Richard Evans is the Chairman of the CIPHE’s Education and Training Group. In this issue of ETM, he focusses on teaching methods.
Time for a rethink?
Two of the recurring themes in the history of technical education and training were the continuing negative perception of scientific and technological subjects and the teaching of these and related subjects. These critical factors have contributed to the low participation in these subjects in education and training institutions and thwarted attempts to address, resolve and raise the low esteem of scientific and technological disciplines. In addition the continuing low level of skills and the imbalance in the skills equilibrium have created skills gaps and shortages. As part of the solution to these problems, there needs to be an urgent and fundamental reappraisal of teaching and learning of practical, scientific, technical and vocational subjects. Finally there are the continuing concerns of the state of numeracy, mathematics and statistics that are so essential in developing confidence and capability in technical and vocational subjects.
Below are a few of the more important elements that need addressing and include:
• A fundamental review and reform of teaching and learning methods/ techniques
• Greater use of work experience programmes and use of realistic working environments (RWEs)
• The greater use of apprenticeships, internships and sandwich programmes across the education and training system
• Greater equality of involvement by employers in determining the nature, delivery and monitoring of the curriculum
• The development of a more coherent, effective, relevant and up to date system of labour market intelligence (LMI)
• Create parity of esteem between general/academic and technical/ vocational qualifications and awards
The list is by no means complete, although it must be stressed that all are interrelated and cannot be divorced from each other as they are all unconnected and interact in complex ways with each other.
For too long the emphasis and focus has been on teaching and the teacher resulting in little attention being paid to the process of learning and recognition that learners possess different learning styles and expectations. Learning must become the most important factor in the teaching and learning equation. Too often the wider aspects of pedagogy have been margin- alised especially in regard to the learners. Teaching and learning have become in a sense an inverted process in the current system. A transformation is urgently required that puts less emphasis on pedantic teaching and a move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ to more of a ‘guide on the side’. The teacher should be seen more of a resource rather than the fountain of all knowledge and a transmitter of information. Not easy as the situation currently is made worse by constant government interventions and short term fixes, an over prescriptive and over loaded curriculum with its obsession with testing, and the damaging consequences of league tables and meaningless and highly questionably targets.
Teachers and lecturers are as a result compelled and pressured to teach to rigid and inflexible syllabuses whilst assessment regimes dominate for much of the time and as a result a great deal of teaching is largely focussed on the tests and assessments i.e. ‘the teaching to test syndrome’. Sadly the essential link between practice and the subject has been lost and has become significantly weakened; the subject takes precedence over the ultimate practise and utilisation.
This is where the part of work experience/placement programmes during the formal teaching is important and the realisation that the most effective way of learning is by doing and gaining experience. Apprenticeship and internships now offer to gain experience and practise in real work based situations. Research and various surveys have shown that only 10 to 20% of what one sees or hears is retained, whilst 95% of what a person experiences and learns on job is remembered and retained. In addition any form of learning must develop the importance of making the connections between the various elements within the given subjects, but equally important the need to make other connections between other disciplines.
One of the essential outcomes of effective learning is to develop critical, reflective and lateral thinking skills along with the wider skills that prepare people for life and employment. Sadly today these key elements are too often neglected as teachers and lecturers are required to cover an over prescriptive and often time constrained curriculum. Information appears to be more important than the underpinning data, detail and knowledge that is relevant in actual work situations. The conveying of information is the over driving consideration and the need to achieve success in examinations so that schools and colleges can figure well in the league tables and to achieve misplaced targets set by the government. The real function and purpose of effective and sustained learning is marginalised and the students are as a result ill prepared for employment, further and higher study or indeed to possess these important skills in general life. The ability to be ‘work ready’ is crucial at this time of rapidly changing work prac- tices, the introduction of new technologies and global competition. Equally importantly these narrow approaches to learning stifle the motivation of the learner and can create a resistance and reluctance to engage in lifelong learning. As already mentioned what seems to have happened is the subject has become detached from the practise.
A number of commentators have argued that this began with the Renaissance that placed the mind and intellectual pursuit over the crafts and trades and this has continued since. I agree with this view based on the evidence since that time the concept of academic drift, the lack of parity of esteem between technical /vocational and general/vocational qualification and the general perception of value of manual skills. This transformation in many ways was inevitable, but the consequences were damaging as the crafts and trades i.e. the manual skills were relegated when compared with cerebral pursuits. The perception was created that practical skills were inferior to intellectual ones and the latter attracted greater esteem in the minds of people. One only has to analyse the enrolments at colleges and universities to see the differences in numbers studying subjects that do not require practical skills, as evidenced by the closures of many technical departments in colleges and the low numbers of learners who opt for technical subjects.
Also at university level the demise of sandwich programmes on degree programmes has weakened many technical, vocational and other professional programmes. Work placement programmes were operated on a short-term basis over the duration of the degree programme (often referred to as thin sandwiches) or on a full-year release basis (called thick sandwich). Sadly many universities stopped these on a number of grounds although some, mainly the former Polytechnics, have continued them. Evidence has shown that the graduates gain employment more quickly than their peers who did not undertake a sandwich programme and also gained a better class of degree, in some cases by a whole classification. Also many are offered employment by the company that offered the work experience opportunity. Sadly, many students at university now want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible, partly because of their financial situation with student grants even though the company’s pay the placement students a very good salary whilst on placement. If the government and universities are committed to the so called ‘employability agenda’ then the reintroduction of more sandwich programmes is required.
Technical and practically orientated subjects are not the only ones that suffer from an undue emphasis on teaching in such subjects as management, law, financial services. Colleges and Universities around the world turn out tens of thousands of MBAs each year, who then enter into senior positions based on the assumption that the degree gives them the background to manage and lead organisa- tions! Many of these degrees do not include direct experience of the way organisations operate holistically, but rather whilst at college or university are taught about just some of the parts of an organisation. Also they are not shown how the parts of the organisation interact with each other. Information is decompartmentalised and the learners graduated imprinted with information, limited underlying detail and simplistic models that are partial and inflexible without meaningful questions like ‘what if’. Most prospective managers or practising managers are discouraged to recognise mistakes, whether by omission (actually the more important of the mistakes one can make), or on the opera- tional/managerial side. The failure of mistakes by omission includes the traditional photographic companies that did not anticipate and recognise the advent and subsequent revolution in the digital technologies and that IBM did not develop personal and laptop computers. Mistakes by omission inevitably lead to company liquidation and/or mergers and takeovers. One learns more by mistakes than by doing the tasks correctly – this being a crucial element of learning on job. Learning by one’s mistakes is surely a fact of life and to paraphrase Karl Popper a negative is more positive than a positive! But the existing culture in organisations is predominately one of not admitting mistakes and this is most certainly true of politicians, where it is easier and safer to blame someone else. The recent global financial crisis has shown the dangers of this over reliance on the existing organisational and management approaches particularly with banks and financial services.