Education: Your Views: research, assessment ...

Your response to several issues raised in the last two weeks has been extraordinary. Below we print a selection of letters on teaching assessment, teaching university teachers to teach and the value of research.
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The Independent Online
research rejoinder

Professor Smithers should know better than to argue from selected instance. (Education +, 19 September). He generalises from the titles of four research papers to castigate the thousands of educational research papers that are written each year as being mainly outside the reality of the classroom.

He is seriously misguided on two counts. First, in a recent survey of 10,439 research paper titles submitted by higher education lecturers for the research assessment exercise in 1996, it was found that over half were concerned with curriculum issues and aspects of teaching and learning.

Studies carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Scottish Council for Research in Education are all relevant to educational practice. Likewise, studies carried out by local education authority researchers are concerned with their policies and action; researches by hundreds of teachers are relevant to their classrooms.

Secondly, education, like health, employment and leisure, is an entirely legitimate field for research into social phenomena - ie social science. It is nonsense to criticise such research on the grounds that it doesn't produce ideas for classroom practice. There is a long history in this country of scholarly research in education and we should be proud of our excellent international standing in this respect.

Where educational research has a problem is in trying to communicate its findings to teachers and policy-makers. But there have been recent breakthroughs. Booklets such as "Recent Research in Mathematics Education 5-16" (Askew and William, Ofsted) and "Information Technology Works' (Brown and Howlett, NCET) are communicating research findings to teachers, and others such as "Educational League Tables: for Promotion or Relegation" (Foxman, ATL) and "Class Size Research and the Quality of Education" (Day et al, NAHT) have important research messages for policy-makers. Certainly more reviews like these are needed and our association is actively seeking funds for such.

If Alan Smithers had taken part in the recent annual meeting of the British Educational Research Association, instead of sniping at it, he would have heard Professor Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment, say that the Government wants dialogue with researchers on its agenda for education and recognises the part that research should play. Contributing to the raising of educational standards is the real challenge that faces the educational research community and one that we welcome.

Professors Michael Bassey and Roger Murphy (past presidents of the British Educational Research Association), Nottingham

university teaching

Frank Furedi ("Far more skills, far less knowledge", Education+ 11 September) does not seem to have recognised that research-based teaching with "hit and miss' communication skills from lecturers is not going to take this country or its universities into the knowledge-based society of the 21st century. For therein lies the rub! Knowledge is "out there", no longer a monopoly for the ivory tower. What we certainly don't know enough about in the sector is the theory and practice of good teaching and - more importantly - good learning. Without concerted research - and skills development - in this key area we will continue to deny our students a learning experience which equips them - and us - for today's realities. If in the process we redefine the very notion of "university" and knowledge itself so be it. We may have to in order to survive!

Heather Matlock

Thames Valley University

Frank Furedi's view that teacher-trained university lecturers will "inevitably diminish the quality of university education" is misguided in a number of respects.

His vision of a mode of teaching which solely imparts skills, lacks creativity and does not presuppose an active relationship with students is clearly one which no one involved with teacher education would promote.

The sheer diversity of our much expanded group entering higher education each year brings new responsibilities for university staff. In particular we will all need to refine our understanding of individual differences in learning, and strive to develop a repertoire of skills which respond to these and allow varied departures from lecturing.

High quality teacher education programmes facilitate these processes - among others - and can play a valuable role in ensuring that students will benefit from an even higher quality learning experience in universities than they do now.

Bryan Cunningham

Institute of Education

University of London

London WC1

Furedi's much-vaunted enthusiasm for subject-specific knowledge is relevant to all teachers and has also always been relevant and creative in the way he advocates for only a minority of students. Just as SATs and GCSEs are graded, so too are degree examinations. At whatever level we teach it is our passion for our subject and our ability to effectively communicate both it and the skills necessary to access and appreciate it which determine the value and effectiveness of our teaching.

University lecturers cannot have it both ways; they cannot argue against teaching-only posts on the grounds that research necessarily informs teaching and against formal teachers as overconcerned with transferable skills (independence of thought for one) which, as they themselves would be the first to contend, are necessary to pursue effective research. Furedi is a prime exponent of the kind of self-serving doublethink which stifles meaningful and progressive debate on the true quality and value of education.

Claire Hadfield

PGCE Student, Exeter

assessments do work

What would tempt me to pull the emergency cord on a train, I've sometimes wondered. I came perilously close to finding out when I read Geoffrey Alderman's unbridled diatribe against quality assessment in The Independent (`Time to end the farce', Education+18 September). Struggling for composure, I noticed the passenger opposite busy with documents. His file was labelled "TQA" and when he got out the Funding Council's Assessors' Handbook my suspicions were confirmed. I couldn't resist, and introduced myself as a seasoned Reporting Assessor (I've led over 40 assessments in a range of subjects and universities).

Welcoming my intrusion he told me that preparing for his department's assessment was proving a useful catalyst to rethink their approach to courses, teaching and all associated matters. He'd also found his Funding Council training to be very worthwhile.

Clearly, his experience didn't match with Professor Alderman's view. Far from being a "farce", quality assessment looked like a much-needed and appreciated agent for change.

My urge to pull the emergency cord now dissipated. I turned over in my mind other evidence of satisfaction with assessments. Many departmental heads have assured me of the benefits of preparing for an assessment. Vice-chancellors have acknowledged the value of the comments at the end of visits and in the published reports, and departments have complimented my assessment teams for our rigour, constructive input and courtesy. Nothing very farcical there, and little sign of mounting fury.

So let's examine Alderman's ill-founded assertions.

First the Funding Council (HEFCE) has never referred to "teaching quality assessment". Assessment is of the overall quality of education, requiring evaluation of curricula, teaching, learning, examination, student achievement, student support, resources and quality assurance.

Citing Dearing's claim that institutions "learn" to do well in assessment, Alderman claims they put on a "show" for the assessors. This insults departments, their staff and the assessors and, since assessors probe at least three years of departmental track record, it is patent nonsense. Institutions should improve their assessment performance as they enhance the quality of their provision.

Alderman hits out at the aims and objectives defined by subject providers, against which assessors test departmental achievement. Set Mickey Mouse aims and objectives and you'll be judged superb, he taunts. But this, too, is nonsense. Many factors restrain departments from under-playing their aims, not least the fact that these are made public in the report.

Institutions are not rewarded financially for "successful" assessments. But they are all committed to providing high quality education (read their mission statements), so perhaps it's reward enough that they receive "consultancy" advice on how they might improve and public recognition of their strengths. As for cost, the percentage of total expenditure devoted to quality assessment across the higher education sector is probably less than is spent by any self-respecting industrial or commercial organisation.

One hidden benefit of quality assessment has been the training of nearly 2,000 subject assessors, most of whom admit this has benefited their own teaching, and the two-way interaction between assessors and assessed results in dissemination of good practice. All of this represents staff development on an unprecedented scale.

Quality assessment may sometimes be uncomfortable (so are students' examinations) but it has made a significant contribution to changing the culture in universities. Alderman's call to Sir Ron Dearing to abolish assessment would remove a proven valuable mechanism for maintaining and enhancing the quality of the overall educational experience our students receive. I hope Sir Ron won't be fooled.

Professor David Weitzman,

Independent consultant and director of the Association of Professional Consultants in Further and Higher Education

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