Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Perspective in Higher Education

Peace, one and all...
Here's another re-posted essay (I don't have time to post a link to the original page on The Corner at present). Enjoy!
Perspective in Higher Education
In his account of the early history of Islam, Muhammad ibn Sirin, a scholar of the mid-eighth century CE, commented on the growth of source criticism amongst Muslims:
‘They did not ask about the isnad[1], but when civil war … broke they said, ‘Name to us your men’; those who belong to the Ahl al-Sunna[2], their traditions were accepted and those who were innovators their traditions were neglected’
(quoted in A’zami, 1978, 213).
Such questions arose from a desire to ensure the accuracy and purity of religious doctrine, history and law. In other words, the isnad system marks the beginnings of a systematic development of three key concepts: evidence, analysis and ultimately, perspective. That this is so is reflected in another remark of ibn Sirin: ‘This knowledge is the religion, therefore, look to see from whom you are taking your religion’ (quoted in Zarabozo, 2000, 188).
In this journal, I want to offer some reflections on these three key concepts. In particular, I want to discuss two main points: the relationship of these ideas to each other and how I am trying to utilise such reflections in my teaching and course design.

However, before we begin, I feel it is important to properly set out the context of this discussion. As discussed previously, I am currently the Lifelong Learning Co-ordinator for my department. Amongst other things, this means that I am responsible for helping to develop new Religious Studies courses. As a new (and enthusiastic) teacher, I am also trying to develop new courses myself. I am now in the process of planning a course on Islamic History, due to start in January 2006. This course is aimed at Level 1 (the first year of an undergraduate degree) and will attempt to survey the early history of Islam – with a particular focus on historiography and the issues surrounding it. As such, I have been reading around the topic and although it is not my intention to offer a survey of contemporary literature, I seem to be repeatedly circling around three key questions. Namely, how should we assess evidence; how should we conduct our analysis; how does our own perspective colour our research?

Reflecting on my experiences throughout the PGCE, I am struck by the consideration that I keep returning to the question of perspective. I have repeatedly found myself looking at how a particular vantage point affects individual thought, action and learning. People have different personalities and hence, have different viewpoints. Necessarily, therefore, they also have different likes and dislikes – different learning styles in other words. Again, the roles of both teacher and student create their own peculiar perspectives. Educational institutions work within a certain framework and thus also have their own structural perspectives. Indeed, the more I reflect the more clearly I begin to see the pervasive influence of perspective.

To begin our examination of these key terms, it is helpful to try and understand them a little more clearly. Although not an exhaustive or even necessarily correct definition, the dictionary is a useful starting point. The Collins English Dictionary defines each term as follows:

Evidence: ‘ground for belief or disbelief; data on which to base proof or to establish truth or falsehood’

Analysis: ‘the division of a physical or abstract whole into its constituent parts to examine or determine their relationship or value’

Perspective: ‘a way of regarding situations, facts, etc., and judging their relative importance’

All three terms refer thus refer to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of particular claims and as such, all three closely relate to the intellectual skills of discrimination and judgement. Indeed, all three are deeply inter-related and cannot adequately be separated off from each other. It is methodologically dangerous (if not actually impossible) to refer to evidence before understanding your own perspective and the analytical processes which have led you to that standpoint. In other words, in order to construct effective analysis, you need to understand the ways in which your own view point affects your acceptance (and hence rejection) of evidence.

‘Look to see from whom you are taking your religion’: the Teacher as Participant
As even our cursory exploration has demonstrated, evidence, analysis and perspective are deeply and intimately connected. If this is true within text-based historical research, then it must also be the case in the field of teaching. Indeed, the teacher’s perspectives, and hence analysis and views of acceptable evidence, lie at the core of their work.

If education is a dialogue, then the teacher must accept and account for their particular perspective. Not that perspective should be seen as a necessarily negative quality. The fact that we all have different views means that we all have something unique to offer, something valuable to contribute. Teaching could thus be described as educational conversation – a discussion in which view points are exchanged and ideas expressed.

In reflecting upon my own development as a teacher, I find the idea of perspective both exciting and challenging. This is an exciting area of reflection because it forces me to think along new lines. I am forced to consider my own personal development, as well as that of my students. I am also forced to respond to the structural perspectives of the institution (and society) within which I teach. I find this a challenging thought too. This is because educational growth is not always (or perhaps is never) easy: I am forced to face my own limitations, fears and personality faults. I am also forced to closely investigate my own beliefs, values and assumptions. I suppose that I am referring here to my own development as a person, rather than in the artificial role of ‘teacher’.

Encouraging Thinking Skills
Given these insights, how then am I to help my students develop the intellectual skills they will need to work out their own views on evidence, analysis and perspective? Or, to refer to questions raised above, how should we assess evidence, how should we conduct our analysis and how does our own perspective shape our research?

As I have discovered through the PGCE, there are a wealth of models to assist teachers in developing these skills. Here, however, I am less concerned with such concrete practicalities. Rather, I would like to focus on a number of desirable qualities – the kinds of qualities I would personally associate with intellectual rigour.

Openness: by this I mean an openness to new ideas and perspectives, an open-minded approach to learning

Enthusiasm: or, an eagerness to learn – both in terms of substantive subject content and in methods of learning. In other words, the quality of actively enjoying learning.

Lateral thinking: the ability to look at problems from different and often neglected angles

Confidence: sufficient self-confidence to be able to communicate effectively and, perhaps more importantly, to highlight areas where further work is required

Valuing alternatives: the ability to respect and tolerate different opinions. However, more than a merely passive acceptance, I would argue that the value inherent in different opinions (in so far as they help us to look at old issues in new ways) needs to be actively valued.

How, then, can I encourage the development of these skills in my students? Firstly, I think it is vital that as a teacher, I display these qualities myself. Although, of course, no one is perfect, it is important that a teacher practice what they preach. How could I encourage openness if all I did was merely close down alternative approaches? Indeed, if teaching is an educational conversation then we need to be speaking the same language. Secondly, it is absolutely essential to develop the student’s confidence. Only confident learners can be fully engaged learners; only confident learners can be truly independent learners. This point again hints at the broader social development needed to successfully undertake higher learning.

The more I reflect, the more I come to realise that education is (or should be) about dialogue. The act of teaching and that of learning are conversations. The aim of these dialogues is to ensure that the information (conceived in its widest sense) that passes between teacher and student is as accurate and effective as possible. Indeed, problems start to occur when one side either does not understand what the other is saying, or when what is said is not fully understood. The task then seems to be to make our educational communication (whether that be verbal or non-verbal) as clear as possible. This is not to neglect the real issues connected with classroom power (and their social construction). Rather, it is to attempt to find ways to overcome such limitations, so that we can converse more freely and more fully.


A’zami, M M (1978), Studies in Early Hadith Literature, Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust

Zarabozo, J (2000), The Authority and Importance of the Sunnah, Denver: Al-Basheer Publishing

[1] Isnad literally means ‘chain’. However, it came to describe the chain of narrators of historical and religious knowledge.
[2] Ahl al-Sunna literally means ‘the people of the customary/correct path’ and is used within Sunni Islam to describe the ‘orthodox’ community.


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