Jack and the beanstalk

Once upon a time there was a poor widow who had an only son named Jack. They were so poor that they didn’t have anything except a cow. When the cow had grown too old, his mother sent Jack to the market to sell it. On the way to the market, Jack met a butcher who had some beautiful beans in his hand. The butcher told the boy that the beans were of great value and persuaded the silly fad to sell the cow for the beans.

Jack brought them happily. When he told his mother about this, his mother became so angry that she threw the beans out of the window.

When Jack woke up in the morning, he felt the sun shining into a part of his room but all the rest was quite dark and shady.

So he jumped to the window. What did he see? The beanstalk grew up quite close past Jack’s window. He opened the window and jumped to the beanstalk which ran up just like a big ladder.

He climbed … and climbed till at last he reached the sky. While looking around, he saw a very huge castle. He was very amazed.

Then Jack walked along the path leading to the castle. There was a big tall woman on the doorstep. Jack greeted her and asked for the giantess mercy to give him breakfast, because he felt very hungry. Although the giantess grumbled at first, finally she gave Jack a hunk of bread and cheese and a jug of milk.

Jack hadn’t finished when the whole house, began to tremble with the noise of someone’s coming. “Oh! It’s my husband!” cried the giantess. “What on earth shall I do?”

Hastily the giantess opened a very big cupboard and hid Jack there.

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Teaching critical thinking: A necessity born of diversity

Benedictus Widi Nugroho ,  Yogyakarta   |  Tue, 08/19/2008 10:43 AM  |  Opinion

Our society has a strong tendency to be intolerant and to use violence to resolve conflicts or against those who are different from them. The tendency is likely generated by differences of beliefs, values and/or principles.

The question is: What is the cause of this narrow mindset?

Why do people seem to deny the fact that differences naturally exist in the universe?

Part of the issue is probably school classroom instruction in this country, which is heavily centered on the teacher rather than students.

For decades education in Indonesia has been dominated by teacher-centered instruction and rote learning. I remember very well what my teacher would do in her history class while I was in junior high school. She would come into the classroom, sit down and begin to lecture. All students would sit, listen to the lecture and take notes.

The teacher would also ask her students to memorize all names of the ministers who had assumed office in the Cabinet. Another teacher required students to be able to name the cities where the National Sports Week had been held, including the dates and years they took place.

These examples are perhaps commonplace in most Indonesian classrooms even today.

The critical question is: Do students really learn this way?

If learning is defined as receiving tons and tons of factual information, then they probably do. But, do they develop their thinking? I doubt it.

Facts are undeniably important. We cannot develop our thinking without first knowing about facts upon which our reasoning is based.

Indonesian education curriculum has changed several times, but educational practices in this country remain unchanged. The teacher has always been center stage. Teachers are believed to be all-knowing, almost infallible, and ready to dump information into their students’ head. Students, on the other hand, are seen as blank slates that have no prior knowledge or experience whatsoever.

In teacher-centered instruction, information flows from the teacher to students, and rarely the other way around. The teacher seems to hold the authority to decide what is right or wrong for his or her students. Students probably ask a few questions, and the teacher answers them.

But open discussions, where students can challenge their teacher’s and classmate’s points of view, are very rare. An exchange of ideas between the teacher and students and among students, simply does not exist.

Here lies the problem: Students never learn how to see things from different perspectives.

Classroom instruction without doubt influences the way students think and how they view the world around them. If they are not taught how to see things from multiple perspectives, the chances are they will not. They will embrace an either/or way of thinking, or narrow-mindedness.

An either/or way of thinking suggests that if A is right, B must be wrong, or if B is right, A must be wrong. So, if you think your opinion is right, other opinions must be wrong. If you think your religion is the only true way to God, other religions must not be true.

If you think you come from the “right” ethnicity, people from other ethnic groups must be “wrong”. The list is endless. One can imagine what kind of country Indonesia will be if it is built upon either/or mindset.

Paradigm shifting in educational practice at this point becomes a critical issue. In the context of Indonesia’s pluralistic and diverse society, there is a strong need for classroom instruction emphasizing the thought process. The teacher should start to think about shifting his or her teacher-centered instruction, which is heftily focused on presentation, towards learner-centered instruction, which is greatly focused on engaging students in the thought process.

Instead of being seen as blank slates, students should be treated as living and dynamic human beings with their own way of thinking, prior knowledge and prior experience. The teacher’s responsibility is to provide instruction that will allow students to use their thinking to relate new information to their prior knowledge and experience.

Relating new material to existing ideas, knowledge and experiences is perhaps the most essential in the teaching of critical thinking. The meaningfulness theory proposed by David Ausubel in 1978 puts a great emphasis on the role of prior knowledge in creating meaningful learning.

This research-based theory holds that learning is made meaningful when a learner consciously relates new information to the existing knowledge stored in the long-term memory. Supporting this theory is the information-processing theory that suggests information that has meaning will be stored in the long-term memory.

In the case of our history class, for instance, the teacher may ask students to compare and contrast one event with another, and find the similarities and differences between the two.

The teacher may ask: “What are the similarities and differences between Sriwijaya Kingdom in Sumatra (new information) and Majapahit Kingdom in Java (existing prior knowledge)?”

Students may also be asked to make a reflection on the basis of a particular event in history: “What would I do if I were Prince Diponegoro? Would I do as he had done?”

This way, students are engaged in the thought process that makes learning meaningful.

In a pluralistic and diverse society like Indonesia, teaching critical thinking in the classroom is an absolute necessity. Critical thinking promotes tolerance and open-mindedness, teaches students to be more reflective and develops a sense of positive skepticism.

The author, a teacher at SMA Kolese De Britto, Yogyakarta, is currently attending a graduate program at Loyola University Chicago, the United States. He can be reached at widinugrohous@yahoo.com

Teaching composition is not just about technicalities

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 05/24/2008 12:23 PM  |  Opinion

Few people would dispute the fact that teaching composition requires a great deal of prowess. It is not merely a matter of helping student writers produce “correct” writing, but also a matter of translating this writing into intelligible reading materials.

The inherent complexity of this activity poses a great challenge for teachers of writing to make their teaching effort successful.

Many teachers of writing complain that their efforts to help their students compose in English rarely produce fruitful results in making the student writers skillful in writing. It seems that most of the teachers are too pragmatic in their teaching instruction.

They have no coherent perspective, no clear philosophical outlook and no model-theories, upon which teaching instruction must be based. They seem unwilling to let ideology shape their pedagogy.

Instead, they rely primarily on their experience in dealing with composition in the classroom. At best, they adhere to what is prescribed in composition textbooks (written by English native speakers), which unfortunately offer very practical, yet simplistic views of writing and don’t acknowledge the complexity of the composing process.

In addition, the books present a mechanical view of writing and don’t show students how messy, discursive and painstaking composing can be, especially for non-native speakers, thus repudiating the possibility of teaching students how composed products come into being.

The pragmatic attitude toward the teaching of composition presupposes a wild assumption about the nature of composing. Wild assumptions can lead someone to think simplistically and even fallaciously.

We often naively assume, for example, that composing is an act of mastering graphic conventions, sorting accurate dictions to fit the desired meaning, manipulating sentence patterns to fit the desired style and expressing as well as elaborating ideas. The resulting perception then is that good writing is tantamount to “correct” writing at the superficial level.

However well-founded this assumption may sound, it by no means captures the real essence of true communicative transaction manifested via written medium. Moreover, it provides us with a very limited and simplistic view of what the act of composing really embodies.

Questions related to ideology — What are the students’ purposes in learning to write in a new language? What type of writing should we teach to the students? To whom is their writing addressed? In what context are they writing? How can the student writing be judged, given the students’ diverse cultural backgrounds? Is there a clear connection between good writing and good reasoning? — are hardly thought of by teachers who vehemently adhere to pragmatism.

Such questions however do reflect the importance of understanding philosophical outlooks that are of value in shaping composition pedagogy in classrooms.

The following are some of fundamental philosophical perspectives that can hopefully give a coherent view of what the nature of writing is and help illuminate, though not totally resolve, some problems teachers face in teaching composition.

Further, these perspectives are of paramount importance since the conception of what writing is hinges, to a large extent, upon teachers’ attitude toward the way they treat their student writing.

First, writing is a linguistic phenomenon (formalist view). Those espousing this view (in fact this is a widely held view among our composition teachers today) might conceive writing as simply an artifact that is shaped and produced by virtue of the writers’ linguistic maturity. They tend to attend primarily to linguistic components in judging their student writing over the other salient components.

That is, writing is more likely to be treated in terms of the product of a writer who has the capability and skill to use standard syntax, spelling, diction, graphic convention. In essence, good writing is judged in terms of linguistic correctness.

Second, writing is a cognitive phenomenon (cognitivist view). Before coming into a product, writing is best seen as a process or undertaking that involves a complex cognitive processing of the writers’ mind. This implies that writing is a craft before it becomes an artifact. It is this notion that has been least understood by composition teachers.

Writers undergo numerous mental processes in their attempt to produce a piece of writing. They plan what to write by generating and organizing ideas, and setting goals, translate these ideas into verbal forms, decide what strategies should be employed to fulfill the needs of the audience, and review what has been written by rereading, editing and revising. In this perspective, writing is deemed as an ongoing process of discovering meaning.

Third, writing is socially constructed (social constructivist view). Writing doesn’t take place in a social vacuum. It is an act of communicating to different audiences in different settings, implying that writing cannot be validly abstracted from its setting since it is inextricably bound to the social context or discourse community in which it takes place.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and has taught English composition for 10 years at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id