University Education Old-Style

In so many ways, I consider myself extremely lucky.  The development of the www has been the equivalent of the industrial revolution in terms of how humans have constructed the means to share knowledge and communicate with each other.  I’m living through this, and am fortunate enough to be old enough to remember what life was like before as well as during.

It’s the same with education.  I can remember what the traditional classroom was like, as well as the transformation to so-called ‘progressive’ education.  I’ve experienced it AND delivered it.  Well, I was trained to deliver the ‘progressive’ model, but became increasingly convinced, through my own practice, that there is still a place for some aspects of the more traditional way of delivering education.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong, for example, is expecting students to work independently and/or in silence, or using text books.  Nevertheless, the twenty-first century classroom is pretty much unrecognisable to anyone born before 1980.

I’m not sure why things changed, and I haven’t had time to research it properly, but I have a strong suspicion that part of it was in response to the growth of state education coupled with larger class sizes, brought about by the bottom-line cost of employing teachers, together with a move to reject what was seen as a Tom-Brown’s-Schooldays-style of teaching.  Group work, less direct teaching, less reliance on text books etc. all helped to reduce costs and reflected an underlying change in society.  I could probably write a book about it (and I’m sure someone already has – please let me know!) but the point I’m trying to make is that the modern-day classroom is one that’s far more interesting to be in than it ever was when I was at school.

And now I’m experiencing a University education at Masters level.  It’s a curious place to be – there are some very clear hints that the techniques of the secondary school classroom are beginning to bubble up into the lecture theatre.  Ok, I can see its hard to employ all the techniques used with a class of 30 when you’re faced with double or triple that number, but playing an extract from a film to illustrate your point, or stimulate discussion, is a good starting point.  But at the other extreme, lies the boring lecture.  Slide after slide of PowerPoint, delivering chunks of knowledge with nothing to connect it to.

I realise that, at Masters level, there’s a lot of knowledge to get through, and that students are expected to do the extra reading or whatever themselves.  I get that.  But, for the topic I’ve been revising today, I may as well not have gone to any of the lectures.  They meant nothing then, and have only started to make sense now I’ve done a piece of coursework, and have started working through past exam papers.  What I needed was the kind of thing I’d have done in class – here’s a bit of knowledge, here’s a worked example of how you apply it, now you have a go and then we’ll move on.  In the ‘ordinary’ classroom, we might not move too far on until most students had ‘got it’, or at least the ones that had could be set some extra challenge while everyone else caught up.  At Masters level, that probably wouldn’t happen and people like me would ask their peers, or the lecturer, to go over something again.  But at least there’d be an attempt to make the learning something other than just words projected on the screen.

Of course, its possible that I’m just not up to the intellectual challenge of a Masters, especially a science-based one, and I’d be the first to admit that I’m not finding it easy, but I also think there’s more lecturers can do to make learning more engaging (i.e. NOT entertaining, but genuinely engaging).  Maybe lecturers would see this as devaluing their profession?  After all, they’re intellectuals, engaged in research, ‘forced’ to teach students to justify their salary.  I don’t mean that to sound overly negative –  a University is meant to be at the cutting edge of research and expanding humanity’s store of knowledge, and teaching students might be seen as a necessary evil.  I expect there are a few individuals who lecture because they have to, rather than because they want to, in the same way there are some teachers who can’t wait to make it to management positions so that they don’t have to actually teach any more (except the occasional cover lesson) but can wield the stick over their former colleagues.

Cynical? Moi?  But I do think that if you ARE going to try and teach, you owe it to your students, at whatever level, to make your lectures/lessons as interesting as you can, and engage your learners wherever practicable.

Oh, and the topic I’m referring to has been made so much more accessible by a lecturer that was then prepared to offer extra tutorials, and made a difficult subject so much more accessible.  For me, these were what counted.  Not the lectures.

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