Responsibility versus accountability

My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement written by Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College – a man who from past experience normally writes good sense. His theme was the need for university lecturers to be appraised by tough student feedback, but he drew on his experience in schools.

I was expecting this to be a challenging read. I completely accept the obligation on people in responsible professional positions to explain themselves, but base instinct says this is potentially threatening – all the more so for people who take their practice seriously in the first place. This is compounded in the current climate, when tight adherence is expected to a single but complex classroom model, and the ‘wrong’ justification, no matter how well judged, may not be accepted. There are so many technical criteria that it’s very difficult to feel confident that one has covered every base during an appraisal – and since the interpretation ultimately remains a subjective one in any case, there’s also the added lottery factor.

The buzz word these days is not ‘responsibility’ but ‘accountability’. Someone said that ‘accountability is what is left when responsibility has been removed’. That struck a chord with me, encapsualting the loss of autonomy, balance and plurality of insight permissible – and it certainly seems to capture the vague sense of threat that can surround such processes.

So I read on with some trepidation. Seldon described how his daughter and her friends had been able to sum up their teachers more succinctly than any professional process he had managed. He went on to observe that feedback of this sort is rarely sought at university level. But true to form, he dropped back into something with which I can largely agree: his basic premise that students have pertinent views, supports a non-technocratic approach to appraisal, whereby personal qualities, assessed ‘in the round’ count more than ticked boxes.

He argues that students are far more likely to judge the whole person than a professional observer who will simply be looking for adherence to certain norms. They are also the ones who sense best whether their personal and educational needs have been met. A student who can say, “This teacher was a supportive person, who was approachable and who had time for me, who helped me to develop my thinking and deepen my understanding” is arguably providing a far more useful summation of the situation than a page of boxes ticked by professional observer, for all that  it subjective. Or as one wrote to me last summer, “I owe my love of this subject to you.” How much more does one need?

Seldon writes, “Teaching is both an art and a science. It can best be learned through a willingness to listen and change, through the mentoring of experienced practitioners, and with the feedback of students forming a fundamental part of the process.”

Yet our obsession with spurious measurement of the educational process has almost entirely neglected the ‘art’ component of this, which from my experience is precisely the element that makes it work, or not. The need for accountability has fallen into the trap of ‘valuing the measurable’ simply because that which is really valuable isn’t easily measurable. It has also neglected any input from people other than line managers.

He continues, “Great teachers share common characteristics, including optimism, a love of their subject and their students, a deep curiosity about their discipline, and a fierce determination to improve themselves and to be reflective.”

I have some reservations over his emphasis on teaching teaching – not because the technicalities can’t be shared, but because they can’t be forced. No matter how well one instils the basics, what makes for successful teaching is innate and unique to each individual. Taught generalisations cannot deal with this – useful personality traits, and above all a sense of vocation ultimately have to come from within. He nonetheless has the sentiment right: most of my own most valuable teaching tools came from a similar introspective process; the external programme of support has contributed some useful ideas but that is all. One must be free to decide what works and what doesn’t, and deploy as one sees fit.

On reflection, maybe the students would do a better job than the sheets of tick-boxes…

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