What is ‘good’ pedagogy in College-Based Higher Education?
It is a fascinating thought that what constitutes good teaching and learning in college-based higher education (CBHE) does not appear to have been clearly articulated. There have been some isolated attempts to explore this, but in the main we have very little to guide us. The primary focus of any teaching institution is to teach, and therefore understanding how to teach ‘well’ or ‘effectively’ would, you might imagine, be a high priority.
The Quality Assurance Agency asked this question of universities through a series of review exercises and established performance indicators, and the Teaching Excellence Framework has recently created a new impetus – not that this impacts on classroom practice as much as you might think. For Colleges, high quality learning outcomes for students have always been a priority, but in the various iterations of Ofsted frameworks and particularly the new Education Inspection Framework the focus has been firmly on the teaching quality of level 3 and below. CBHE has managed to a degree to fall in the cracks between these two inspection drivers. Irrespective of the level or setting however these are all external measurements, so the deeper question remains: what is the basis for teaching quality that these bodies, and we, are looking for?
There are possibly as many answers to what ‘good’ might look like as there are classes being taught in the sector. The context dependency of all education is such that at best we can advise on or model things that are ‘most likely to be helpful’, or as Dylan Wiliam has put it more than once: “ This is not a reason to not try and understand the question however – only by exploring what teaching and assessment practices are most effective can we hope to lead others; both in understanding that what is being done is truly delivering the skills our economy /society needs; and in delivering the knowledge our students need to be able to develop in their future (or current) careers.
It is also important to remember that this context dependency relates to the students as much as the setting – a high proportion of learners in our system would not attend university HE, at least not at first, and so what other systems might consider effective practice may be actively detrimental. Then there is the small matter of the need to deliver practical ‘craft’ or technical training, often in much greater volume across a course than in a similar university- led curriculum. All the things that make CBHE distinctive, vibrant and a critical engine of our society and economy also therefore make it unique in pedagogic terms. In a world without the Polytechnic, it is very much the last bastion of teaching in this way.
We could, of course, sit on our hands and hope that ‘someone’ will find some research funding, and carry out a longitudinal study or two to determine things. It would be welcome, powerful and an important piece of pedagogic research that aligns well with many existing strands of work (yes, that is a direct plea to any funding bodies). However, it seems far more sensible to do what is often wise in CBHE and take matters into our own (often well informed) hands.
We need to continue to work together. We need to maintain networks of practice, and interconnect on critical matters with honesty and integrity. Subject specific sharing is well and good, but there is also space for more general sharing on pedagogic matters, just as there is on so much else that has been explored in the past few years. Trying to define the things that actually make the ‘HE-ness’ of a classroom or workshop experience into a pedagogy is in part about better connectivity between practitioners, and being given opportunities to grow personal practice through being exposed to new approaches and ideas, challenging each other to offer better learning experiences for our students.
There are, certainly, excellent examples of teaching practice in CBHE today. It is possible to conceive that these can be drawn together to understand what we really mean by the pedagogy of CBHE? It would be challenging, not least because it is a field as wide as ‘the pedagogy of secondary education’.
Perhaps the place to start is in accepting that the teaching of practice is often different in college settings when compared to other settings – the mix of industry informed staff and classroom trained practitioners is unique to the sector and delivers a very different learning experience than most other HE opportunities. How do we, as a sector, manage the acquisition of complex theory and advanced practical skill simultaneously? In an educational world where the artificial and dogmatic divide between theory and practice, academic and vocational not only persists but thrives with really damaging consequences, is CBHE the place where it can be truly proven there is no such division? How have we divided our curriculum, and how do we teach to bring knowledge and craft closer together, not further apart?
Alternatively, will beginning this debate lead us back in a circle and make us question whether what is being done is ‘the right thing’? Whilst it is popular to challenge the quality of delivery in our sector, not just in CBHE but across FE and adult and community learning, the long-term evidence shows that colleges and independent providers deliver excellent teaching and learning most of the time, and we should remember this. What we do is more likely to be ‘right’ than ‘wrong’, even if we know that there is no roadmap to guide us. But is this because we have become accustomed to review and inspection and know what to deliver up when required, or because we are making fundamentally the correct educational choices for our students?
My key question here is whether, away from the demands of external review and metrics (even well thought through ones) we can clearly articulate a distinct CHBE pedagogy? Or, are we happy to keep going as we are, borrowing from other sectors, and hoping that we will survive the next curriculum or funding review and inspection exercise? Or, is it part of the development of our professional identity that we find our compass, and take charge of defining and articulating a pedagogy distinct to CBHE which, in turn, would guide the next external review and inspection exercise? Are we now in a position to start turning the tables in this way?
We need to champion the unique and distinctive contribution of CBHE teaching – to students, providers, employers and the economy. To do this however it is time to stop making excuses, and understand what it is we do, how we do it, and how to do it better. A teacher who does not reflect on their practice is not one who will improve. They are also one who cannot communicate their success of failure to others – and this lack of communication is a failing not just for the individual, but a loss for teaching as a whole. The more we learn together, gather evidence and debate together, the easier codifying and explaining what we do will be.
Paul Kessell-Holland is National Head of Higher Level Education at the Education and Training Foundation
Wiliam, D. (2018) Creating the schools our children need. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.