03 February 2006

On training and education for academics

I have just—checking the clock— spent an hour responding to a new colleague expressing concern about the vagueness of the course he is presently taking on teaching in higher education.

  1. I don't want to waste that hour (not that responding to R. would be a waste, but it might be even more useful.
  2. His concerns are real and pose interesting questions, so they are worth sharing and inviting wider comment.

Apologies if some of what follows is not entirely clear; it is part of a longer thread, but of course I have no authority to post the rest of it; (it starts by referring to some useful guidance my correspondent had received from a more experienced colleague on how much support one could give undergrads with their assignments.)

"****'s response is useful and helpful at the level of tactics, and represents an appropriate response in teaching a large undergraduate module. And implicitly he makes a very sound point about consistency and fairness in the way in which we deal with student requests for guidance.

On the old MALT, on the other hand, partly because the smaller numbers permitted it, and partly because it was PG, and partly because assessments relied more on drawing on experience, I was equally explicit in encouraging draft submissions. Since (at this level where it doesn't really matter much) I couldn't really care very much whether people complete and get a qualification or not (that's their business) and I am more interested in what they learn along the way (because of, in spite of, or independent of, the teaching). [I am not sound on this, and have in the past received some stick from the university and QAA about it; so what?] I'll help as much as I can within the constraints of responsibilities to other students and other courses. The argument that some students benefit from this at the expense of others seems to me to be spurious, at that level.

On the PGCE/Cert Ed, we use a system of "submission proposals" to clarify the process, with the expectation (but not obligation) that students will use the proposal form to help clarify their ideas and then clear them with the tutor. It is basically a formalisation of the process **** described so well. Our proposal form (downloadable from http://www.dmu.ac.uk/~jamesa/pce/download/ also includes a section for students to specify the tutor and mentor help they need, and we can either sign up to it or not. For more on the general approach see http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/learning_contracts.htm

The choice of the approach to use is of course strategic rather than tactical; and given the variety of disciplines and courses represented on the PGCertHE, it is more appropriate to concentrate on the strategic issues, as you will appreciate given your previous experience. People on the course will be working with a variety of assessment techniques and strategies, and each of them needs to decide what is appropriate to their own context. The tactical considerations of the implementation of the strategies are matters which can only really be examined within that general context. We do appreciate, however, that there is something of a problem here, because the assessment strategies are often pre-specified for the modules beginning lecturers are called upon to work on; their immediate concerns are to do with implementing what they are lumbered with.

The strategic curriculum-planning decision, however, must be that it will not always be thus. For better or for worse, we generally get only one stab at introducing colleagues to the range of assessment strategies; we aspire to the state where, when those colleagues are devising their own modules and courses, they will be able to think widely about the appropriate principles, strategies and techniques to create a valid, reliable and fair assessment policy. We are working with a similar situation to that which you experience in undergrad. business education; some of the questions which we need to address are not part of the experience of our students, so they may respond with "chance would be a fine thing!" With more experience under their belts, they will eventually value what is being taught--but in the absence of a phased CPD programme which introduces new and wider material as our students experience of the task expands, some things have to be introduced when they may be considered merely "academic" (in the pejorative sense of the term).

Ideally, in the way the course is set up, mentors with direct experience of the subject area and the context should be able to provide this kind of detailed guidance, which you have received from ****, and the overall course and individual mentoring should be complementary. We have to confess that this complementarity does not always work, but it works well enough not to shift the balance between the two, and we have always worked to develop further the mentoring component.

Yes, it is frustrating; but frankly, so it ought to be. Perhaps it ought to be more so. Frustration is an excellent stimulus to reflective practice. Your previous posts have clearly demonstrated your commitment to this. One of the features of academic life, across the board, is that everything is arguable. Partly this is because the desired outputs--the bottom line--are contestable (vide. my insouciance about achievement, supra) [And we go in for pompous obscurantism as in the previous parentheses], and partly it is because the academic frame of reference is necessarily questioning and indeed sceptical (which sometimes shades into the cynical, I fear).

Within academic discourse, too, there is a question of level about the PGCertHE. The view of the HEA (in their statement on professional standards which will come out later this month--see http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ for the latest news) is broadly that lecturers' professional programmes should be at M level. Given the previous academic level of most or even all HE academic staff, that makes sense; as far as their own disciplines are concerned. M level, being highly academic, is highly strategic and very sceptical.

On the other hand, as new practitioners of a very practical discipline, there is an argument that courses should be training at HE 1 (NQF 4 or even lower). You may be a world-class biochemist, but that has no correlation with your ability to teach.

This is a real circle-squaring problem, represented in practice by the decision on the previous MALT programme to assess "Teaching in Practice" "only" at HE level 3. "Only"? HE level 3 is final-year undergraduate level. In a practical discipline, the practice of a final-year engineer, or graphic designer, or nurse, or even teacher, is expected to be very sophisticated; not least because they have had at least three years of practice on projects and placements. Why should we expect that because of their expertise in a totally unrelated discipline, lecturers should be able to work practically at HE 3 after only one year?

But it gets worse. Now it all has to be at M level. Master's level "mastery" of the moment to moment practice of teaching cannot, in my opinion, be achieved with less than five years' practice. It simply needs at least that much time to try things and evaluate them, and to repeat the cycle and refine them, and to grasp the wider implications, and to try again... The fudge is to assess via writing about it, so-called "praxis". It is not the same thing. In my view, M level direct practice is University Teacher Fellow standard. I lost this argument in the validation process, but it is still a very important one.

Sorry--you have set me off on a rant, and I have been writing for an hour. Time for bed, said Zebedee.

Please comment; I just got my first comment on the blog, after a couple of months of posting. Thanks to "unknown"! But the comments are what bring these things alive, so get on with it!

01 February 2006

On learning languages

Just listened to this (available on-line for a while). I do not teach languages, but I teach many people who do; there are some very challenging and stimulating ideas here.