My colleague Clayton Wright sent me the link to this article with the question, to which I replied ‘Yes – please send me more difficult questions.’ However, when I read the actual article, I realised that it does need a very serious reply.
The article starts with a report that
‘the government of Ghana has proposed a policy that mandates that all tertiary education institution lecturers must possess a postgraduate teaching certificate before they are eligible to teach….[Ghana’s] National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE)…argues that having a mastery of specialist knowledge does not imply that a lecturer knows the techniques needed to effectively communicate that knowledge to students. In other words, PhD holders in particular fields of knowledge are not necessarily experts at teaching.’
However, the rest of the article then goes on to attack the idea, using a number of spurious arguments. In particular, the authors write:
Without concrete data about the state of teaching, another problem is how to assess the effectiveness of the proposed policy once it has been rolled out. Hence, it is vital that policy-makers focus on evidence-based policy development. This means ensuring policy decisions are vigorously informed by objective data rather than being unduly influenced by ideology, speculation, prejudice or whims.
This is backed up by several other arguments:
- no other HE system requires such qualifications;
- there is a variety of postgraduate teaching certificates that universities offer around the world, but none are compulsory;
- new lecturers will benefit more from such a certificate than experienced lecturers;
- lecturers are not homogeneous: specialised certificates would be more useful than a generic certificate;
- lecturers who have been teaching for three or more years should be exempted from the policy. Instead, each higher education institution should have a professional development programme that allows its …. lecturers…and other instructors to acquire or renew the skills and knowledge they need for teaching.
What’s wrong with their argument?
I have to say my initial reaction was outrage at their comments. Hold on, folks, Canada could learn a lot from the Ghana initiative. At last a government has taken the initiative to professionalise teaching in higher education, and they then get slammed by two Canadians, one of who is a senior programme adviser for government, and the other a Canadian policy consultant.
I’ve now calmed down, and realise that they are suggesting ways to modify or improve the policy of the government of Ghana (but in my view, with the aim of eviscerating it). Thus there are a few home truths to be said here.
First of all, the Fredua-Kwartengs argue:
…before determining the types of improvement in teaching that are needed in the tertiary sector, it is critical to have data about the current state of teaching at that level. What is the precise problem with teaching in the tertiary sector? Is it about lack of teaching skills or teaching resources? What kind of skills are we talking about? How do we know?
It is dangerous to guess, speculate or use anecdotal evidence to define the state of teaching in the sector in the absence of concrete, comprehensive data about the state of teaching in the tertiary sector.
This may be true in Ghana, but since they draw on the lack of similar programs in other countries as a criticism of the policy, perhaps they should look at the research in their own country on the need for training in teaching at a post-secondary level. In particular I would draw their attention to a book by two professors from Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada. Christensen Hughes and Mighty (2010) have edited a collection of studies on research on teaching and learning in higher education. In the opening chapter the editors state:
…researchers have discovered much about teaching and learning in higher education, but that dissemination and uptake of this information have been limited. As such, the impact of educational research on faculty-teaching practice and student-learning experience has been negligible.
In the same book, Christopher Knapper (also of Queens University) states (p. 229-230):
There is increasing empirical evidence from a variety of international settings that prevailing teaching practices in higher education do not encourage the sort of learning that contemporary society demands….Teaching remains largely didactic, assessment of student work is often trivial, and curricula are more likely to emphasize content coverage than acquisition of lifelong and life-wide skills….
[However] there is an impressive body of evidence on how teaching methods and curriculum design affect deep, autonomous and reflective learning. Yet most faculty are largely ignorant of this scholarship, and instructional practices are dominated by tradition rather than research evidence.
Now I agree they are talking about Canada here, but I think there is plenty of evidence from other countries that this problem is not unique to Canada. For instance read Donald Bligh’s classic (2000) What’s the Use Lectures?
So it is spurious to argue, as the Fredua-Kwartengs do, that we are guessing, speculating or using anecdotal evidence to address the problem, or that the problem has not yet been properly identified.
Why a teaching certificate is needed
The fact is all lecturers in higher education are facing tremendous challenges due to the increased diversity of students, developments in the external environment such as the need for high level skills, the emergence of new technologies for teaching, the demand for lifelong learning – I could go on and on – that require lecturers to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of different teaching methods, how learning actually takes place, how to select and use technology appropriately, and how to validly assess students. We can argue about details but the broad picture is overwhelming: post-secondary instructors need proper training.
Also there is clear evidence that relying on voluntary continuing professional education for university professors won’t cut it. Less than 10% of lecturers take this up and often these are the people who least need it. Research in Canada by the Canadian Digital learning Research Association (2018) clearly indicates that lack of faculty development is the biggest obstacle to the use of online learning, for instance.
Furthermore all this has been known for some time. What has been lacking is policy. These changes won’t come about from within the institutions. Without some form of government intervention these changes just won’t happen. Kudos to the government of Ghana for taking this initiative.
Now I do agree with the Fredua-Kwartengs that how that policy roles out is critical. University senior administrators, faculty and other instructors need to be consulted closely, government needs to be at arms’ length once policy is implemented, and the development of the curriculum for the post-graduate certificate or more likely discipline related certificates needs to involve educators as well as subject discipline experts.
But please, no more pleading that this shouldn’t be done because no-one else has done it, or because we don’t know what should be taught in such a certificate or diploma. Give Ghana credit for leading the world on this.
Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal and Kingston: McGill University and Queen’s University Press