How to teach: an old dog, new tricks

January 31, 1997

I AM ALWAYS impressed by the alacrity with which some newly appointed vice chancellors say they will carry on teaching. Anthony Giddens, incoming director of the London School of Economics, is a recent example of this phenomenon, according to press reports.

Is the reason that they genuinely believe that teaching is where true added value occurs, rather than in the parasitic office? Or is it a deep commitment to learning and one's discipline that simply cannot be laid aside for the mere triflings of a vice chancellor's responsibilities?

Could it be just a public relations exercise to curry favour with staff that is destined to end given the blandishments of power and other tasks? Or could it be a failure to come to terms with crossing the line into management?

No doubt all of these factors play some part but it is interesting that a decision to maintain at least some teaching confers academic legitimacy. This contrasts with the persisting inability in universities to raise the status of teaching in comparison with, say, research.

Academic careers are made in research performance and its recognition, not through excellence in teaching. This reflects the fact that teaching is a local activity and does not form a national market where reputation can be traded for career mobility. Becoming a good teacher tends to have occupational pay-off, if any, within a particular institution.

To redress this imbalance we need to recognise the potential alliance of interest between good researchers and good teachers. First, the emphasis in teaching now is to encourage student independence and individual resourcefulness. Academics under pressure of time to do research will be more motivated to teach efficiently, as well as effectively, to get on.

Second, we need to avoid recreating a binary line, with teaching perceived as a preoccupation of the new universities and research of the old. The two functions are important for every university, particularly if excellence in both is believed to be linked. As the funding council and other initiatives have shown, many older universities are clearly committed to learning innovation and good teaching practice has come on apace across the whole sector.

Third, there need to be cash rewards for excellent teaching, but based on an assessment method that is not swamped by existing funding levels, predominantly for research. This would enable institutions to give more incentives for teaching, as well as perhaps offsetting the worst diversions of the research assessment exercise.

Fourth, we need to encourage less emphasis on methods, projects and innovation. The aim should be good teaching and learning, whatever instruments employed. The traditionally excellent should be exalted as well as the novel.

Indeed, funding might best be levelled at leadership and management development - to help teamworking and transparency in teaching at department level - rather than technology. Instead of focusing on individual projects and new artefacts (predominantly IT-based), funds could be directed at whole schools or faculties to get them to improve teaching in fairly simple and low-cost ways.

Finally, without wishing to "top slice" institutional funds or create another quango, some national mechanism is necessary for transporting good practice and innovation in learning. Without its champion, teaching excellence is likely to make little effective progress.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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