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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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