Productive Crossroads: Writing Pedagogy and Nepali ELT
*Dr. Shyam Sharma
Writing for this blog feels like a wish fulfilled. As one of the NELTA members who started ELT Choutari, another blog envisioned and run as an informal platform for the community, I had hoped that other colleagues would start many similar venues; so, when colleagues started this official blog last year, I was delighted. We all grow by giving back to these shared communities, and because these are not like riverside paddy fields to be divided among brothers in the old days, everyone benefits when we add new opportunities and try new approaches.
With that good feeling expressed, let me move toward my topic, one which Shyam Pandey said would be a good one when he invited me to write a post for this forum: the idea of promoting the teaching and scholarship of writing/rhetoric in Nepalese secondary and higher education. This was also among our collective wishes we had when we started Choutari, and I think it is worth continuing the discussion about it. There is room in our conferences, in research and writing, and in curriculum and pedagogy to add substance and quality in this area. As someone who studies and teaches academic and professional writing (I work at a university near New York City), I may be partial in emphasizing the significance of it. But I believe that doing so would help us greatly improve the quality of education from bottom to top. Let me explain by situating writing in the context of our view and systems of education, or how we define and practice learning and teaching.
In Nepal, we seem to just expect our students to just “do” it when it comes to writing. We usually don’t have separate courses (beyond sections in compulsory language courses), and even when we do, the courses seem to quickly turn into lecture-and-exam based practices. Elsewhere (and I’m thinking mainly about the US and Western Europe), students write not only to “demonstrate knowledge” but also to “create” and “express” their own ideas and arguments, feelings and experiences. When they write from or about others’ ideas, they tend to move much more often into analysis and synthesis, as well as review/response and critique. Moving students from repeating and summarizing what they learn from books and teachers into the new direction requires explicit teaching. In fact, if we look at the examination questions in most subjects and at most levels of our education, we can see that the questions do move from demands for summary into instructions for synthesis, from repetition of information to argumentation with support, from demonstration to creation of knowledge. Unfortunately, because students have to dance quite differently in the exams than what they practice in class, they only manage to do what they can: demonstrate what they know, barely doing what the instructions tell them to. For convenience of reference, let us call the traditional approach “understanding-driven” and the other one “expression-driven.” With the former, learners try to understand (and our students do very well in this regard); With the latter, learners are asked to express their own ideas or responses (students often understand texts poorly when focusing on having something to say). Let us also note here that all systems combine elements of different approaches. For instance, our education system continues to be dominated by the objective of mastering content, but it integrates some elements of expression to some extent (but not sufficiently).
Fixing the above challenges will require us to understand the underlying sociocultural reasons and dynamics. Why is that we usually don’t teach students to analyze texts/issues or take/justify their own positions on a subject, but then we ask them to do so? In my understanding, our society seems satisfied when students master the content because it defines education in terms of “acquiring” knowledge rather than “creating” (or discovering) new ideas. Students are not experts, yet the thinking seems to go, so why should we ask them what they think? When teachers take exam questions one step further and ask students to analyze, critique, or argue in response to texts/issues – without sufficiently teaching them those skills, students resort to simply demonstrating the same subject knowledge regardless of the specific instructions in exam questions.
But that is just one example of how the traditional view of knowledge and education, teaching and learning may keep education behind the demands of the times. As I already indicated above, this certainly doesn’t mean that our views and priorities in learning and education are wrong; but it does mean that there are gaps in the system, gaps between goals and approaches, theory and practice, curriculum and pedagogy, teaching and assessment. There are other functions of knowledge and education – with corresponding methods of teaching and learning – and those functions are dominated by the focus on mastery and demonstration of knowledge. For example, the second reason our students pursue education is to “apply” knowledge to get things done. To help them in this area, we may ask them to explore, analyze, organize, and present what they learn. To help them explore an issue, we may ask them to use the library or go to the world outside. To analyze and assess an intellectual or practical challenge, they may break it down to identify its parts and discover how the parts work and relate to each other. Learning to organize ideas may start with methods of invention and end with strategies of presentation.
Other than mastery and application, education also helps learners to “generate” new knowledge, in response to existing knowledge/understanding, in order to identify new solutions or perspectives, or by discovering and finding an expression for their own ideas and experiences. When there is more focus on this function of education, it leans away from mastery and demonstration of existing knowledge to the idea of learning to discover and present new (and ideally/presumably) original ideas or perspectives. In today’s world, professions increasingly depend on individuals “having” and even “selling” their “own” ideas. Think about computer engineers creating/writing new apps for a job or their own company, or even among academics, think about those of us who write books and articles for securing jobs and getting promotion. The computer software or the (no longer always tangible) books and articles are both “new” knowledge and they are intellectual properties. They are, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of plots of land, cattle, and crop harvest that most of our parents or grandparents used to call “property.” So, when we are adopting or shifting to the new view of education as property, we are not simply embracing “Western” culture or even just embracing capitalism; we are responding to a major shift in socioeconomic structure – from agricultural to industrial and service, to knowledge-based – that accepts knowledge as property. And when this shift happens too slow, too fast, or unevenly, our education system doesn’t work as smoothly as it could.
To further illustrate the above tensions, let us look at a few examples from the classroom. While our students read after coming to class and after listening to our lectures and/or engaging in other comprehension activities, students in the expression-driven education system are more often asked to read and do other activities in preparation of class “discussion” or “meeting.” Accordingly, teachers in the latter system are likely to dedicate a lot more time for students to “share” their responses/reactions, analyses/critiques, and arguments/perspectives in relation to what they have read/done during class. As I noted above, all systems use a combination of approaches, so the difference is of degree and not kind. Even with assignments, we tend to focus on the intermediate goal of “applying” rather than moving further into discovery and expression of new and original ideas. Students’ ideas may not always or entirely be novel, but the aim is to help them get there. It is to help them write “papers” that get as close as possible to academic articles or computer applications. The focus and objective of education is to practice and develop the ability to come up with their own analyses and applications, solutions and arguments, even products and services. While the exact tasks and objectives (and their combinations) widely vary in different disciplines and also somewhat from course to course, the idea of students becoming knowledge producers (rather than just consumers) is a general feature of the expression-driven educational cultures.
Thus, in response to the shift in economic systems and opportunities and to globalization and adoption of globally more dominant educational cultures, we need to update how we define, practice, assess, and promote learning (and teaching). Our roles and relationship to students must shift, and so must students’ roles in relation to us. For example, it is not enough to simply make our teaching student-centered without also aiming for a similar outcome; beyond simply giving students activities to complete, teachers must invite students’ response, appreciate their opinion, and value their perspectives. Teachers must create enough room for learners’ own experiences, insights, and intellectual positions in relation to the (potentially dominating) ideas of the authors and experts that they learn from (including the teachers themselves). This doesn’t mean that teachers must remove or lower the high bars of intellectual, psychological, and physical effort; but they must maintain standards while helping students develop their own ideas and positions.
The shift from content-dominant mode of education to greater emphasis on analysis and problem-solving, discovery and expression also seems to better promote education for social justice. In place of experts/teachers dominating the process of learning, learners have greater agency and engagement; learners put knowledge to use, and they develop and share their ideas. Here is another post from the other venue, by Ashok Khati, on a related issue.
The integration – or rather the nature of – academic writing is shaped by how education and learning is viewed in a given culture/system or context. In the knowledge-driven system, students are asked to write to demonstrate what they learn; in the expression-driven system, they are more often asked to use writing to explore and express ideas, even when they must also demonstrate others’ ideas. Because this post is becoming rather long, I would like to link to another blog post that I wrote in ELT Choutari back in 2011 where I said more on this topic and also express some optimism about the generational shift toward our students becoming more interested and able to express their minds through alternative venues (such as social media).
Let me conclude by asking colleagues to share your thoughts in the comments section. How well are we shifting from the older view of knowledge (as mastering content) to views that align better with the knowledge economy? How important is a system change, or can we make considerable shifts in our classrooms while working within the current system? What are some of the specific activities and assignment in which you involve your students in order to promote their epistemological (knowledge-making) agency? Where do traditional methods/focuses work better? Any other issues?
Thanks to readers and kudos again to wonderful younger scholars for running this and other venues of professional conversation.
(*Dr. Shyam Sharma is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York). A former lecturer of Central English Department, Tribhuvan University (Kathmandu, Nepal), he currently specializes in the research and teaching of writing in the disciplines and professions, multilingual/translingual and transnational/cross-cultural issues in writing, and emerging technologies of writing and communication. He is a life member of NELTA and has served as an editor of NELTA Journal.)