Innovate to denigrate?

October 31, 1997

Alison Utley's report on the resistance of lecturers to "innovative" teaching methods (THES, October 24) suggests that the advocates of such methods see resistance as being a defence mechanism, as if it reflected a psychological antipathy to change.

But the objection is an intellectual one. Traditional liberal university teaching has always been committed to students "gaining knowledge for themselves" and being encouraged to "engage in debate". For that reason, it is rare to teach by lecture only, albeit that lectures are one way of ensuring that students have a basis from which to work.

The innovators are not, then, innovative except to the extent that they are preoccupied with process rather than content. It is for this reason they encounter resistance from academics who, unsurprisingly and rightly, have the opposite priorities. In this sense, the innovators are associated with the "dumbing down" of higher education.

That might not matter, were it not for the fact that in pursuing their vested interest in establishing an expertise in "learning" (detached from content and context), the innovators consistently denigrate their colleagues.

What seems to be in process, and what the government shows every sign of endorsing, is the constitution of the myth that university teaching is in some way deficient. Just as "poor teaching" has become an accepted commonsense that displaces facing up to the resource shortages in schools, so we can expect university lecturers to be demonised.

The innovators are therefore not only intellectually vacuous but also politically dangerous. The losers will be the whole university system, including, ironically, the students whom the innovators purport to "empower".

Christopher Grey Leeds University Business School

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