Mon, 24 Jan 2000

What is good teaching? Ask the 'customers'

By Hendra Gunawan

BANDUNG (JP): In our country, schools and universities are often viewed as factories or industries that produce graduates. With this concept, however, many problems arise, especially regarding the quality of the "products". To produce good products that meet certain criteria, we need good "raw materials" and "machinery".

Thus, for schools and universities, it would be considerably difficult to produce graduates that meet certain criteria with a rate of success as high as say, 90 percent, where 10 percent are considered "defects", unless all the students and the teachers meet certain criteria too. The reason is that we are dealing here with human beings.

According to Lynton Gray, in his foreword to a 1992 book on Total Quality Management, "Human beings are notoriously nonstandard, and they bring into educational situations a range of experiences, emotions and opinions which cannot be kept in the background of the operation. Judging quality is very different from inspecting the output of a factory, or judging the service provided by a retail outlet." In short, human beings cannot be treated as "things".

Using business terminology, educational institutions are better viewed as industries that offer services rather than those producing graduates. Teaching is certainly the main service. Other services include supervision, counseling and facilities such as libraries, laboratories and sports centers.

The quality of a school or university is then judged by the quality of these services. Students, and their parents, viewed as customers, have the right to choose which school they want to go to. Enrolling in a school or university means they "buy" the services offered by the institution.

But what is meant by "good quality"? Particularly, what is good teaching? These are not easy questions. Before we can answer, we need to ask: who determines the criteria? Is it the institution, the teachers, the students (and their parents) or others (such as employers)?

To answer the latter question, we need to fully understand what is meant by "quality". In its absolute sense, it is perceived as something ideal, as we often hear in a daily conversation. A car like a Rolls Royce, for instance, is a quality car, as most people would agree.

But something ideal is usually costly, hard to achieve and can only be approached. Thus, people define quality in relative terms. Something simple and inexpensive may be of good quality as long as it satisfies certain criteria. The problem is: who determines the criteria? The producers or the customers?

With total quality management, the criteria are determined by the customers, for without customers no single industry can survive. Besides, producers must realize that it is the customers who finally decide which products are of good quality and which are not.

By viewing schools and universities as service industries whose main service is teaching, students, parents and employers are the main, secondary and tertiary external customers, respectively. Meanwhile, all staff -- the principal, teachers, and administrators -- are the producers and, at the same time, internal customers, since the service may also be enjoyed by each other.

Thus, to define what good teaching is, it is very important to ask the students -- the main customers. Of course, parents, employers and all the staff should also be heard. This can be done, for instance, through questionnaires or interviews.

By doing so, a list of criteria for good teaching may be obtained. Moses (1985), for example, found from student questionnaires that good teaching can result from teachers' competence in the subject matter, communication skills, commitment to facilitating student learning and concern for individual students.

Of course, this list can be extended to give a better description of good teaching. But the main point here is that we should ask the students, as well as the other "stake holders", to define what good teaching is.

Hearing their complaints about current practices of teaching would also be useful. In other words, schools or universities, and the Ministry of Education should find out what is lacking now and then try to overcome the problem. Otherwise, don't ask why many parents send their children to study abroad and why employers seek graduates from overseas universities.

The writer is a lecturer at the Department of Mathematics at the Bandung Institute of Technology.