Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Learning About Student Culture

I've been spending time lecturing second year degree students recently - and it's become something I really look forward to.

Teaching has always been something I've wanted to try, regular readers will note that I have a great respect for the profession and the challenges it faces (mostly from bureaucracy and meddling), so when I was offered the chance I jumped at it.

(Read my blog on 'Disempowerment Culture' to learn more about my views on the teaching profession) 

I've done plenty of adult coaching, auditorium presenting, and of course 'dad teaching' at home - but this has been my first experience of teaching in a formal environment, and I've learned a lot.

I've learned that I need help in lesson planning. Three hour lectures don't work in 'death by presentation' format (actually, half hour sessions don't either) - and there are exams and assessments to teach. Thankfully a fellow lecturer, and the head of the department have been great mentors for me despite my lack of experience.

And then there are the students.

Now let me be clear (and I know some of them will read this), they are a great group of young men and women, and I enjoy teaching them. For the most part they are enthusiastic about what we're doing, ask questions (never enough!) and keep me challenged to find interesting ways to present things.

But, and there is a very big BUT here - the education system is letting them down.

While I've had a learning curve to contend with, my students have it much worse. 

When I was studying at University a lecturer showed up, spoke for a few hours and took questions. Generally they used acetate sheets, projectors and chalk boards (yes I am that old), and when the lecture was over we were expected to go the library and find books to study further.

Assignments were given, but with very little guidance, and the examinations were fierce because you never new the nature of the fiendish questions the professors were going to come up with to challenge your learning. But at the end of the process, if you worked hard enough you left with a degree.

And this was fine, because the school system had prepared me for it. By the time I finished my A' levels I was used to this method of learning. There was a little more structure, but we were not taught everything you needed to know to pass the exam - it was expected that you self taught and broadened your learning in order to get higher grades.

Not so any more. The advent of league tables and inspections, competition for funding and oversight has given way to a learning culture that requires a spoon fed approach. Teachers are teaching to curriculum, and more crucially to get results for league tables.

It is now in the best interests of the school to teach precisely what is expected on the exam paper.  No more, no less. Repeating over and over again the things that teachers know will get more passes. An increase in coursework has further narrowed the 'self study and learning' experience - and no amount of 'learning to learn' lessons will help (yes, children really do that at school).

Now when students arrive at University they have never been asked to struggle with concepts, to learn, to hear - "go and find out for yourself and we'll talk next week" from their lecturers. When things go wrong, answers are expected, not learning.

Add to that the additional complication of the 'funding' system, whereby students have to pay £9000 per year to be taught. (A total betrayal of every value our country has ever had by the way - tax me more and reduce the number of places, but education should ALWAYS be free).

A lecturer friend in London had spoken to me about this before, but in a nutshell it means that there is an underlying feeling amongst students that they are buying their degree. In some sense it's a good thing - there are higher standards demanded from lecturers  but there are major downsides - click here to read my blog on valuing others.

Here's an illustration. The most common question during my first two lectures was a variation on "will this be on the exam", and "will this be part of the coursework". Of course the answer is "It might be", but the fact that it's being asked at all is troubling.

Early on I was asked to post my slides to the University portal ahead of the lectures. This I've learned comes from a strange modern practice called 'reverse learning' where students supposedly go through the presentation and then come prepared with questions.

This won't work with me because firstly I can make six slides last for three hours (we talk, use the whiteboard and paper, and do practical exercises), and secondly because I have a strong feeling that students wouldn't show up if they new exactly what was going to be taught (but maybe that's more about my attitude than theirs).

One thing is certain - if this doesn't change soon, I would question the value of institutional on site learning. University is meant to provide a collegiate learning environment where students learn from their professors (and each other) in many ways - through text, practical experience, conversation, lectures and shared experiences. But the modern education system is not preparing them for that jump.

If we want 'battery farm' learning, then all we need to do is keep doing as we are - but if the UK wants to create future global leaders then we need a rethink.