Friday, 6 November 2015

What is teaching excellence?

There is an inescapable epistemological fault line in education: outside observers of teaching and learning believe they see the separable, skilful, individual practices of teachers in the process of supporting learners acquiring knowledge and skill. Teachers and learners meanwhile are exercised in managing relationships within constraints. The external observer's perspective is a relationship between themselves, what they see and a set of (often codified) expectations; the teacher's and the learners' is another where each is continually trying to work out what to expect. The conditions for forming and managing meaningful relationships need to be in place for things to work well: removing constraints from teachers and learners is a key part of this. Management-imposed - and now the threat of government-imposed - constraints to measure "teaching excellence" will atomise and commodify teaching as a practice which focuses on the management of instruments for measuring codified teaching quality, rather than encouraging teachers to deal directly with uncodified epistemological and ontological insecurity of learners. Not for the first time in education, standardisation is confused with quality underpinned by a fundamental distrust in what it is that teachers do.

"Epistemological and Ontological insecurity" sounds pompous, but what it means is honesty, openness and authenticity in the relationship between teachers and learners. What it means in practical terms is teachers revealing their knowledge and their uncertainties so that they open themselves up for inspection by learners who want to know what it is to be like them. It means academic apprenticeship. It is true that too many academics use their egos, reputations or insecurities as suits of armour to deflect awkward questions, or ward-off students. There are insufficient incentives for the hard-shelled to remove their armour, and their are plenty of incentives like 'learning outcomes' to encourage people to keep their armour on. When status and reputation count for more than it ought, it takes generosity and confidence for an academic to not fear being vulnerable. Students of all generations will always be deeply grateful to those few who do.

The government's proposed Teaching Excellence Framework is a new set of constraints bearing upon academics who wish to keep their jobs. If early reaction to the green paper is anything to go by, its implementation will cause alarm and fear: the very things which cause teachers to retreat behind hard shells and textbooks! In its wake, university will become more like school: TEF will introduce University Ofsted by proxy. We will have turned university into a "trivial machine" producing predictable results from initially unpredictable input. It is a recipe for destroying knowledge. 

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