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University teachers’ role in teaching is beyond talk-and-chalk

If education is ultimately about empowerment, scientific fact(s) teachers dispense in a classroom is not the only way of human empowerment. Probably, because it is narrowly structured to meet a specific goal, the syllabus teachers committed to delivering for students might not be enough to nurture students with the ability to explore different dimensions of ‘reality’. Thus, assisting students to beget a comprehensive understanding of local and global contexts by opening up their mind through examples of lived experiences, encouraging self-exploration, and building their ability to work collaboratively would be imperative.

This, however, requires good cooperation and communication between students and teachers. Cooperation and communication, in turn, demand teachers’ accommodativeness and adjustment of their views towards positive and functional teacher-student cooperation.

In line with this, it is important to mention that teachers’ ability and preference to accommodate their students for extracurricular and professional cooperation might be challenged by socio-cultural and personal factors. As a societal culture and personal factor, although it is very difficult to generalize, in a nutshell, we have a challenging societal culture which can substantially influence the cooperation of students and teachers.

In my view, our culture at a macro-level is hierarchical. The hierarchy, of course, is used as a way of creating sympathetic and functional relationships, for instance, between young and seniors (to help and respect elders); parents and children (to obey house rules and guidance of our parents); leaders and subordinates (to perform civic duties). This culture has permeated to a university context. The hierarchical nature of the relationship and the assumption of unequal power distribution between teachers and students might have helped to create a formal/professional relations.

Nevertheless, because the unequal power distribution is over-emphasized, it appears to be a matter of pride for people (i.e. teachers) not to associate with people (for instance, students) of supposedly low position in the social hierarchy. The vast majority of teachers seemingly conceited to cooperate with their students. There are formal and informal rules that positioned the teacher at the top of the power structure and societal hierarchy to control the student (positioned at the lower hierarchy). Due to this massive divide between teachers and students, teachers are often perceived by their students as autocrats who make all decisions of the learning-teaching process. This, I believe, creates unhealthy leader-subordinate interaction. Apparently, many teachers enjoy the discomfort of their students to approach them since they consider it as a sign of respect and high status.

University leaders, families and other stakeholders also ostensibly favour or overlook the hierarchical, unidirectional, and top-down relation of student-teacher interaction. In this manner, it is difficult to imagine that teaching can foster learners’ cognitive, affective and social developments.  

Moreover, the university teaching culture (in our country) in itself is not inviting for productive teacher-student cooperation. The traditional role of a teacher is still emphasized in universities. Teaching in the Ethiopian university context is taken to be an action of a classroom setting a teacher presents a series of ‘answers’ on topics which s/he has no questions from the learners. The teacher is dominantly a talker and rarely a listener. Teaching that considers teacher as a fountain of knowledge may not be effective. Due to the dynamic nature of knowledge, effective teaching-learning happens when the teacher takes the facilitating role and cooperate with her/his students to navigate rigorously. Thus, in my perspective, if we need to create an effective university education system, one of the solutions we would consider is to develop the attitude that teachers’ role goes beyond talk-and-chalk.

To enhance teachers’ role to a holistic knowledge-building duty, our universities need institutional, cultural and psychological preparedness. We need psychological preparedness because, inter alia, the remedy to enhance teaching lies in the development of effective student-teacher cooperation beyond classroom lectures.

We also need institutional approaches which can bring the necessary efforts to enhance the roles of teachers and students for the knowledge development working closely as colleagues. In their study titled ‘Teacher-student relationship at university: an important yet under-researched field’, Hagenauer and Volet state that “quality relationships have an impact on human beings with respect to motivation, social competence and wellbeing in general.”

Among other issues, this implies that to enhance the quality of education, the engagement and competence of our university teachers should be weighed beyond their routines of lecturing. The excessive use of the talk-and-chalk approach will increase the power distance between teachers and students; therefore, a mutual working relationship between students and teachers will disappear. This necessitates the reconceptualization of teachers’ role from lecturers to facilitators and coordinators who can create an atmosphere of cooperation between them and their students to achieve rigorous learning.

Cooperative teacher-student relation would also be one way of creating a positive learning environment in our universities. A positive learning context is necessary to enhance excellence in teaching and to make learning a holistic process of knowledge production and application. It is vital to enliven students’ intrinsic motivation to learn in almost all contexts and to improve their (goal) achievement.  

Most importantly, a cooperative student-teacher relationship would encourage the creation of safe and peaceful interactions among students. The positive interaction between teachers and students would most likely be a good example of how to cooperate and to live in coexistence despite differences of any sort. It creates a sense of belongingness among students to the given education arena. Although students might capitalise their differences due to their background diversity, when there is a functional, professional, and cooperative student-teacher relationship, students would believe that they are equally important to their teachers in particular, to their learning environment at large. This, in turn, creates a sense of wholeness – harmonious whole. 

Considering these and other similar benefits, some education scholars, such as Hagenauer and Volet, argue that teacher-student relationship/cooperation can be considered as a prerequisite to excellence in teaching and learning at a university level. Therefore, I believe that higher education professionals should do a detailed investigation on the issue and find out appropriate mechanisms of integrating it to the learning-teaching process. By doing so, it is better to scale-up a teacher’s role from merely dispensing information to the co-designing of the learning environment with her/his students.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is studying for his Master’s Degree in Research and Innovation in Higher Education in Finland. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane