We are told that the Teaching Excellence Framework has a central purpose to recognise and reward top notch teaching. And the TEF translates into bronze, silver, gold, based on a series of metrics – teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes and learning gain. A qualitative narrative and assessment is also taken into account. This is a prescribed approach to determining teaching worth.
At a pragmatic level, of cost and benefit, don’t UK students fully deserve excellent teaching in exchange for some £9,000 per year tuition fees? So, although a 2010 NUS survey found “91%, rated the quality of their teaching and learning experience as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good'”, the bad news is that “there has been a significant decrease in the percentage of students rating their experience as excellent, from 20% in 2009 to 16% in 2010.”
Teaching excellence undoubtedly contributes towards student perceptions of value for money, according to the AdvanceHE/HEPI 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey. Nevertheless (just) “38% of students in the UK perceive ‘good or very good’ value from their course.” Albeit this is a 3% improvement over 2017 and reverses a 5-year decrease. 32% “perceive ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value in 2017”. These statistics hardly paint a picture of perceived or actual teaching excellence.
So how do HE teachers themselves envision teaching excellence?
I’m a member of the Association of National Teaching Fellows – a group of around 800 academics recognised for the quality of their teaching practice. We agree with the 2016 TEF Factsheet that teaching “excellence matters – not only for students…but also for social mobility – helping to address inequality by allowing students to fulfil their aspirations”.
A measure would therefore be to see how far an individual travels from their starting point; in other words, what is the added-value? For example, a Foundation Degree or a CertHE may represent a monumental achievement for someone who missed out on formal education earlier in life. A measure of teaching excellence may instead be how well we do with those who struggle most. As opposed to the conventional recruitment of academic achievers, only to replicate…achievement!
Shouldn’t we as academics seek the Midas touch, so that with our help students and graduates aspire towards personal fulfilment, professional capability and civic usefulness? Again, the 2016 TEF Factsheet supports learning “gain and distance-travelled by all students including those entering higher education part-way through their professional lives”. Working towards social mobility and reducing inequalities would enable individuals to dream big and achieve a long jump, rather than a high jump.
A social purpose
We also heartily endorse the view of Joshua Forstenzer from the University of Sheffield who believes that teaching excellence in general – and TEF in particular – “ought to reflect higher education’s full range of social purposes”. The world is not, and should not, be reduced to economic or material gain, or simple matters of workforce planning. Certainly not in a society where 1 in 5 of us will experience mental illness during our lifetimes. Excellence in teaching is surely so that individuals can live and prosper in unstable times; and contribute towards individual and collective betterment, through personal and professional choices and actions addressing humanity’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, fake news, fundamentalism, bigotry and pursuit of the ‘holy grail’ of well-being.
My distant relative [on my mother’s side] – Cardinal John Henry Newman, in The Idea of a University – stated that the “simple question to be considered is, how best to strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers” of students and staff. In this regard, as academics we claim that what we want is ‘critical and independent thinking’. That being so, teaching excellence should be presenting what’s in ‘the box’ and what’s outside it too. The conforming….and the non-conforming; the majority and minority views, so students can make their own minds up, based on evidence.
In 2019 – perhaps more than ever) we need to question, in order to shift paradigms and progress – both as individual humans, and also collectively in society. We contend that teaching excellence must inspire constructive thought, action and change in listener and speaker. In 2016 research pointed to three key elements: in pole position, undergraduates believed it to be motivating; second, inspirational teaching in higher education was considered encouraging, and finally such teaching flows from a lecturer’s passion for their subject. It is authoritative content and engaging styles of presentation that win hearts and minds; the two together.
As Becky Huxley-Binns – Chair of the ANTF – puts it “National Teaching Fellows value students and the inputs they can make towards excellent teaching and learning; and we value excellence. This is a values-driven perspective whereby teaching is set on a par with research, consultancy and community service”.