Two meanings of teaching 1

September 10, 2009

Jo Pickering's letter (3 September) criticising Joao Magueijo's article on the teacher training of university lecturers reveals certain assumptions underlying the whole project. In particular, she refers to the objective of teaching as producing greater "retention" of what is taught.

Pupils go to school to be taught. Homework is set primarily to reinforce what is taught in the classroom, and teaching is aimed at maximising retention by pupils of the knowledge being passed to them. Students go to university not to be taught but to learn, primarily through private study. As Karl Llewellyn, the revered American law professor, told his students: "Inasmuch as you learn, we can be said to teach."

Therefore, the vast majority of university teaching is not, and should not be, aimed at passing knowledge from the lecturer's brain to those of the students, and its subsequent retention. It is there to provide structure (through the expert design of courses), introductions and perspectives (through lectures) and the opportunity for discussion, argument and review (through seminars).

The use of the same word to describe two fundamentally different activities is regrettable. Nonetheless, it is a great error to confound the two and to assume that what has been "learnt" about school teaching is valid.

Pickering rightly points out that "our students come from a different educational background than the one we had", and adds that "increasingly, our learners need more encouragement (and) more support". Yes, they've had the benefit of teachers doing what the educationists train them to do and are now less numerate, less literate, more ignorant of the subjects they are supposed to have studied, less able to develop an argument or write at length, and are more dependent. Most people would both deplore this fact and be inclined to hypothesise a possible link between teacher training and these trends.

It is important for those "teaching" in universities to reflect carefully and regularly on what they do. Opportunities to meet others likewise engaged, to share reflections and ideas and the fruits of experience are to be valued, but I doubt educationists are the right people to put in charge of this.

Richard Austen-Baker, Lancaster University Law School.

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