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November 05, 2009

THES discussion

Writing about web page

I have just spent far too long reading a fascinating discussion on the THES website (url:, or if the content is removed then I have saved it and made it available here.) It relates strongly to my previous post. Briefly summarised, a Professor at Imperial College London ( Joao Magueijo) wrote an article in the THES in which he denigrated higher education's current drive towards raising teaching standards on a number of grounds, but principally, it appears, because he feels that those delivering the programmes are incompetent, the content is irrelevant and of little use, and that attendance is a complete waste of time. Educational scholarship is similarly of little value. He is challenged by an interlocutor, Eric Sotto, who (IMHO) correctly and perceptively suggests that it is appropriate to ask those with teaching responsibilities to have an informed understanding of the learning process (my paraphrase). Sotto, unfortunately, allows himself to get too verbose and many of his very valid points get lost in screeds of text (oh dear; maybe I'm in danger of falling into the same trap!). Magueijo takes a back seat and, having set the hare loose, allows many, many others to run with it. The fact that they jump at the chance I can only interpret as an indication of the serious underlying issues that run alongside the Educational Development courses that are provided nationwide in HE institutions. It is unlikely that the article and the opportunity to comment will lance the boil, but it certainly seems to have provided an occasion for the academic community to vent frustrations, and to engage in a sort of therapeutic and even cathartic, very public exercise.

I find the article and comments fascinating and very challenging. I am, of course, one of the Educational Developers that Magueijo and his followers so despise. I found the many of comments bruising at best, wounding and even destructive. I want to rise to the defence of my anonymous colleagues whom Magueijo and others 'bin' so readily. I almost feel proud yet pitying that they, like myself, do see the value of our discipline, while the majority of those we communicate with do not. Yet I also have to recognise, both through observation and personal experience, that as a community of practice we have a long way to go. We haven't got it right. Yet. I have to believe in that 'yet' because I do, passionately, believe in what we are trying to do. The paradox is, as Magueijo et al point out, as supposed experts in precisely this area, we ought to get it right. There is no excuse for not getting it right.

Putting emotion aside, then, what do I take from Maguiejo's article and the immense body of comments that it provoked?

There are some tell-tale signs that I think we are at risk of overlooking. One, I think, is expressed in one writer's protest at being patronised and treated like a child. All too often we hold 'events' such as workshops and clinics in a standard classroom where participants sit behind desks and are expected to undergo an immediate identity transformation from respected academic lecturer and researcher, to inept and unknowledgeable students. The environment doesn't help, both because the venue accentuates the gap between 'lecturer' (me, in this case) and 'students' (them), but also because it is very difficult to do anything other than a bog standard powerpoint presentation of the things we have decided they need to know. No, I need to correct that. It isn't necessarily difficult but it is demanding as it requires us to think outside the normal box and consider very carefully how we can invite, maybe even require our participants to participate, engage, interact, dialogue... One of the fairly typical behaviours that I have to manage in the classroom is lack of cooperation which manifests itself by participants sitting with arms folded, staring at the desk in front of them, refusing to have eye contact with me, refusing to contribute, or sometimes contributing rude or inappropriate responses to questions. (I have just completed a Return to Teaching course and we did a full day of Classroom Management which focused on managing difficult children at both primary and secondary levels. I gained a number of useful transferable skills...)

Magueijo et al berate Educational Developers for being poor at their job, poor at the very skills they are there to model and transmit, poor at inspiring, motivating and equipping their 'students' with the skills HE Institutions have decided they need. That hurts. I also know that many of my colleagues are excellent at their jobs and do not deserve this criticism. At the same time, I am exploring in my head the idea that this is a comparatively new discipline which hasn't yet come of age. The principles of good practice are not yet established. EDs have yet to find appropriate ways of dealing with and managing behaviour from adult professionals that comes as a complete surprise. We don't expect adult professionals to behave in ways in which we experience, and without a genuine willingness to participate, cooperate, contribute and engage, we are put in the position that many school teachers find themselves in: first and foremost managers of a hostile and challenging group of people, and only secondly experts with treasure to offer.

This whole area of thinking fascinates me. I am exploring ways in which I can establish my own principles of good practice, and this blog is one of them. Using Warwick's fantastic Teaching Grid for my sessions is another, since it gives an immense added value to participants in addition to making them feel much more like respected adults. Watch this space for how my own practice develops.

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