20 April 2012

On the counter-productiveness of compulsion.

The Higher Education Academy is advertising for accreditors. They will check applications for HEA fellowships, and programmes leading to eligibility for them. The work is moderately well-paid and flexible, and it sounds just up my street, if I behave myself...

If I decide to apply, and get through the filtering despite being flaky on "Wide experience of working with the UK Professional Standards Framework"*, I can imagine that a sensible question at interview would be;
"Tell me, Dr Atherton, what do you think are the major challenges facing the PFS programme in its implementation in HEIs?"
I would have to answer "resentment" (followed by credibility). I can't trace the source of the adage that "managing academics is like herding cats"**,but it is very apposite.

I've not done any formal research on this, but I am sure every colleague involved in "teacher training" in the HE sector will recognise the issues...
  • From a discussion at a conference--about learning and teaching in HE and therefore attended by enthusiasts--in Sheffield in the late '90s, when the new Institute for Learning and Teaching has announced its membership scheme: "Why would I be stupid enough to join the ILT, and announce my interest in teaching? I'll just get lumbered with the first-year teaching and lose time for research!"
--and now it's a "requirement"--
  • "I've been in education for almost twenty years as a student--I think I should know something about teaching."
  • "It's bad enough trying to get your head around preparing lectures in your first year, and all the other rubbish we get dumped on us--that no-one ever told us about in advance--and then you want to take away our Wednesday afternoons for a compulsory teacher-training course. Dual professionalism my backside."
  • "This is all ideologically driven--principally to provide jobs for the girls (mainly), because they wouldn't be employable anywhere else in the university."
  • "It's an insult to have all this patronising jargon-ridden gobbledygook which passes for "research" in educational circles--mainly half-baked and methodologically very dubious progeny of long-out-dated fads from psychology and marxist theory--shoved down the throats of people who do actually know some stuff in depth."
  • "...and who in the Faculty is actually going to sack me for not getting a PGCert. in three years? And has anyone ever failed one, anyway?"
I first started teaching on a PGCert in Learning and Teaching in HE in 1996, and of course it was then voluntary. (It was the first stage on the MA in Learning and Teaching.)  The requirement to undertake the course has been introduced piecemeal by different universities--I think it was introduced where I worked in 2003.

So it was a joy to teach for seven years, with keen, motivated, and of course very bright colleagues as one's "students". We tended to start the three-hour session with one of the group reviewing something from the reading list for a nominal fifteen minutes. It was not unknown for them to fail to reach the end of their prepared remarks by the refreshment break 90 minutes later, such was the discussion. And I don't think I ever finished my prepared material. That's where I formulated my mayonnaise model of teaching.

Of course they were critical, and of course there were some who were very irritating. Motivations were mixed. In the early days we had some older colleagues on the course who had been at the institution since before it became a polytechnic. Now it was a university and they were acutely aware of how under-qualified they were--and this course seemed the easiest way up. There were others changing tracks because their research career was stalling. And some were "encouraged" to attend because even their Heads of Department recognised that they did not even reach the very low and informal bar which represented the expected standard of teaching.

But they were receptive and participative.

Eventually, it became a requirement for all new members of staff without an existing teaching qualification to undertake the course, and that had knock-on effects. The numbers grew, of course, and that limited the opportunities for such highly participatory approaches to teaching. Heads of Department made representations to the Centre which ran the programme (it was not based in the School of Education) to make it more convenient, and more "practical". The Centre recruited more staff, with teaching qualifications but without the academic credibility which came from being based in a faculty (even in a School of Education, which is traditionally low in the academic pecking order). The course was revised and re-validated, responding to the explicit requests for more practicality and application--so the approach became more didactic. And structured.

Dissident voices became more apparent. More time was spent justifying the very existence of the course--and more was also spent on inducting the participants into the QA procedures and paperwork of the institution. The Centre was absorbed into the ever-expanding Human Resources Department, and lost even more credibility. The course was no longer seen as a resource and a stimulus, but more of a penance, with lower and lower expectations of how it might help improve teaching...

That story is perhaps a little over-stated, and it is not the whole story, but I know from speaking to former colleagues across the country that it is repeated with variations from Russell Group universities to post-1992 institutions.

So how do you get colleagues to believe that the content of the course will actually help them, and make teaching better, easier and more enjoyable?

    *   How much more is "wide" than "some"? Does "working with" include "complaining about" and "failing to understand"? [I shan't mention this qualification in the application, but if it comes up I shall at least know someone at HEA reads the blog!]  

    **  Although my own contribution to the source hunt is that I first heard it used by Diana Laurillard at an Open University conference in Milton Keynes in 1997; although whether it appears in the transcript of her paper I don't know; it must have been fairly fresh because is got a genuine laugh. ( Laurillard D (1997) "A systems model of individual learning applied to organisational learning and the HE system" Paper at "Applying Systems Thinking to Higher Education" conference, Open University 12 July 97. [Read more: The Politics of RBL http://www.doceo.co.uk/rbl/polrbl.htm#ixzz1sVqmzXBE Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives] )


    1. Anonymous4:40 pm

      You should apply, with this post as the "evidence that you meet the individual criteria (knowledge and understanding, abilities, experience and skills) within the person specification for the role applied for", which it certainly is.

    2. Only substantive proof that such training makes teaching better and/or easier and/or more enjoyable could "get colleagues to believe that the content of the course will actually help them". Sadly, no such evidence exists - presumably because it hasn't been found:

      “There is, in fact, little evidence that teachers’ conceptions of teaching really do develop with increasing teaching experience (Norton, Richardson, Hartley, Newstead, & Mayes, 2005). There is also little evidence that conceptions of teaching change as a result of formal training, although Ho (2000) found some promising results from a teaching development program that was specifically aimed at bringing about conceptual change.” -Richardson, J. (2005)

      Coaching might be better:

      California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests. -Gawande, A. (2011) (both quotes via Atherton, J. ;-)

    3. For the record, I've decide not to apply.


    Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.