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December 21
2012年12月21日

從十二月二十一日的笑話
談教學

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在台北搭計程車,聽到一則笑話。

話說一位老師問他的學生:「如果世界末日真像馬雅曆法預言般,於今年十二月二十一日到來,你最想做什麼?」

「我最想上老師的課。」學生無奈地說。

「你這麼喜歡上我的課?」老師不解地自言自語。

「因為上老師的課,可以讓我度日如年。」學生如實回答道。

像這樣的老師和學生,我們身邊到底有沒有呢?

由此想起年輕時在台灣上過的必修課:三民主義。很多同學翹課,即使坐在班上也不專心聽講,但學期結束時,考試沒有人不及格。如今偶然也聽說,有些大學的課堂內,老師在講台上講課,下面坐著的學生玩手機,真正認真聽課的寥寥無幾。這些現象到底是怎麼一回事?修以上這些課與聽講是否並無關係?

說到這裏,當然也忘不了學生時代,台灣那些令人回味的課程與學識淵博的授課老師。

最近,一些大學校園內的教研活動引起不少關注。其中之一就是哈佛大學為本科生開的通識課程。這些課程是數理工程、人文、社科各類學生都要修讀的。其中有些課程較其他的更受注意。如今一門廣受歡迎的科目,是由知名的政治哲學教授 Michael Sandel講授的 "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do"(正義:一場思辨之旅)。

這門課還藉由電視向外國幾家大學播出,已成為哈佛開放式課程之一,講課實況上載於 YouTube(優眺網),開闢出一個「全球課堂」( global classroom),面向全球。現場學生通常超過五、六百人,把演講廳擠得滿滿的;即便如此,學生提問踴躍,教與學雙方都積極主動,十分投入。

Sandel 曾經是哈佛最受學生歡迎的教授。但是,最近一位在哈佛任教的好友 H. T. Kung 教授告訴我,今年在哈佛更受歡迎的是 David Malan 教授講授的電腦課 "Computer Science 50"(簡稱 CS50 )。

Malan 教授的課堂上同樣問答踴躍,師生互動熱烈。近年來,選讀 CS50的學生持續加多,從2010年到2011年,增加了32%,2011年秋季到今年9月又增加了20%,如今同處一堂課的選讀學生超過七百人。科技時代,數據資料泛濫,電腦通識科目吸引同學,可以了解。然而,如果不是 Malan 教授有過人之處,修課同學不會如此踴躍。

哈佛另有一門「經濟學原理」(簡稱 EC10),選修的同班學生經常超過五百人,主講該課的 Gregory Mankiw 教授認為:做個有知識的公民,經濟學的基本原理必不可缺,也可為多種職業生涯打下良好根基(Learning the basics of economics is essential for being an informed citizen, and it is a good foundation for many career paths.)。教授傑出,選讀 EC10 的學生人數居高不下,理所當然。

我在探討教學與科研的關係時(見 Clarifying Some Myths of Teaching and Research,新竹:國立清華大學出版社,2009;簡體字版,知難行易、教研合一,北京:清華大學出版社,2011)指出,教學的內容重要,課堂上師生的答問互動,取決於充實的課程內容。

至於充實的內容,則有待研究與不斷地探討更新來充實。如果內容生動、充實、引人入勝,即使一個班級的人數大,課堂內的互動也未必因此減弱;無論科技也好,人文、社會科學也罷,類多如此。如果內容貧乏,就算是一對一的交談,都有可能引人沈沈入睡。

今天是十二月二十一日,世界沒有末日。上述三位哈佛教授的熱門課程,或者一些教學不力的課程,可算是一些實例,讓我們研究探討。

 

註:本文載於星島日報(2012年12月21日)。

Content matters: the appeal of a successful course

A Taipei taxi driver told me a joke. It was about a conversation between a teacher and his student regarding the Mayan myth of the end of the world.

A teacher asks one of his students: "What is the one thing you'd like to do most if the world does come to an end as foretold by the Mayan myth?"

"I'd like to be in your class," the student replies reluctantly.

"Is my class that appealing to you?" the teacher mutters to himself, puzzled.

"No, but sitting in your class makes a day feel like a year," the student says matter-of-factly.

Are there such teachers and students around us?

The joke reminds me of my younger days in Taiwan where we used to have a compulsory course on the Three People's Principles. Many students skipped the class. Even if they did not, they never really paid attention to what was being taught. And yet everyone passed at the end of the semester. Coming closer in time, I occasionally heard of classes in universities nowadays where students were either eating or busy doing things with their mobile phones while their teacher was lecturing. Very few listened attentively. What's going on in our classroom?

I thus come to think of some of the General Education (GE) courses at Harvard University, which the students, regardless of their disciplinary background, are required to take. Some of them, understandably, are more appealing to students than others. "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do", taught by Michael Sandel, a well-known political philosopher and a professor of political science, is among the most popular.

Now broadcast via TV to several universities in foreign countries, this course has become one of the open courses provided by Harvard University. Professor Sandel's lectures are uploaded onto YouTube, creating a global classroom. Viewers see a lecture hall packed with more than 600 students. Nevertheless, all are engaged in the active exchange of teaching and learning as students fall over each other in asking questions.

Professor Sandel has once been the most beloved teacher at Harvard, but I learned most recently from my good friend Professor H. T. Kung, who also teaches at Harvard, that the most popular course at Harvard these days is "Computer Science 50" (CS50), offered by Professor David Malan. One sees a similar kind of vibrant discussion and active interaction between the teacher and the students. More and more students have selected this course in the past few years. The enrollment figure shows an increase of 32% from 2010 to 2011 and a further growth of 20% from the fall of 2011 to September of 2012, as the number of students exceeds 700. In the present era of science and technology, it is easy to understand why computer science has a particular appeal to students.

"The Principle of Economics" (EC10) is another popular course, offered by Professor Gregory Mankiw, who believes that "Learning the basics of economics is essential for being an informed citizen, and it is a good foundation for many career paths." With a distinguished professor at the lectern, it is only natural that the enrollment number of EC10 has remained high.

In my study on the relationship between teaching and research, I have pointed out that the content is the most important thing in a course. The quality of the interaction between the teacher and students is contingent upon the content. As long as the content is substantive and lively, the number of students will not affect classroom interactions. This is true regardless of the discipline in question, be it science, the social sciences or the humanities. If the content is lacking, even one-to-one contact cannot but draw yawns from a student. And substantive content is of course dependent upon tireless research.

The three popular GE courses offered by professors at Harvard described above and conversely those that are ineffective are but a few cases worthy of our attention.

Note:
This article was originally published in Chinese in the Sing Tao Daily (21 December, 2012).

December 21, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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