Divided they surely fall

February 6, 1998

Peter Levin argues that traditional university teaching erodes students' value to employers by failing to develop their team-working skills

The inability to work easily with other people as a member of a team is consistently identified by employers as a defect among British graduates.

So it is astonishing that the Dearing report on higher education has consciously excluded working with others and problem solving from the category of skills he deems key to the success of graduates in later life. This gap shows how academic views dominated Dearing and how out of touch those views were with the world of work. It demonstrates the gulf between the culture of the university and that of the practical, problem-solving world of work.

Arguably, it is the culture of the world of work rather than that of the university that is more conducive to learning. Consider this. First, out in the world of work people can say well enough what they mean by "learning", whether they equate it with memorising, discovering, getting a grip on a subject, making sense of something, or acquiring expertise.

In contrast, higher education in the UK is not guided by a workable concept of "learning", as Dearing demonstrated: "Learning in higher education ... can be defined as the development of understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in a range of situations" - sheer abstraction.

Second, in the world of work the criteria of success in learning are usually very clear: the design works, the product sells, the policy is accepted. But the criteria by which university students' success is gauged are hidden from them and indeed not made explicit among academics themselves. While successful students are rewarded for impressing examiners with their lateral thinking, imaginative interpretations of questions and skilful deployment of material, they are not taught these skills explicitly: they are not found in syllabuses, where the emphasis is on subject matter. So under the guise of education students are being subjected to mystification. This can hardly make for effective learning.

Third, in the world of work the relationships between junior and senior people working in teams are essentially collaborative, with shared goals facilitating rapport and the process of osmosis by which the junior learns from the senior. In the university students may be treated as mere recipients of information, as a burden, as artful dodgers, or as players in a game in which they have to work out the rules for themselves.

Such treatment is not conducive to forming effective learning relationships. Nor is the strong emphasis in higher education on individual learning and achievement, which leads to students competing against each other and gives them incentives not to share the results of their efforts. Cooperating with others may lead to charges of copying and even plagiarism. They are socialised into resisting team-working and collective problem-solving. The university experience actually erodes their value to prospective employers.

So what can universities do to develop students' team-working and problem-solving skills? A prototype already exists in the shape of the BP Team Development in Universities programme. The project, now running at a dozen UK universities, has been developed by Chalybeate, a small independent team of personal and professional development tutors. It is usually offered as a two-day course in which groups of students are given a sequence of seven or eight tasks to carry out and helped after each to asssess how they worked and what lessons they can learn. They then go on to the next task and try to apply those lessons.

Many of the tasks are performed outdoors, some making use of rudimentary equipment such as planks, barrels, ropes and buckets of water. They all pose problems that require mental and physical effort to solve. They are not physically strenuous, although some participants find themselves running about a lot.

The review sessions are crucial. It is here that individuals' feelings surface. It is the tutor's responsibility to provide a safe environment for the expression of feelings and to ensure that they are channelled constructively, for example by putting the emphasis on what to do better next time rather than on placing blame when a task has not been completed.

I would sum up the benefits as follows: * students learn an enormous amount in a very short time; * they quickly get into the habit of pooling ideas and planning their approach to a task; * they feel freer to make suggestions, raise objections and express their feelings within a group; * they become better at paying attention to other people and at seeing a situation from someone else's point of view; * they develop the ability to establish rapport with others and some skill at defusing tensions and personality clashes and encouraging other people to contribute to the work of the team; * they gain in self-confidence and self-awareness; * they learn to take responsibility for meeting the challenges set.

Given that much academic learning in the university setting depends for its success on effective social interaction (compare a class or seminar or one-to-one tutorial that goes well with one that does not), and given that the quality of that experience must be higher when students and teachers possess team-working skills, the conclusion is irresistible that students who have those skills will be more effective learners than those who do not.

Peter Levin is consultant in teaching methods to the London School of Economics. His paper, How Universities Fail the Learning Society, is available from him at the LSE, tel: 0171-435 9434.

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