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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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“I blame the teachers”

by Paul Temple

If you sometimes get the sense that your teaching isn’t having much effect on the students in front of you, then perhaps you need a bit of advice from colleagues at Hong Kong’s schools and universities. There – at least, according to China Daily, Beijing’s Pravda equivalent (2 September) – the “root cause of young people’s participation in the Hong Kong protests” is to be found in the teaching taking place in high schools and universities. As a result, “rioting protestors are…ordinary young men and women, including many university students who have…lost their moral bearing”. What is this incendiary teaching about, capable of turning normally well-behaved young Hong Kongers into raging mobs? Liberal studies in high schools, covering topics such as “Hong Kong today”, “globalisation”, “energy technology”, and “public health”, are apparently behind a lot of the trouble. Well, the very titles fairly set your pulse racing, don’t they? I’m planning to get one of these Hong Kong teachers, who can apparently turn a class on public health into an incitement to confront the riot police, to share some tips on stopping a class drifting off when one of my own presentations somehow fails to energise them.

But perhaps the real villain of the piece is the teaching of what is described as critical thinking where, to China Daily’s obvious bafflement, “different [textbook] publishers have different political views”. What’s needed, clearly, is for “The government [to] either directly provide contents for the publishers, or establish an official scrutiny mechanism”. I may have missed some nuances in the various posters I saw plastered around Hong Kong during a visit in early September, but I’m pretty sure that “More intervention by Beijing in textbook publishing” wasn’t a key demand of students who have regularly formed peaceful, dignified human chains encircling their university or high school campuses as a gesture of support for democratic values.

This detail perhaps helps illuminate the widening gulf between the Party bureaucrats in Beijing and their local enforcers in the shape of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and the pro-democracy activists, with the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, routinely described in the local press as “embattled”, caught in the crossfire. Local opinion varies on whether she defied Beijing in withdrawing the extradition bill at the centre of the storm, or whether Beijing decided on a tactical retreat which she executed. Both explanations may be partly true.

Either way, “too little, too late” seems to sum up the situation: withdrawal of the extradition bill has done nothing to prevent the protests, which seem to have developed a momentum of their own. Investigations into allegations of police brutality at earlier demonstrations are now a demand, with placards simply saying “831” (a reference to injuries sustained by protestors at an event on 31 August) being displayed at later protests – and so on, and on. Both sides are digging in. Beijing is said to be determined to stop Hong Kong sliding into what is called a “colour” revolution (Georgia and Ukraine being examples, involving massive largely non-violent street demonstrations), but there are also parallels with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. There, concessions made by the communist regimes that would, only months before, have been regarded as major achievements by reformers were, by the time they were made, dismissed as mere stages on the way to wider change. In Eastern Europe, the demand was to return to pre-1945 national democratic (more or less) structures that hardly anyone could remember. The Hong Kong equivalent is to look back fondly on colonial structures and processes. It is a strange feeling for a visiting Brit to see young people, born after British rule had ended in 1997, waving the colonial-era Hong Kong blue ensign as a gesture of defiance. Nothing could be more calculated to enrage Beijing apparatchiks. It is difficult, at the moment, to see this ending well.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.


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Teach someone to fish, and … changing how students think about knowledge and learning

by Elizabeth Hauke

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

There is a long-standing expectation that higher education will produce critical thinkers, able to tackle the big issues of the day. Criticality is tackled differently in various disciplines, and is arguably hardest to develop within traditional science and engineering education where the nature of the learning is more atomistic and cumulative. However, criticality is no less important in science and engineering graduates who are often tasked with becoming innovative problem solvers as well as big thinkers. How can these students be challenged and supported to learn in different ways and consider themselves and their growing relationship with the world around them to a create complex, integrated and dynamic ‘knowing’.

In my paper ‘Understanding the world today: the roles of knowledge and knowing in higher education’, I argue that this ‘knowing’ is a key component of knowledge – that knowledge can be thought of as a process rather than as a defined and static object to be acquired. I explore some philosophical and epistemological underpinnings of the concept of knowledge and relate these to my experience working with final year undergraduate science and engineering students taking an optional history module. The students are used to processing and memorising vast quantities of information for their disciplinary study and approach learning in quite a transactional fashion. They view knowledge as something that is held by experts, and may be bestowed upon them. It has an ethereal, almost holy quality and must not be questioned. We work hard during the module to unpack these preconceptions, and during the classes the students have to build their own knowledge of historical events by gathering evidence, information, opinion and experience and working this into a sense of knowing. As they build an understanding of a phenomenon that has occurred in the world, they must commentate on this process, recognising, reviewing and critiquing how their ‘knowledge’ is developing.

As a learning self-reflection exercise, I recently challenged the student teams to write short stories about their experience of learning on the course. I provided a story structure to help them with plot, and a list of character types to help them get started. The rules stated that the story must include all the students in their team, at least one student from another team, the teacher and someone from outside the module as characters. They could use whatever aspects of their learning experience that they felt were important to form the story.

I was fascinated to find that two of the stories featured ‘knowledge’ as a character. In one story knowledge was a princess that needed to be protected, rescued from danger and allowed to grow and develop in safety. In another, knowledge was a mysterious character that the students needed to find and befriend. This could only be achieved by tackling a number of challenges that showed the students different aspects of knowledge’s character. Once they had overcome these challenges, they were able to find and ‘live happily ever after’ with knowledge. Although these stories were simplistic and admittedly a bit tongue in cheek, they nevertheless revealed novel conceptualisations of knowledge for these students that moved beyond the explicit discussions that we had during the module.

I hope that by working with students to view knowledge as a ‘development of knowing’, a process that they can practice, master and use, they become empowered to use this criticality to inform their engagement with the wider world.

SRHE member Elizabeth Hauke is a Principal Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication at Imperial College, London. She specialises in research, curriculum development and teaching about interdisciplinarity and transferable skill development in higher education, specifically for STEM students. She tweets as @ehauke and @impchangemakers, can be found on Instagram as @imperialchangemakers and has a learning and teaching blog at www.livelovelearn.education.

You can find Elizabeth’s full article (‘Understanding the world today: the roles of knowledge and knowing in higher education’) here:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1544122