Another view - Does a shift from slate to whiteboard make now better than then?

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

"So what was it like in your day?" Thus do the careless observations of the young lacerate the egos of the not-so-young. Because there was me thinking this was my day. After all, I'm still in the classroom, aren't I? I'm still alive.

We were discussing teaching and the way it has and hasn't changed over the years. I couldn't help notice that the implication of my younger colleague was that things must be better today - if only because he was teaching now.

But surely I can rise above such petty point scoring? Because the question is an interesting one: has teaching in further education really improved in the past 20 years or so, or was it better "back in the day"?

Much emphasis is certainly put on improving teaching and teachers today. Gone are the days when people could teach in colleges for years without a proper teaching qualification. Gone too is the idea of the teacher as "king in his own kingdom" once the classroom door was shut. Cynics might say that today it's more like a revolving door. If it's not an inspector coming through, it'll be a manager sitting in and "observing". But, cynic or not, you have to accept that the underlying motive for all this vicarious "watching" is a desire to improve teaching.

And what of the technological advances? When I started out, slates and quill pens had just about gone, but the whiteboard and the overhead projector were pretty much the only audio-visual aids. Surely teaching must be better for the introduction of smartboards, the internet and the ever expanding learning resource centre with its dazzling array of shiny new computers?

In one sense it must. But there is another way to look at it. The exercise book may have been an improvement over the slate, but did it make poor teachers good ones? The technological baubles might glow ever more brightly, but the plodding and uninspired teacher is still just that. Indeed, you could argue that the pretty patterns created by the one might serve only to emphasise the underlying dullness of the other.

Other factors also argue against a picture of continuous improvement in teaching quality. I have just spent several hours drawing up a class profile. Most of the information on it is already known to my colleagues because I have already passed it on to them. So what is it actually for, my five-page rundown of all the little quirks and ticks of my tutees? Answer: for the quality audit; which in turn is for the college self- assessment; which is for that external inspection that is probably at least three years distant given that Ofsted was last in the college only six months ago.

Of course, the class profile is just one of many such things lecturers now have to do that take them away from their real work - preparing classes, teaching and marking. All right, it's always dressed up as being in the name of "improving teaching and learning", but in practice its effect is entirely the opposite.

FE teachers have also suffered a progressive loss of autonomy in the past decade. What they teach and how they teach it is now more prescribed than ever. And if you infantalise your workforce, then it should not be surprising that what you ultimately get is infants - or people only capable of doing what they are told because they know no other way of doing it.

I asked an FE teacher trainer about the "then and now" debate. There are certainly fewer places, she said, for the really bad teacher to hide now. At the same time she detected a distinct drive towards uniformity: "The individuals, the characters, the people who are prepared to stick their necks out and take risks aren't around any more. Or if they are you wouldn't notice, because they've been forced into conformity like everybody else."

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