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It's Not Just How You Teach That Matters

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For over three hundred thousand university students, the rest of their lives start now (albeit with a rather fuzzy head and a series of embarrassing Facebook entries.) Freshers weeks are over, initiation absorbed, and the first lectures and tutorials are under the belt.

Good time, then, for the European Commission to launch a high level group on excellence in teaching and the impact of new technology on how to teach. At the launch, Mary McAleese, the former Irish President, who is leading the task force, said: 'Our group will examine how to nurture excellent teaching in our universities so that our young people receive the best education and the best possible employment prospects.'

The connection between technology and teaching is incredibly hot at the moment. Private equity and big universities are pouring money into teach-tech start-ups such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, whose strap line is that no-one watches 'long, boring lectures' (what's wrong with long, interesting lectures?) But, although this tech talk is stimulating, the 'how' of teaching is always secondary to the 'what'. The internet, World Wide Web and social networks are willing partners of education, but they are not its saviour.

Whether we respond to long, boring, short or interesting lectures therefore misses the point. Fundamentally, we must delve further into and explore precisely what we are teaching and why. Jan Muehlfeit, the chairman of Microsoft Europe, who is on the Commission's group, recently said that : 'The school system is behind -- we are not teaching creativity or measuring emotional intelligence. Ultimately, I believe that 70% of education needs to be tailored to the individual talents of the student.' Such sentiments would not have come as a surprise to John Henry Newman, who in The Idea of a University, his hymn of praise to liberal education, told us that the 'training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him to discharge his duties to society.'

Please forgive him the sexism; it was seventy-five years before Oxford awarded a degree to a woman - possibly the redoubtable Annie Rogers who in 1877 took a first in Latin and Greek, followed by a first in Ancient History in 1979, but who finally matriculated in 1920. For all you first year female undergrads, remember that you are standing on the shoulders of giants.

But I digress. The point is that 'training the intellect' is an infinitely more modern concept than the so-called skills agenda would allow. In the CIHE's Task Force report on the creative, digital and IT industries (CDIT), Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT retail, nailed, I think, the challenge for universities in a way that ties it back firmly to the great traditions of liberal education: 'One of the most crucial roles for universities is to enable graduates to learn how to learn. The majority of technical skills being taught in schools and universities will be defunct by the time young people are ten years into their careers.'

Fundamentally, a university education is about the application of theory to practice learned within an educational community. But we need to play close attention to each of these words to understand why this is a radical idea. 'Practice' means all of the knowledge, abilities, attributes, and actions that enable someone to be successful in their chosen role. Marxism appropriated the idea of praxis or I would have used that word instead, because that ancient Aristotelian word implied a continual interplay between thought and action in the interests of a good society. Furthermore, we often use 'theory' as if it's divorced from practice and other worldly. But, put simply, no one will solve our environmental challenges without the laws of thermodynamics, and doctors would still be sticking leaches on like plasters without the germ theory of disease. Teaching is vital, but let's not confuse home the Commission don't confuse the 'how' with the 'what'.