Teaching

Brendan Walsh

The main aim of teaching is the dissemination of knowledge and the fostering of creativity, and is not just about increasing ‘human capital’.

Point 3 of the Charter for Action makes three claims: teaching has as its raison d’être the dissemination of knowledge, the facilitation and encouragement of creativity and, while not inattentive to the need for all to make a living, is not, primarily, in the business of acting as handmaiden to any form of economic or political position. It is, in short, “disinterested”.

In recent years Irish university teachers [not to mention their colleagues in schools and colleges] have found these assumptions questioned from without and within. This is because, increasingly, European and local government policy understands education, and therefore teaching, as inherently related to economic progress. This understanding has struck at the very heart of what we traditionally understand as the purpose of university teaching – the invitation to students to commit to an open-ended engagement with difficult and contested bodies of worthwhile knowledge. This long-held and very successful model is increasingly under threat from those outside the university because it appears to be immeasurable and unaccountable. Worse, it does not have specified and quantifiable benefits for the economy.

This is why, amongst a raft of other metrics and accounting mechanisms, university teachers have been forced to create “learning outcome” for the courses they teach. These outcomes, which compel academics to pretend they know in advance how students will engage with the content of their courses, are the manifestation of a profoundly erroneous understanding of the nature of teaching and learning. They have been imposed upon university teachers because ‘outcomes’ can, apparently, be measured while what cannot be measured is spurious. While certain aspects of knowledge can of course be measured – the correct outcome of a mathematical equation for example – in university terms this refers only to content knowledge; the most basic form of engagement. Their imposition has a number of implications for university teachers and their students:

  1. Outcomes imply that how students will engage and master bodies of knowledge can be ascertained in advance
  2. Knowledge is not an engagement of intelligent minds but a neat and unproblematic “thing” that the lecturer possess and can deliver to students
  3. Outcomes implicitly encourage students to understand knowledge as uncontested, fixed and measurable. In doing so they fundamentally undermine the very facility we strive to encourage in our future citizens – creativity, critical engagement and responsibility.
  4. Outcomes undermine the long-held relationship between teacher and student by forcing upon the former the impossible task of predicting his/her developing understanding of his/her discipline content and upon the latter the understanding that they are no longer engaged in a two-way conversation regarding knowledge. The real danger in this new understanding is that students become accustomed to acceptance, non-contestation and intellectual passivity – the perfect attributes of a compliant electorate and/or work-force.
  5. Outcomes are based upon cognitive-behaviorist models of learning that have been called into question by educational experts since the late nineteenth-century and today inform methods that rely upon memory and rote style learning.

 

Inappropriate or erroneous methods of measurement [for example, the payment-by-results policy applied to schools in Ireland and England in the nineteenth-century] force patterns of behaviour upon teachers and learners. An increasing array of metrics are being employed to measure the worth or otherwise of university work. Retention of Frist Year students and overall examination success rates are, or will be, employed in as accountability mechanisms. Hence, in the new-model university there is little gain for academics in designing challenging ‘outcomes’; inviting students to engage in difficult bodies of knowledge requiring not just extensive reading but genuine intellectual engagement and curiosity.

A short overview such as this cannot hope to capture the threat currently facing not just university teachers and their students, but academia itself – the process by which we induct the next generation into that which society holds worthwhile encouraging them to engage with and make it better. The narrow, ill-informed view of university learning now promoted by national policymakers and often university management is contrary to 800 years of outstanding academic achievement globally and to the cherished traditions of higher-learning historically embraced in Ireland.

University students and their teachers are not part of an industry boot-camp; their task is not the preparation of graduates suited to work for global international companies – that is the task of those companies, not the Irish taxpayer.  Education cannot be ‘delivered’ in modules; its outcomes are not measurable in the same way as profits and loss. One becomes educated, it is a process not a product, it is not something we get or do and it is usually the work of a lifetime. The truth is that it is a difficult process and this is why those who understand it, who practice it, who have mastered it are well placed to know how best to facilitate it. We cannot and should not ever be complacent regarding the employment needs of our students, but surely our primary role is to encourage them to leave us with an insatiable hunger for a life examined, knowing what makes living valuable, rather than simply profitable. Our responsibility is to them and the society they will create, not to the measurers.

 

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