The best place to learn teaching is on the job

Anthony Seldon says the best way to improve teaching in universities is through tough appraisals based on student feedback

September 19, 2013

Source: Ian Summers

My daughter was going travelling on a gap year before starting university in Leeds. As I drove her and her friends to Heathrow, they launched into a dissection of their schoolteachers. All agreed on the great ones, on those who did not care, and on those who did care but could not communicate with their students. I became more and more captivated. Without letting them know that I was listening, I took careful mental notes. Every teacher had been at the school at which I was the head. In that drive to the airport, I learned more about my staff than I had discovered during six years running the school. Students, I realised, know instinctively who the great teachers are – far more so than their teachers realise. It was a lesson I was not to forget.

Many teachers in schools and universities would be shocked if they knew what their students really thought about them. The best, though, would not be surprised. Indeed, a key reason why they are so good is because they go out of their way to obtain feedback.

After a lifetime in education and writing, I have realised that teaching can and must be taught – but too much focus on formal teaching qualifications misses the point. Teaching is both an art and a science. It can best be learned through a willingness to listen and change, through the mentoring of experienced practitioners, and with the feedback of students forming a fundamental part of the process.

Great teachers share common characteristics, including optimism, a love of their subject and their students, a deep curiosity about their discipline, and a fierce determination to improve themselves and to be reflective – all qualities that can be encouraged and developed.

Every single teacher can learn to become excellent, while the strong can learn how to become stronger still. I spent a postgraduate year at King’s College London learning how to become a teacher. Like most who have sat for the same qualification, I found the most valuable part was expressly not the theory but the practical experience of learning in the classroom. Why? Because having trained observers in my classes taught me how to do the job much better. It was often painful, and it continues to be painful for every teacher eager to learn and improve. The worst teachers close their doors: the best leave them permanently open. Learning on the job is key, which is why the “teaching school” initiative introduced by the government in 2011, which takes teacher training out of universities and into schools, is the right way to go. I’m delighted that my own school became a teaching school earlier this year, working with 12 state schools to train new teachers and to develop those already in the profession.

For that same reason, I am sceptical of the suggestion that academics should be required to have formal qualifications in teaching (“State puts weight behind teaching qualification data”, News, 29 August).

As head of an independent school, I am free to appoint teachers who lack formal teaching qualifications. What I am looking for in interviews is that gut instinct about who is already or can be made into a great teacher. Sometimes they will have firsts and doctorates, which is evidence (if not conclusive) about self-discipline and subject knowledge. But many of the best teachers I have appointed have neither, and also arrive without a PGCE.

This is not to say that teaching in universities is not in need of improvement – far from it. Too much of it is not good enough. In fact, too much is poor. Academics would enjoy their jobs much more, and learn how to communicate better as researchers, if they took their own teaching far more seriously.

The key to this is seeking out feedback, a process that also builds mutual respect. Rather than wasting time by requiring formal qualifications, universities should put in place tough annual appraisals involving student feedback, with clear penalties for those whose teaching ability is not up to scratch. Raising those standards by listening and responding to student feedback, through peer-to-peer mentoring by the great teachers who are to be found in every university, and by encouraging – and expecting – a truly reflective approach from everyone who stands up in a lecture hall or seminar room, will transform higher education.

My daughter and her friends have now left university. Their comments about their teachers and lecturers were rarely sought out. Had they been so, their undergraduate life would have been far more rewarding – and the satisfaction and professionalism of those who taught them would have been much enhanced.

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