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Do teachers in further and higher education really need training?

March 1, 2022

Is there, as the head of Eton College feels, a gap between standards of teaching at secondary and Further / Higher Education? Sure, the environment is different, expectations are different and perhaps, in the traditional system at least, the "higher" we go in education the more emphasis there is on what the learner does, than on the educator themselves. Perhaps.

We're not convinced about all that. Aside from the fact that education should see the learner in the driving seat all the way through, it is easy to see why there might be a notable difference in the standards and the approach of teaching when you move from secondary to FE or HE. This is not to demonise the hard working professionals who do everything they can to enrich the experience of further education, or the institutions themselves, but let's at least dive into why we might have an issue. We will come back to what we might need to do to address it, but we would love to hear your thoughts as well, so please do reach out.

The training gap is not the whole story

Teacher training varies so much around the world but one thing remains relatively constant, which is that teachers of K12 education must generally do a standardized and government recognised course to prepare, and teachers at FE and HE have a wide variety of options, from institutional learning programmes to self-development, and even just strolling into the classroom with a whiteboard pen and saying "let's do this".

In K12 education, the formal pathways are generally rigorous, extensive, and prepare teachers to do well within the education system that exists around them. They learn about safeguarding, methodology, inclusion, Special Educational Needs and a host of other important things that help them to get the best out of a traditional classroom environment. This training is the beginning, and not the end of their journey, and many go on to regular Professional Development in formal and informal settings.

In Further and higher Education, however, as one UK recruiter put it "Many FE employers are willing to overlook the absence of a teaching qualification provided you have considerable expertise in your chosen field". This industry expertise is not simply left at the door when taking up a teaching job, and a great many professionals continue to do both at the same time. Why? To remain current, in touch and, let's face it, solvent. Education is often quite the pay cut for those coming in from the corporate or private sector, but the desire to teach is one we should always listen to, and practical experience is extremely valuable in academia.

So now we have proferssional experts in the lecture theatres and in tutorials who, as the OECD tells us "face barriers to participating in training due to lack of support or incentives and conflicts with their work schedule". Yet we mostly agree that we need these self-same practical experts in education, so that we are not divorced from what happens in the "real" world. Not an easy fix.

We also have the culture of research in HE, which attracts a lot of PhD students who really want to be part of this world. Yet, often as a condition of that PhD, they are asked to teach some classes, and this often happens with only rudimentary support, such as an introductory course in teaching. Some doctoral candidates love the opportunity to teach, but there are many who just want to be getting on with their research, and to whom teaching is an added stress they don't need. If you are anxious about public speaking, for example, teaching is even more of a challenge; especially with 50 lab hours on top every week.

In some European countries such as the UK and in (most) parts of Germany, institutions will hire a teacher if they are willing to "work towards" a teaching qualification, but that can be open ended and often does not apply to those who only do a small number of class hours. Professional development in education and teaching might be "encouraged" but it is not always required. In other countries, there are many institutions who have no official policy on this at all and hire according to shifting internal criteria.

Yes, there are many great HE or FE teaching programmes out there, and institutions which oblige or at least support their teaching staff to undertake training, but in may parts of the world, especially in private institutions, this is not the norm. Does this matter? And why should learners, institutions and educators start to think about addressing this? What are the obstacles in our way?

The need for teacher training and professional development

We didn't say qualification, and we won't. Some of the most amazing and inspiring teachers we have ever seen have not gone through formal teacher training. They were, however, experienced in mentoring, encouraging, reformulating, and knowing when to support and when to step back. This is really what we are talking about here, and whether this skill is formally or informally gained is not the point. There are teachers out there like Claudia Tridapalli who experiment, reflect, learn and iterate every single class, in pursuit of the best learning experience for their students, but there are also some who are teaching as they themselves were taught, and not going further.

We need to tackle the basics. The idea that a passive or even semi-active lecture is actually "education" is frankly outdated in a world where simple information transfer is now a wholly digital affair. Reading PowerPoints to Generation Z and then giving them a quiz belongs to the 1970s and is just asking for trouble. Look how angry this one student is in a scathing review of her (nameless) institution (and read the full discussion in the comments; it's really quite entertaining).

The understanding of how to create positive conditions for learning, how to help learners exercise more control over how they construct their knowledge, and knowing how understanding is built, tested and internalized. This is all critical stuff, and yet so many learners are still being talked at for two hours, taking furious notes and doing the actual "learning" at home as they make sense of their scribblings and start to actually construct the knowledge on their own terms.

Is anyone happy in that situation? Is it reasonable to assume that educators and learners want to finish a session feeling positive, and knowing that they grew and developed? We think so. Yet, we also know so many teachers in FE and HE who are really struggling to engage their students, and who are losing sleep at night over how to do better. But this is not an easy thing to address, and this is not the only story out there.

Am I even a teacher? The obstacles to professional development

The first obstacle we encounter in this journey is the self perception of university and college teachers. Many lean into the idea of being an educator or a professor, and they even get a cardigan with elbow patches and a cluttered desk in a dimly lit office. That is a stereotype, but it did the trick. You see, here we are talking instead about the teacher who breezes in from a day in the office to deliver a lecture in Financial Accounting, or a tutorial in Drone Engineering.

If you ask them what their profession is, they'll answer "accountant" or "engineer" but not "teacher". They are here to impart their professional knowledge and experience, but encourage them to undertake some professional development in education and you get a very perplexed response. "Why?".

Aside from not even perceiving ourselves as teachers or educators, the conflation of professional spheres gives rise to another obstacle, and that is the idea of just what teaching is. Many professional coming to teach in HE and FE are skilled communicators, but communication is multifaceted. Polished presentation skills might be finely tuned to an outcome such as persuasion or impact, but the skills to help listeners engage with and internalize new knowledge can be really quite different. And even then, is a presentation really the best we can offer in an age where neuroscience and psychology tell us so much more about optimal learning environments?

The issue of communication is equally acute for the research side of academic institutions. A PhD candidate in cellular biology who, despite having been alone in her laboratory for several years with sheets of data and little need to communicate anything until that data reveals something, suddenly finds herself in front of a lecture theatre with 200 young minds. They look at her from uncomfortable seats, mobile phones in hand, wondering what she has to tell them that is more important than doom scrolling .

And the institution. Who runs it? In the business school, is it more business or more school? You will almost always find that institutions measure teaching quality; usually in the form of student questionnaires, but there are not always mechanisms in place to support the teacher who is struggling. You present a teacher with their 5/10 score and scathing commentary, but the real question is- where do we go from here? 

How do we meet this challenge? Well, we need your ideas here, and we also need to dive into a few NEOchats to gather some insight from our amazing community of extraordinary experts, passionate professionals and boundary-pushing...erm...buddies. Let's pause, reflect and come back to this in part two to see what solutions might be out there.

We have said this before, but one more time for those in the back row: being an expert in a subject does not mean we know how to communicate it to others. Loving what we do does not mean we know how to inspire others. Learners are growing up in an age where they can microcredential their way through a variety of episodic learning as and and when they need it, crowdsource solutions, bypass the need for formal qualifications and so much more. If we do not place more value on the craft of education and on a learning environment that is more human than humdrum, we will lose them.

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