I’m glad that St Andrews doesn’t take attendance for most lectures, because if they did, I’d be asking for my money back. How many of your lectures have been a waste of time? How many times have you sat in a lecture hall wondering if it would have been more productive to have stayed at home, and taught yourself? How many times have you actually taught yourself a topic, on the internet, whilst in a lecture? If your experience of university has been anything like mine, the answer is probably ‘too many times’. Why? Lecturers who simply can’t teach.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty who can. Indeed, some of my lecturers at St Andrews have genuinely inspired me. But we all know one who can’t. Or two. Or maybe even three. Intelligent, knowledgeable, well published lecturers who have little to no ability behind the lectern.
They might have written books about the history of language in Amazonian tribes, or be a ground breaking researcher of neurological functions; but they can’t translate this knowledge to the students they are paid to teach. They have awful PowerPoint presentations which prove to be more of a distraction than an aid. They go off on uninteresting tangents, talking about their research or their stories and the worst crime of them all, and sadly the most common, is a complete lack of lesson structure. An hour of lifelessly standing behind the lectern, mumbling on and on with no rhyme or reason. It’s something that we’re all aware of, and apparently accept as normal. But should we just accept it, or should we demand better? I certainly believe that more can be done, and there is a very easy solution.
Outside of university, I’m an instructor at a local youth organisation where I teach children from ages 13-18 a wide number of important life skills. One of the life skills that these teenagers learn is the ability to teach and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I know 15 year olds who can teach better than some of my lecturers.
Now that may shock you but it’s not the reason that I bring this up. The point I want to make is that knowing the very basics of teaching; the fundamentals of using your gesture, voice inflection and intonation, teaching aids etc. in an effective way, are remarkably easy skills to learn. If 15 year olds can learn them, and get over their natural shy and awkward mannerisms as teenagers to confidently control a classroom and deliver genuinely brilliant lessons, then why on earth can’t top academics? Why are we paying a lot of lecturers very healthy salaries to not do a very good job? Why am I even at university, when I can pretty much teach myself by buying a few books and going on the internet? At this point, Reddit and YouTube do a better job of teaching me my course than my lecturers do.
The 2010 Brown Review, which ushered in the increased tuition fees, also made a proposal that has been widely ignored. Lord Brown suggested that lecturers have ‘teaching responsibilities’ – shocking, I know – and consequently should be required to attain a teaching qualification. But the suggestion was never enforced, amid an outcry over ‘institutional independence’. The universities argue that their institutions are not places where people are ‘taught’, but where people ‘learn’ from researchers and top academics. They emphasise the importance of independent learning and how lecturers are there to ‘guide’ us. I’m sorry, but it reeks of elitism and laziness.
If every lecturer in higher education was enrolled in a teaching course, this problem could be solved easily. Not just newly appointed lecturers, but current ones also. If you want to lecture, you should know how. This course doesn’t need to be long, it could be done over a few weeks. Just by learning the basic methods and techniques that teachers employ to keep classrooms interested, lectures can improve dramatically. Teaching them how to utilise their speech to its full potential, to avoid mannerisms and to use gesture and posture effectively, and how to produce useful teaching aids so they can properly engage with their audience. Assess them, fail or pass them. If they fail, let them redo the course and try again to improve. If they fail the course 3 times, they should not be allowed to be a lecturer.
The solution really could be that simple. If you agree with me, then let’s talk about it. Let’s get heard, for the better of us and the years of students who will follow.