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Empower the student to learn

We could use a different approach to technical education

At the beginning of the week I was talking to my coworker Patricia about how education is approached in our country. She coordinates a regional program aiming to strengthen technical education in different fields, like math, science, industry-applied technology and school management. The program’s various groups in different regions of the country do not work directly with students; they work with teachers and school principals. The aim is to train educators and hence improve technical education by setting higher standards.Patricia was telling me how Gabriel and Alejandro, the head tutors in the school management area, have a liberal approach to education, and what a challenge it was to introduce these principles in technical education.

“They want to empower the student, work with the previous knowledge they have. You say this to an engineer, and he will frown and shake his head. Engineers think of their science as hard knowledge that cannot be approached through discussion. The problem goes even deeper: It originates in the conception of one perfect student that all alumni should try to live up to. This is not just a viewpoint from engineers, but from almost all actors in the educational system. Nowadays we are trying to uproot the concept of the model student, and we are working to introduce subjectivity into educational approaches,” she told me.

I knew what she was talking about.

Sergiu, a classmate from Berlin, gives a presentation on a sculpture in Florence

Doing my master’s in Berlin was the first time I encountered liberal education. It has many principles, but in general terms, we could put it this way: There are no professors, there are only classical texts; knowledge is gained through discussion and questions. A typical day started with a lecture from a faculty member, who gave his or her interpretation of the chapters we had previously read, and opened the field for questions and discussion. Then we would go on to our seminar group and discuss the text and our ideas on it. This was the method for core courses. For electives, we only had seminar groups. Furthermore, there were no exams – only essays.

This approach to education really changed me irreversibly. I strongly believe it develops critical thinking in students, a capacity to question everything (with a proper argument), and not just take in anything from whoever is saying it. It is about building skills for having rich discussion with well-developed ideas. And it appeals above all else to the students’ creativity, while at the same time it empowers them by valuing their capacity to reason and their previous knowledge.

Thinking of what Emmy said in her entry, that education in Kenya kills creativity, I believe it could strongly be related to how theoretical learning is approached. This is, I believe, similar to the challenge I was talking about with Patricia: How to introduce a liberal approach to education in hard science teaching. I think it’s not about denying the value and strength of theories, but, rather, finding a way to make the student aware of his or her own capacities and encourage them to use these as the principal motive to acquire knowledge.


June 21, 2012 | 6:00 pm