The man who brought teaching in from the cold

November 14, 2003

Graham Gibbs' extensive research into the theory of education has nowbeen rewarded with a prestigious appointment at the Oxford Institute. Pat Leon reports.

In January 2004, Graham Gibbs, guru of the UK's learning and teaching lobby, will become director of the prestigious Oxford Institute for the Advancement of Higher Education, having spent seven years promoting national strategy at the Open University.

That's not bad for someone who was told at 14 he was too stupid to get O levels and advised to choose a trade. He explains: "I left school for HMS Conway . I never went to sea but got the A levels to take a City University social science degree. At 21, I got a first and started a PhD in psychology at University College London."

Teaching psychology part time, he realised he was more interested in the process than the content. This led to his first OU sojourn, as a research assistant investigating tuition and counselling. "In 1978, I set up a research methods group looking at study skills. Two years later, aged 29, I became director of the education methods unit at Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes. The unit was one of only a handful in the UK."

Seven years of snowballing demand for guidance on how to improve teaching encouraged him to go freelance, and he set up the Oxford Centre for Staff Development. "I had an agreement with the poly's deputy director that it would operate on a commercial basis. We started with just me and an administrative assistant working out of an office the size of a cupboard and grew to employ about 30 consultants."

During this time, Gibbs was raising his two daughters with his partner, developmental psychologist Vicky Wright. "We lived (and still do) at the end of a muddy lane in the Cotswolds, looking after six acres, horse, dogs and cats. It was hard work and we struck a deal about how many nights a year we could each spend away: ten."

The unit's success in mixing research with consultancy and training led to many contracts from bodies such as the Council for National Academic Awards and, eventually, the funding councils. Teaching quality enhancement was coming in from the cold. A high point was the first Improving Student Learning Symposium in 1993. "So many people applied to attend that we had to move it to a bigger venue. Now it's the prime conference for research into teaching in Europe," Gibbs says.

By the mid-1990s he had seen a niche for national university teacher training and won OU backing to develop distance-learning programmes. "But the market collapsed. Every university was developing their own programmes, and the Institute for Learning and Teaching decided to accredit higher education teachers without any training."

He had also convinced the Higher Education Funding Council for England of the need for coordination of teaching development initiatives. With Carol and David Baume, he formed the first national coordination team to oversee Hefce projects worth millions of pounds. He was also spending half his time writing reports to inform national learning and teaching strategy and helping institutions devise their own strategies. "That has been some of the most influential work I've done," he says.

So what does he think of white-paper proposals on teaching? "Stability is really important to initiatives. The reason that we have quality bids for Economic and Social Research Council grants is because they have run for a long time and have tough peer review. We've seen the same improvement in quality with five successive rounds of the Fund for Development of Teaching and Learning."

He is frustrated at the short-term nature of initiatives such as the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which is disbanding after just four years to merge with the NCT and the Learning and Teaching Support Network to form the new Higher Education Academy in 2004.

He also believes the political decision to launch 70 new Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning was not based on any understanding of how to bring about change. "If I had £350 million, would I have dreamt up Cetl? No. But they are going to be set up and we have to do the best we can to make them work." He is, however, optimistic that teaching is improving. "In 1975, there were no government initiatives and scarcely any funding. Teaching innovation was happening, but it was not well documented and there was little sharing within and between institutions. All that has changed dramatically. Activities to improve teaching are more extensive in the UK than in any other country."

His determination to make the best of things has always stood him in good stead. At 50, he took up cycle racing, only to break his back. However, it didn't end his cycling: in September last year, he and two friends broke Banbury Star cycle club's 50-year record for distance cycled in 12 hours.

Odds are that at Oxford - and in his national work - he'll produce similar turnarounds.

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