Is staff development drivel?

February 6, 1998

Yes, says Chris Grey. Forget playing games with teaching methods, spend the cash on books instead

School teachers are frequently criticised for having supposedly abandoned traditional teaching methods in favour of "trendy" child-centred approaches. University lecturers, on the other hand, are being encouraged to adopt student-centred learning. Does this reflect well-thought-out differences between school and university teaching, or is it a similar response to a similar problem? I believe it is the latter: that rather than address the lack of resources and poor policy-making in the education system, teachers and, increasingly, lecturers are being blamed for these difficulties.

It is necessary to clear away some of the undergrowth in the debates about teaching methods. First, it is incorrect to contrast traditional and student-centred teaching. The aim of traditional university teaching has been to encourage independent critical reflection and development. Although lectures are a key part of traditional teaching, they act only to provide a basic framework which then guides the student towards individual learning, most importantly through reading.

Second, there is really no reason why this basic model should be considered redundant because of university expansion. It is not so very different to lecture 200 rather than 100. Small group teaching is much more of a problem. But the traditional system of reading for a degree could continue relatively unmodified were it not for one thing. Many lecturers accept in private that the expansion of universities has brought in a number of students who are incapable of the intellectual challenge, and perhaps the personal effort, which reading for a degree entails. It is these students who are one of the main drivers for calls to reform teaching.

I am not advocating a return to a mythical Robbinsian heyday. The problem with the traditional university in that sense was that it was socially elitist. Actually, the recent expansion of universities has had limited impact on social elitism. But this is a separate issue from that of intellectual elitism, which it is vital that universities continue to uphold. Intellectual elitism in teaching means not allowing the mediocre tail to wag the able dog. Able students (and there are plenty of them) are ill-served by the paraphernalia of learning goals, transferable skills, log books, team-work projects, multimedia interactive learning and, for all I know, potato printing. They would do much better to go to a few lectures a week, read some books and write some essays since it is this which will develop independent, critical, sophisticated thinking. If students are incapable of this, they should not be at university.

Yet debate about universities avoids the matter of student ability in favour of an unremitting focus on lecturers. If only they would change their methods and improve their skills all would be well. This leads to demands not just for innovation but for training. However, I doubt whether training will improve the quality of teaching. Under any training regime (or none) there will continue to be good and bad teachers. And bad teachers will continue to be the rationale for change and "improvement" in training.

Why am I so sceptical? Because training in universities traditionally has been, and should be, about a social relation underpinned by intellectual curiosity, capability and mutual respect. It is idiosyncratic, not standardised; research-driven, with substantial variations between subjects; and knowledge is not a commodity. In short, teaching cannot be codified. That gives enormous scope for incompetence. So what? Some degree of incompetence should simply be accepted fatalistically: the managerial desire for perfectly controlled standardisation is not only undesirable, it is unattainable. In any case, because teaching is a social relation, different students will respond differently to different lecturers. Therefore incompetence should not be seen as an individual attribute of lecturers but as an unpredictable outcome of this relation.

But for students to enter into, and benefit from, such a relation it is necessary both that the system be adequately funded and that the students have the requisite ability. The government are unwilling to face up to either of these issues, hence the increasing focus on teaching methods and abilities. Politicians are aided in this from within the university system by a group of people with a vested interest in denigrating university teaching, or decoupling it from research so that it becomes a series of techniques to be applied irrespective of content and context. This group of "learning experts" wants, first of all, to establish its expertise as legitimate. Second, no doubt, they see a lucrative market in contracts to deliver training.

Of course, most learning experts would reject that formulation as unbearably cynical. They would claim to be engaged in a project to enhance accessibility and, hence, inclusivity. I believe such as stance is misguided. What that argument says is that "non-traditional" students are incapable of learning without the development of more "digestible" teaching methods. This is a deeply patronising attitude. I welcome increased diversity, but it is only egalitarian if the more diverse student body gains access to the same standard of education that was previously reserved for a social elite. We serve the wider student body poorly if, in the name of accessibility, we give it anything less.

The genuine challenge is the promotion of critical awareness, not superficial games played with teaching methods which do nothing to address the political and social conflicts within university education. There are no easy solutions, but a modest start might be to spend the money wasted on staff development, learning innovation and quality procedures on library books.

Chris Grey is a lecturer in Organisational Analysis at Leeds University Business School. The views expressed are personal.

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