Teach them how to think

Kevin Sharpe says pedagogy should be measured not in contact hours but by its success in shaping critical minds

July 16, 2009

There have been many column inches of indignation devoted to the complaint made by students from the universities of Bristol, Manchester and other Russell Group members about their receiving only half-a-dozen hours a week of teaching.

In the brave new world of tuition fees and a government-led culture that increasingly sees university education as a business, the fashionable language is of "course delivery", "product" and "customer satisfaction".

In this light, it is not surprising that students, parents and media commentators complain about undergraduates being short-changed and of degrees representing poor value for money.

But this debate has missed the point or failed to ask the key questions: what is the purpose of a university education and what is the role of university teaching?

The traditional answer would have been that it was not for tutors or lecturers to deliver a packaged product, but to respond to students' work and ideas, develop their critical faculties and sharpen their expositional and argumentative skills.

In the traditional Oxbridge model, which was widely exported to the redbrick provincial institutions and then the new universities that sprung up in the 1960s, teaching was reactive rather than a matter of product delivery. Its core was one - yes, often one - weekly tutorial or seminar centred on the discussion of a student paper, or a presentation that was based on a week's worth of intensive, independent reading.

As we all know and many lament, the critical conversation offered by the small group seminar has been eroded in mass education, with its diminished resources and ever larger classes. But just because we cannot maintain the highest ideals does not mean that we should abandon them altogether.

Equally, the answer to the new situation does not involve a complete shift away from an education based on active critical discussion to one modelled on passive course delivery measured only in lecture hours and PowerPoint presentations.

One thing students still have the opportunity of doing - and what the best still do - is reading, thinking and learning. They have, especially in older universities, the luxury of excellent library resources (although too many university libraries are being desecrated as study environments); they have a community of bright minds in which to hone ideas in conversation; and they have seminars (even large ones) in which they can try out fresh thoughts and refine them under criticism.

Despite the demands now placed on them, the busiest academics will always find time for engaging with committed, independent-thinking students - even if they feel jaded by delivering packaged and trite soundbites to the passive and uninterested.

Those who complain about too few lectures and (inexplicably) too much free time have clearly failed to grasp the opportunities. It is time to abandon talk of value, delivery and customer satisfaction and to urge students to seize the opportunities to learn for themselves in a critical environment of peers and professors.

Students should not be vessels into which knowledge is poured. They should read, think, form and refine ideas and write - and the role of the professor or tutor is to shape and develop that process of critical evaluation and exposition.

More than ever, British society and industry need young people who can think for themselves rather than wait to be told what to do. They need a generation that reads everything critically rather than absorbs delivered products passively.

In the modern jargon, educationists - and too many vice-chancellors and academics - speak of "teaching and learning". It is time that those terms were reversed and that, rather than endlessly anguishing about teaching, we refocused our attention on the independent learning that alone equips students for the world beyond university - and for life.

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