When I was an undergraduate, students were protesting and making themselves heard on a variety of issues. Most prominent were probably ‘ban the bomb’ and ‘save the whales’. Today, the focus appears to be more on excessive pay for vice-chancellors or the issue of tuition fees. The latter of these is not something that universities are currently in a position to fix. Having been ‘rolled over’ by successive governments over the past two decades, universities now seem to be powerless against the force of the TLA (Three Letter Acronym). Governments just need to whisper NSS, TEF or REF and universities appear eager to comply with whatever hair brained scheme the current minister has dreamt up.
Students seems to have learnt from their institutional role models and seem very quiet on numerous issues. Perhaps this is a result of the dominance of the ’employability discourse’ over the ‘educational discourse’. Students see universities as gatekeepers of employment (rather than knowledge) and so are unwilling to bite the hand that might feed them?
And yet they do comment, if quietly, about the teaching at university. Rather than worrying about the quality of teaching, some commentators appear more worried about the hours of contact time that they get for the £9,000+ per year. But more poor teaching doesn’t help anyone. The poorest teaching often seems to centre around the lecture. Whilst there is space for the excellent lecture, or the ‘show lecture’, all too often programme teaching is dominated by the lecture. Some of these may be good, but some are clearly still seem by certain teachers to be a time when you read out the PowerPoint slides to quiet rows of comatose students – see my earlier posts about lectures and the use of PowerPoint. I suggest that anyone proposing the development of a new programme whose delivery is dominated by lectures, should have to write an open letter to explain the reliance on this medieval teaching approach in the 21st Century.
The evidence all points to active learning. As universities claim to be research-led centres of excellence, then why not look at the evidence about teaching and learning? Indeed the evidence of the superiority of active learning over passive learning is now so strong that Waldorp (2015: 273) has made the statement that “at this point it is unethical to teach in any other way” . So are we teaching unethically?
If students would focus on this issue, they would realise that some of the things that are of concern are out of control of the university. Issues under political control may currently be a lost cause. In a current age of stupidity, there are key words that sum this up and are guaranteed to be met with a frustrated eye-roll: e.g. ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ etc. But the teaching on campus does fall under the control of the university. It is the university that designs the curriculum, the university that delivers the curriculum and the university that assesses the students. So if we want to change these things, we don’t need to look beyond the university. Whilst things will change over time, the pace of change often feels as if is should be compared to the movement of the tectonic plates. Slow just doesn’t cover it. So how do we promote a quiet revolution in teaching?
In the sixties, the protest song was king. The likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger would be front and centre to find an anthem to unite a cause. So perhaps we need a protest song for active learning to overthrow passive learning?
I have a suggestion:
“We’re not gonna take it” seems to sum it up! Now I appreciate that this genre might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it works for me. I realise that this might be seen to be from a ‘certain time’ in history when make-up and long hair were cool. Bringing it into the 21st Century, the same message has been repackaged and stripped down:
Now for those lecturers out there who think that teaching is just about content, compare these two videos – same content, different delivery. The first version was derided by senators’ wives in the US as leading the youth astray. The second version was used to promote a cancer charity. How times change – even if teaching approaches don’t. In the UK, the Rolling Stones were viewed with suspicion by parents in the 1960s, now Sir Mick Jagger is a Knight of the realm.
Anyway, in my dreams I imagine crowds of undergraduates outside the VCs office, singing “We’re not gonna take it” in unison as they demand an active learning focus in their course, and an end to boring, content-driven lectures.
Is it worth making a noise about teaching? If not, then sit quietly and stop moaning about boring lectures. If however it is important, and I think it is, perhaps student unions should be printing off lyric sheets so that the student voice can be raised in unison.
Waldorp, M. (2015) The science of teaching science. Nature, 523: 272 – 274.