Simply the best

I’ve been thinking about this notion of excellence. If teaching has to be measured against some notion of excellence, then we need to think carefully about what we mean by excellence. To recall: a couple of weeks ago I reported an email exchange with a colleague who claimed that “excellent face to face teaching” was the gold standard against which online teaching should be measured. Fair enough, you might think. After all, we need a standard to aspire to.
But whilst the idea of a gold standard is a good rhetorical device I’m not convinced that it helps us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various ways of teaching. Let us suppose that there is something about face to face teaching that makes it intrinsically better than online teaching. The question is: what exactly is it? Perhaps it is a necessary condition of learning that it must take place in a classroom environment. But, this seems unlikely as we all learn in a variety of ways. As Kolb (1984) argues knowledge is obtained by transforming our experiences. What he doesn’t say is that this process has to take place in a classroom. It is possible, presumably, that reflecting on experience could take place in a classroom, but for knowledge to be obtained doesn’t seem to require a classroom (or a teacher come to that), but simply experiences.
I regard the gold standard argument as fallacious on so many levels. At best it is a distraction, but particularly so when it is used as a means to polarise a debate. The real problem with excellence as a gold standard, however, is more practical than moral. If “excellence” is the standard, almost by definition it is one few teachers will be able to reach. To be excellent is ‘to excel’, or to perform above the average. But if excellence is to have any common sense meaning it has to be measured against the average. If that is the case then the majority of teaching – whether face-to-face or online – must be average. After all, isn’t that the nature of averages? In which case it cannot be excellent.
So where does this lead us? I have said elsewhere that in my opinion it is time to move away from a debate that centres on the relative merits or otherwise of one mode of delivery versus another. All this leads to is a game of tit-for-tat where one side gives an example of so-called excellent teaching in their favoured mode; only for the other side to counter with examples that are far from excellent from the same mode of delivery. This is both infantile and futile.
We should accept that only a narrow range of teaching, however delivered, can be excellent. The majority of teaching will be average, and a minority will be below average (and if an image of a well known colleague down the hall doesn’t jump into your mind at the notion of below average, you are fortunate to work in a very privileged environment). There is no debate any longer about technology in the classroom or as a means to deliver education. Online education, with all that entails, is here and is not going away any time soon. For those colleagues who think they can resist by finding examples of what doesn’t work I would respectfully point out to them that they are no more likely to turn back the tide than was Canute (who incidentally, did not believe he could but was demonstrating his inability to do so).
There is a bigger issue: how do we raise the average level of teaching? How do we ensure that every student has opportunities to develop to their individual potential, and what is the role of teaching in that learning? Here, the notion of excellence might be useful. If, and it is a big if, we could identify what it is that makes some teaching excellent, then we could try to encourage an approach that not so much raised the average as reduced its range.
So what is excellent teaching? There is a short review of literature at the Schreyer Institute website which lists the following: subject expert, excellent communicator, and student-centred. Having both given and observed teaching in a face-to-face setting and online, these apply in both settings equally. The most important qualities a good teacher needs are enthusiasm, being approachable and a willingness to creatively experiment. These qualities allow experienced classroom practitioners to move into online environments and rather than regarding them as something alien and different, see them as a challenging addition to their existing skills. Whether they can be taught or not is a debate for another post.

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