Gurus of class control

July 21, 2000

Trevor and Sue Habeshaw have made a small fortune from teaching manuals and now form a consultancy team. Pat Leon met them.

In much the same way that Heinz made 57 varieties its marketing pitch, the Habeshaws have turned their 53 Interesting Ways to Teach book series into best-selling titles. It is a simple idea that has brought the Bristol-based couple fame and a small fortune.

The story was very different in 1981 when a group of lecturers sat in a smoke-filled pub on the bank of the Thames bemoaning the dearth of training material available to help polytechnic staff. Plenty of good teaching was going on in the fast-expanding sector, but few were recording it.

Three of the group, Trevor and Sue Habeshaw and Graham Gibbs, decided to put their heads together and draw on their training experience to write a series of books full of tried-and-tested ideas. The result was the formation of a publishing company, Technical & Educational Services, and the launch of the 53 series.

But why 53? "People always ask that," says Trevor. "We simply started brainstorming and came up with about 50 ideas. A colleague told us that the human brain prefers prime numbers. We thought it was an intriguing idea and came up with 53."

The first book, 53 Interesting Things to Do in Your Lectures, was printed in 1984 using a local press. The simple format, with the 53 sub-headings grouped in chapters and the black-and-white photo of the arms-linked three authors, the men in jumpers and bearded, looks dated now, but the idea behind the books was forward-thinking.

The authors had recognised that expansion was not just about more students, but also about more staff and that this had implications for teaching quality.

That message still stands, says Trevor. "For example, you can launch a course designed for 75 students one year and three years later there are 400. The design of the course hasn't changed. In the 1970s that scenario was replicated across a range of courses. Huge expansion. Bottlenecks everywhere."

Many of the staff in the polytechnic expansion were undergoing baptisms of fire in the classroom. "Staff in the former polytechnics were coming from everywhere - industry and the professions. They were former builders, architects, engineers. The books were designed as an aide for them to dip into rather than to read from start to finish."

But the attitude of many of their contemporaries to their venture annoyed the trio. "The books were considered lightweight," says Trevor, "particularly the use of plain English and of cartoons to illustrate the points. We were accused of giving 'tips for teachers'. They said there was no theory to back them up."

Whatever the criticism, the series answered a need and now runs to 16 paperbacks on topics ranging from seminars and tutorials to promoting equal opportunities. More than 60,000 copies have been sold, and Preparing to Teach is the most popular. Three more books are in the pipeline.

Sue says the starting point for their writing was looking at the balance of power in the classroom. "We asked: 'What does it look like from where students are sitting?' "We took a political view of teaching: to redress the balance of power in the classroom and lecture theatre. We believe - and research in education supports this belief - that people, be they staff or students, learn best by participating, collaborating, reflecting and taking responsibility. Our 53 series has tried to show how lecturers can give students opportunities to express and develop their ideas, needs and feelings. All of this means that the lecture, that staple of higher education, is inappropriate."

The threesome became a twosome after Gibbs moved on to other things. The Habeshaws run the company from a spacious Victorian house in Bristol. They market the books at about Pounds 10 a copy via the internet and mailshots. In publishing terms, the turnover is modest, but in the same way that the 53 series was a spin-off from their work, it has produced its own spin-offs for the Habeshaws.

Officially, Trevor is retired. "But I've got all this work," he says. Besides running the business and writing books and articles, he is a training consultant. He leads seminars around the country on a host of subjects, including teaching quality and self-assessment, for the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. This contrasts with his early academic background in child psychology and development, and his present work as a counsellor and psychotherapist. In between, he did a long stint in staff development at the University of the West of England and with the local health service.

Sue works full time as a senior lecturer in English at UWE and plans to continue for a few years to come. She says she likes the contact and collaboration that goes with being in full-time work.

But she is also a counsellor. "Educational development has a lot in common with counselling. Staff need support at work and what goes on at home affects their job. In the same way you are trying to understand a student and where they are coming from," she says.

The Habeshaws are a formidable team -Jtheir names appear regularly as leaders of workshops around the country on improving teaching. It is not common today to find couples that play together and stay together, so is there a secret to their success?

"We have been together for 30 years and working together for 20 years," says Sue. "We have taught jointly, co-authored seven books and are both consultants for the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. In fact, we spend more time working together than socialising together."

"It was hard at first because we are so different. Then one day a light bulb lit up over my head and I said: 'Hey, why don't we start seeing the differences between us as an advantage and each work to our strengths?'" It worked.

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