19 November 2010

On toxic training

Has teacher training become part of the problem rather than the solution? I'm speaking of the Higher (HE) and general Post-Compulsory Education (PCE) sector here.

As so often, I'm prompted by events and discussions which seem to be pointing in a general direction.

First--perhaps trivial, but perhaps symptomatic. Two MA students, whose dissertations I was supervising, confessed that they weren't interested in what mark they got, they just needed to pass. One teaches in PCE, the other at a university. They explained they were very busy, and so they had to be careful with how they invested their time, but that they needed the post-graduate award for career purposes. It is hard to think of a more cynically strategic approach to study--and this from people engaged in teaching beginning professionals. (They got their wishes, but only just.)

Second--Sean posted about his experience on his own MA course, on this occasion drawing attention to his fellow course members' lack of inclination to do any work outside class, resulting in ill-informed discussions and a general sense of futility. (Earlier, though, he commented on similar reluctance to work beyond the session in the very different setting of a WEA class on navigation--I may get round to that in another post...) He asks,
"Has the education system now bent so far backwards to accommodate strategic learners that even people who presumably must once have been interested in getting to grips with the thing they were studying now do the bare minimum? Or is this (as I hear it may be) how most PGCEs are now, rewarding conformity, strategic learning, and technical compliance, rather than any deeper understanding?"
Both, I think.

Third--(and slightly tangential, I confess)... Graham Gibbs' short but magisterial report on educational achievement in HE appeared in August and I blogged about his presentation based on it it here. Among his observations (p.24) is:
"High levels of detail in course specifications, of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, in response in part to QAA codes of practice, allow students to identify what they ought to pay attention to, but also what they can safely ignore. A recent study has found that in such courses students may narrow their focus to attention to the specified assessed components at the expense of everything else (Gibbs and Dunbar-Goddet, 2007). Students have become highly strategic in their use of time and a diary study has found students to progressively abandon studying anything that is not assessed as they work their way through three years of their degree (Innis and Shaw, 1997).

I learned at the age of about seven that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. (I was visiting neighbours on my own, and for the first time I was allowed to have as much sugar in my tea as I wanted. I put in four heaped teaspoonsful, and it was revolting!) The same goes for designing teaching, as for any other complex activity. Complex interactions between ingredients/variables do not seem to have occurred to the powers that be...

(Is there anywhere in LLUK standards or Ofsted criteria or similar bumf, a call for less of anything? Have they never heard of the art that conceals art?)

There is a perfect storm conspiring to distract us all in the direction of surface --or at best strategic-- learning, to attention to the signifier rather than the signified.

Perhaps it will all change next week...


Atherton J S (2010) Doceo; Values, Effort and QA [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.doceo.co.uk/tools/values_qa.htm  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G (2010) Dimensions of Quality  York: Higher Education Academy [On-line] available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/ourwork/evidence_informed_practice/Dimensions_of_Quality.pdf  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G and Dunbar-Goddet H (2007) The effects of programme assessment environments on student
York: Higher Education Academy

Innis K and Shaw M (1997) "How do students spend their time?" Quality Assurance in Education 5 (2), pp. 85–89.


  1. I couldn’t agree more – something is profoundly wrong. To give you another example:

    As part of year 1 of the PGCert, we were asked to post a number of ‘private’ blog posts about our studies. This blog would also contain our portfolio and would be accessed for assessment. I took it upon myself to gather all my research, notes, reflections and relevant correspondence in this same place. My hope was that this would form overwhelming evidence of my engagement in Teaching and Learning in addition to the required materials.

    Presumably unbeknownst to my course leader, most of these blog tools have integrated hit counters. Out of 237 blog posts and 12 obligatory portfolio pages my course leader made exactly 18 hits in order to grade me. Several were repeat hits on a single page. Indeed, 3 of the 12 obligatory components were not viewed at all. I’m pretty sure this, amongst other acts of unprofessionalism, would form good grounds for an appeal but I’m too concerned that such a move would sour an already strained relationship and possibly jeopardise my future progress through the course.

    Furthermore, now that I know that my level of engagement with the course evidently means absolutely nothing to the person marking me, I’m finding it very hard to justify the same level of engagement. You’d think that teachers of teachers would have the sense and sensitivity to realise that cynicism breeds cynicism, or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: the cynical teacher knows the grade of everyone but the value of nothing.

  2. Linda Harradine3:52 pm

    Hi James
    Really great to read recent thoughts of yours. I am running DTLLS at Huntingdonshire Regional College. Once the learners have engaged with the 100-odd assessment criteria(in year one), the Minimum Core, the LLUK Professional Standards, the format imposed for assessment by the Awarding Body, the observations, the mentoring, the classwork, the reading, the coursework ... I'm just aghast that they have enough time left to do their 22 hours of teaching - plus its prep and its marking and the 14.5 hours of Departmental Duties that they can call their own.
    LESS of something would be a great idea, for us all! Depth definitely sacrificed for breadth.


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