Thought for the Day: Learning

By The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich - 09 August 2017
It was reported on Monday 31 July that some students at British universities receive as little as 26 hours of one-to-one tuition in an entire three year course. Economics and history are the subjects where individual teaching is now said to be extremely limited. By contrast those studying physics fare much better – at least three times as much one-to-one contact time.

Class sizes in lectures, seminars and tutorials have increased substantially in most universities. Since tuition fees are generally £9,000 a year whatever the subject, these disparities in contact teaching time can seem unfair. But perhaps there are other factors worth pondering too. This isn’t just about value for money.

As I look back on my life as an undergraduate, a very long time ago, it was the seminars and tutorials which I found most demanding. In the lectures I scribbled at speed, sometimes barely taking in what was said, and hoping that I’d be able to read my writing and make sense of it afterwards. But in tutorials, where even in those days I was rarely alone but frequently with one or two others, I’d be asked to justify what I’d written in my essay. It would soon become clear if I’d understood the subject or not. Over time these tutorial hours became less forbidding and more enjoyable. That was because I got to know my tutors and, rather to my surprise, they seemed to want to know me. When my history professor invited me and a few other students for lunch at his house I realised I’d become a disciple. I had learned a lot from him about the English Civil War but perhaps even more about his own love of learning. It wasn’t just the subject which mattered. I’d entered a cultural and intellectual world embodied in a person I admired. His knowledge was far greater than mine, and somehow he’d inspired me to love learning for its own sake.

Whether it’s Plato and his pupils or Jesus and his disciples, this seems to be the way in which human beings have experienced learning in every age. Jesus talked to large crowds but taught his disciples in the equivalent of seminars and tutorials too. I like the coincidence that his public ministry only lasted three years, the length of the average undergraduate course. While the content of the teaching of Jesus is well-recorded in the gospels, it’s noticeable that it’s in their relationship with their teacher that the disciples seem to learn the most. In our universities today it’s such fruitful relationships with their teachers that all our undergraduates deserve.

This blog is an adapted transcript from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, broadcast on Tuesday 1 August 2017 by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. To listen to and read more Thought for the Day features, please visit the BBC website.

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