Science is a peculiar thing. The more you know of it, the more you know that you don’t know. As a university teacher, I, off course, highly regard science. I was watching Dumbo the Movie and one particular line stroke me: “if you show no interest, you don’t deserve to know”. I always show this quote to my students in the beginning of my classes, with deep realization that inducing students’ interest is indeed one of my job as a teacher. However, knowing something is only a small part in the learning process.
University teaching is not merely a transfer of knowledge, but rather a co-production of it. I will not pretend that I know everything and students do as I say, nor should they elevate me to such a position. With the fastly developing information technology, students can learn better by reading by themselves, browsing search engines, enrolling in an online course, watching YouTube videos, and so on. “I honestly don’t know, why don’t we together find out about this and discuss this next week?” is something I would say when students come up with difficult questions. My job of transferring knowledge is moot compared to the endless opportunities of individual learning outside the classroom. Each year, my course evolve with new knowledge that my students and I learn along the way. Thus, my main responsibility inside the classroom is not to deliver materials, but rather to induce a life-long learning skill necessary for success in the 21st century.
Life-long learning is not the only skill necessary for graduates to thrive in the 21st century. Suara Citarum, a collaborative project between Van Hall Larenstein University, the Netherlands, Institut Teknologi Bandung, and Telkom University, emphasizes on the urgent needs for critical thinking, reflexivity, media literacies, creative methodologies, ethics, and self-management and communication among the university graduates. These skills are important if we hope that the graduates are able to successfuly contribute in times of sustainability. But how do we train such abstract skills? Indeed it is not as easy as to flip your palm. Even the teacher, me, needs to learn this skill first.
Consciousness, I think is a way to integrate the learning of the 21st century-skills in my teaching. Being conscious while teaching means persistently aware of students’ state and needs. Indeed, a well-designed course is the foremost requirement for a successful learning, but being flexible is also as important. I once talked to my old friend who teaches in a private university and she told me that sometimes, some students have never even used Microsoft Excel, and how can we expect them to make statistical models with Excel at the first go? Students start at different points in learning, and it’s my responsibility as a teacher to meet them there and build the same foundation for each student. If I want my students to produce great essays, I have to make sure first, for example, they all have access to internet, know how to use academic search engines, and understand the structure of a good essay.
In my teaching, I find that listening to students is as much as important as speaking to them. Based on my experience, students are just eager to talk given the right incentives. I once used what I called as a “token-economy”. Students basically collected tokens when they were active in class; they exchanged these tokens later with extra points at the end of the class. This approach, was not as effective as I hoped. Based on the feedback of the students, token economy ignited unhealthy competitions and highlighted the “show-offs” among them. So I ditched token-economy completely. In the following years, I realized that it is more important to seek the intrinsic motivation for students to become active in class rather than using the extrinsic one such as token economy. Sharing something is apparently internally rewarding. This internal rewards works wonder to get students to speak. What’s challenging is to gently correct the students should they are principally wrong about something without crushing their intrinsic motivation.
A good exercise to make students become active in class is what I do in the very first session of the class. I ask student to mention their name and share something that they are into, for example, some students are into climbing, anime, or art. This is not only a good exercise for them to speak up, but I can also memorize their name easier by associating the names with something. For example, Maria is the one who likes to climb. Jason is the one who is a dog person. Tasya, with a purple highlight, is a fan of Japanese culture, and so on. This is also an opportunity for me to build rapports with the students.
A good rapport is hard-earned luxury. An effective way to build rapport, which consequently enhance connection with students, communication and eventually learning, is to open up to my students. For example, I teach Mental Health and Built Environment in a session. I openly admitted that I am a survivor of a bipolar disorder, and the students were more engaged to the materials. Even so, putting boundaries are often challenging. During my entire career, I have countless of students coming to me because they feel depressed. I cannot lie and say that this does not overwhelm me, but trying to be a good listener is the least one can do in this kinds of situations. It is imperative then to have access to mental health care that I can recommend my students to go to.
Another way to enhance learning is to instigate emotions in the content of learning. It is helpful to find ways that makes the content of learning relatable, relevant and more meaningful. For example, in Environmental Health class, I put fictional characters and real life experiences in my presentation. In the Sociosphere session, we explore the lives of two fictional characters who were supposedly exposed with different hazards through their life courses, causing these two end up with different life expectancies. In the Maternal Health session, I talked about how my life was while I was pregnant, was exposed to metals during my last trimester, and my struggle to keep my babies healthy. Sharing personal experiences, related to the content of learning, and how I feel about it, add values to seemingly two-dimensional materials. In another course, Sustainable Sanitation, I play this wonderful, yet emotional TEDTalk video by David Damberger in the class. I had students literally crying in my class for various reasons (not because I scold them), and I think, that is a good thing? Anyway, I want my students to get emotionally connected to the materials. Affect apparently does wonder to the eagerness to learn and performance in the class.
I teach heavy-reading courses, such as Environmental Health, Water Governance, Behavior Change, Environmental Economics, etc. Critical reading and writing are skills that I first thought high school graduates are prepared for. Boy, I was wrong. Our basic education curricula, until I write this piece, ill equip students with such critical skills. Students often struggle to read long materials and learn better by watching Vimeo. Nevertheless, critical reading and writing are classic yet profound skills I believe the students need. Thus, training them to read is a big homework for the first few weeks of the course. Those who attend my classes may know that there are two important parts of the course: reading assignment and writing assignment. Again, what’s important is to ensure that all students have the same start on reading and writing skills. That means I have to develop extra instructions on “how to read critically” and “how to write critically” at the beginning of each course.
My first experience of teaching was in 2006 when I was a graduate assistant. It took me 14 years to find my style of teaching. Style, as a matter of fact, is a blend of form and content. Opening up to students, encouraging communications, and instigating emotions are my strategies to enhance deep learning. It takes weeks of hard work to put together a lesson plan that at least scratches a surface of critical thinking, reflexivity, media literacies, creative methodologies, ethics, and self-management and communication in one course. But nothing is more important than that. Because every time I am about to walk in into a class, I exercise one mindfulness practice: being aware with my breath and repeatedly thinking “the future of this country is in my classroom today” (and if international exchange students are present, “the future of the world”, okay, no pressure there). My style of teaching is indeed consciously evolving because the needs of the students evolve too in the ever-changing world that we live in.