March 27th, 2008

Exemplary Teaching Poorly Defined and Not Shared


A recent analysis of teaching award winners in Australia found that the majority were active researchers. That finding may contradict other research that has consistently failed to establish links between teaching effectiveness and research productivity. I wrote about this in a Feb 20th blog note. I’d say the weight of the evidence is still on the side of no relationship, despite this finding. The n here was quite small, and these were exceptional teachers.

But it wasn’t the possibly contradictory findings that caught my eye in this analysis. Even the conclusion that the research being done by these outstanding teachers was not pedagogical didn’t surprise me. Despite interest in the scholarship of teaching and a growing number of faculty doing scholarly work on teaching and number, the number overall is small, small, small. It was this conclusion that set me off: “There is limited evidence that this group of outstanding teachers are disseminating their knowledge of exemplary teaching practices through publications or other methods, throwing into doubt the extent to which teaching awards actually contribute to the improvement of university teaching, more broadly.” (pp. 743-744)

I guess I never thought that was the intended purpose of a teaching award. I thought it was about recognition and reward for a job well done. Do we expect outstanding researchers to hone the research skills of others?

On the other hand, there is a point that lurks about here. Do we draw upon, disseminate, or in any way try to preserve the wisdom of great teachers so that others might learn from them? Oh maybe the award gives them an opportunity to offer a ceremonial lecture or maybe somebody interviews them for some alumni publication, but beyond that what they have learned about teaching is not preserved.

Oh, this just gets more and more pesky. There’s a second on the other hand. Do great teachers know what makes them great? In one of my books I wrote about the panel of award-winning teachers I once convened where nobody had a clue what made their teaching exemplary. Maybe they all thought they needed to be self-deprecating but attributing your excellence to a gift that enables you to just do what comes naturally or saying that you’re good because you teach geology, which just happens to be the greatest field on earth, is less insightful than self-deprecating.

We continue to devalue teaching. Let me count the ways: from teaching awards themselves with their trivial stipends and less-than-obvious criteria to inappropriate expectations for recipients to not valuing pedagogical knowledge enough to preserve it to the inability to articulate bona fide instructional wisdom.

Reference: Halse, C., Dean, E., Hobson, J., and Jones, G. (2007). The research-teaching nexus: What do national teaching awards tell us? Studies in Higher Education, 32 (6), 727-746.

–Maryellen Weimer