I don’t often get really riled by things I read about higher education. After all, life’s too short to get upset by every single thing you don’t approve of. But every now and then something just really grates.
Last week it was an Opinion piece published by the Times Higher. It was entitled “Academics don’t need to write the courses they teach”. The authors were Michael Anteby, an associate professor and Caitlin Anderson, a research associate, both from the Harvard Business School.
At the core of the article, originally published as a report for an unnamed educational consulting firm, was a case study of the approach Harvard has taken to its undergraduate programme. “Each year, 900 students take the same 10 modules or courses taught by about 70 academics.” Sheer numbers present the problem of ensuring consistency across the student experience. How can the institution make sure that every student receives the same opportunities to learn? How can it also give support to new staff who may not have taught the course before? Serious problems and ones that I’m sure show up negatively in student feedback if they’re not sorted somehow.
Harvard’s answer is a teaching ‘script’. Course leaders:
(1) prepare a set of common case and teaching materials
(2) offer teaching notes which give sample questions, discussion starters, answers to common questions, troubleshooting tips
(3) ensure that lecturers meet regularly to discuss how to present the materials
(4) make available films of classes from previous years in order to assist with preparation
(5) use colour-coded seating plans which tell instructors which students to call on (data from past class participation records).
Anteby and Anderson suggest that the prepared teaching notes leave room for discretionary behaviour from the individual lecturers concerned. There is therefore no need for lecturers to fear standardised approaches.
There were actually two things about the article that I was irritated by:
Irritation One: The argument presented for this model was based on a set of views about academics and current teaching practices which seem to sit pretty oddly with what I know of higher education in the UK and Australia. The authors had apparently done some interviews, presumably in the US but not clear with whom and in what disciplines, which they say showed that academics liked to write their own courses. It’s also not clear, because this is only a short piece, if the authors actually consulted any other research about higher education teaching and if they did, what and where from. There is nothing to know from the piece how this interview data stacks up against any other similar research.
The academic preference for writing courses came, the authors suggested, because academics believed that “ higher learning and standardisation cannot coexist; that open-ended teaching and learning are snuffed out by the tightly scripted pedagogy necessary to achieve economies of scale in higher education.” This misapprehension emanated from, they suggested “the imaginations of traditionally trained academics. People who become academics typically enjoyed being students in traditional settings, and they assume that the best way to teach is the way they were taught.” These backward looking academics were motivated, the authors implied, by the Oxbridge model – small group instruction dependent on the individual teacher.
The problem with this argument is that it is incredibly generalized. For a start, open access education institutions such as Open University have been working with teaching teams, course materials, teaching notes, records of past courses, sample assignments and so on for a very long time. As have other disciplines – I rarely see an Education course in the UK which doesn’t have most of these same elements – they are required by OfSTED. The provision of teaching materials and professional support is thus hardly new news to many of us (although colour coded seating plans do seem to be a new and not necessarily good new thing IMHO). In addition, the notion of a traditionally educated academic hardly holds in the UK where pretty well every new lecturer is now required to undertake a PGCHE. So the authors’ primary argument, of everyone writing their own courses on the basis of prejudice and no pedagogical education, doesn’t seem to hold across a lot of disciplines and institutions and locations here – but I suspect it also doesn’t have traction for many North American institutions too. This overgeneralisation really does weaken the authors’ argument for novelty and innovation.
But the key thing is that, in setting up an overgeneralised opposition to make their case, Anteby and Anderson also conveniently gloss over a lot of pretty important detail. The rub is actually in the micro, not the macro, picture. The question is not WHETHER to standardise, most of us already do, but by how much and about what. It was not actually clear to me from the description given in this article how much autonomy Harvard lecturers actually have, how much space there is for individual agency and variation and about what. And this is crucial information.
How much is the lecturer held to a common framework, and common set of resources, and how much are they actually scripted – literally scripted for every lecture and every tutorial? How much is this practice about ‘teacher proofing’ the curriculum and how much about ensuring consistency? If lecturers are too removed from what are they teaching, and are simply expected to ‘deliver’, then this quickly becomes deeply alienating for them, and thus also highly likely to bore the pants off students too. This is surely just as bad as students getting highly diverse and variable teaching. And it will show up just as quickly in student satisfaction surveys as any other poor learning experience.
In order to take this Opinion piece seriously, I need to know this level of detail. And the lack of attention to critical details goes to my second irritation.
This topic might be a new one to these authors but the debates about mass education, standards and quality have been going on in schools for a pretty long time. Just think bigger than one course and one institution. Think about a national curriculum. How do you ensure some kind of learning consistency across every school in the country? Do you script the teachers as they do in some parts of the USA, or do you offer a framework and some common resources as they do in Australia, or something in between as was the case in the UK? These are not easy questions to answer, and it’s why education policymakers are so very vexed about questions of standards, and why there are always such heated debates. There isn’t any easy answer, no simple just-try-our model-it-solves-all-the-problems as is implied in this piece.
There is a mountain of educational writing on the mass-quality-standards topic and shedloads of educational research. It’s not confined to supermarkets and factory settings which are the stuff of Business scholars. This article is written as if the first year undergraduate problem at Harvard has nothing to do with the context that these very same students have just come from. It’s as if problems of and in higher education learning have nothing in common with those in the school sector, and as if there is no mileage in looking at one in order to think about the other.
And as someone who has worked in both sectors, I know that this is simply not the case…
That’s my rant for the month. So here’s hoping I don’t see the same kind of views again too soon. (I wish.) Too much irritation is not good for getting on with other writing work!
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