As a Schoolteacher, I increasingly realise how inadequate University teaching is
My job as a History teacher often prompts the question “what’s your favourite part of History?” Yet when thinking on my History degree, rather than being able to cast my eyes over a breadth of knowledge of history to choose from, there’s a hotchpot of isolated historical periods. “Oh, British politics”, I muster in response.
It’s my job, rather than degree, that has given me more a better overview of history. Within the context of a wider national focus in secondary education on refining and improving the curriculum, my department met at end of last academic year where we had to make tortuous decisions about what to include and exclude in our key stage 3 (years 7–9) curriculum. We sought to achieve that delicate balance of historical variety with narrative coherence.
Most History degrees are more like historical studies. There is little evidence course convenors consider how they can turn the students that pass through their seminar rooms into historians with a broad sense of history. What is taught is often at the whim of whichever academic happens to not be off on sabbatical. Daniel Willingham explains that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’: the human mind has a propensity to understand knowledge when it is conveyed in a narrative form. Yet the way history is taught in some UK universities, little holds together; there is little sense of historical development.
In my later political theory degree, at allegedly one of the best places in the world to take the course, imparting to its students a canon in political philosophy was not a priority. Rather than reading the great minds of east and west, one usually had to wade through the jargon of contemporary academics, a community that speaks to itself, rather than the big questions of humanity.
Unfortunately, the lack of curriculum coherence at universities is not made up for with its teaching and learning. The research revolution in schools does not seem to have penetrated lecturers; “edu twitter” is very much a primary and secondary phenomenon. Recent encounters with university education academics affirm that the no-noes of instruction are still being committed like reading lots of text off slide or overburdening cognitive load with too much information.
The focus on a knowledge rich curriculum and the notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ are a welcome development in schools: teachers are encouraged to be much more specific in stipulating which knowledge they want students to prioritise understanding, both for its educational value and in terms of understanding a subject. Contrast this with a standard seminar preparation for a humanities or social science seminar: go away and read four articles of 200 hundred words in total while mulling over a couple vague of questions the seminar convenor conjures up. Within secondary classrooms settings, where teachers are generally encouraged to cold call, the seminar culture is without rigour or inclusivity. Thirty students pile into a room to discuss the papers few have read in full. Conversation stutters, dominated by a few students who speak up, with there being little anchoring from the seminar leader to direct the conversation towards key themes or conveying of key ideas.
In response to the question of who your favourite teacher it’s a given that we respond with reference to a schoolteacher. Building relationships are central to the role. But engaging with students doesn’t seem to be a priority of lecturers. When I sent a polite email to the convenor of my Masters, complaining how few modules were on offer compared to what was advertised when I applied, she did not deign to respond. Lecturer office hours of a couple a week restrict the time for student interaction. My Vice Chancellor, despite his leadership position, embodied the student-academic divide: his body stooped, his head down, he would shift over the paths of campus, appearing to do his utmost to not have to engage with the riff raff students.
It would be unfair to blame just universities and academics. A recent New Statesman cover article highlighted how the government provides very little incentives for universities to create great teachers. Many academics don’t want to teach, they want to research. Which is fine, but students shouldn’t be fed the delusion they are getting a broad, thought through education in which their education is the priority. Universities do what they must to cater their students, to get them through a vocation which they must do their utmost to prove is a stepping-stone to employability.
Within universities, those that do prioritise teaching do so at the expense of promotion. My supervisor was a conscientious man who won awards among students but did not get formal recognition in terms of post, staying as a Dr not a Professor. The provost of my college who I recently saw at a drinks reunion he’d taken to organise — his raison d’etre is to enhance the student experience — confirmed how little priority there is to foster relationship within universities.
Clearly higher and secondary education has different educational functions. But it seems perverse to give the same label of ‘teaching’ to what schoolteachers versus what academics do. There is a chasm between the two crafts. Often schools are the ones that are supposed to learn from the output of universities. But universities would be doing their students a great service if they popped into some schools and saw actual teaching in action.