Knowledge is power: the purpose of quality teaching

As we await the findings of the independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), it is worth reflecting on the view of high quality teaching that underpins the TEF metrics and how this creates a misleading view of the nature of high quality of university teaching.

In focusing on graduate employment as the main outcome of high quality teaching, the TEF is based on the view that the key purpose of higher education is to provide students with the generic skills that employers value, which will support individual prosperity and economic development. This simplified account of the educational process distorts how we understand the nature of high quality university teaching.

Skills without knowledge is no skill at all

While at first, seeing the purpose of undergraduate education in terms of the development of generic skills might look convincing, it falls apart when we examine what this means in relation to specific skills. For example, if we take communication skills, then we can look at communication in different situations and in different locations, and identify incidents of effective practice. However, it does not follow that if a student is good at communicating in English, then they will also be good at communicating in Chinese.

This is because skillful acts of communication require linguistic knowledge, knowledge of the situation the student is in, and knowledge of the people with whom the student is communicating. Without such knowledge, these skills are useless. This highlights the central role that knowledge plays in shaping the meaning of what students gain from their university experiences.

Studies of students experiences of undergraduate degrees in a range of disciplines show how they develop a systematic sense of a collective body of knowledge that changes how they think about themselves and the world. This is a process that is so much more than the development of generic skills. It is a process that fundamentally changes who students are and what they can achieve in the world. It is this process which makes university education a higher education.

Transformational teaching

These studies support a view of high quality university teaching which is about the design of curricula that are focused on providing students with access to knowledge that will transform their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world. This design needs to be based on a clear sense of who the students are, how the knowledge they will be given access to is powerful, and who it will enable them to become in their wider lives as well as in their careers.

It is clear that students might change in ways that their university teachers do not expect but their teachers should have a sense of what they are intending to achieve by giving students access to this knowledge. In other words, they have a responsibility as educators to know how they think students will benefit by studying with them. It is also important to be clear that this is demanding work – it does not always work – and teachers need to continually collect, analyse and discuss evidence with their colleagues about how well their approaches to curriculum design and teaching are working.

Measuring what matters

If we understand the educational role of undergraduate degrees in this way, then it suggests a very different approach to measuring quality than is currently offered by the TEF. Rather than graduate labour market outcomes, we would focus on how degree programmes are designed to give students access to powerful knowledge. We would examine the extent to which they are successful in providing students access to this knowledge, and what students gain from their engagement with this knowledge.

It is worth noting that this is far more educationally demanding of degree programmes and universities than measuring labour market outcomes. It would also provide students with much more useful information about the quality of education offered by different degree programmes.

6 responses to “Knowledge is power: the purpose of quality teaching

  1. The point is surely that ‘measurement’ itself needs to be rethought. The current focus of TEF outcomes is bleakly utilitarian designed to address fiscal concerns and, one suspects, to ‘keep people in their place’. The latter becomes particularly pointed in the context of structural inequalities – will the elite universities be re engineering their curricula so that their graduates can be ready for jobs where skill is all that matters? It appears that higher education is being directed towards what in older parlance was described as social control; the measurements employed reflect this. For a brief, now historical window, higher education helped to resist the ideology on which the TEF is founded – a suitable measurement of its effectiveness should be in its ability to achieve this today.

  2. Clearly measurement is important but we need to start by agreeing what we are trying to measure, which is what I focus on in this piece. The TEF currently does the opposite – looks at what measures are available and says ‘these will do’. But they won’t do because the view that offer of higher education loses any sense of the educational reasons for undertaking a degree. My view is that we could examine how degrees are designed to give particular students access to particular bodies of knowledge, how this knowledge is expected to change them, and what it will enable them to contribute to society, including by not limited to employment. We could still use metrics to examine how effective this design is but we would be measuring how successful these programmes are at meeting their educational aims rather than assuming that economic measures are the only ones worth considering. These measures would be limited and partial but no more so than the measures we currently have and the great advantage would be that this partiality would be made explicit. In summary, my argument is that the only measures we should be focused are those that tell us about the educational quality of what universities do rather than things that are not under the control of universities, such as graduate salaries.

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