Walk off the street and start teaching


Arty Guerillas, Flickr

When I tell friends and family what I do, I say ‘I teach university teachers about teaching’. People often nod and mention a terrible lecturer they had when they were at university. In a recent article in The Australian a trio of authors from University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education say that:

One can literally walk off the street and start teaching in a university. This makes for a rather unusual profession. This needs to change.

Their article is in response to a report by the Grattan Institute which agrees that teaching quality at universities needs to improve. A 2010 survey of 20 Australian institutions found that 37% of academics have never undertaken any form of teacher training. The Grattan report proposes the creation of 2,500 teaching-only positions, to be allocated on a competitive basis across 10-12 institutions. The authors acknowledge that while

…there is no clear evidence that teaching-only roles, in themselves, lead to a better-quality student learning experience…teaching-focused roles can offer potential for better recruitment, development, and recognition of individuals with high-level teaching skills, free of dominating research considerations. (page 49)

The authors of the Australian article say that this solution risks creating ‘a dichotomised university workplace in which the benefits to students are more imagined than real’ – because it doesn’t address the quality of teaching of the majority of staff.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) in the UK has introduced a national Professional Standards Framework which might prove a useful model for Australia. Richard Brawn of the HEA was in Sydney in April and said that while postgraduate certificates in higher education teaching are useful for those with no previous qualifications in higher education, other routes are needed for experienced staff. He spoke about the ‘immunisation effect’ of postgraduate certificates– once you do it, you never have to think about teaching again.

The ‘immunisation effect’ doesn’t seem to be true for my university. I’m about to start teaching one of the units in our Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education) – this afternoon in fact.  Research on our program shows that staff who complete it provide their students with a better learning experience and are more likely to receive teaching awards and grants than staff who do not participate in the program.

ANU scrapped its Graduate Certificate and is going with the HEA scheme, but the two are not incompatible.  I can see a role for formal programs, alongside informal forms of professional development, such as peer observation of teaching and mentoring.