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Universality and mediocrity Part 2: Everything’s OK (but is it any good?)

April 28, 2013

Example 1

The British Council acts as an accrediting body and an indicator of quality for English language teaching providers in the UK. These include private language schools of various sizes, further education colleges, and summer schools which only open for a few weeks each year. The kind of teaching varies widely from year-long pre-university foundation courses, to short residential courses for young learners, to 1-1 ESP for business executives. Inspectors use more or less the same criteria when inspecting these very diverse institutions.

Example 2

Scottish further education colleges are regularly visited by Education Scotland (formerly Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education) to review quality. The same criteria are used to assess the quality of teaching irrespective of the subject.  When lessons are observed, the observers don’t even necessarily have any knowledge of the subject. This means that an ESOL class can be observed and evaluated by someone with a background in hairdressing, for example.

Example 3

The Scottish FE sector is working towards ensuring all its lecturing staff have the TQFE – a generic qualification for teaching in further education. This is something that Education Scotland encourages as an indicator of quality. Strangely, Education Scotland does not recognise subject-specific teaching qualifications in the same way. So, a college lecturer with the DELTA and a Masters in TESOL would still be required to do the TQFE in order to be recognized as having a legitimate teaching qualification.

Example 4

One thing that inspectors/accrediting bodies are keen to see is a clear, coherent syllabus for each course, with specific materials identified beforehand. An organic or negotiated syllabus, containing the flexibility to respond to learner needs, does not fit in with this construct and is therefore not valued highly, despite its obvious advantages to learners.

What I am trying to illustrate here is the problem with over-generalization of standards. For inspecting bodies, coming up with a set of criteria that can be applied to so many different types of institution or subject area can’t be easy. How effectively can you measure the quality of a private summer school using the same criteria that are used to measure that of a further education college? What criteria for evaluating teaching and learning are equally applicable across all subject areas, whether the teaching takes place in a classroom, a beauty salon or a bricklaying workshop? To what extent can an observer with no subject knowledge evaluate the quality of a lesson? Isn’t it the case that a generic teaching qualification can only focus on general principles and practices, while a subject-specific one can go into far more depth about effective methodologies?

Clearly it is possible to come up with a set of criteria that are applicable to a wide range of contexts, and when you look for commonalities across subject areas you will find them. But how meaningful can such a set of criteria be? You can probably use them to check that everything is OK, and if anything terrible is happening then you would probably be able to flag that up as well. But the problem with assessing apples and oranges using the same criteria is that you can’t go much further than identifying them both as fruits.

And what about the performance enhancement element of quality management? How easily can excellence in a specific context be identified using generic criteria? To what extent can an inspector with a background in automotive engineering advise an ESOL lecturer on their ability to clarify the differences in meaning of modal auxiliary verbs when used in the context of discussing future plans? Surely there are elements of good practice in the engineering workshop that don’t apply to the ESOL classroom, and vice-versa. When assessing teaching practice against generic criteria these elements of good practice can’t be addressed.

It’s not the inspectors’ fault, obviously; they have their checklist and they measure accordingly. But this lack of depth, this lack of focus on the specific teaching context concerns me. When all an inspector is looking for is something as broad as “Teachers will demonstrate an ability to manage the resources appropriately and effectively to facilitate learning” (British Council inspection criterion T28), how deeply do they need to look into the teaching and learning process? Once the box is ticked they can move on to the next box.

So, we (or I at least – I don’t know about you) appear to be operating in a context where OK is as good as you need to be. Inspectors may look for examples of good practice, but a lack of focus on (or knowledge of) the specific context means that such examples may go unrecorded. It’s important to ensure that minimum standards are being maintained, but just because the quality is OK does that mean it’s any good?

  • What experiences do you have of quality control and performance enhancement?
  • What sort of criteria are used to evaluate your organisation?
  • Who assesses your teaching performance, and how?
  1. Kenneth MacDougall permalink

    I hope you didn’t give up our round of golf for this! Seriously though, I find your last question interesting. I said to you yesterday that I didn’t want to run a CELTA this summer – there’s some assessment going on there I think. Digging in to our own appraisal of our teaching might be the best thing we can do.

    “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
    Maya Angelou

    • Ah, so you’re saying that we should assess and evaluate our own practice? I agree that self-evaluation is very useful, and my workplace places a lot of importance on this (I imagine yours does as well, Ken.)
      Is that enough though? Can teaching quality assurance rely on self-regulation?

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