Rekindling the Joy of Learning
"The joy of learning is as indispensable in studying as breathing is in running."
– Simone Weil
Many are the number of universities in Bangladesh, both public and private. Large numbers of students graduate every year from these institutions. But how many of them really experience the joy of learning? This question must be answered by the country's academic institutions.
Few things can bring as much joy as learning something new—a powerful experience that feeds one's curiosity and provides deep insights about the world around you. It is a vital part of growing personally and professionally. To prepare the country's future generations as change-makers, they must be equipped with the right education and experience. If they experience no sense of joy in the process of learning, are they even learning anything?
Psychologists portray the joy of learning as an experience of conquering. "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Frederick Douglass contends that challenges are an indispensable part of learning and growing: Students will only experience deep learning when they taste the achievements of small intervening goals. A balance is also required between the tasks assigned and the mental ability of the students. The struggles should be such that students are not driven to states of stress and depression; rather the level of challenge should help them to discover their autonomy, creativity and innate potential. The process of learning will never be enjoyable if the teachers do not spend sufficient time and effort in making their courses vivid and fun-filled. Chances are also high that students will enjoy their learning experience when their teachers love teaching, and when their dedication and passion are contagious.
Getting admission into one of the better universities in Bangladesh requires some effort, and comes with expectations that students will emerge from a rich and deep learning experience. Most students in the first semester of their universities, after conquering their admission challenges, speak passionately about their institutions. However, for many, that passion begins to wane; for some, rather quickly—almost in the blink of an eye. Instead of being drawn into the realms of discovery, they are burdened with rote memorisation and having to spend time preparing for one exam after another. And as the institutions fail to engage the students mentally and emotionally, often suppressing their innovative and creative ideas, boredom and frustration quickly replace the anticipated joy from the academic experience.
For many, there is no real learning and they wonder—why am I here? At a leading university, one student commented, "This institution should not be bragging about its glory; it should change its intake procedure, enable students to learn, and update [the] curriculum properly. This world needs skills, not certificates." Unfortunately, most of the students these days have come to believe that the only outcome they are ever going to have from their university experience is a certificate that may be worth very little.
This situation is common not only in the private universities of the country; some feel it is even worse in the public universities. The nation's primary and secondary education systems are perhaps far worse.
The academic programmes and curricula offered in the present-day universities are unimaginative, outdated and simply boring. The courses promote neither experiential learning nor allow for developing analytical or problem-solving skills. In Bloom's Taxonomy parlance, courses in the higher education sector still focus on "remembering", where students merely recall and recite basic concepts and facts. Some term it as parroting! Reaching higher levels of the taxonomy is something one can only dream about. Even in this era of digitalisation, when students are surrounded with information resources, the academic programmes and curricula are dated and unimaginative, and students are "made to" focus on passing exams that often require them to regurgitate class lectures and notes prepared by their seniors years ago!
The faculty members of the universities are not always to blame. They suffer the deficiencies of an insensitive, ill-trained and non-responsive administrative system that has not figured out how to bring change. Revenues and costs are always big issues, and the faculty are made to slave through unreasonably high course loads to meet targets. If you ask them what demotivates them from being more engaging, interactive and creative, to make the learning process interesting and interactive, one answer will invariably surface: they are overloaded with courses to teach and the overbearing size of a typical class. On top of that, they are expected to handle various administrative responsibilities and conduct research! They are often so pressured by subtle threats that they shy away from trying to bring any change to it.
To bring back the joy of learning in academia, it is necessary to shake things up a little. Competent, experienced, and motivating teachers often influence student achievement the most. But this requires some element of training. Faculty members, both new and experienced, should thus be exposed to ways in which they can create interactive and challenging learning environments both inside and outside the classroom. Eventually, those who accept, adopt and adapt to new pedagogies (actually, andragogies), and are certified, can become the forerunners of change in the country's academic environment.
Of course, training must be accompanied by different mechanisms of student evaluation, reasonable teaching loads, and rewards for innovative and creative teaching. Such changes are imperative if students are to be converted into human assets, future leaders, problem-solvers, and conscious and conscientious citizens. Today, new thinking must permeate higher education to make it change for the better. With changed thinking, trained teachers will assume the role of competent and creative souls this nation desperately needs today to nurture future generations. A new breed of teachers, at all levels, can be the pacesetters bringing a revolution to academia in this country, with rich dividends. The question is, who will pave the way? When?
Mimosa Kamal is working on her MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, and former Vice Chancellor, BRAC University. The article is a result of Dr Andaleeb's collaboration with IBA, Dhaka University students to turn the spotlight on higher education in Bangladesh.