COLUMN: Revitalizing universities through debate

We must realize that at the very core of education is the concept of questioning the status quo.

The purpose of higher education is to create critical thinkers. However, a continued emphasis on “surface-level learning” hinders innovative discussion.

The one-way teaching model prevents students from developing original thought, and instead perpetuates a system of groupthink and passive learning. It is no wonder then that students are adopting an attitude of general apathy towards the traditional lecture model, and are instead seeking a multifaceted dialogue on world issues through other means.

Lack of student participation is often the complaint of educators. To address these pressing issues, I propose a model for all universities that focuses on debate and discussion.

For centuries, universities have represented a beacon of light in our society. They symbolize the coming together of curious individuals hungry for knowledge. The Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras of human progress, was represented by the convergence of different viewpoints and ideas.

We must realize that at the very core of education is the concept of questioning the status quo. Individuals, like Galileo, were courageous to challenge conventional thought, even in the face of persecution. If universities are to instill the seed of critical analysis, they must start at the lecture hall. Encouraging debate is going to help create the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs, scientists, and policy makers.

In a book released in 2011 by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which cites studies on undergraduate students, the authors find that “45 per cent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ during the first two years of college.” Thirty-six per cent show a similar trend even after four years of college. Critical thinking is vital if we are to reverse such trends.

As a student, I have excelled in classes that rarely encourage even a single discussion throughout the semester, and others that encourage lively debates on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, the most enriching classes have been the ones in which the teacher encourages students to come out of their shell and become active participants in the learning process.

It was during the past semester that I had the chance to be enrolled in a specific political science class, at SFU Surrey, in which the professor, upon a student’s suggestion, decided to designate a portion of class time for debate amongst students. At times, the debates became heated, however, they also encouraged students to engage in dialogue and bring their external knowledge to the classroom.

Such conversations encourage a student to cognitively categorize different topics to support a viewpoint and dissect its meaning. Furthermore, such classes are more effective in teaching students creative and critical thinking.  The professor is able to guide the trajectory of the discussion and can summarize the main points at the end of class.

In order to demonstrate to students that knowledge transcends the lecture hall, we must encourage this type of critical analysis. By failing to do this, our classrooms remain in a state of stagnancy.

As an aspiring tech entrepreneur, I see great potential in the concept of online learning. The recent rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is certainly changing the educational landscape. Yet, it is only a change in the method of educational delivery. MOOCs are not going to replace the lecture room, but are instead going to co-exist with the lecture model.

Learning is a social process. In order for the lecture to remain relevant, however, it must stimulate the minds of students. While many might see such steps being taken only in the realms of the social sciences and arts, the great theories of science and math were also born out of the basic curiosity of critical thinkers. As Bernard Baruch writes, “millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.”

Empowering students to collectively question the world should be at the forefront of education.

Japreet Lehal is a student at Simon Fraser University Surrey. He writes regularly for The Leader.


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