The thorny issue of HE teaching qualifications

The Hunt Report contains the following statement:

It is not sufficient for academics to be experts in their disciplinary area; they also need to know how best to teach that discipline. They need to have an understanding of learning theories, and to know how to apply these theories to their practice. They need to appreciate what teaching and learning approaches work best for different students in different situations and learning environments…

Teachers at other levels of the education system, from primary to further education, are required to have a professional qualification. Professions such as medicine, dentistry, law and engineering have rigorous entry standards and a requirement for continuing professional development. Internationally, there is increased recognition of the need for higher education to meet similar standards… They provide that all institutions ‘satisfy themselves that staff involved with the teaching of students are qualified and competent to do so’… Institutions should provide poor teachers with opportunities to improve their skills to an acceptable level and should have the means to remove them from their teaching duties if they continue to be demonstrably ineffective. [National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, 59 – 60]

There is no messing around here – little room for different perspectives. Hunt gives a kick in the teeth when he mentions the other professions (I read that as asking “well are you professional like a doctor or not?”) and then there’s a nice punch in the stomach with the last sentence, which is just populist. However, when I first read this section of the report, I was pleased with the general thrust as I am, and continue to be, a proponent of a professional qualification for lecturing. However, I’m not sure if it is as black and white as this in the real world.

Who is disagreeing?

There’s a lovely paper written in 1929 on predicting the scores of chemistry students, considering various background factors. The authors concluded that it was “possible to predict the performance of the best and of the poorest students”, and to be honest, there is not much in the literature to suggest that this has changed since.

When professors of medicine dismiss problem-based learning or professors of law pour cold water on innovative methods for teaching large classes, I can understand their viewpoint. If students are going to college with high points (I am suggesting 475+), they could teach in Latin and their students would still do well, as they will probably conscientiously translate and learn it all anyway. When lecturers say with a grimace, that it wasn’t like that in their day, they are quite right. Because in their day, a much smaller proportion of the population went to college, so teaching quality wasn’t as much of an issue (although Engleby is a good read to continue that debate). Furthermore, academic staff, by their nature, were probably among the best students in their own student days, so will have a different perspective to the many of the larger student body in today’s system. Therefore there is a need to address these concerns among staff and in so doing, explain that innovative teaching methods does not mean dumbing down or spoon-feeding.

Compulsory training?

Looking at Hunt’s recommendations, one could argue that at the very least, new staff in HE would undergo a formal programme in teaching and learning, with a scheme expanding to incorporate retrofit training to existing staff. There is an appeal to this – it keeps the administrators happy, so that box can be ticked. By hook or crook, a large proportion of academic staff would be engaged in the discourse of academic teaching and learning (we’d move beyond discussing whether PowerPoint or not should be used), and discussions about curriculum design would begin to incorporate models of good practice. The model every academic applies to research – what is the best way to do something and how can I use/improve on it – could become a mechanism for consideration of teaching practice. It sounds perfect, but I wonder about the effects of shoving large numbers of disgruntled academic staff into courses which by their nature involve discussion and collaboration – things may not go to plan. Also, making things compulsory tends to start things off on the wrong foot – there would be undertones that people would be attending courses with the assumption that they “can’t teach” and once they’ve done the course, they “can teach”.

Middle ground?

I’ve sometimes been in the uncomfortable position where academics fully versed in the language of teaching and learning have stated to those who have not done formal courses that doing such a course is a pre-requisite to involvement in programme design, or indeed any aspect of teaching and learning. I don’t think this is the case. I am a proponent of academic staff completing these courses, albeit voluntarily, because I believe it will improve the general level of discourse about teaching and learning in the HE sector. This is not to say that someone who has not done a formal course cannot be knowledgeable on the topic, and there are several cases of award winning innovative teachers in all institutions and nationally who have no formal training in education. Instead, they went to the bother of finding a model of good practice, implementing it in their own teaching and evaluated that implementation. Organisations like NAIRTL have justifiably rewarded lecturers for approaching teaching in this manner. Therefore I would propose that the outcome required of getting academics to complete a teaching and learning programme is that they think more about their teaching methods and consider models of good practice. It may be possible to offer alternative pathways to achieve this outcome. Formal courses are one mechanism, but staff who have worked off their own steam in trying out a teaching innovation should have available to them some form of acknowledgement too. This changes the emphasis on the “requirement” – it shifts from requiring people to complete a course to requiring people to show how they have considered their teaching practice in light of best practice and made changes (or not) based on that practice. I think this practice-based emphasis will be more palatable, and will hopefully prompt more informal, informed discipline based discussions on teaching and learning methods in the staff coffee rooms.

The winners, ultimately will be students (will someone please think of the children?!). The high achievers comfortable in processing large amounts of material and deducing complex problems on their own might get exposed to group work or situations outside the familiar territory of hard individual private work and have a learning experience there, valuable to their post graduation employment. People who underperformed at Leaving Certificate may find some novel approaches to teaching and incorporated supports mean they can achieve more than they might from a traditional lecture. And the middle group – the large proportion of students in Irish higher education, could break away from the chains of past performance identified by Smith in 1929 and really excel in an innovative teaching and learning environment.

Faulks, S. (2007) Engleby, Hutchinson.

Smith, O. M., & Trimble, H. M. (1929). The prediction of future performance of students from the past records. Journal of Chemical Education, 6(1), 93 – 97.