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Teaching Skills (long version)

Should the Geological Society be more Professional?

by Paul Wright

The demands of society on our discipline are changing very rapidly and the need for classically trained geologists may be shrinking quicker than we had expected, but geologists have key, valuable skills not provided by other professions. I am most concerned about the decline in the skills base of many young geologists. Of course one can be accused of simply repeating the inter-generational complaint that “standards are falling”, unfounded or not.

The younger geologists are not in any way to blame and they bring to the profession a wide range of new skills linked to information technology. However, I sense a widespread feeling that there is a skills deficit now in the UK and this matters to society, and especially to industry because even if most geoscientists do not collect the data they manipulate, they do need to understand how it is collected and the limits on its interpretation. This decline in skills training is especially important in the UK and the reasons seem to be three fold:

  1. Successive UK governments, of whatever shade, have instigated and strengthened the role of external assessments of university departments based on research output, linked to funding.  The means of assessment are themselves highly questionable but the effect has been two-fold. Firstly managers at all levels have focussed  on reducing teaching to free more time for research. The most resource-heavy teaching is skills teaching, requiring practical classes and high levels of support from lecturers and postgraduate demonstrators. It is so much simpler to offer students a course involving say just  10 lectures and 30 hours independent course work than 30 hours in a teaching laboratory: what suffers is skills training. A second and equally damaging effect is the increasing trend towards appointing research-only staff in earth science departments. This may improve the research rating of a department but it has several detrimental effects on teaching provision. Firstly it decreases the number of staff contributing to teaching which ultimately reduces the range of courses a department can offer; as those non-teaching staff get promoted ahead of other staff because they have more time to publish and write grant proposals, their colleagues see that teaching is undervalued and human nature being what it is, can lose commitment to maintaining teaching standards. The most damaging effect is that cohesion in the departments begins to break down with schisms forming between those protected from the demands of teaching and those finding themselves having to take on more and more of the workloads but are less likely to get promotion or even respect from their managers.
  2. Another worrying trend, promoted by those who see geology as a non-existent subject, is the appointment of non-geologists to earth science departments. I think there is a view amongst some that physicists and chemists would do a much better job than geologists. This is partly reflecting a view in the UK and elsewhere that multi-disciplinary research is the future. I fully support such a view as long as the policy makers appreciate that geology is a multi-disciplinary science. In my work as an applied sedimentologist working in the oil and gas sector I continually integrate physics, chemistry, biology with my geological expertise, and in my academic research I frequently also integrate pedology and geomorphology. I know of departments that appoint non-geologists as permanent staff on the basis that they fill some research niche topical that year, but that appointee cannot teach any earth science course, especially skills-based ones.  These appointments are often to replace staff who taught, thus weakening the ability of that department to provide a broad skills training.
  3. Yet another worrying trend relates to postgraduate training.  The expansion in student numbers seen in the UK has meant that practical classes have large numbers of students and this requires the lecturers to need the support of demonstrators (assistants). These are typically graduate students studying for PhD’s. However as both the number of such research students has been reduced, and as the bodies funding research have effectively stopped supporting the diverse range of research topics focussing on what is perceived as more important, demonstrator numbers with the appropriate level of expertise has greatly declined.

One obvious result of all these issues is that most university earth science final examinations lack little if any direct tests on skills, instead focussing on testing memory. With universities being autonomous in awarding degrees, it was necessary for the UK government to ensure quality control on the huge cost of university funding. Back in the early 1990’s this lead to a rigorous dual system of external expert assessment of both the teaching quality at a department level, and on teaching management at both department and university level. However, the former was soon dropped for reasons never made clear, and the latter quality control was reduced to box-ticking paper exercises. Thus there is no UK-wide system for ensuring standards.

This is where I feel the professional bodies have a crucial role and although the Geological Society of London has an accreditation system for degree schemes I personally do not think this is working to protect skills training in the UK. I can hear the howls of derision the next statement will cause but I believe the professional bodies need to ensure skills standards by actually setting national skills-based examinations; this means a direct test of practical skills ideally in an examination integrating maps, seismic data, lithological recognition, microscopy (if not with standard microscopes then using digital ones and not simply static images), fossils and a range of appropriate geochemical and other data sets.

Such examinations would be optional but a requirement for those students wanting a formal accredited degree (not a degree from an accredited scheme) with the intention of being a practising geoscientist. This would be a major logistical challenge but other professions manage national tests. The tests would be devised through consultation with stake holders and not simply the universities self-regulating themselves because that has not worked when government interference forces universities to shift resources away from teaching.