The 12th October Guardian ‘anonymous academic’ article “My university forced me into teaching training”. It was all dry ‘eduspeak’ ‘hit me where I live’. In fact, it provoked quite a response in the comments section and particularly on the SEDA (the professional association for staff and educational developers) mailing list. Many colleagues felt the article took an opinion on a specific course to offer a generalised view of teacher training courses that didn’t reflect their own, extensive, collective experience or that of research reviews that generally suggest positive results from pedagogical training. Below is a collaborative blog detailing the response of the SEDA mailing list.
As someone who delivers courses of this type, I tried to approach it from a more objective perspective. If the writer’s description of their course is accurate, then they have the right to complain and hold those delivering it to account. However it is important that this example is used not to dismiss HE teacher training but instead to help ensure all HE accredited courses, and those that lead them, practice what they preach and keep to the high standards they set for the teachers they train.
The main criticism the writer attributed to their training was the use of “theory divorced from classroom context”. How can this be? The nature of courses of this type is that the individual needs to reflect on their practice, using theory to develop and enhance it. If there is a tension between providing a practical course to enable academics to teach well and using the scholarship required for a postgraduate level programme, this cannot be used to suggest that theory should be abandoned. Theory addresses the underlying explanations that make sense of teaching practice; thinking about pedagogical theory is a way of understanding why some techniques are more successful than others.
A purely practical “do this, do that”, “top tips” approach would be akin to a doctor or engineer learning a technique on social media – useful and entertaining – but not pervasive. Like anonymous academic I agree that low energy chalk and talk lectures should be relegated to the past, but its myopic to think that the use of polling tools for example, as the writer suggests, would go beyond being an entertaining gimmick, and make a fundamental impact on learning unless it is underpinned by a sound educational rationale! As professionals, educators need to be empowered with the higher level fundamentals allowing them to make decisions based on both evidence and theory; and the 3 dimensions of the UK Professional Standards Framework (for HE) need to be considered linking what we do (activity) with how we do it (knowledge) and why we do it (values including questions of ideology, ontology and the purpose of HE).
Courses can become the focus for staff angst, sometimes with good reason, relating to academic workloads or conflict with leadership, policies or central services. More than this, it might take a whole term to get a group of participants to gel and to start to see the course as a safe space to discuss everything and anything that relates to their academic practice. If time, space, support and encouragement to embrace them is not present, explicitly or implicitly, they may be deemed the ‘easy’ thing to stop doing but this should be challenged. While academic colleagues may be critical of teacher training programmes this isn’t a reason to abandon them. In fact, I have often found that colleagues initial resistance to training is followed by later acceptance and integration of new ideas. Even if teachers never look back fondly on their training experience, just that space to reflect on their role, and think beyond their discipline into how to enhance learning, then it may still have been beneficial. Although Teacher training practitioners may become defensive in the face of this criticism, the best response is to accept the challenge and walk the walk as well as they talk the talk.