The natter really does matter in a solo world

August 8, 2003

Discover the joy of talking shop with colleagues and enliven your private, self-fulfilling work, says Paul Orsmond

Stereotypes are useful, particularly when you want to make a point. Consider researchers. In a research team, members debate their research, exchange emails and subscribe to journals. Compare that with lecturers.

Alone we prepare and deliver our sessions in our own personal style. When done, we return to our offices, perhaps make a note of some improvement for next year, then store the material until week three of semester one next year. We do not feel the need to talk to anyone about this process because, unlike research, we have nothing new to find out. We are in a self-fulfilling curriculum and course design cycle. We teach, we assess and students graduate. The students' module feedback indicates "quality maintained". Tick, another job done.

In this private, self-fulfilling world, who needs to think about learning outcomes, subject centres, the new higher education academy, centres for excellence in learning and teaching and national teaching fellowships? What possible success could these huge carrots have? They mostly provide opportunities for teaching staff who already have an interest in learning and teaching to shift into a bigger ghetto and talk to like-minded individuals. But they pass by most of teaching staff because they do not impinge on their private world and their discipline.

My colleague Mark Stiles says academics always try to reduce their teaching and learning to the "familiar". Ask academics to deliver a content-driven curriculum and they say "fine, I can do that", he says. Ask the same academics to deliver an outcomes-driven curriculum and they will say the same. The problem is the way they deliver both may also be exactly the same. They reduce different curricula to what is familiar to them. It is a very pragmatic approach, but it often means that, whatever you ask an academic to do, they claim to be already doing it. This is a problem, not just a conundrum. It makes it very difficult to identify staff's educational development issues and can have serious implications for student learning.

Much educational research shows that students are able to appropriate huge amounts of knowledge, become skilled in routine tasks and reproduce large quantities of factual information on demand. Many, however, are unable to show what they have learnt when asked simple yet searching questions that test their grasp of content. As a result, they express misconceptions of important concepts and seem unable to make conceptual leaps. What research studies reveal is that the type of learning required of the students - the ability to apply knowledge - is still missing. Just as staff may reduce their teaching and learning to the familiar, students appear to be able to do only what they have always done, acquire knowledge.

I am not sure how we change this, but one way brings me back to the stereotypical lecturer. My concern is not so much about what lecturers do during sessions, but all that isolation in the preparation before and the lack of discussion after.

At Staffordshire University we run a postgraduate certificate in teaching in higher education as part of the continual professional development programmes. It is a taught course with the emphasis on education theory and research. The course is primarily made up of new members of staff. We encourage participants to work in learning cells. All of them come from a world where learning issues compete with administrative and management tasks.

Once under way, many lecturers say the course helps them "to meet and talk to people from other disciplines about teaching and learning" or to "discuss the way we teach and how to use resources". Some like the fact that writing a portfolio for final assessment allows them to challenge ideas; others say they have got more involved with their students. How similar in their sense of energy are these comments to the stereotypical subject researcher?

In time, perhaps one of the roles of the staff developer will be to engender this joy of talking among teaching staff. Participants will go back to their departments carrying the message that staff development is not about revolutionising teaching but enhancing professional development.

Not everyone can take the teaching certificate, but lecturers should have at least two half days a year of educational staff development. Through sharing experiences, perceptions of the carrots may change. To make this continuing professional development meaningful, staff must have the means and power to identify what they need. Carrots can easily become sticks and then everyone will be writing portfolios, but for the wrong reasons.

Paul Orsmond is a senior lecturer in biology. He is seconded as an educational staff developer to the Centre for Innovations in Learning and Teaching at Staffordshire University.

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