Excellence in learning and teaching

One of the recommendations from a recent Internal Periodic Review of Educational Developments was that we should blow our trumpet more, letting University colleagues know how well we can support them in learning and teaching (L&T). So, I am taking this thinly disguised and uncharacteristic opportunity to do just that.

Ray Land and George Gordon have recently published a report on an HEA funded small scale international study on Teaching Excellence Initiatives. In it they debate teaching excellence and how it has broken out of the confines of individual HEIs to be linked to discussions of individual performance.

Land and Georges’ study looked at practice in promoting excellence in L&T. They acknowledge that excellence itself is contested and the quality of teaching, especially the difference between satisfactory and excellent, is hard to judge. HEI initiatives can, they argue, be described as moving from novice to expert, something like the way the UK Professional Standards Framework is described in four levels, and how our own ULTRA Framework is articulated.

The study points out that most UK, Australian and NZ Universities (at least) encourage or require academics to take a course in teaching as part of probation, thus aiming to ensure competence in teaching. Many HEI’s offer rewards for excellence in the form of prizes or funding to develop practice or even pay increments (proficiency level). Going beyond, advanced proficiency including teaching and expert status is rewarded with prizes, citations such as Vice Chancellor awards, National teaching Fellowships (we have five at Liverpool) or Principal Fellows (four at Liverpool) are classed as high recognition.

But none of this necessarily moves us from pockets of excellence with which we in Higher Education are so familiar, to a broadly excellent quality of teaching across a school, faculty or institution. Although there are some schemes internationally that attempt to promote institutional teaching excellence through awards, most do not succeed. The UK Times Higher Education Awards do not do this well. The example highlighted by Land & George was organised in Germany “Wettbewerb Exzellent zehre” (2010-2012) was a very well-funded award designed to raise the quality of excellence across the sector. Analysis of that competition concluded that the central leadership was of crucial importance to success.

It seems that the ability to promote and support many and diverse paths to excellence within an institution is key to achieving the German award and that requires skilled and committed leadership. It’s that tension between the localised and subject specific nature of excellence, often driven by needs perceived by individual teachers, and the challenge of spreading good practice. As Land and Gordon put it, “how to scale an initiative upwards without corroding the trust that was necessary to its original development”.

Land and Gordon’s argument is that top-down managerial approaches can stifle innovation while letting 1,000 flowers bloom can undermine expansion of good practice (and in my experience, leave some flowers to wither and die).

Their research seems to suggest that the integration of elements designed to promote or reward excellence with other academic development measures recognises the multidimensional nature of the enhancement of L&T.

“The coordinated academic development provision to be found, for example, at the Pedagogical Academy in Lund, the Educational Development Division of the University of Liverpool; or the far reaching, cross institutional and professional development programmes at Finland’s Aalot University are testament to the benefits of such integrated academic development” page 9

The report goes on to briefly explore the challenges to be addressed, including the funded disparity between research and teaching excellence, the importance of the balance between intellectual and programme level teaching excellence and on to robust or high quality judgements about institutional excellence. They present a very interesting ‘Framing tool’ pp22-23 that could help institutions reflect on their own approaches to teaching excellence at the sectorial, institutional and faculty and department levels.

Still, it is important to note that policies employed at different levels can take on different characters and play out in different ways. Quoting Ball “most policies are a ramshackle, compromise, hit and miss affairs that are reworked, tinkered with and inflected . . . and ultimately recreated in contexts of practice”. But we ought to be striving for excellence and we need to do it on our own terms. Hopefully, Liverpool is on the way.