'Malcontents' must do better

Education expert locks horns with HEA chief over need to train academics to teach. John Gill reports

August 11, 2011

Credit: George Robinson/Alamy
Keys to improvement: teaching qualifications backed by evidence, letter argues

A leading teaching expert has issued a withering response to an article by the head of the Higher Education Academy on the need for consistent teacher training in academia.

Writing in Times Higher Education last month, Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the HEA, argued that "the metrics to give effective judgement on what is good teaching are, as yet, too fragile. So is the research evidence that those qualified to teach are better at creating positive learning environments and enhancing student learning."

The statement was qualified with the observation that there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that those with professional teaching qualifications were better at the job.

But Professor Mahoney said this was not good enough. "We must procure the empirical evidence from controlled studies, demonstrating...that to be qualified is to be expected, to continually update is a given and that providing students with outstanding teachers benefits everyone."

In a letter published in THE today, Graham Gibbs, former head of the Oxford Learning Institute, describes the article as "extraordinary".

Professor Gibbs, who authored an HEA report, Dimensions of Quality, which drew together three decades of research on good-quality teaching indicators, says Professor Mahoney was wrong to suggest that there is no hard evidence for the benefits of such qualifications.

"While there is less convincing research evidence than would be ideal, the evidence we have shows that university teachers who have higher education teaching qualifications are perceived by their students to be better teachers than those without them," he writes.

"We also know that teachers improve, in a variety of measurable ways, after a one-year part-time teaching programme: they develop a more sophisticated understanding of teaching, they teach better (using a measure that is both reliable and valid) and their students study in more effective ways."

Professor Gibbs also takes issue with the notion that training should be compulsory, and with Professor Mahoney's reflection that higher education teaching courses are often criticised for being "patronising or too generic".

Professor Gibbs writes that "the crucial word here is 'voluntarily'", acknowledging that forcing scholars to take such courses leads to "sullen, disruptive behaviour".

However, he says that this "does not mean that the malcontents are right", adding that the HEA should not give credence to their protests.

He concludes: "Training (usually) works and those who do not want to be trained ought to have better arguments than the HEA gives voice to. Please be more scholarly in future."


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