Stand - but you must also deliver

January 20, 2006

The prospect of paying for his kids to get poor teaching leads Tim Birkhead to rethink the need to train lecturers

It is remarkable how having one's own offspring at university changes your view of how academics ought to behave. One morning I got a text message from one of my children asking me whether it was normal for a lecturer to stand in front of a class and read from a script, avoiding eye contact and making not the slightest effort to engage anyone's interest? I was appalled. I later asked if this lecture was an aberration. No, it was an entire course, and one that most students stopped going to, or attend, but instead used the time to text friends (or parents) or to do other work.

Suddenly, with the education of my children on the line, my views on how lecturers are trained is an issue. Of course, they have great lecturers as well, but I'm still concerned that they're exposed to anyone so utterly uninspiring.

As a new lecturer in the 1970s, I was sent on the lecturers' training course. I went - once - but it was awful and confirmed the old adage that those who can't teach - or do research now, I guess - teach teachers. I described what happened to my head of department, who told me not to bother going again. Time has moved on, but I'm not sure the training of lecturers has improved much for the simple reason that priorities have changed. In an environment dominated by the research assessment exercise, there are no points for - and, for some, no point in - quality teaching.

Until now, I've opposed the training of lecturers, partly because of my own disappointing experience, but also because of seeing universities half-heartedly implement government policies. But now that my offspring are on the receiving end, I'm having a rethink. I want them to be taught well and I want value for money - my money. Actually, I have mixed feelings: maybe every department needs one or two really bad lecturers to make the rest seem OK or mildly scintillating. Perhaps the "dull reader" my offspring got was the token departmental duffer.

Several lecturers I know have been "properly trained" - they signed up for and were duly awarded a masters in teaching. Perhaps they recognised the need for such training in themselves. Whether it made them into the teaching equivalents of David Beckham (if that isn't a contradiction), I don't know. Teaching can be taught, but it has to be done properly. Good teaching requires a few attributes over and above good planning and knowing one or two facts. It requires empathy (best developed in young lecturers by recalling what it was like to be a student and in older lecturers by imagining that their kids are in the audience); it requires enthusiasm and a metabolic rate somewhat above that of a woodlouse.

For those lacking in personal pride, thespian dreams or a hungry ego, good teaching also requires an incentive. The incentive bit is easy. Promotion now comes almost exclusively from research success, but a bonus scheme for high-quality teaching could make half-hearted boffins go the extra mile.

And, if they do, they'll experience the self-reinforcing rush and self-satisfaction of having inspired a new generation.

I bought my children a video camera for Christmas and asked them to make discreet recordings of both the dull reader and one or two lecturing "stars". I'm then going to send a clip of each - along with a recommendation for a pay cut and pay rise respectively - to the vice-chancellor of their university.

Relax! It's only an article, but I'd love to do it.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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