Learn to look them in the eye and smile

June 11, 2004

A further education college has set up a teaching research centre that will do more than just produce reports - it will apply its findings, says Mandy Garner

The line between further and higher education is becoming increasingly blurred and nowhere is this more apparent than at City of Wolverhampton College.

The college has just got funding to establish the Centre for Active Research and Applied Learning, which will look at creative ways of teaching a diverse student body.

The idea for the centre came from Richard Majors, former head of the Centre for Support for Learning at Glasgow University.

He says: "Higher education institutions give a lot of lip service to widening participation, but I believe that it is the further education colleges that have most of the expertise in this area and are best able to adapt to students' needs. They have a better understanding of complex groups such as asylum-seekers, working-class students and immigrants across a variety of ages than higher education institutions."

He adds: "Universities have too many conflicting interests, such as the research assessment exercise, which sap staff's creative juices. I believe there does not have to be this top-down approach from the higher education to the further education sector. Further education colleges can be trendsetters, too."

Another advantage is that decisions in further education, he says, take much less time than in higher education. "The board made a decision in just one and a half months," says Majors, who is working closely with Ian Millard and Susan Chambers, Wolverhampton's principal and deputy principal.

Majors has already met managers at the college to raise the profile of identity and diversity issues. The approach is dual track-developing a curriculum for learners and enhancing staff skills.

"It is very much not research just for research's sake," Majors says. "It is not about producing shiny reports and research papers. The centre will focus on active and applied research for the purpose of being able to inform courses in college, creating materials for use in learning programmes and so on."

Majors says that money made from training materials will be ploughed back into the college. He is critical of the way some universities seem to consider teaching as inferior to research. "I have got a whole drawerful of letters thanking me for changing students' lives and so on, but it doesn't matter a hill of beans to a dean; nor does the fact that I have supervised a certain number of students. All the kinds of things that make a difference are not rewarded. You are rewarded instead for the money you generate through the papers and articles you publish. Universities need to be more driven by student demands. If we continue down the RAE line, we will not widen the canon. The RAE should be about ideas, not just publishing."

Majors comes with quite a track record. While a clinical fellow in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in the 1990s, he co-founded the National Council of African American Men, the first umbrella group in the US for African-American males. He is also founder and deputy editor of the Journal of African American Men . His 1992 book Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America was nominated for the Pulitzer prize.

He came to the UK in the mid-1990s as a Leverhulme visiting fellow, and while a senior fellow at Manchester University, he was deputy director of social inclusion in the Leigh Education Action Zone, helping to develop programmes for children at risk of disaffection or who have been excluded.

One area in which Majors is particularly interested is teacher empathy and the new centre, which will initially employ six staff, will research this field. Teacher empathy uses emotional literacy and positive psychology to reinforce good behaviour, rather than focusing on punishing bad behaviour.

It also aims to develop teachers' interpersonal skills. "Often teachers don't have any eye contact with their students," Majors says. "And the first thing that comes out of their mouths is negative. The aim is to look at the teacher's interaction with children, their voice intonations, whether they smile or not, how enthusiastic they are, how they can humour and praise children."

Majors says he does not know of any practical teaching materials that promote teacher empathy and the centre will aim to produce these. It is also looking to link up with other colleges in the area. "It's an interesting time to be in FE," says Millard. "We offer a new way of looking at applied and practical research."

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