Thursday, June 22, 2006

Confidence in Education

Peace, one and all...
In a recent post I referred to the fundamental importance of perspective. So, before I begin this blog, I feel it's important to set out mine. As a Muslim, my religious beliefs obviously have a great impact on the ways in which I approach life in general, and teaching in particular. Although this is not the place to debate such things (stop by The Corner for an account of my religious/spiritual views), it is worth pointing out that Islam posits a belief in an Absolute (Allah or God), Who Alone defines Truth, all other 'truths' being equivocal, relative and limited. This stands in stark contrast to current postmodernist thought. In other words, within an educational context, I believe that there is a fundamental point of orientation. Anyway, to proceed...
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim wa al-salatu wa al-salamu `ala rasul illah.
(In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful and may prayers and blessings fall upon the Messenger of God)
Confidence in Education
In one form or another, I have been a teacher/tutor for approximately four or five years. This teaching experience has been developed in a number of settings and contexts: class-based teaching, seminar teaching, one-to-one tutoring, informal question and answer sessions, as well as formal large-group lectures. Although I certainly have much to learn (when does that ever stop?), I have come to understand a few key issues. My thoughts on these matters can be followed on this blog, as well as others. Today, though, I'd like to explore one issue in particular, namely, student confidence.
A student's ability to learn effectively is dependent upon a large number of factors. These include (but are not limited to):
  • Financial Pressures
  • Educational Background
  • Ability
  • Application
  • Family Commitments
  • Socio-economic group (or, 'class', to use old-fashioned parlance)
  • Ethnicity/Cultural Issues
  • Disability (including dyslexia)
Indeed, you'll often find these kinds of issues discussed in educational policy documents, degree programme specifications, and other such official material. However, confidence is far less commonly addressed, and it is this issue I'd like to explore here.
Before we begin, though, it's important that we understand what we are actually referring to. In other words, what do I mean by 'confidence'? I'm sure that many useful definitions exist and a useful project for another day would be to explore these in greater detail. However, what do I mean (after all, this is my blog)?
For me, as a Muslim and an educator, confidence refers to a healthy belief that you are worthy of learning (or, more broadly, of living). Having confidence in yourself doesn't equate with arrogance, but rather to a broader sense of humility. That is, realising that you're unique (as is everyone else) and thus worthy of respect and thus effort. In some ways, this sounds like idealistic nonsense (and can sometime degenerate into a kind of 'edu-cheese'). But that is not what I mean.
With regards to education, confidence is a crucial factor. After all, if you don't believe in yourself how can you develop yourself effectively? During my time as Year One Tutor, I have come to see that confidence related issues lie behind virtually every instance of poor student engagement and performance.
A student with self-esteem issues will often not be able to access the learning opportunities available to them. This may manifest itself in non-attendance. It may also manifest itself in persistent lateness. These are often (subconscious) pleas for help, which tutors and teachers ignore at their peril (though this assumes that tutors have time to devote to such matters, which is increasingly not the case).
Low confidence can also manifest itself in an inability to engage. I remember one case in which a student didn't feel able to ask questions in anything than an individual forum. This obviously meant that their ability to effectively access learning was drastically reduced.
These issues are obviously deeply personal and deeply individual and there is no one-stop solution (and no quick fix). Ultimately, as confidence relates to all-round personal growth, there is a real limit to what a tutor/teacher/lecturer can achieve (not that this absolves us of responsibility). This leads us into the idea that education is a spiritual exercise. I've explored this elsewhere.
Student-centred learning, andragogy, lifelong learning and other such educational theories/paradigms all appear to me to be attempts at addressing these issues. But, when such ideals become mere policy constructs (with other objectives built into them) they can lose their way. In other words, the ideals of today often seem to degenerate into the buzz words of tomorrow (and thus the restrictive, outmoded concepts of yesterday). The inner core of a particular theory seems to die out when the intention behind its application changes. Intention is absolutely fundamental here (as it is in all areas of life).
If the motives behind current policy initiatives do not seem to be about strictly educational factors, then there is surely going to be a knock-on effect on the design of courses, etc. Staff do not produce their best work in conditions of stress. Is it any wonder, therefore, that a lot of our curriculum materials often fail to address the student as they are.
To conclude, I don't think this absolves us of responsibility, which returns us to the cardinal point: how can we help our students in developing their confidence? The answer to this question is beyond us here. However, I think real progress can be made if we understand the central significance of a student's self-esteem. In other words, we need to understand (in actuality) that it is about 'educating the whole person'.
Wa akhiru da'wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.
(And our last prayer is in praise of God, Lord of all the Worlds)
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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