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The challenges of moving on from ‘teaching-as-telling’ (in higher education) – and some steps that can help convert new ideas into new practices

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 June 2023

Lecturer moving in front of a university workshop class

Credit: Mat Wright for UCL IOE

Gwyneth Hughes.

Even the most experienced teachers can struggle to innovate their teaching practice. But how well are we serving these tutors in realising that end point? My research highlighted the value of explicitly scaffolding teachers’ reflection on their practice with theories of teacher development and learners and learning – to support their development as teachers but also keep expectations in check and motivating.

There is an increased expectation that teachers in further and higher education should be trained in teaching, learning and assessment. The most common route to this end is a one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education programme. In general, there is evidence of broad benefit from such programmes, but their contribution to developing the teacher’s conception of teaching/learning such that it supports parallel changes to their actual teaching practice is not so well-established.

There are several models regarding how teachers’ conceptions of teaching/learning evolve as they ‘learn their trade’ and become more experienced at it. Such models generally set out typical stages of development, across which the theories of learning implicit to each can be mapped. At root, all are concerned with the ‘sage to guide’ evolution. A particularly useful framework in my view is that of Kugel (1993), which includes five stages of development. This sees the teacher move from ‘survival mode’, focused on themselves, to a greater focus on the student’s vantage point. From there the teacher typically moves from an understanding of learners and learning as passive (with an accompanying pedagogy that we might term ‘teaching-as-telling’), to a sense of learning and learners as active (and a practice of ‘teaching-as-prompting’), and eventually to seeing learners and learning as ‘pro-active’, with a practice we could describe as ‘teaching-as-facilitating dialogue’, to draw on my colleague Diana Laurillard’s work.

To explore teachers’ journey through these stages, I followed the progress of a small sample of students taking the University of London’s online Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (PGCertHE) programme, working with colleagues from the University’s Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE).

Educators generally agree that having some understanding of how students learn (theory) is important for practice, especially if a change is going to be made.

We found that while all participants on the programme shifted their concept of the learner and learning from that passive understanding to the ‘pro-active’ one, for most it was much more difficult to adapt their teaching practice in line with this. In some cases, there were practical or ‘cultural’ barriers from their university’s regulations and/or well-established teaching customs and practices. This means that the teacher has to be even more skilful and confident if they are to align theory and practice in their teaching.

To do that, teachers’ training and ongoing development needs to equip them with the tools to adapt their practice along the full spectrum of development identified by Kugel and others. We identified a series of specific steps that could help new teachers scaffold reflection on their practice and development, help them relate theory to practice, and adapt their pedagogy and assessment:

  1. Realising that named teaching practices (e.g. the lecture, the exam, etc) had some basis in different conceptions – theories – of the learner and learning.  And then using such frameworks to:
  2. Analyse and critique one’s own previous and current teaching practice, and/or the broader cultural and educational contexts in which one has practiced/practices.
  3. Critique/review another course. An example here was appreciating the way peer review was used in the PGCertHE course itself.
  4. Plan future changes to one’s own practice. For example, one participant planned to use peer review on their own course but could not do this until the next academic year.
  5. Make changes to one’s own practice. Other participants described, for example, making their lectures much more interactive with students.
  6. Evaluate the effectiveness of one’s new practice. One way of doing this is to use student evaluations of teaching, with caution.

Among our study participants, the first step was commonplace, and there was quite a bit of planning for change (step 4).  Step 5, trying out new approaches was more challenging, and evaluation of change was understandably rarer in the confines of a one-year programme, but something that courses should equip the teacher to embed in their teaching practice.

We recommend that these stages are recognised in both initial teacher education and continuing professional development. For the PGCertHE programme we studied, this was done by taking a flexible view of an assessment criterion which required the participants to put theory into practice, so that those who were at the earlier stages of this process could still pass and have their learning recognised. This meant that expectations were realistic (especially important if there are restrictions on what the participants can do in the lifetime of the course) and the outcomes positive and encouraging for the staff involved.

Read more at: Hughes, G., Baume, D., Silva-Fletcher, A. & Amrane-Cooper, L. (2023) Developing as a teacher: changing conceptions of teaching and the challenges of applying theory to practice, Teaching in Higher Education – Critical Perspectives.

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2 Responses to “The challenges of moving on from ‘teaching-as-telling’ (in higher education) – and some steps that can help convert new ideas into new practices”

  • 1
    Christine wrote on 15 June 2023:

    In the 80’s Pat D’arcy ( RIP) and others from IOE #michaelrosen explored getting teachers together to ‘learn about learning’ For me, this remains the most influential group in my career Being exposed to having to explore new skills and ‘ learn’ something unknown and new has stayed with me to this day. To teach effectively – you need to re-learn what skills you need as a learner.

  • 2
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 17 June 2023:

    A very interesting and worthwhile blog, reminding us all of the importance of involving higher education learners in their actual learning. This is, however, not new. The pendulum was shifting in the mid 1970s, certainly at the Institute of Education, then University of London.. The Primary PGCE course which began in 1977, worked on the basis of ‘doing as you would be done by’ in its approach to initial teacher training. Students were involved in their learning to teach, as were those on the, then, alternative course for secondary social studies course, run by Jean Jones and Caroline Heal. A participatory style for that course as for the Primary PGCE course, was used. Gradually, this permeated through as it did in other institutions. Nothing new under the sun!