Extracts from Chapter 1 – Learning to Teach in Higher Education, © Paul Ramsden.
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A rationale for learning to teach better
‘You cannot be wise without some basis of knowledge; but you may easily acquire knowledge and remain bare of wisdom’, said A. N. Whitehead. As you read this book, you may be wondering how to cope next week with a class that has grown to twice its former size, how you will find the time to acquire the formal training in teaching that your university now expects, or how to convince your head of department that your performance is excellent in your annual performance review. One way to address these problems would be for me to write and you to read a book about how to handle large classes, how to prepare a teaching portfolio, how to rescue failing students, or how to present evidence in an appraisal interview.
These are reasonable questions, and there are plenty of books that will help you answer them. But we should be careful not to confuse symptoms with causes. We deceive ourselves if we think that responses to new demands like these constitute our real problem, as surely as institutions and governments deceive themselves if they think that the forces of accountability and quality assurance will inevitably improve the standard of teaching and research, and as surely as students deceive themselves if they think that passing tomorrow’s examination is what learning is all about. The truth is that external pressures form an inadequate basis for enhancing the quality of teaching. Something else is needed to make teaching better. If you really want to improve your own teaching, you must understand what this something is.
This book has been written because I believe that teaching is one of the most delightful and exciting of all human activities when it is done well and that it is one of the most humiliating and tedious when it is done poorly. Let me be clear about one fact: the quality of undergraduate education can bear a good deal of improvement. Outside a few favoured institutions, and even then for only a brief moment in history, no golden age of impeccable instruction and taken-for-granted high academic standards ever existed, except in the world of academic mythology. Accountability or no accountability, large classes or small, it is useless to deny that, although there is much that is and has been excellent in higher education teaching, there is a great deal that has always been frankly bad. And there is little in the world of education that is more depressing than bad university teaching. Perhaps its nadir is reached in the vision of an outstanding scholar standing before a class of brilliant, handpicked first year students. He or she mumbles lifelessly from a set of well-worn notes while half the class snoozes and the other makes desultory jottings, or maybe – if this is an engineering or medicine lecture especially – tests new aerodynamic theories by constructing and launching paper projectiles. Everyone longs to get the hour over and get back to something serious.
The greatest fault of this sort of ‘teaching’ is not that it is inefficient or ineffective as a way of helping students to learn (though it is that as well) but that it is a tragic waste of knowledge, experience, youth, time, and ability. There need never be any excuse for it: every teacher can learn how to do better. Anyone who has seen good teaching in action will not need to invoke the exigencies of performance review and assurance of academic standards as reasons for improvement. I think they will begin to understand the truth of the proposition that good teaching, though never easy, always strenuous, and sometimes painful, is nevertheless its own reward.
A view of learning and teaching
The basic idea of this book is that we can improve our teaching by studying our students’ learning – by listening to and learning from our students. It will be useful to be clear from the start just what I mean by learning. One of the ideas you will meet time and time again as you read the following chapters is that learning in educational institutions should be about changing the ways in which learners understand, or experience, or conceptualise the world around them. The ‘world around them’ includes the concepts and methods that are characteristic of the field of learning in which they are studying.
From this point of view, the vital competences in academic disciplines and the application of knowledge consist in understanding. By understanding, I mean the way in which students apprehend and discern phenomena related to the subject, rather than what they know about them or how they can manipulate them. Many students can juggle formulae and reproduce memorised textbook knowledge while not understanding their subjects in a way that is helpful for solving real problems. Merely being able to repeat quantities of information on demand is not evidence of a change in understanding – at any level of education. Learning that involves a change in understanding implies and includes a facility with a subject’s techniques and an ability to remember its details. These skills become embedded in our knowledge during the slow process of changing our understanding of a topic, as anyone who will reflect on their own learning will recognise. In a university education, facts and skills by no means the opposite of understanding, but they are of little use without it.
The idea of learning as a qualitative change in a person’s view of reality is essential to an appreciation of my main argument. I shall maintain that improving teaching involves the same process that informs excellent student learning. It implies changing how we think about and experience teaching – it involves changes in our conceptions, in our common sense theories of teaching as they are expressed in practice. These theories consist of sets of ideas and knowledge of their application. They are not coherent conceptual structures inside teachers’ heads; they are expressed, as far as the individual teacher is concerned, solely in their experiences of teaching. They are exemplified through activity in the classroom, the design and implementation of educational programmes, teamwork with colleagues, and even the management of academic departments and universities. If the way in which lecturers understand teaching determines how effectively they will teach, as I hope to show, then simple solutions that offer better teaching through such devices as a presenting them with a thousand and one techniques for using ICT are bound to fail. In subsequent chapters, I shall try to illustrate exactly what this means for improving university education.
The aim of teaching is simple: it is to make student learning possible. Teaching always involves attempts to alter students’ understanding, so that they begin to conceptualise phenomena and ideas in the way scientists, mathematicians, historians, physicians or other experts conceptualise them – in the way, that is to say, that we as academics want them to understand them. There can be no such thing as a value-free education. This book, too, embodies an overriding educational value. Its main object is to help improve university teaching through encouraging academic staff to reason about what they do and why they do it. This argument rests on the proposition that higher education will benefit if those who teach inquire into the effects of their activities on their students’ learning. This proposition, together with the idea that changes in how we think about and experience teaching are crucial to improvements in higher education, leads to this book being different from many others that have been written on the subject.
A reflective approach to improving teaching
The assumption that the primary aim of teaching is make student learning possible leads to the assertion that each and every teaching action, and every operation to evaluate or improve teaching, should be judged against the simple criterion of whether it can reasonably be expected to lead to the kind of student learning which we desire. I shall look at what this kind of learning is in chapter 3.
This in turn leads to an argument for a reflective and inquiring approach as a necessary condition for improving teaching. Such a strategy has always been tenable: good teachers down the ages have continually used what they learned from their students to improve their practice. But it is easier to implement it today than it used to be. During the last quarter century, some important research has taken place. It has looked, from the students’ point of view, at the processes and conditions of effective university learning. It offers a valuable foundation – a basis in evidence – for progress towards better teaching.
One result of the knowledge gained through this research is confirmation of the fact that many people know intuitively – that teaching and learning in higher education are inextricably and elaborately linked. To teach is to make an assumption about what and how the student learns; therefore, to teach well implies learning about students’ learning. ‘Learning and teaching are constantly interchanging activities. One learns by teaching; once cannot teach except by constantly learning’ (Eble, 1988, p. 9). This idea is compatible with a view that many of us would share: that university teaching unaccompanied by study and research is of limited value. The interdependence of research and teaching is a foundation stone of higher education.
A recurrent finding of research into student learning is that we can never assume that the impact of teaching on student learning is what we expect it to be. The educational context or environment in which they learn profoundly affects students’ thoughts and actions. They react to the demands of teaching and assessment in ways that are difficult to predict: a lot of their ‘learning’ is not directly about chemistry or history or economics or engineering, but about learning how to please lecturers and gain high marks. These strategies all too often lead to them using methods of study that focus on simply recalling and reproducing information rather than methods which will lead to changes in their understanding. An important part of good teaching is trying to apprehend these contextual effects, adapting assessment and teaching strategies accordingly. Good teaching involves striving continually to learn about students’ understanding and the effects of teaching on it.
Precisely because research into student learning has studied and described the conditions which are necessary for changes in student understanding, it provides a promising source of ideas for university teaching. I shall try to show how these insights, when harnessed together with our own experiences as teachers, can help us to decide on the best ways to organise the curriculum, evaluate teaching in order to encourage improvement, and plan satisfactory programmes for helping lecturers to teach better.
A focus on several different levels of the system
It is tempting to see improving the quality of teaching as something that requires a single focus – on the individual lecturer. This emphasis is clear in most manuals on effective university teaching. It is still common in the workshops and seminars run by the educational development units that exist in most universities. It is implied in national movements to train and accredit academics as university teachers.
I shall argue that it is too narrow a view. Improvement requires intervention at several different levels of the enterprise of higher education. The level of the individual academic is an important point of influence, but it is not the only one. Although university teaching is still in many cases a private affair, no lecturer works alone. Many well-intentioned changes to curriculum and teaching fall foul of the apathy or jealousy of departmental colleagues. Focusing on this level alone is likely to create frustration, conflict, and ultimately regression to the status quo.
To achieve change in the quality of teaching and learning, we ought rather to look carefully at the environment in which a lecturer works and the system of ideas which that environment represents. This means an emphasis on teams, curricula, courses and departments, as well as on individual academics. It is often more efficient and more practical to try and change a degree course than to start by trying to change every single teacher in it. We should also look to the management of academic units: to what extent does a head of department understand and encourage effective teaching in his or her field of study? The highest point of intervention, for the purposes of this book, is the institution itself. What understanding of teaching is evident in its public statements and its internal procedures? To what extent does it vigorously promote teaching that will lead to learning of high quality? If it wants teachers to change, it must direct resources towards helping them to change; and it must reward them when they do.
An emphasis on how to help students learn academic content
As I have already indicated, one approach to improving university teaching involves concentrating on the various techniques of instruction – how to give a lecture, organise a laboratory class, or run a small group discussion, for example. This book takes a fresh approach to the problem. It concentrates on the best ways to teach students in relation to what we know about how they learn actual subject matter in the everyday setting of classes and assessment. Why is this such an important difference?
Much university teaching is still based on the theory that students will learn if we transmit information to them in lectures or present it to them online, or if we encourage them do things in class. Thus it is not surprising that improving teaching is often seen as a process of acquiring skills – how to lecture, how to run small groups, how to use learning management systems, how to set assignments, and so on. Unfortunately, effective teaching is not essentially about acquiring techniques like this. They are actually rather easily learned; it is understanding how to use them that takes constant practice and reflection. And they are useful only in so far as they are directed by a clear awareness of key principles – in particular, that the content of student learning is logically prior to the methods of teaching the content, and that what students do, not what teachers do, is what really matters.
We shall find as we move through the book that the skills of selecting teaching methods, structuring and planning courses, assessing students, and discovering the effects of teaching on students through evaluation, may all be derived from a small number of essential teaching principles of this kind. No book can tell you how to approach a teaching problem; only you learn how to do that, for yourself. When you have learned how to approach a teaching problem, you will have learned something far more valuable than a set of rules for how to run a class of 500, how to make your PowerPoint slides more visible, or persuade a recalcitrant student to say something in a tutorial. You will have learned to make the technical skills of teaching part of your understanding of teaching.
Towards a professional approach to teaching in higher education
For too long we relied in universities on teaching that was essentially an amateur affair. Things began to change in the 1990s, most notably in Britain after the Dearing Report. But progress has been slow since then and not all the paths that have been followed have taken us in the right direction.
A professional approach to teaching should be seen in the same light as a professional approach to law, medicine, or engineering. From the perspective adopted in this book, it is not enough for a lecturer to be an exceptional clinician, advocate or designer. She or he must be a distinguished teacher as well. To achieve distinction, she or he must use an evidence-based approach to helping students learn.
A distinctive characteristic of professionals is that they retain theoretical knowledge on which to base their activities. This body of knowledge is more than a series of techniques and rules. It is an ordered pattern of ideas supported by evidence that a teacher uses in order to decide on appropriate course of action from many possible choices. The professional authority of the academic-as-scholar rests on a body of knowledge in a field of study. The professional authority of the academic-as-teacher should rest on a body of knowledge about learning in a field of study. I hope to convince you that a deep understanding of learning and teaching and their relationship to each other is an essential base for effective action as a university teacher. Changing students’ approaches to the subject matter they learn is the key to improving their learning: in turn, the key to improving teaching is changing the way in which the process is understood by its practitioners.
‘Teaching’ in this book is defined in its broadest sense. It includes the aims of a course, the methods of presenting the knowledge those aims embody, assessing students’ achievement, and evaluating the effectiveness of the whole process. Professional teachers in higher education display certain salient characteristics. They possess a broad range of specialist teaching skills; they never lose sight of the primacy of their goals for student learning; they listen to and learn from their students; they constantly evaluate their own performance. They understand that teaching is about making it possible for students to learn; they succeed in integrating educational theory and shrewd classroom knowledge. I want to show in the following pages how every lecturer can learn to imitate the qualities of teachers like these through reflectively applying intelligence about his or her students’ learning to the problems of teaching. The book will do this by linking theory and action at a number of different levels.
The structure of the book
The following chapters invite readers to think in depth about their students’ learning and their own understanding of teaching, and to undertake a journey which may lead them to change their way of understanding it. There are as many different ways to read a book as there are readers. This one tries to tell a continuous story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end – even if the end cannot be more than a glimpse into an uncertain future. It begins from the idea that there are different ways of experiencing teaching; it ends with speculations on how to make it better.
Part 1 lays the foundations. It covers some of the central ideas that have emerged from studies of students’ and lecturers’ experiences of university learning and teaching. We shall explore how and what students learn in different academic subjects, and look at the students’ views of what effective teaching consists of. This part also examines some of the different ways in which lecturers understand the process of teaching in higher education.
A grasp of the main ideas about how students experience learning is indispensable for a complete understanding of the arguments about the nature and methodology of teaching that follow in the remainder of the book.
Out of these experiences of lecturers and students grows a set of principles for effective teaching in higher education. Chapters 6 and 7 isolate these principles and describe the relations between how lecturers understand teaching and the strategies they use.
Part 2 of the book shows you how to use the ideas to enhance student learning. Its three chapters link theory and practice by covering three of the main areas, or problems, that we face in teaching: what we should teach, how we should teach it, and how we can decide what students have learned from what we have taught them. It is quite impossible to do justice to every method of teaching and assessment in higher education in one book, and these chapters do not attempt to do anything of the kind. They are highly selective and they concentrate on the application of principles in real situations rather than description of techniques. Their aim is to stimulate thinking about teaching, first by looking critically at current methods and second by providing some case studies of good practice. These case studies of exemplary teaching, based on the experiences of actual lecturers, demonstrate that the improvement of teaching using a professional, evidence-based approach is an entirely realistic goal.
Part 3 is also about applying theory. Here, though, the spotlight shifts to the theory’s relevance to quality assurance, evaluating teaching, and educational development and training. I look at some of the main problems in evaluating university teaching and learning and in combining self-evaluation, which is so essential for improvement, with measures of accountability. Although evaluation and quality assurance, like the assessment of student learning, has the potential to distort the curriculum, I argue that the remedy is not to turn our backs on it but to use it to our advantage to improve the standards of teaching.
The concluding chapter tries to show how we can apply the arguments about improving student learning to the process of academic development in universities. From the perspective established earlier in the book, it will become clear that, if we really want to improve the quality of higher education, the principles of effective teaching must also be applied to the task of managing academic units and educating lecturers.
Preface to Learning to Lead in Higher Education, © Paul Ramsden.
Possibly the best known book about leadership is The Prince, published in the early sixteenth century. Antony Jay has pointed out how significant it is that Machiavelli did not call his book something like The Art of Government. The idea behind The Prince is embodied in its title. Leadership matters. The qualities of the leader are the keys to a state’s success.
Machiavelli was nothing if not pragmatic. Instead of trying to establish what was right and wrong about power and leadership, as so many others have done before and since, he looked at what worked. He examined practical problems facing leaders and offered advice based on the analysis of empirical data. He believed that leaders could learn how to lead if they studied the experiences of others before them.
In these respects, if in few others, the present book is similar to his. This book is addressed to anyone who exercises academic leadership in a university, although its special audience is the ‘middle management’ level of department head. It assumes that academic outcomes matter more than management competencies; it is focused on processes and skills only as a way of getting practical results.
The general argument I have tried to make is that academic leadership, particularly at the level of a the head of department, can improve academic outcomes and staff commitment in an exceptionally rigorous, highly competitive, and rapidly altering climate for higher education. Simply put, research activity and productivity, and the quality of teaching and learning, are influenced for better or worse by the way in which a department is managed and led. Moreover, the capacity of staff to respond positively to new and uncertain demands depends on the effectiveness of academic leadership. Energetic leadership can transform both an ailing state and a weak department into a vital force.
This book will probably displease three groups of people. For some traditional academics, it will seem like a manifesto for managerialism, a call for even greater inroads to be made into collegiality and academic freedom, and an apology for applying irrelevant business practices to the necessarily different world of higher learning. For some contemporary university leaders, it will seem altogether too easy on academics in its stress on providing a fertile and collaborative environment for professional work. And for heads of departments who see themselves as caretakers and temporary administrators of their colleagues’ work, its advice to lead dynamically and innovatively will appear bossy — even, perhaps, Machiavellian.
I have tried to offer advice based on the actual experiences of lecturers and on empirical research linking academic leadership, departmental environments, and academic outcomes. I hope to convince you that closely studying the experiences of academic staff, and creatively applying these ideas to our own circumstances, can help us to learn how to lead. I want also to show that the effort is worthwhile — for our own development, and for the survival and growth of our universities and the people who work in them.