Teaching 'unsuited' to the third millennium

Personal relationships lost in modern university 'maelstrom', v-c warns. Rebecca Attwood reports

November 6, 2008

University teaching is "profoundly unsuitable" for today's world, a vice-chancellor has warned.

In her inaugural lecture last week, Patricia Broadfoot, vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, said that while universities may be "bastions of empirical inquiry", they have been "backward" in understanding how students learn and how best to teach them.

"Much of our approach to education is significantly out of step with the needs of the economy, society and of our planet," and it is "dangerously instrumental", she claimed.

Professor Broadfoot argued that assessment of all kinds has become increasingly prominent in educational institutions in this country, with more than £200 million a year spent on exams and tests.

"Despite being bastions of empirical inquiry, universities have arguably been backward in recognising the need to understand the learning process itself, and thus how they can best teach and support their students," Professor Broadfoot said.

She lamented the loss of personal relationships between university students and their tutors, which were often not possible "in the maelstrom of the modern university".

"The research on learning is clear and unambiguous," Professor Broadfoot said. "Learning is most likely to take place when learners feel teachers know them personally and relate to them as real people; when teachers listen and respond to students; when teachers challenge students and make them think; when teachers provide for students as individuals."

Professor Broadfoot argued that learning was an emotional as well as an intellectual activity.

"In previous centuries, it was typically taken for granted by universities that studying involved also living as part of a community of scholars: some expert, some debutant," she said.

"In recent decades, with the massive expansion of higher education, the importance of this element of the student experience has arguably been eclipsed in favour of other perceived desiderata - flexibility in mode of delivery; relevance and choice in curriculum content; quality assurance in terms of the delivery of agreed learning outcomes and innovation in teaching and learning approaches.

"Yet, as important as all these elements are, none is perhaps as important as the one that is currently most frequently overlooked. This is the need to create learning communities that give a sense of belonging and which in turn breed confidence and engagement."

She said a "fundamental shift" was needed to meet the challenges of life in the third millennium.

The model of education that dominates is a "model that is not working for a lot of young people today", she said, which was a serious problem as the nation moved towards a knowledge economy.

"Individual and professional learning for the few has become an economic imperative for the majority," she said, arguing that universities must become adept at learning themselves and more responsive to learners' changing needs.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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