Ancient and modern

Some 2,000-year-old teaching tips for Oxford’s new vice-chancellor

Professor Louise Richardson says she’s not sure how to judge teaching. But Quintilian knew

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

Professor Louise Richardson, Oxford’s new vice-chancellor, is worried about a new government plan to judge teaching quality. Her reason is that she does not know how to measure it. One wonders what else she does not know about assessing a university’s basic function.

Plato made a distinction between the art of teaching and the pupil’s desire for learning. Without the latter, the job was impossible. A good teacher did his best to strike that spark of desire which would turn into a flame. Success was not guaranteed: Plato knew students who preferred a suntan education (his image), turning over now and again till lightly educated on both sides.

As for pedagogy, the orator and teacher Quintilian (c. ad 35–100) summed it up beautifully: ‘The teacher must have no vices himself nor tolerate them in others. He must not be strict and humourless, or free-and-easy and overfamiliar: the one breeds hatred, the other contempt. His conversation must concentrate on what is good and honourable; the more sound advice he gives, the less he will need to reprove… He must happily answer questions, and question those who remain silent. In praising his pupils’ work, he must be neither grudging nor effusive: the one will put them off, the other encourage complacency. In correcting where necessary, he must not be sarcastic, let alone abusive; for the teacher who criticises his pupils as if he hates them puts many off the commitment to study… pupils who are taught properly love and respect their teacher: it is impossible to say how much more willingly we copy those whom we like.’

It is usually those who are no good at teaching who assert how difficult it is to separate the good from the bad teacher. But Oxford has a Department of Education, which presumably trains up, and then assesses the abilities of, its young charges. Perhaps Professor Richardson should bone up on the matter there, though one can be fairly certain that the ancients’ luminous intelligence will not be much in evidence.

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  • King Kibbutz


  • rtj1211

    Measuring ‘teaching quality’ is extremely subjective at higher levels. What is measurable is often less valuable than that which only emerges, sometimes several years down the line.

    What are you trying to teach? Bookwork recall? High level practical scientific/engineering skills (e.g. ability to be employed immediately as an analytical chemist producing high quality crystals for quantitative analysis)? The ability to challenge orthodoxy (often detected more often in weekly essays than under exam pressure)? The ability to fawn to an academic’s ego (which often earns higher marks than challenging them to an allegorical duel through rhetoric)?

    It’s very easy to measure primary school stats such as spelling, basic arithmetic and writing skills. None of those test whether you are socially well integrated aged 9 or 10, but they are very measurable.

    If you want to do it properly at University, you have to measure three things:

    1. What you started with and what you sent out upon graduation (narrow value-add).
    3. Whether what you sent out progresses and thrives in the next 3 – 5 years (the ability of what you sent out to grow – may or may not be due to you, may or may not be due to good/useless employers).
    4. Whether what you sent out became a successful member of society in the next 20 – 25 years (whether what you sent out is in the spirit of the age).

    No politician will ever waste 20 years waiting, so all measurements are short-term and arbitrary.

    My view on both Oxbridge institutions is that they are far too arrogant about wasting 60% of the talent they receive. No-one who goes to Oxbridge should end up failing in life. No-one. They couldn’t have got there if they were a waste of time. They got there because they had very great potential. But many turn into listless failures because they were treated with cold brutality when they were not yet fully formed. That should be judged very, very harshly indeed, rather like the way you deal with first aiders and paramedics who DO cause further harm to patients…..

    But as a few make squillions in the City and give big legacy donations to Oxford colleges, who cares about the acceptable collateral damage, eh??

    All the people who have to pick up the pieces due to the arrogance, insularity and inability to be human to be found so often within the institutions of Oxford a d Cambridge, that’s who……..