Why I've Decided To Teach Instead Of Just Lecturing

03/10/2016 10:40

As we prepare to welcome a new first year to our law degree I'm putting the finishing touches to my materials and uploading everything to the Virtual Learning Environment. This year I will betray my job title of Lecturer by not giving a single lecture.

I know that by the end of that second sentence my more serious academic colleagues will be sighing - they're bored of being told to "be innovative" by managers drawn like magpies to shiny new things or that there are "new ways to deliver knowledge" by men in suits who would struggle to recognise the inside of a lecture theatre.

I'm sick of it too, innovation for the sake of innovation because we believe the patronising lies that this generation of school leavers can't engage with anything that doesn't shine up at them from the screen of their smartphones is wrong. And don't get me started on 'delivering knowledge', milk gets delivered not boxes of some sacred knowledge that we can package and flog. That anyone thinks that knowledge is a static absolute that we have and that we can deliver to our grateful students, queuing up at the lectern to ask "please sir, can I have more knowledge sir" shows that they have fundamentally misunderstood the very nature of knowledge.

Anyone who teaches will recall that John Dewey featured early in their course because he reminds us that we learn not passively but actively, by doing. Philosophy students will tell you that Plato and Socrates tell us that true knowledge is discovered through active dialogue, not delivered with your groceries.

This why the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) proved to be a flash in the pan and not the threat to the Higher Education sector many feared. Although they tried to mimic Socratic dialogue through peer-to-peer discussion forums and online quizzes true knowledge is a dialectic journey, through dialogue with a teacher; and the best teacher is the one who is brave enough to embrace their own ignorance and join their students as they together discover knowledge. Because whatever the area of expertise knowledge isn't absolute, it is changes and varies depending on your perspective.

My students' knowledge of law will be very different from mine because they have very different lived experiences. How I relate to police stop and search powers as a middle-aged white man will be very different from how my young Black students do, how I relate to laws on sexual assaults different from my female students and the impact of the legalisation of gay marriage on me will be very different than for many of my students. I have a lot to learn from them, they have a lot to learn from me and in the coming weeks we will embark on a journey together to discover knowledge, and maybe even make some, but we won't be doing it in lectures.

The key advantage of a lecture is that it is a very cheap way of achieving the hallowed contact time, in a lecture theatre I can broadcast to hundreds of students, whereas Socratic dialogue is necessarily more intimate. If the Higher Education sector is serious about exploring new ways of learning some difficult questions need to be asked. Contact time is key to league tables because it's measurable, but we only measure it in quantity not quality and it would be a huge risk for any institution to favour the quality of intimate Socratic dialogue over the quantity of the broadcast lecture to the masses. I am very fortunate to work at an institution that has allowed me to take that risk, how we will evaluate whether the risk has paid off is a question I can't answer because I believe that so much about great education is unmeasurable as the research that evidences a negative correlation between teaching quality and student satisfaction testifies.

That the world has been told since at least the time of Socrates that the broadcast lecture is flawed makes it difficult to argue that ditching them is innovative, favouring learning by doing and dialogue is no more innovative than my Gran asking me for a nice cup of tea and a natter so she could better know how I was getting on. But if you bring the biscuits I'm happy to put the kettle on and excited about where our dialectic journey may lead.