Wednesday, 6 April 2016

We know ‘Teaching Excellence’ when we see it

International approaches to Teaching Excellence, a talk by Professor Stephanie Marshall on 5 April 2016, prompted a lively debate on the nature of teaching excellence at the Institute of Education/UCL’s Centre for Higher Education Studies.

As Chief Executive Officer for the Higher Education Academy, Professor Marshall was well placed to take the audience on a global tour of approaches to teaching excellence, from Norway and Germany to the USA and East Asia, explaining why countries are currently focusing on teaching excellence.

She asked what a virtual pan-European Higher Education Academy would look like, wondered whether the UK’s Professional Standards Framework could work as an international standard and how staff training could be facilitated to ensure that HE provides learning gains.

Key among the international components for assessing teaching excellence were:
  • ·         A narrative case for excellence
  • ·         Metrics
  • ·         Assessment panels
  • ·         Assessment visits
But the audience wanted to know what ‘teaching excellence’ means in real terms? Is it the same as ‘learning excellence’? One member of the audience pointed out that teachers know a 'First' when they see one, so why can’t we define ‘teaching excellence’? Inevitably, to reach degree judgements, students’ work must not only match the criteria for a First, but markers need to moderate their understanding and interpretation of the language of such criteria (see Katherine Ecclestone’s ‘I Know a 2:1 when I see one’ 2001).

The Teaching Excellence Framework, as currently conceptualized, excludes such criteria, focusing primarily on NSS scores and student employability - which must surely depend, to an extent, on the state of the economy and availability of graduate jobs?

Professor Marshall said that there should be substantive student involvement in the TEF and the audience agreed. When I was 14 years old and bumping along in the bottom Maths set, our class was allotted a warm-hearted and kindly Maths teacher. The entire class went to see the Headmistress and demanded to be taught instead by the resident Maths martinet, a woman of stern discipline and cold disposition, but sterling teaching skills. We all got C grades or above for Maths O level. At 14, we recognised teaching excellence when we saw it and pupil power worked in our favour.

Members of the CHES audience pointed out that not all teaching in English Higher Education is excellent. I remember the fury of a teacher educator colleague, who had embarked on a Masters in an English University, which shall remain nameless. She had endured a ‘lecture’ by a PhD student who simply read out his thesis - for two hours. She felt that this was a waste of her time and her money and demanded to know why the Vice Chancellor had let loose an inexperienced and unsupported PhD student on his unsuspecting students.

So should the number of qualified teachers, and/or those with HEA Fellowships, be included in TEF metrics? You don’t necessarily need a qualification to be an excellent teacher. But there are very few naturally brilliant teachers, who can walk in off the street and captivate learners, without undergoing any kind of professional development. Novice teachers could spend an awfully long time in trial and error before reaching ‘excellence’ and learners suffer in the interim. 

As a teacher educator I am biased about the need for initial teacher education and professional development. That said, an important metric missing from the TEF is the support for research and scholarship, especially in the case of Further Education colleges which provide HE in FE to around 159,000 students in the UK.  Draconian funding cuts from governments of all hues have resulted in concomitant cuts in support for the scholarship and research of FE lecturers. 

So what makes for outstanding teaching? It is not all-singing, all-dancing sessions with technologically savvy resources. Even brilliant lecturers like David Starkey, with priceless historical artefacts to hand, can come unstuck - famously with Jamie’s Dream School pupils. In a research-informed empirical study, former HMI Harrier Harper dispels myths and examines the features that outstanding school and post-compulsory lessons have in common (2013). 

Teaching excellence is not easily defined, but data from a US school study might throw light on additional sets of metrics. In the USA, the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project was a three-year study designed to determine how to best identify and promote great teaching (see  

Approximately 3,000 North American school teachers volunteered to open up their classrooms for the project and were partnered by dozens of academics from Universities and other educational institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford Universities.

The MET longitudinal research study partnership included academics, teachers, and education organizations, committed to investigating better ways to identify and develop effective teaching and the funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The final reports from the MET project sought to answer important questions from practitioners and policy-makers about how to identify and foster great teaching. Key findings from the report include:
  • It is possible to develop reliable measures that identify great teaching. In the first year of the study, teaching practice was measured using a combination of student surveys, classroom observations, and student achievement gains. Then, in the second year, teachers were randomly assigned to different classrooms of students. The students’ outcomes were later measured using state tests and supplemental assessments designed to measure students’ conceptual understanding in math and ability to write short answer responses following reading passages. The teachers whose students did better during the first year of the project also had students who performed better following random assignment. Moreover, the magnitude of the achievement gains they generated aligned with the predictions. This is the first large-scale study to demonstrate, using random assignment, that it is possible to identify great teaching.
  • The report describes the trade-offs involved when school systems combine different measures (student achievement gains, classroom observations, and student surveys). However, the report shows that a more balanced approach – which incorporates the student survey data and classroom observations – has two important advantages: ratings are less likely to fluctuate from year to year, and the combination is more likely to identify teachers with better outcomes on assessments other than the state tests.
  • The report provides guidance on the best ways to achieve reliable classroom observations. The report recommends averaging observations from more than one observer, such as another administrator in a school or a peer observer.
Teaching excellence is hard to measure and harder to define.  Teaching itself is a complex activity, as can be seen in the number of decisions teachers have to make every minute; and the nature of the decisions they have to take (Berlak 1981). But we know it when we see it.
©Rebecca Eliahoo
Berlak, A., Berlak, H. (1981) The Dilemmas of Schooling, London: Methuen
Ecclestone, K. (2001) 'I know a 2:1 when I see it': Understanding criteria for degree
classifications in franchised university programmes, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 25 (3), 301-313
Harper, H. (2013) Outstanding Teaching in Lifelong Learning, Maidenhead: Open University Press

No comments:

Post a Comment