Hot to reward prize pedagogues

June 25, 1999

WHAT: New systems are needed to find exceptional teachers and reward them. By Hazel Fullerton

WHY: High-level research attracts extra funds while the incentive to improve teaching is less obvious.

HOW: We need to pay tribute to those who are battling on, succeeding with large numbers of students, inspiring, motivating, finding effective ways to help students learn, and breaking new ground. Any visiting alien educationalist would ask why we have not been doing this for aeons.

Why not indeed? Mainly because it is difficult to:

* agree what an excellent teacher is

* demonstrate the criteria once they are nailed down

* measure and weigh evidence

* make the process transparent and reliable.

Measuring successful and potentially valuable researchers seems comparatively easy; numbers of publications, the prestige of the publishers and research grant totals are available and well understood. Identifying good managers also seems easier - it is those still smiling after trial runs.

But what is a good teacher? The one with the "Je ne sais quoi"? Teaching and learning are the core business of universities but traditionally the glittering prizes, or at least the promotions, have gone to the managers and the rising stars of research. Several universities have taken steps to overcome these difficulties and many more are involved in exploring solutions. Most schemes are referred to as "teaching fellowships"; many are at principal lecturer or reader level.

Process Whatever the process, it must be credible or it will be divisive and raise levels of cynicism. A promotions committee comprising a chair at deputy vice chancellor level shows institutional commitment; deans and chairs of existing teaching or quality committees add gravitas; and representation from existing promotional boards ensures parity of process. In addition, an educational developer can link current thinking and curriculum development, communicate and publish the ideas and criteria of the scheme and support those making applications.

The committee needs to decide what its aims for the scheme are: to reward the star performer, the lecturer who lives on in the minds of all their graduates, years from now? to endorse particular types of practice as a signal to others? to recruit and add weight to those the institution wants to take an active role in new directions? And will it be a permanent or fixed-term award and could it lead to professorial appointment? There are examples of all of these within the sector.

Drawing up a notional job description and person specification may help. How will it capitalise on the potential synergy of the teacher fellows?

Reflecting teaching and learning policy and strategy and establishing criteria and values are obviously important but the scheme must also be flexible. Criteria from across the sector include methods and curriculum development, organisation, support for students, evaluation, assessment, subject expertise, management of appropriate resources, presentation, impact on colleagues institutionally and nationally, innovation, and contribution (current and future). Underpinning values or deeper criteria may include integration of theory of teaching and learning, self-awareness/reflection, "vision in action", flexibility, dialogue and collaboration.

Portfolios Candidates for promotion on the strength of their teaching should decide how to demonstrate the evidence, usually through a portfolio. Some address each criterion and value in turn, others present case studies that embody the appropriate evidence and map where the evidence is. The IT-literate may present a disk of case studies where a click of appropriate buttons accesses all the examples of one or another criterion or value. Portfolios are an unfamiliar format; newer staff are at an advantage if they completed a SEDA or other induction course. The greatest temptation seems to be to include too much, particularly raw evidence rather than incisive analysis of findings and implications - too much fodder, not enough digestion. As applications undergo faculty scrutiny before reaching the committee, applicants are advised to talk to their line manager before investing time to establish whether it is worth pursuing.

What goes in the portfolio? What counts as evidence? Who is to say who the good teachers are? Students, for a start, usually have a fair idea. Student evaluations over time give one side of the picture but immediately there is the problem of validity. Could students be giving positive feedback to lecturers whose attributes are more to do with entertainment than education? The best do both, but can we distinguish those who are only there for the cheer? Perhaps it is the subject that is seductive (or indeed the lecturer) while the lecturer doing a brilliant job with a tough topic requiring hard brain work may fare less well. Ratings may be skewed by the lecturer who spoonfeeds, enabling students to pass assessments with little effort. The applicant must also show they are responding and adapting in light of evidence.

Peers who understand the problems and possibilities within the discipline can provide valuable additional insight through peer observation of teaching. Evidence of lecturers exploring and developing their teaching and sharing ideas and philosophies is essential, as is the standing of the observers. A glowing observation from a graduate teaching assistant may be less reliable than from senior staff or staff developers. External examiners may highlight the applicant's effectiveness and quotes from their reports can add credibility.

Judging portfolios is unfamiliar work, requiring assessors to learn new skills. The process in my university involves each person on the committee reading at least one portfolio in depth and representing it. A seconder considers it more generally, confirming or balancing the main representation, and at least one other member balances further with an overview of all submissions. A number of candidates go forward for interview, the others getting suggestions for resubmission, and a named panel member will offer fuller feedback.

Interview panels include an external member from an institution with a similar scheme as well as a senior member of the applicant's faculty with promotions procedure experience. This is the opportunity to explore any gaps in the portfolio, probe the philosophy and relation to context, check understanding of how people learn, and find out how the lecturer would use their increased status and related influence. Few judgements are easy. There are many exciting, hard-working, effective staff who may be demotivated if unsuccessful. The ultimate measure is whether there is clear blue water between what they do and what others do.


* It is often not an individual but a group who work together to develop, deliver and support learning. This is likely to be a growing issue with trends towards curriculum teams

* There is a fear that when push comes to shove the panel will count publications

* Making claims of excellence is hard for most, especially the modest, those working collaboratively and some women

* Some people suspect that those who have the time to put together a solid portfolio may not be pulling their weight elsewhere

* Where is the balance of what is known versus what is shown?

* Will the process force staff to choose research or teaching?

* How will the criteria articulate with ILT criteria?

Where next?

Those institutions that now have teacher fellows are convinced that it has been worth it. However, many feel the system needs further development, eg staff development for managers to help them understand the criteria and implications and to learn how to foster their potential applicants; routes towards fellowship from lower levels on the lecturer scale. Once appointed, what support do fellowship holders need? How should the scheme be monitored and evaluated? How are future applicants reassured that their lot will improve under this scheme and not simply attract more work or take them away from what they are exceptional at, ie encouraging effective learning?

While there are some answers as to how to encourage excellent teaching, this article indicates that there are just as many questions. With future HEFCE funding to encourage such schemes, interesting new solutions are bound to emerge.

Hazel Fullerton is head of Educational Development Services at Plymouth University.

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