “higher-level cognitive gear”, and begins delving into applications, the students are still functioning at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels, memorizing seemingly unrelated facts. This discrepancy between the instructor’s expectations and student performance becomes painfully obvious at exam time. Often, unintentionally or unknowingly, the instructor teaches at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels but examines at the higher analysis and synthesis levels while the students’ exam expectations remain at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels. The results: students complain that the exams are too hard; the instructor concludes while marking the papers that the students don’t “understand” basic concepts”.
I believe there are more things we can do to help students to achieve meaningful learning in align with Bloom’s taxonomy educational objectives. As I have written in my previous article in this blog, we need to facilitate a paradigm shift from teacher-centered teaching to student-centered learning throughout the curriculum, such that students obtain a deeper learning experience, improve their understanding and ability to apply learning to new situations, enhance their critical thinking and experimental skills, and increase their enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

Comments, views, and suggestions from fellow educators on the questions/issues raised in this article are most welcome.

References and further readings:
  • Use of Bloom’s taxonomy wheel for writing learning outcomes 
  • Bloom Taxonomy (A nice introduction to Bloom Taxonomy; Slideshare presentation) 
  • Kinetic connections: Bloom's taxonomy in action 
  • A picture is worth a thousand thoughts: inquiry with Bloom's taxonomy – nice demonstration of Bloom’s taxonomy in action. It takes you step-by-step through the analysis of a photograph at progressively higher levels of thinking.
  • Green, K.H. (2010). Matching Functions and Graphs at Multiple Levels of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy. Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies – PRIMUS, 20(3), 204–216  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Mayer, R.E. (2002). Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 226-232  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Nentl, N. and Zietlow, R. (2008). Using Bloom's Taxonomy to Teach Critical Thinking Skills to Business Students. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 15(1),159-172  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Paulsen, M.B., “The Relation Between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 19–29  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Pungente, M.D. and Badger, R.A. (2003). Teaching Introductory Organic Chemistry: ‘Blooming’ beyond a Simple Taxonomy. Journal of Chemical Education, 8(7), 779-784 (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Spencer, J.N. (1999). New Directions in Teaching Chemistry: A Philosophical and Pedagogical Basis. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4), 566-569  (Note: you need a subscription).