Teaching the teachers

September 17, 1999

HEAD TO HEAD: standards debate

The accreditation of lecturers is designed to improve learning in universities. Will it work?

YES

Caroline Bucklow

Most people I know who teach in universities and colleges value their teaching role and regret that the demands of other activities leave them little time to explore new ways of working with students and helping them to learn.

Many feel that they could achieve more if excellent and innovative teaching practice was more visible and more highly rewarded in the system as a whole.

The aim of the Institute of Learning and Teaching is to ensure that there is more visibility and greater reward for the teaching element of academic work. Its accreditation activity is one element in a programme aimed at encouraging everyone who teaches and supports learning in higher education to develop their own teaching skills, by building on existing good practice.

Accreditation, continuing professional development and the dissemination of research on good practice in teaching and learning support are complementary activities that support teachers in improving their own teaching.

Active participation in a UK-wide system, owned by the teachers themselves, can provide real motivation for teachers and those who support learning in the widest sense, to explore and develop good practice in the face of the diverse and rapidly changing needs of students.

Accreditation is designed to lay the ground for improving teaching's status by establishing a framework that reflects the peer community's understanding of what constitutes good practice and about the ways in which it can be developed.

Participating in the accreditation process encourages staff developers in universities and colleges to build on good practice in their own and in other institutions when developing their own programmes. It also provides an effective mechanism for sharing experiences and ideas between institutions. The process of completing an accredited course or developing a teaching portfolio gives people the opportunity to compare teaching experiences with colleagues in their own and other disciplines and to learn from them.

No doubt other opportunities exist for such collegial activities, through involvement in subject associations and professional bodies or through internal staff development events. In many institutions, however, the pressures of increased teaching and administrative loads and the importance of developing an active research profile make such opportunities something of a luxury.

An accreditation system that has the support of universities and colleges throughout the UK will increase the visibility of teaching and learning support activities and will encourage institutions to allocate appropriate resources to support teaching staff in this aspect of their work.

Support in the community is clearly a prerequisite for establishing a credible system that can influence the development of good practice in teaching and learning. Our experience indicates that there is very widespread enthusiasm about ILT accreditation in institutions. About 40 institutions have already approached the ILT to seek accreditation for programmes of staff development that are running or that are under development.

Widespread support for a system does not, of course, guarantee success in itself. As the ILT consultation document Implementing the Vision recognised:

"The process of accreditation will not, of itself, enhance the quality of teaching, unless the accreditation framework (and the standards of professional practice) are underpinned by a solid foundation of understanding in the higher education community about the practice of teaching.

"To have credibility, the process of accreditation must ensure that staff are intellectually engaged and must itself be monitored and evaluated by theoretically and conceptually informed research and development.'

We must also convince people working in the sector that our approach is rigorous, relevant and developmental. In setting up the accreditation process we have drawn widely on the experience of practitioners in many disciplines as well as education specialists. The first accreditors have been recruited, through an open selection process, for their knowledge and experience of teaching and learning issues within their specialist discipline, as well as for their experience of external review and accreditation. Alongside the accreditor training, we are working to establish a review and monitoring activity as soon as the first institutional accreditation visits have taken place. We know that ILT accreditation has to prove its value and we are working hard to ensure it delivers what the sector needs.

To sum up, the key factors that will enable accreditation to contribute to the improvement of teaching and learning in higher education are:

The support and involvement in the process of practitioners who are already active in promoting good practice

The ownership of the process by the community as a whole, ensuring that accreditation is seen as relevant and not as something imposed from the outside

The close links between accreditation and the development activities of the ILT

The underpinning of the accreditation framework by a sound knowledge of the changing theoretical and practical issues facing teachers in higher education.

Caroline Bucklow is director of accreditation, Institute for Learning and Teaching

NO

Frank Furedi

Mandatory teacher training of new full-time academic staff will contribute towards diminishing the quality of university education. It is evident that the kind of teaching advocated by the Dearing committee and the Institute of Learning and Teaching is driven by an ethos that regards universities as the providers of further and not higher education.

It is possible that some of the ILT schemes may succeed in turning out some competent instructors, who are good at imparting information to their customers. But such trained instructors will not raise the standard of academic teaching but transform it to suit the agenda of the expansion of the university sector.

The ILT technocratic model is wedded to the idea that university teaching is only formally related to academic research. It is based on the model of a school, where teachers teach and students learn. Sadly, it overlooks some of the qualitative differences between university and further education.

The close association between research and teaching has been a critical ingredient to quality university education in the past. Such education was informed by the assumption that everything academics do is about learning.

Academics learn through their research, through their teaching and from their students. To isolate teaching from the learning experience of the academic is to deprive university education of critical enquiry and intellectual passion.

The separation of teaching from the learning experience of the academic leads to the abstraction of learning from its subject matter. From this ILT perspective, teaching becomes a technique that can be evaluated in terms of "outcomes".

That is why the new higher education bureaucracy insist that courses should specify their outcomes under the heading of "key skills", "cognitive skills" and "subject specific skills". Of course the acquisition of skills is important to every human being.

However, it has little to do with academic learning. Abstract reasoning, the ability to conceptualise, problem solve and master a discipline can not be reduced to quantitative indices. Academic teaching is about imparting knowledge - not facts - and is not reducible to skills.

University teaching presupposes an interactive relationship with students.

Such teaching is based on scholarly engagement with a distinct discipline and invites students to participate in the exploration of ideas. There are no general pedagogic techniques for teaching at this level that are independent of the subject matter. Research-based teaching is interactive, subjective and relies on provoking interest in a particular discipline. It is not susceptible to generating observable outcomes or to standardisation.

Research-based teaching involves much more than the provision of the facts offered in the now fashionable lecture notes. It aspires to helping students to gain the habit of independence of thought and a grasp of the essence of their subject matter.

The instrumental philosophy of education in vogue represents the negation of the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. Such inquiry is driven by a willingness to embark on the unknown. It implies an openness to experimentation and to engagement with problems not yet anticipated.

The obsession with teaching techniques shortcircuits this process. Routine predictability takes precedence over intellectual discovery. Such teaching is also intellectually less demanding on the student than a more open-ended reflection of the subject matter.

This is really the nub of the matter. Colleagues who have participated in the new accreditation courses report that their instructors are continually advising them of the importance of "stimulating" students. One technique suggested for stimulating students involves handing out books in class or lectures to show them how to find the relevant information.

Teaching students how to take notes is another technique of stimulation. This advocacy of spoonfeeding has clearly lost sight of what university education is about. Even excellent spoon-feeding can do little more than mask the steady lowering of universities' expectation of their students.

Probably the most important legacy of the move towards the accreditation of university teachers is the socialisation of a new generation of lecturers into the Dearing ethos. Young lecturers, who face an intense level of job insecurity, also face enormous pressures to conform to the new skill oriented pedagogy.

As one colleague, who has had three different jobs in the past four years told me, "no one is going to make waves" if they disagree with their course instructors.

Sadly, this understandable pragmatic response will ensure that gradually university teaching will become more and more subordinated to concerns that have little to do with academic learning.

The power of accreditation is both symbolic and political. It symbolises the ascendancy of a new source of authority over the lives of academic workers. It also represents the projection of political power. In particular, it directly compromises the principle of academic freedom. The autonomy of the academic - an ideal at the best of times - acquires little meaning when teaching becomes subordinated to criteria external to itself.

A vibrant culture of teaching is a worthwhile objective. There is little doubt that the quality of university education is uneven. There is considerable scope for improving our teaching through subjecting our experiences to the scrutiny and criticism of colleagues. Usually, informal initiatives to improve the quality of education are best pursued at university department level. But in the end, raising standards of teaching is inseparable from raising standards of university life overall.

Unfortunately, the contemporary model of education on the cheap has the effect of lowering rather than raising standards. In recent years, most universities have experienced a substantial reduction in the amount of teacher-student contact time.

Accrediting lecturers so that they can spend less time with their students is unlikely to put British education "at the leading edge of world practice in effective learning and teaching".

Frank Furedi is a reader in sociology at the University of Kent. The views expressed above do not reflect any of the institutions to which he is officially affiliated.

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