“SO PUFFLES, WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO RESIGN OVER YOUR SHOCKINGLY IGNORANT AND QUITE FRANKLY OFFENSIVE OUTBURST?!?!”
*Puffles is a mute baby dragon fairy & thus can’t talk*
At the end of this afternoon’s teacher training seminar, I threw out a couple of controversial tweets through Puffles which caused something of a mini twitter storm within the #Pufflesmassiv. It polarised opinion (as I somewhat expected) but also gave all who followed it a number of really interesting insights from those who responded – both who agreed and who disagreed.
The tweets were as followed:
Puffles notes that http://www.cityandguilds.com/45858.html & equivalents are compulsory for teachers in FE. Puffles thinks this shd apply to uni lecturers too
Puffles thinks post-grads who run seminars for undergrads shd be compelled to takehttp://www.cityandguilds.com/45858.html or equivalents —>
…as teaching is far more than delivering a lecture or taking a class through a handout.
You can see why they caused a fire storm. Now, I posted those tweets for two reasons.
- The first was having had an extremely unsatisfactory time when a full-time student at university as far as intellectual and academic development was concerned. I got my 2:1 from a redbrick university in a subject that is reasonably highly regarded in the corporate world (economics). But it could have been so much more. In the grand scheme of things this is all ancient history – I graduated nearly ten years ago.
- The second was having just tumbled out of a very inspiring seminar on teaching methods, which made me wonder why the academic staff I had at university only seemed to rely on a small number of delivery methods.
Following through on those two things, I wondered whether my experience – and the experiences of other students who have been through university could have been improved by making university academic staff – lecturers and those who take seminars and practicals – more aware of the wide range of tools and methods that are at their disposal. Therefore in order to ensure students are less likely to face teachers, lecturers and other academic staff who are not up to scratch, why not make the course that is now compulsory for further education teachers compulsory for everyone in the higher education sector too?
Now, based on the above-two bullet points, ten years of seething/loathing and seven years in the civil service, you get something of an insight of where some ideas can and do come from in the Whitehall jungle.
The response from everyone is a classic case of why crowd-sourcing in the policy-making cycle is a good thing. The things that I took away from the mini-firestorm that ensued were:
- The problem of student dissatisfaction with courses that they are on is not something that has gone away – in fact the ever-increasing fees has made it all the more likely that students are going to speak up
- The experience of one individual (in this case me) having experienced a problem and then identifying a possible solution is probably (okay, definitely) not the best method of policy making – though I’m sure you can name a number of political examples where policy has been made in this way
- The evidence base will always be incomplete, but social media allows us to source our evidence from a much wider pool than in years gone by – this is potentially a huge strength if Whitehall, politicians and think tanks choose to harness the power of social media
There are a number of issues that were raised by the people who took part in the exchange of views – which reflected the diverse experiences of all that fired back either in support or against the statements.
One of my acquaintances from my dancing days years ago studied history at Cambridge. He told me how he had something along the lines of two to three assessed essays a week. At my redbrick university I had two or three assessed essays a term. Irrespective of the calibre of the academics at either institutions, having that level of regular assessment and feedback will inevitably have an impact compared to those at institutions that do not.
Now, it would be pointless to go off on a rant comparing Cambridge to every other university in the country beyond that anecdote above – it wouldn’t achieve anything and would just annoy people. Cambridge also has a very intensive selection process that very few universities in the country can get near. A number of people said (and with good reason) that bringing in what seems like a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise of having to complete a basic teacher training course would be a burden rather than a benefit – especially for those at the very top end of their fields.
The problem is what to do in the wider higher education sector in an environment of significantly rising fees. The Higher Education Statistics Authority stated that just over 180,000 people were employed in an academic role in the UK between 2009/10, and has published detailed of the finances – including investment income universities receive. There will inevitably be variations in terms of quality of both teaching and in resources provided, just as there will be variations in the calibre of applicants that apply to and are enrolled on courses. (Please don’t take this to mean I’m saying that all [insert name of group of people] are bad – I’m not). How do you deal with those who are ‘under-performing’?
One of the things that caught me out in the debate that ensued were the changes that have occurred since I graduated. One of them has been the incorporation of the essentials of teacher training into the programmes of Ph.D students, alongside mandatory training by some universities for academic staff and postgraduates who have teaching/lecturing roles. Another is the development of the national student survey which monitors feedback at a national level – though this survey has its problems. One is the inevitable tension between students not wanting to jeopardise their future career chances by damaging the reputation of their institution by contributing to poor results in their responses. So in that regard, academic institutions are already taking steps.
Going back to the original tweets that caused the firestorm, there were a few very basic errors I made.
- I stated a solution before I’d even identified the problem – hence people’s initial reaction was “Why would you want to do that?”
- I hadn’t asked whether other people had experienced similar problems to the one that I had identified. (As it turned out, a number of other people had similar experiences)
- I hadn’t done nearly enough research into the changes that had happened since I had graduated. Higher education policy has changed beyond all recognition from my school days – half my lifetime ago. When I was being advised about university, Alan Shearer was at the peak of his abilities and tuition fees were not even on the agenda. As for the internet, what was that?
- I didn’t ask people for their suggestions first – rather reverting to type (I’ve mentioned in previous posts that after 7 years in the civil service, I am somewhat institutionalised – hence the challenge of breaking free from it) with a solution that could easily have been dreamt up in the glass towers of Victoria Street. But best to take the kicking in over the informal platforms of the comments section of a blog like this or over a twitter feed than let it go all the way through to a major section of a government white paper.
What was good about firing off in the manner that I did was that it got a number of people from a reasonably diverse range of backgrounds and political viewpoints talking about an issue that is affecting thousands of people across the country – and one that is not going to go away quickly. The challenge for Whitehall in a wider sense is whether it is prepared to throw some rough diamonds out to social media world and have them polished up before they get anywhere near the pages of a formal White Paper. After all, if someone like me can do the above and learn from it, why not the civil service?