From education to employment

Feedback Distortion

Ben Hughes is Vice Principal (Industry Engagement) at Pearson College London

I attended that most oxymoronic of events last week – a useful conference – on the subject of the National Student Survey. It was useful because it provided the opportunity to hear from several horses’ mouths how they handled this annual steeplechase event. The most interesting contribution came from the most successful. I won’t embarrass them by mentioning their name, but suffice it to say the form book discloses a phenomenal track record. The alleged secret of their success was instructive, though hardly rocket science. It boiled down to investment in the product – specifically the teaching – the correlation between satisfaction with which and overall satisfaction rates was the closest metric.  Essentially the message was – you can invest in other stuff all you like, but get the classroom experience wrong, and nothing else matters. 

So far, so sensible. What is depressing is the reaction I got later on when discussing this event with others who ply their trade in education. It reminded me of my children’s reaction when informed by a sibling that they had achieved the highest score on Temple Run. “Did not! You cheated! You were playing the easy version! You had way longer to practice. And in any case I think you’ll find it was joint top!”

Which in turn is not that dissimilar to the reaction provoked by individual high feedback scores in the classroom. “Edutainer!” goes the far from admiring cry from the perennially maddened crowd. “That’s only because you had X group / bought Y group chocolates (and probably spoon-fed them) / marked Z group generously / went to the student Christmas party / teach an easy subject etc. etc.” And that’s just the repeatable ones. And even if they DID actually like you, what’s their liking worth anyway? After all, what do THEY know, those shameless seekers after satisfaction – relentlessly pursuing their vacuous value for their extensive monetary investment? 

And it struck me that whilst this state of mind persists, across all sectors – public and private, further and higher – all the NSSs and TEFs administered by all the bureaucrats in the world won’t make a blind bit of difference. 

The truth is that we tend to know good teaching when we see it and are shy of calling it out when we don’t. “That’s X were talking about! X really knows their stuff. Been teaching for years. So what if all X’s students complain about them every year? X is a Fellow of the HEA and everything. Does some great research…” 

Until we accept that, as Morrissey almost said, some teachers are better than others, and some teachers’ institutions are better than other teachers’ institutions, we will be locked in an unending parody of, “You said; we did” along the lines of, “They did (well in the NSS / module feedback); we did[n’t] because [INSERT EXCUSE HERE]”. And like my kids on their iPad games, our lives will run out sooner or later…

Ben Hughes. This article is written in Ben’s personal capacity and represents his own individual opinions rather than those of Pearson College London, where he is Vice Principal and a lecturer in Contract Law

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