Why university teaching should be like ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’

Andrew W. Robinson on the sound pedagogical reasons to swap the industrial, identikit approach to teaching and learning for something less bloody boring

January 29, 2016
Caractacus Potts' soaraway vehicle
Source: Alamy

A couple of years ago, I made a slightly tongue in cheek suggestion on the Carleton University suggestion page that, given the relatively poor attendance of first-year students for 8.30am classes, we should make it a policy to not timetable these classes so early, and instead have the students start later in the day. The responses (unfavourable by a ratio of 2:1) can be categorised into two general groups:

(1) We can’t afford to have classrooms sitting idle.

(2) Students have to conform to a normal business working day.

Both of these comments say a great deal about the current state of conservative (in all senses of the word) thinking in university education. 


The ’We can’t afford to have empty classrooms’ crowd

Mostly administrators and accountants, as far as I can judge. So sleepy students or poor attendance are okay provided an administrative target (per cent of rooms timetabled) is met. In other words, “quality teaching time” doesn’t matter. And by quality teaching time, I mean time in which both students and teachers are bright, awake, alert and able to engage successfully in the process of teaching and learning. It’s not just the early morning lectures, it’s also the timetabling for students which leaves them in the same lecture rooms for hours at a time, the lack of proper meal or refreshment breaks, and above all, the time required to break off and think about the lesson that is either coming up or has just finished. Some of my best discussions with students have taken place after class, when a fortunate few who don’t have to rush off to the next class can take a few minutes to talk directly with me. That’s proper quality education time. It is pretty safe to say that classes are most certainly not organised and timetabled to maximise the learning opportunities for the students; they are there for the convenience of the institution.


The ’Students have to conform to the normal working day’ crowd.

Funnily enough, this argument applies at the start of the working day for early classes, but the modern university has no problem with scheduling evening classes well beyond the end of the normal working day. But once again, what a dreary and uninspired doctrine. The students are not in a regular work environment; they are attending an institution of higher education to learn. Sure, by the time they graduate I want them to be able to go and get a job and be comfortable in the workplace, but during that process there is no need to conform entirely to what is essentially an industrial, standardised view of learning. In fact, how bloody boring can you get? We are supposed to be training people how to learn and how to keep on learning throughout their lives. Boring them will not do. Inspiration, variation, keeping the mind flexible, giving different learning experiences are all crucial. Attending a class at 8.30am because that’s an important workplace thing, really is very, very low on my list of things to teach to a first-year student.

It’s a matter of record that the teenage brain, on average, does not have a clock set for early mornings, but late nights. High schools in several countries have shifted their timetables to start later, with significant drops in absenteeism and gains in student achievement. So all I am doing is calling for an evidence based, and logical, adjustment of university teaching practices for a limited number of students. Not coincidentally, the cohort of students I am discussing, those transitioning from high school, are the ones most at risk of dropping out from university. So let’s make some effort to get those people into class, and get them there when they are able to learn most effectively. I’m not terribly interested in how many lecture rooms have been filled at 8.30am in the morning, I’m interested in how to help students make it through that tough first year.


On the bright side

There is outstanding innovative work being done in university teaching, but mostly down to the extraordinary efforts of very dedicated faculty. From the institutional side we have increased class sizes, increased tuition, and a steady push to de-professionalise university teaching by employing fewer permanent staff and relying on more contract teachers. University teaching initiatives have tended to be centred on deployment of new teaching technology, most of it untried, and mostly with very little evidence of pedagogical value. The great enthusiasm for massive open online courses (Moocs), which hit a peak in 2012, came largely from two groups: edu-tech companies in it for the profits, and university presidents and administrators who saw it as a cost-saving exercise. The problem with technology in the classroom is the total lifetime cost. You need computer service support staff to keep it running. Now, these people get hired into full-time jobs. But when you as the front-line person in the classroom, actually facing the class, are earning much less than half of the salary of the technical support people in the back room, then quite frankly you become deeply cynical about the university commitment to teaching.

When I was thinking about the rather boring conformity of university teaching, I remembered the book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. I read the books when I was nine or ten. The memory has stuck with me for 40 years. Forget the film version; the books are far, far superior. I might even venture, a little controversially, the opinion that Fleming was a better writer of books for children than for adults. No, go back to the original books, gloriously illustrated by John Burningham. Commander Caractacus Potts, RN (Royal Navy, not Registered Nurse) restores an old and very distinctive car, and finds that it can do a few unexpected things, such as fly. The first time the family discover this, they are stuck in a traffic jam with hundreds of identical 1950s-style black cars, and suddenly this glorious old 1930s car (based on the racing Bentleys) takes off and soars up into the sky, away from the greyness. That’s what I would like university teaching to be. Magic. Up there flying, not stuck on the ground, constrained by bean-counting.


Andrew W. Robinson is a contract instructor in the department of physics at Carleton University, Ottawa. This post was originally published on his blog Precarious Physicist.

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