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Teaching and Learning: where’s the sparkle?

January 15, 2013

Would you agree that overall teaching and learning in adult education is pretty good but lacks ‘sparkle’? This was a point made at an event last week about teaching and learning in further education; the event was mainly for managers and heads of service in local authority adult education. The opening speaker (Bob Powell from an organisation called Holex) was reviewing the Ofsted Chief Inspector’s Annual Report; teaching and learning in further education is ‘good but lacks sparkle’ . That was his assessment. This was illustrated by the 2011/12 grade profile for ‘effectiveness of  teaching and learning  in adult and community learning’ which showed 68% ‘good’ and 29% ‘satisfactory’ with only tiny percentages of either ‘inadequate’ or ‘oustanding’  (2% in each case).

Is it that recent regimes have been effective in ensuring greater consistency and virtually eliminating the inadequate but that somewhere along the line the inspirational, and perhaps off beat, provision has got lost?

The next speaker was Andy Gannon from the 157 group (an organisation of large FE Colleges) talking about characteristics of excellent teaching and learning that emerged from their work. This had involved learners and tutors as well as organisers and managers. Plenty of the results have been posted on their website so you can look for yourself but what struck me was their emphasis on the importance of  relationships between people, the value of a tutor community along with greater autonomy, risk taking and innovation. There is no single ‘correct pedagogy’ and excessive checking and micromanagement were discouraged. There was encouraging talk of ‘letting go’ and creating expansive learning environments. All in all a more liberal and humanistic model seemed to be re-emerging and to me this was very welcome.

At the same time I know that the pressures to ensure consistency and compliance remain; the funding and regulatory regimes are demanding. The emphasis on ‘evidence of outcomes’ is laudable but in turn requires further measures to record and report upon activity. Additionally the intensification of work and squeezing of finance make it hard to find the space for progressive change of any kind.

What can we do? An area of discussion was class observations with several organisations moving to coaching based and more reciprocal approaches rather than the ‘snapshot observation with grade and action points’. This might mean a prior meeting between tutor and observer to identify  the areas  upon which to focus and then following up the observation with a mini project (perhaps supported by coaching or mentoring) in which the tutor tried out a new teaching approach. What I liked about this was both the reciprocity and the strong focus on change with support from the organisation. I can think of lots of cases where it’s easier to see the problem than the solution and this would be a good way of focusing on the latter. An example might be trying to get  well established learner groups to experiment with active learning methods; easy enough to see the weaknesses with ‘talk and chalk’ but a challenge to help the tutor move them forward. 

Admittedly the scheme may be weakened as a monitoring tool (for instance contributing to a picture of the overall grade of the subject area) so it may be better to run old and new schemes side by side?

An additional step would be to find resources for collaborative projects involving a number of tutors; an example I can think of was when a group of tutors planned an educational activity studying a particular town (Ludlow I think) from different perspectives: history, sociology, planning, archeology etc. Quite often enhancement events, such as an exhibition of students’ work can be planned by a range of student groups and tutors.

What I get from this is that we should acknowledge that there is a tension in our work, hopefully a creative one, between if you like compliance and innovation. We need both but if we continually recognise this and plan approaches so that both elements are present, then we may be on the way to rediscovering the sparkle.

I’d be very interested in how other educators see this.

Link to 157 Group ‘Great teaching and learning’:


From → Adult Education

  1. Williams permalink

    Not all teachers in any area of teaching can sparkle to order. But there would be a lot more sparkle in adult education if teachers were not subject to relentless pressure (from folk who don’t teach but think theyknow best) to teach in ways that don’t suit them, often derived from half-baked educational theories as interpreted by people who only half understand them. No teacher can give a sparkling performance if they aren’t teaching in the way that works for them personally.

  2. jmiskin permalink

    And of course it’s quite possible to sparkle without teaching much or enabling genuine learning to happen!
    But hey some sparkle does not go amiss!
    I think your point Pete re: the tension between compliance and innovation/creativity is clearly spot on; and I certainly think we need to find ways to minimise the former and to extend the latter.
    On the OTL front it’s hard to disagree again but the issue here, were we to adopt a different methodology, arguably one much more likely to lead to real progress and change, would be capacity: time in a word at a time when everyone is expected to do more for less. But certainly worthy of more thought and possibly action.

  3. Audrey Stewart permalink

    That sparkle surely comes when the tutor is excited about the subject and enthused by the learners – providing a challenge and enjoying the joint exploration of it. A coaching approach alongside OTL can be useful, particularly when tutors can work together to explore new ways of working in an open atmosphere that enables them to experiment without being judged. Isn’t teaching for the love of teaching as valuable as learning for the love of learning?

  4. maureenrussell permalink

    I use a coaching approach alongside OTL which works well and is appreciated by tutors, especially less experienced or confident tutors – and I have seen an improvement in sparkle and innovation in some as a result. But it is time consuming so I agree with Jol: it is an issue of capacity.

    Showing tutors that we value sparkle and innovation helps. At one point our tutor team meetings were becoming almost entirely focused on paperwork/compliance which was not only dull but gave the impression that was all we cared about. Now we ensure that every tutor team meeting has plenty of space for tutors to share ideas and resources which generates a lot of ideas and enthusiasm – and I think it is paying off. We have also used TED talk videos in our tutor team meetings to stimulate discussion about education, and we hope in time these ideas will help to create a culture in which sparkle and/or innovation will flourish

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