Of balance and holism

Tuesday October 2, 2012
http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/10/2/focus/12095095&sec=focus

IKIM VIEWS
BY DR MOHD ZAIDI ISMAIL, SENIOR FELLOW / DIRECTOR CENTRE FOR SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT STUDIES, IKIM

In implementing the Malaysian Education Blueprint, one must find a balance between memorisation and rote learning, and what is regarded as higher-order thinking skills.

AS calls for reform of our educational system become louder and more frequent by the day, the recently released Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025: Preliminary Report, itself a serious undertaking, is laudable.

Recognising that “thinking skills” is among the six key attributes needed by every Malaysian student to be globally competitive, the Education Ministry spells out, particularly in the first of its 11 shifts, its emphasis on the inculcation of higher-order thinking skills (aka HOTS), especially as defined by Bloom’s taxonomy.

National examinations and school-based assessments shall thereafter be revamped to gradually increase percentage of questions that test HOTS.

By 2016, HOTS questions shall make up 80% of questions for UPSR, 80% in the Form Three central assessment, 75% for SPM core subjects and 50% for SPM elective subjects.

Nevertheless, the blueprint reiterates the importance of balance and holism as envisioned by and embedded in the national education philosophy.

In that respect, and in accordance with Islam’s emphasis on both tawhid and adab, the former term representing its “unity in diversity” dimension and the latter, its “diversity in unity” dimension, any Muslim involved in conceptualising and implementing such a blueprint has to be rather careful in balancing what is normally considered to be lower-order thinking skills, which surely involve memorisation and rote learning, and what is regarded as HOTS.

Mistakes of contrasting the importance of thinking with that of memorisation should in this regard be avoided or, at least, minimised.

Whereas the relation between these two mental faculties could have been less antipathetic, such mistakes, unfortunately, have been pervasive, further exacerbating the existing misperception that the two are somewhat mutually exclusive.

As a result, it is an increasingly common phenomenon that Muslims of today have been demanded to choose with an either/or frame of mind and urged to opt for one pole instead of the other.

As far as Islam is concerned, the foregoing penchant for bipolarisation as well as its ensuing antagonism is surely not preferable, let alone necessary.

As such, it is important that contemporary Muslims pay due attention to an important lesson pertaining to a balanced and harmonious relation between memorisation and thinking, which can be derived from the major works of a great scholar of Islam, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (d. 505A.H./1111CE).

In al-Ghazzali’s view, thinking or reasoning is an extremely significant channel of knowledge acquisition for man.

It is the mind’s movement in the realm of ideas, assisted in most cases by one’s faculty of imagination, in search of the enabling, connecting idea which is technically called “the middle term”, the completion of which process brings the mind nearer to knowing the item yet unknown.

At times the mind succeeds, and in still some other cases, it fails to attain its objective.

As a process, thinking basically consists of one’s intentionally obtaining new (or the third) knowledge from the combination of previously two isolatory cognitions.

Such a combination must be both formally valid and materially true.

Thinking, however, has been variantly termed.

Fikr, tafakkur, ta’ammul, tadabbur, nazar, i tibar, istidlal, and istibsar are among terms used to refer to thinking in the religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam.

Al-Ghazzali once explained thinking qua i tibar as “the presenting of two cognitions (or units of knowledge) to the mind such that from the two, the mind is able to cross over to the third or new cognition”.

However, when such a crossing or leap (ubur) does not happen and one’s mind remains at those two cognitions, this case is known as recollection (tadhakkur), which is simply one’s bringing of the two cognitions to be present in one’s soul.

As such, fikr already includes dhikr (remembrance), though the reverse is not the case.

Later, in the religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam, the aforementioned al-Ghazzali’s understanding of thinking as well as similar conceptions by other scholars became encapsulated in a more precise formulation.

Al-Sayyid al-Sharif Ali al-Jurj n, a Muslim polymath who died in the early 15th century CE, for instance, related in his famous work on definitions that thinking is “the mental act of putting what one has already known into meaningful order to attain what one is still ignorant of”.

As is clear from this understanding and formulation, memorisation can be conceived of as being supportive of thinking; the latter indeed requires some element of the former in order to materialise.

Man can only think according to what he has already known.

If, for some reason, he has lost what he knew before, he has to regain it through some means before he can make use of it to obtain new knowledge.

If he has forgotten it, he needs to recall it first by whatever means at his disposal before he can proceed to think.

Mentally retaining intact what one has already known requires a certain ability to memorise.

One may minimise this arduous task of retaining every bit of what one has epistemically possessed by storing it in some device – in fact, this is what the ICT age has empowered us to do, among others – but one cannot totally do without it without incurring some risks.

Insofar as the past religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam is concerned, one will surely come across true accounts of how great scholars were able to excel in both, in memorising as well as thinking.

This simply shows that the two can grow together.

What we need to do today, among others, is to adopt a balanced approach to dealing with the bipolar relation as well as relearn and revive the manner in which both faculties were successfully nurtured in the past.

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