A license to teach in HE? Maybe yes, but…

Craig Mahoney’s call for a Higher Education Teaching ‘license’ predictably polarises opinion. Any article in THE about ‘training’ (don’t like the word) for teachers in higher education inevitably leads to comments along the lines of “I haven’t had any training and I get great evaluations for my modules”.

I have mixed feelings about Mahoney’s call. As an undergraduate and postgraduate student I had many great teachers, the vast majority (or possibly none) of whom had ever done any training in how to teach. Their lectures were interesting, even inspiring. They encouraged me to think for myself about the material. They asked interesting questions and challenged conventional wisdom. Sure, there were a few who were a bit boring but I never believed that teaching in higher education was broken and in need of fixing. Nothing I’ve seen, read or heard in eight-and-a-half years working for a subject centre has ever led me to seriously revise this opinion.

On the other hand it seems right that people who teach should have some sort of support as they embark on their academic career. Perhaps the students deserve to know that their lecturer is a ‘fit and proper’ person to teach just as one needs to be a fit and proper person to run a minicab firm, a football club or a multinational media company – OK bad analogy—or that their lecturer is competent to teach just as a person who passes their driving test is competent to drive. No doubt when the driving test was introduced there were those who said “I’m a good driver and never had to take any lessons or a test—all my friends and family think I am a good driver”. On the other hand we all know that the driving test has not eliminated poor driving. And whilst there are claims that public exams are ‘dumbing down’ the driving test only gets longer and more difficult.

Along with their warnings about not going under a car supported only by a jack and not changing a tyre in the fast lane of the M1, the Haynes car manuals have a section in the front about advanced driving. To paraphrase, those who learn by experience react to problem situations when they arise often depending on the quality of their ABS brakes. However, the advanced driver will avoid getting into the problem situations in the first place. The ‘experience-led’ driver may see themselves (and be seen by others) as a good driver and be accident free, but the advanced driver will foresee problem situations before they have the opportunity to arise.

I think the advanced driving metaphor is really what learning to teach in higher education is about. I find it impossible to believe that good (notice I say good) courses about teaching in higher education can be anything other than a good thing. However, licensing will not prevent poor teaching any more that driving tests prevent poor driving. Most of those who learn to teach by experience will probably not be ‘found out’, but when the syllabi change, students expectations change or leadership change the experience-led teacher will be unprepared and stressed out. However the thoughtful the lecturer who invests his or her time in becoming an advanced teacher through thoughtful reflection on teaching, reading about teaching and continuing to learn about teaching will be a good teacher whatever the difficult situations arise in the future.

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One Response to A license to teach in HE? Maybe yes, but…

  1. I took a PGCE in FE/HE, while in my 9th year of teaching at a university. It was a farce mixed with propaganda. I actually thought it would be a really useful experience, having muddled my way through up to that point. Instead, it was badly taught (ironically) and entirely lacking in intellectual or experiential underpinnings.

    In principle, a good version of the course should be a mandatory part of a PhD programme. Though I have to say that I learned a lot more from observing my colleagues than from the course.

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