You can lecture, but can you teach?

Protests against the idea that academics be given teacher-training are misguided, argues Eric Sotto

January 21, 2010

Many newly appointed lecturers in the UK are now required to undertake a training course for teaching. As universities have been going strong for several hundred years without such courses, considerable controversy has arisen over this development. In response, I note a few anomalies, consider several objections, outline what I believe such a course should include, and comment on some implications.

First, the anomalies.

Many judicial, commercial, medical and university practices have their roots in the Middle Ages. However, whereas great changes have taken place in the first three of the above, there have been almost no changes in university teaching practices. Thus, the main form of teaching in universities is still lecturing, although nothing in 50 years of research on learning supports this approach. Imagine the same situation in medicine.

Here is another anomaly. It is generally agreed that people whose work affects the wellbeing of others must possess a qualification that attests to their competence to do this work. Thus anyone who prescribes a medication, fits a gas cooker or advises on investments must hold a relevant qualification. But there is one exception. People who teach at a university clearly affect the wellbeing of students, but they are not required to hold a qualification that attests to their competence to teach. Recall that having a qualification in a subject does not attest to one's competence to teach it. Before long, we can expect a thoughtful student to bring a lawsuit against a university for offering a service - teaching - when its practitioners possess no qualification for offering that service.

Another anomaly: academics hold that if complex undertakings are to be understood, they must be studied, but few academics study their teaching in remotely the way they study the subject they teach. In short, academics hold that all complex undertakings require study, but not one of the complex things with which they are most engaged.

Here is a last anomaly. It's generally agreed that we learn by experience, observation and reflection. It's also agreed that the foregoing has limitations, and that we can often improve our practice if we attend a course and study the relevant evidence. But here again is an exception: university teaching. Lecturers, in the main, repeat what was done to them.

Next, some objections to training courses.

The most common is: "Anyone who has a PhD in crystallography knows how to teach it." This objection conflates knowing a subject with knowing how to teach it, so doesn't require further comment.

Another objection takes this form. "I attended an awful course of training at Drumnadrochit School of Engineering that consisted largely of discussions about theories of learning." More general examples of complaints are that training courses are initiated by people divorced from reality; that they are really publicity stunts; or that they are a refuge for superannuated lecturers in Amharic. Where such talk isn't merely cynical or an attempt to evade personal shortcomings, one feels sympathy, for diabolical training courses do exist. But all such objections are irrelevant to whether lecturers should or shouldn't undertake training to teach.

Another objection holds that training courses should be subject-specific, and most are not. So, for example, a teacher of entomology requires a course that helps one to teach entomology, not economics. But this is misleading. One, it overlooks the fact that learning entomology and learning economics have much in common (eg, the relationship between parts and wholes, schema formation and its drawbacks, hypothesis forming and testing, the process of insight, the nature of meaning, and much else). In other words, the focus in a subject-specific course is on an epiphenomenon, for teaching is a tool rather than a phenomenon. Two, the focus is on a subject rather than students, and is like physicians who focus on a disease rather than people. Three, the focus is on the teacher not the students, understandable but egocentric.

In suggesting a focus on learning rather than teaching - ie, on what the learner rather than the teacher does - I am suggesting a new ball game; and it is impossible to convey in a brief article the implications of such a change. What I can more easily note is that this change requires a far more disciplined response from students than is often currently the case, and it isn't remotely consumer-orientated.

Another objection is that training courses impede a lecturer's freedom. This is like arguing that architects are impeded by having to pass exams. Another objection is that there is no evidence that training improves teaching. This is like claiming that there is no current evidence that surgeons do better than barbers. Another objection is that training courses should be voluntary. This is like suggesting that training courses for airline pilots should be voluntary. A last objection holds that the reaction of students provides evidence of competence. But these same lecturers will on other occasions complain that many students want an easy ride. Recall, also, what happened to Socrates.

I've heard other objections, but none that bears examination; and all recall the protestations of other professionals when the need for training was first broached in their field. What is striking is the vehemence of some objections. This suggests that there may be reasons that are not articulated, including perhaps anger at a perceived loss of status or control, a wish to escape further demands, or an understandable apprehension about having one's teaching assessed.

Next, we consider objections to the content of a training course.

Like any university course, a course for teaching must engage in a substantial body of scholarly literature; it must possess intellectual rigour; and it must be assessed by the same criteria as other courses. Second, such a course must be based on the difference between procedural as distinct from declarative memory - for teaching is a practical activity - and a course not so based isn't worth attending. Third, 50 per cent of the content should consist of a study of the available evidence on learning; 25 per cent on the available evidence on teaching; 5 per cent on the teaching of specific disciplines; 10 per cent on relevant aspects of the philosophy of science; and 10 per cent on what disciplines such as social anthropology can offer. Fourth, the trainers must have qualifications and experiences in terms of the foregoing. Fifth, the students must be visited six times during their teaching, for we only really learn when we act on what we learn and are given supportive feedback. This visiting must be consistently by one trainer - who has also acted as a role model - but he or she need not be a subject specialist, for the task is to consider learning, not teaching. And sixth, such a course must suggest a tentative theory of instruction that can serve as a guide for practice; and it must be open to refutation or development, and generate further research. Training that clusters around the concept of lecturing is based on a myth, and is atheoretical and intellectually barren.

In support of the above, I note that "facts are to a theory what a pile of bricks is to a house"; that deciding how to teach without first studying how people learn is like giving an answer before one has heard the question; that learning is, to a considerable extent, a biological process; and that learners are people.

Next, we consider the place of such a course in the wider academic scheme.

To date, kudos is gained by academics who are, for example, marine biologists, obtain grants, study coral reefs, publish research and attend conferences in Reykjavik. Academics who primarily teach are, by comparison, thought second-rate players. But of course the reality is very different. The bulk of significant research is done by a small number of people; thousands then elaborate on this; and, after 20 years, what remains is a nucleus of significant knowledge while the rest is buried. Compare this with what good teachers can achieve.

In addition to teaching a subject, good teachers can foster an appreciation of rational argument and scholarship, inculcate a habit of distinguishing between opinion and evidence, nourish a sceptical rather than cynical cast of mind, seed an inclination to ask questions where others see nothing, and encourage a sense of responsibility for the common good. And in view of the fact that 100 million Europeans slaughtered each other in the last century, the widespread belief that quality of life depends on whether mobile phones work underwater, the way that money has turned into a fetish, the incidence of child abuse in the UK, the cult of the individual, the stifling garbage spewed by the mass media and the endless creation of enemies, I would say the following.

When, in the course of teaching a subject, teachers manage to foster the qualities noted above, they achieve something no less valuable than researching the function of the semicolon in the poems of John Keats. In any case, certain unusual people aside, exceptional researching and exceptional teaching probably require different talents. As to which is the more important, recall that right-wing death squads in Central America targeted village teachers, not university professors.

Both research and teaching are obviously important; but that is ultimately a matter of values. Thus, Egas Moniz was awarded a Nobel prize for introducing prefrontal leucotomy, whereas John Bowlby was not even considered for such an honour, despite introducing attachment theory.

I note the foregoing because teaching will be considered important to the extent that both people and knowledge are considered important. And if teachers manage to foster the kind of qualities noted above, it is by how - rather than what - they teach, and that is why appropriate training courses are important. They help to shift some attention from the impersonal to the personal, change an often pretentious university culture, contribute to fostering a new generation of mindful citizens, and return teaching to an activity that merits esteem and respect.

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