Learning through discussions (LTD)

Listening to long lectures and taking down notes seated in a class room constitute the triad of key features of a long established learning norm, in many parts of the world, despite novel developments in communication and information transfer have revolutionised the ways and approaches in learning. Lecture oriented competitive learning with tight time and subject schedules aimed at passing examinations, is intensely focussed at obtaining a qualification which may or may not ensure gainful employment. The learner in traditional lecture oriented institutionalised education, is bound to book knowledge, limited in imaginative thinking and remains imprisoned in a cage of restricted educational environment. Repetition of lecture notes and cramming without understanding, are common features of such learners, even at higher levels of learning. In a competitive learning environment there are winners and losers; enemies and friends and dropouts and hurdle jumpers. Intense competition may harm the learning morale and spirit to such an extent that emotional and mental breakdown could end the entire educational career.

Learners attempting to impress others (Teachers and peers), run down weak students, showing aggressiveness and pride and status are not uncommon in lecture classrooms. When the students are graded the students know that a few would be "A" grade and many would be thrown into lower grades. This itself leads to unpleasant feelings, fear and discontent. Learners being classified as "Bright", "Average" and "Dull" etc by teachers even when they converse among themselves could create animosity and anguish in the minds of the learners.

The bright students become the favourtites of the teacher and the dull ones are ignored. Shining at the expense of others by working hard and obtaining full marks at examinations has become the key motivating formula used by parents to push their children up and up the ladder of education. ‘Hard work and no play’ is the motto. Those who are in their middle ages have a wealth of experience about the traditional competitive academic style of learning and the great sacrifices devoted to learning during their student days. The amazing fact is that, despite technological innovation a large majority of learners of the new generation too practice the old accustomed style quite unconsciously.

Learning to be more enjoyable, unstressful, participative and cooperative, should deviate from the traditional lecture oriented approach. Learning through discussion is such an approach, which can be practised at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. In a group there is a sense of security, cohesiveness and helping one another is a notable feature. Every student is equal in position and a friendly atmosphere is created. Every group member is an asset and an acceptable resource person. In a well equilibrated group of learners, exchange of views, ideas and knowledge is free from bias and promotes intelligent learning. Small groups need not necessarily be confined to institutional class rooms. Outside the class room under a shady tree, as in "Shantinikathana" a group can enjoy a spell of relaxed learning.

In LTD technique, the role of the teacher becomes a catalyst or a facilitator as well as a resource person. Books are not thrown away. They are effectively used but the contents are not crammed. Instead, the principles are succinct, objectives are clearly identified in a well organised LTD session. The participants can take turns as the chairman, secretary, convenor, rapporteur and team leader etc in the implementation process. Collective decisions may be taken to further knowledge and experiences through placements, observation visits, inviting experts and producing sessional papers etc. These may be useful for students in higher grades. In LTD, the outstanding approach adopted is the democratic approach that provides equal opportunities for participatory learning. It is intelligent learning as against committing to memory. Ones zest and inquisitiveness gain opportunities to blossom out in a democratic setting.

Although LTD is an effective approach, the greatest fear engendered would be its openness for misuse unless efficiently regulated and supervised. The use of indicators and standards of performance, target setting and checklists by the facilitator can, to a large extent eliminate the shortcomings of LTD. Performance appraisal has to be intrinsic and practised regularly.

Over-reliance on the lecture oriented competitive learning as the only successful method has been questioned by many modern experts in learning techniques. As an alternate approach that could be easily, affordably and effectively organised and practise in a developing country; the LTD method, could produce positive and productive outcomes.
Dr. Senarath Tennakoon
Colombo 7.