Dummies' guides to teaching insult our intelligence

A wall of silence surrounds pedagogic courses for new lecturers that are manifestly unfit for purpose, says Joao Magueijo

August 20, 2009

Sometimes, I wish academia were more like football. There's a good reason I'm not a Barcelona striker, but for failed teachers an excellent career opportunity awaits: teaching new university appointments how to lecture.

When I obtained a tenured position ten years ago, this craze had already begun: new lecturers had to sit through training courses on teaching, supervising doctoral students and so on. These courses were a waste of time, steered by the most ill-suited people for the job.

I attended only one session. In nursery school style, we were presented with two alternatives, "the good lecturer" and "the bad lecturer". The former led students proactively to the conclusions that had to be taught; the latter was dismissive of questions and blindly followed their notes.

This was a Mickey Mouse caricature of the issues, I thought, but the kindergarten that followed was worse. We were split into groups, and asked to elect a spokesperson and report our findings. We all concluded that things could never be so black and white.

In Britain, it is often other students who complain when one asks a question, we said. A mathematician argued that with formulae, there is nothing to discuss. A Russian appointee suggested that women, being "shy", would be at a disadvantage in discussions. A very vocal female lecturer took exception to this and a small riot broke out.

Meanwhile, our "teacher's teacher", well out of his depth, ticked off his pre-set "aims and objectives" and completely ignored everything we said. He seemed satisfied when he had "covered" all his bullet points.

Unwittingly, he did teach us something - if you encourage discussion in class, you have to be prepared for your students to arrive at conclusions that are unpalatable to you.

I left, bemused, but quickly discovered how to bypass this nonsense: get promoted. Sadly, this loophole is now being closed; worst of all, standards have plumbed new depths.

Courses have been expanded and are brimming with platitudes and theory-of-education jargon. A one-size-fits-all approach has led to a dearth of practical advice of any relevance: for example, a mathematician was told never to write formulae on the blackboard.

The beloved "teaching games" have become humiliating, too. In one workshop, lecturers had to cut out cardboard buzzwords to form phrases on the theory of education. Didn't anyone notice that their mental age was above five? The only phrase they wanted to cut out was: "This is for idiots."

In the UK, such courses are sanctioned by the Higher Education Academy, but most universities merely pay lip service to them. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for example, offer the bare minimum.

The financial incentives to do them are not overwhelming either: smaller universities receive tens of thousands of pounds a year from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to set up courses; Imperial College London received £250,000 for its example. And yet, a small number of institutions have decided to go beyond the call of duty. At Imperial, for example, petty punitive action is deployed against critics of the regime.

The atmosphere is one of denial and entrenchment. Senior staff at Imperial failed to respond to requests for an opinion for this article. The acting head of the Centre for Educational Development, Frank Harrison, declined to be interviewed. The head of the department of physics, Joanna Haigh, having claimed that these courses were not all bad, was then unable to cite a single positive example.

A conspiratorial tone is adopted to dismiss critics of the courses: they are being "naive"; there are "things they can't know"; and the "good of the whole is more important than the benefits for any single individual" - disingenuous justifications for nincompoops' sycophantic attitudes.

Despite the wall of silence, some have quietly admitted that mistakes have been made and will be rectified. But given the reigning secrecy and lack of transparency, it is clear that a "rebranding" exercise is on the cards: same old tripe, different name.

If improvements were really sought by those who foist this nonsense on academia, here is some news for them. Lecturers genuinely want to improve. There is nothing more embarrassing than giving a bad lecture. Given half a chance, lecturers would eagerly take up any genuine opportunity to develop.

Therefore, there is a simple way to verify whether these courses work: make them non-compulsory. It's the ultimate test, like scoring goals for a striker.

Otherwise, nothing will improve. Only the egos of bureaucrats and the plague of recycled failed teachers will benefit.

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