The ‘McAleese’ Report on Third Level

The Examiner today has a story about the (upcoming?) EU report on Third Level education. Apparently it is going to propose that the educators get a bit of an education on how to teach. It’s hard to argue with that. But some of the background to the report is interesting in my view. Take this statement by the former President:

The balance between research and teaching has been regrettably and unnecessarily thrown out of kilter, with the result that teaching and learning have been overshadowed and even overlooked. It is time to rebalance this.”

I think this is just plain wrong. Back in the 1980s when I was at college, nobody gave a flying fiddlers about teaching. Indeed the word ‘teaching’ was never used. It was ‘lecturing’ and the students succeeded largely as a result of their own hard work. I had many abysmal lecturers and they were completely unaccountable. Back then, however, nobody seemed to be accountable for anything and many academics didn’t even bother with any research.

Today, it is much different. Most academics take both research and teaching seriously. (There are some exceptions of course.) In the 25 years I’ve spent in DCU, there has never been so much emphasis on Teaching and Learning – in fact you’d be sick of it at times. Teaching innovations abound and many staff commit themselves completely to their teaching. Indeed, the promotion procedures in DCU demand that lecturers provide evidence of a  commitment to teaching – although the feeling persists that research is ultimately the tie-breaker.

This whole thing about the balance between research and teaching is much more complex than people think. Excellent research performance gets a lot more coverage because it has the most immediate impact on the world around us. Research success is often newsworthy. On the other hand, the ‘product’ of good teaching is a population of well-educated students and this is a much more slow-burning process. DCU’s website won’t have a front page headline like “Greg Foley gives fascinating  lecture on convective mass transfer”. That would be silly even if it did happen (unlikely!). The fact that research performance is more high-profile does not mean that good teaching is not valued or taken seriously within the university system. Indeed, the modern student will not tolerate an inept lecturer.

But there is a fundamental problem at the heart of the whole research-versus-teaching debate that people are not facing up to and that is that teaching quality is not easy to evaluate. There are many metrics that one can use to evaluate research performance which together can give a meaningful picture of the quality of a person as a researcher. There are numerous things that a researcher must do and achieve to be recognized as a good researcher. But that is not the case with teaching. There are many ways you can be a good teacher. Basically, you’re a good teacher if your students learn well under your guidance. But there is no consensus as to what processes should be used to effect good learning. We have become consumed with equating teaching and learning activity, especially innovation, with good learning. But some of the best ‘teachers’ I ever had were just very good lecturers and did absolutely nothing ‘innovative’. On the other hand, many excellent teachers do all sorts of innovative things that seem to lead to excellent learning. Some teachers are a bit hands off, some tend to ‘spoon feed’ more. Who knows which is the better approach?

It seems to me that one of the major problems that we have nowadays is that we have no real vision as to what Third Level Education should be. As participation rates have increased, the whole sector has been allowed to drift in response to the tide of increasing student numbers. By what standards should we even attempt to address the teaching quality issue? I tend to see a fundamental contradiction at the heart of a lot of what I read in this area and it is this: we want the third level system to produce graduates that are independent, adaptable, creative and critical thinkers yet the teaching methods being ‘pushed’ are becoming more and more like those employed in Second Level.

So what about educating the educators? I would love to learn more about cognitive science and maybe some psychology as I think an appreciation of both is important for teaching in a way that produces good learning. But, I don’t want, for example,  to have some online learning guru try to ram the online approach down my throat. Whatever I am expected to learn, I want it to be something that is evidence-based and not ideology-based.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to The ‘McAleese’ Report on Third Level

  1. Joe says:

    While I broadly agree with your general point you need to remember that we have been assessing the quality of teaching for the purposes of accreditation in Initial Teacher Education for decades. It is difficult at times and requires a lot of commitment on the part of ITE students and staff – but it is possible. There is no reason to believe that we couldn’t design a similar process for HE – one that is contextually sensitive recognising the different type of teaching needed at 3rd level. One final thing – while I agree that there is a lot of bad teaching at 2nd level that is being copied at 3rd level there is also a huge amount of innovative, challenging and creative teaching happening that we might usefully look at.

  2. foleyg says:

    Joe, I bow to your superior knowledge on educational matters and while I agree that it must be possible to assess teaching at third level, we haven’t made a good fist of it yet. Just look at the SSOTs in DCU (at least what appears on my Moodle pages) and see how bad they are. They are just a ‘stream of consciousness’ series of random questions and only two of them relate to student learning. The SSOT is almost totally disconnected from the learning outcomes!

    But I suppose my key point relates to our vision of what Third Level should be. I suspect the expectations from Primary Education are a little better-defined but in third level there seems to be a completely disconnect between the rhetoric of policy makers and what we see in our daily practice. For me, a traditional Third Level education should be driven by the student whereas the current culture is to do more and more so that the student actually has to do less thinking than ever. That seems completely at odds with the current obsession with ‘independent thinking’. So what makes a good university teacher?

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