Never mind the teaching, where's the learning?

Teaching excellence is nothing without student engagement, says Claire Taylor

April 5, 2016
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The government is clearly intent on pushing on with plans for the teaching excellence framework and many of us applaud the desire to put excellent teaching at the heart of our universities, while also expressing some significant reservations about how teaching excellence may be defined and measured. However, my main concern with the proposed TEF goes beyond the technical deficiencies of measurement, definitions and the moral dilemmas around student entitlement and fee levels. Rather, I am profoundly worried that the current direction of travel with the TEF could serve to negate the active role of learning and of the learner within the broader teaching endeavour.

Debate around the pedagogic relationship between teaching and learning, and between teacher and learner is not new. Indeed, the world of educational development in higher education has operated on a merry-go-round of terminology over the past 10 years or so that has swung from a focus upon teaching, to learning, back to teaching again, and crossing everything in between. I remember as a new “head of learning and teaching” arguing voraciously with my vice-chancellor (who constantly called me the “head of teaching and learning”) that “learning must come first” in my job title. Now we see across the sector a plethora of variations on the theme, including all-encompassing titles such as director of teaching and learning enhancement. (Note, teaching comes first now!) But the point is that teaching excellence, however we may define and measure it, is nothing without great learning opportunities and supported learner engagement with such opportunities. In other words: never mind the teaching, where’s the learning?

The provision of great learning opportunities has to start with a relevant curriculum that challenges and inspires students. Relevance may present itself very differently depending on discipline area and context, but there is no doubt that in terms of challenge the curriculum should foster exploration, discovery and a drive to find out more and apply learning in different and novel contexts. Learning opportunities should stretch students to question, analyse, understand and critique self and society, and should provide rich contexts within which to practice the assembling and disassembling of knowledge itself.

But it’s all very well providing tremendously interesting, exciting and challenging opportunities framed within a relevant and colourful curriculum. We have also to remember that engagement with such opportunities does not necessarily come naturally to higher education learners. Student engagement is the “buzz phrase” of the moment in universities up and down the land and we assume students arrive at university pre-populated with an “engagement” gene, but that is often not the case. Rather, in order for students to achieve high levels of learning gain, we have to play our part in creating the right learning conditions in which student engagement with their studies can flourish. We know that research by Graham Gibbs shows that learning gain and student performance are predicted by class size, cohort size, extent of close contact with tutors, quality of teachers, extent and quality of feedback and the extent of collaborative learning. But work still needs to be done to support and engage learners to make the effort to spend time working to develop knowledge, skills and understanding. This can only be achieved by providing opportunities for learners to critique and test ideas with qualified educators whose approach is grounded in scholarship and who support students through a well-developed programme of close contact and formative activity within a stimulating and accessible learning environment.

Furthermore, teaching excellence is nothing unless founded upon strong learning relationships between learner and teacher. Such relationships are reciprocal and interdependent, but as much if not more effort is demanded of the learner as they engage upon their higher education learning journey and, in the words of Ron Barnett, “come to understand matters, see anew into topics, come to be able to perform all manner of operations and engage in hitherto strange activities”.

So, in the ongoing and far-reaching discussions around what constitutes teaching excellence, let’s not forget the parts that both learning and learners play in the overall equation. Before true teaching excellence can be achieved we must firstly ensure that quality learning opportunities are available and that mechanisms are in place to support learner engagement with such opportunities. Only with a truly holistic and reciprocal view of teaching-learning and teacher-learner relationships and interactions will transformative educational impact be realised both for individual students and for society at large. Three cheers for teaching excellence, in principle, but don’t forget the learning. 

Claire Taylor is pro vice-chancellor (academic strategy) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

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Reader's comments (1)

Just so. That's why my specialism is e-LEARNING not e-teaching! Coming from about 15 years in FE, where the ability to lead learning has been steadily eroded in favour of OFSTED-style bitty lessons more suitable to primary school pupils than undergraduates (I taught HE in FE, people studying HNC/HND or externally-accredited bachelor degrees), it is very refreshing to be in a university where I can teach properly and encourage and support students to learn: they need to develop independent learning skills and become active learners at this level (indeed they ought to be doing this earlier but don't try it when an OFSTED inspector is around!).

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