Teaching lecturers how to teach – Sixth form teachers to help academics to teach 18 year olds?

The Telegraph, 03/10/14, as it's announced that independent schools are to lay on teaching lessons for university lecturers, Eleanor Doughty asks whether this is necessary

As a sixth form student, I imagined a world of independent learning. That place was university.

It was sold to me under the impression that you didn’t learn by being taught, but by finding facts out on your own. No more grown ups standing by a whiteboard imparting the wisdom of the national curriculum. It’s all about you, the lone student with just a reading list and flask of tea in the library.

And thank goodness. After fifteen years of the former method, it was starting to wear thin. But what happens when independent learning fails?

It was announced this week at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) annual event in South Wales that sixth-form teachers will work alongside academics to foster better relationships with 18 year olds.

This comes off the back of complaints from first year students who claim that their tutors lack experience in this area.

I broached the subject with my friends. Almost unanimously, they agreed that most academics they had encountered were not teachers. Brilliant, clever people with knowledge oozing from every pore; awe-inspiring, quick-witted and, sometimes, bonkers, but not good teachers.

Some cited ‘outside interests’ – code for research – as a primary difficulty; one friend explaining that her dissertation supervisor was consistently more interested in his new book than her thesis. Her self-defence was that her fees essentially paid his wages, which put her out somewhat.

Another school friend told me that his personal tutor simply ‘failed to “get” him' – a subjective complaint, perhaps, but nonetheless awkward to negotiate in a learning scenario.

I put these concerns down to one-offs and asked an actual academic about the higher education teacher training process. “As PhD students we had to undertake a 3-day mandatory training programme before they let us loose on students,” she told me.

“We learned about students’ learning styles, about classroom management – most of this comes from educational research, and would replicate core PGCE training, but geared to the university classroom.”

This was over a decade ago – now, things have stepped up a notch. “All PhD students have to do a programme of subject-specific training in teaching, and are observed by a permanent member of staff.

"Every institution I’m aware of has a dedicated programme of training, and staff can’t complete their probation unless they’ve done it. Even if a colleague has been teaching elsewhere, if they didn’t do this kind of training it is a condition of employment. Generally it leads to a specific qualification, equivalent to half a Master’s degree in university-level teaching.”

The situation is constantly improving, my source let on. “Most of my friends who went to university in the Olden Days [the early 90s], were taught generally very badly indeed. Stories of drunk, disaffected, entirely uninterested – or totally absent – teaching staff were par for the course. And things had definitely got better, even then.”

But if the teaching standards have shot up with new regulations and qualifications, then what is the need for new training partnerships?

Chris Ramsey, headmaster of the King’s School Chester, and co-chair of the Girls’ School Association/HMC university committee offered a hint: “We’ve been prompted to suggest a move on this because of the good reaction we have had from university staff.

"Our Populus survey of two years ago showed that some students do not think as highly of teaching at university as they might. Obviously teaching will be different at university – students need to continue to develop as learners. But some of the best practice in schools may be of value in universities.”

The spirit of collaboration is alive and well. The HMC are committed to improving academic-student relationships in universities, and bravo for that.

But ultimately, is this story about consumer needs more than teaching? As fees have shot up, students have become more discerning about the level of education they are getting. It is a thought worth pondering.

Read the full article © The Telegraph (subscription may be required).