Monday, December 14, 2009

Teaching for excellence: Excellence in teaching


Earlier this year at the eFest meets Teaching and Learning Conference (hosted at UCOL), I was privileged to take part in the conference wrap up led by Lisa Emerson (Ako Aotearoa) - "Teaching for excellence: Excellence in teaching".

Lisa began by discussing the quote: “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility" (Bell Hooks, 1994, p. 207), and then went on by looking at the notion of excellence in tertiary teaching, referring back to the main theme of the conference. She asked how we can bring student evaluation of teaching into our teaching institutions, and teaching practice. We have clear empirical methods to research outputs; the push for this empirical data then moves to the evaluation of tertiary teaching. How do we measure excellence in teaching. Lisa listed 1) retention, 2) success rates, 3) student evaluation, 4) compliance measures, 5) willingness to engage with new technologies, 6) willingness to show commitment to teaching by engaging in PD, and 6) by willingness to disseminate good practice (e.g. by publishing in academic journals). She then went on to discuss who wants to measure excellent, including the teacher (especially for career development), the institution, political bodies (to measure value for money), and others such as Ako Aotearoa (for example there may be a desire to raise the profile of teaching within the tertiary sector).

Emerson reflected on some experiences she had working with award winning teachers, who were incredibly humble about their teaching practice. She then went on to unpack the following: “It is crucial that we challenge any feeling of shame or embarrassment that teachers who do their job well….For when we hide our light we collude in the overall cultural devaluation of our teaching vocation” (Bell Hooks).


The session included an interactive exercise that involved participation from the audience. As we went in we were given a pen and a piece of A4 paper with the words Why?, How?, A moment, and A model/metaphor on them as headings at equal intervals down the page. At the appropriate moment, Lisa asked the audience to look at the first question, gave some background behind it (why do you teach and what do you hope your learners will be able to do), and then each person wrote down their response to the question. The top of the paper was then turned over, and the audience had to swap papers with someone close by. This process was completed for the rest of the sections, swapping papers with people around the room after each one was completed. It was a really effective exercise as not only were the audience engaged and active, but it personalised the topic and the issues for them. To complete the exercise, 50% of the audience (in groups of 3) considered question 1 and selected 1 response that they felt resonated with them; 50% of the audience (in groups of 3) did the same for question 4. The microphone was finally circulated, with a nominated speaker reading out each group’s selection.

Examples of answers (all anonymous) on the sheet that I came away with were 1) Why? “I want my student to have the ability to survive the future”; 2) How? “One thing I do well is detailed instructions”; 3) A moment (of success) “Working with a group of Maori nursing students and having them tell me about the concept of Waiora, mindmapping what they shared on the board and offering it back to them as a structure for their presentation. Tutor as learner/learner as tutor.”; 4) A model/metaphor (for learning and teaching) “Reciprocal learners about life”.

I felt it was a shared reflective activity that appeared to work well. Each person had a ‘voice’ and had the opportunity to contribute to the discussion (although some people chose to opt out). Judging from the responses, people invested time and effort to respond meaningfully. The activity is one I will certainly use in Professional Development sessions with academic faculty, as well as at conferences when I present in the future!

Lisa summed up the exercise by revisiting the questions Why?, How?, A moment, and A model/metaphor. The second and third questions were designed to help celebrate who we are – to help us revalue our profession. At the heart of teaching is the relationship between a student, a teacher and a subject and this is where the models and metaphors are so useful. She suggests that metaphors do not describe reality, but that they create it. The image of the learner as consumer places the learner as passive, as a receiver…also, as a customer, the learner knows what they want, and that they are always right. Also, the metaphor suggests that the institution is the ‘shop’, and the person who sells the product rarely evaluates how the customer uses their purchase.

Other models that Lisa has collected from her other meetings, included co-learner, facilitator, mediators, mentors, guides, colleagues with a serious duty to care, and a co-traveller who sees things that otherwise the learner may miss. She argued that the whole dynamic between teachers and learners would change if the metaphor of consumer were abandoned and replaced with an alternative. The challenge is how this can be opened up for discussion in institutions, and unpicked with students, so that the customer model is left behind.

One analogy that a group of us discussed after Lisa’s session was that of a greenhouse (extending something that someone had written in the session about a teacher as gardener). We felt that the greenhouse idea included the notion of planting seeds, growth happening within each individual seedling, and the learning environment being safe (protecting from frosts), nurturing (the right balance of warmth and moisture, that is constantly monitored). It also allowed for differences (tomatoes not being the same as melons), and the notion that the seedling will eventually be transplanted to the outside world. Could be maybe stretching an analogy to breaking point and beyond, but it does focus on the fact that the teacher cannot do the growing for the learner, and that the learner has to be actively involved in the process.

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