‘… the echo of words, the inaudible friction of thoughts.’

[José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis]

A while ago Graham Gibbs came to the half-day Queen Mary Learning and Teaching conference to talk about the problem of measuring quality in undergraduate education, and a lack of valid systems of measurement. I’d read his article (Dimensions of Quality, Gibbs, G. 2010), liked it, but then wondered if this wasn’t a very utilitarian approach, with all the problems inherent in a Benthamite philosophical system. In the end all this measuring, all it tells you is how accurate your ruler is, no?

So I asked him. And before I’d finished the question he admitted that, yes, his was a utilitarian approach. So then I asked him: if improving the quality seems mostly concerned with ‘a small range of fairly well-understood pedagogical practices that engender student engagement,’ and that these were primarily dependent on the teacher’s role, how then can we get the kind of objective data he craved? I think he said something about trusting teachers, but by then we had to go back in. 

I was thinking about utilitarianism and education, and found a blog post by John L Taylor. Talk about how knowledge will eat itself. ‘Good education contains many aspects which cannot be measured. But such is the influence of the utilitarian approach that, instead of this fact being used to put outcome measures into context, we end up allowing the system of measurement to determine the way in which we teach. A consequence of the emphasis on measurable outcomes is that less tangible qualities – like depth of understanding, ethical awareness and creativity – come to be taken less seriously than things that seem easier to measure (like for instance, accuracy of factual recall).’ I love the irony that the one things a Benthamite system definitely squeezes out is philosophy.


O! this learning, what a thing it is.

[W. Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew]