The Phase Diagram of Teaching

I am somewhat…fed up…of some of the arguments made by academics at all levels within the ‘system’ with regard to teaching. There is, rightly or wrongly, an attitude that because everyone is ‘doing’ teaching, everyone is good at it.  I believe this is very definitely the wrong attitude, that not everyone is good at teaching, and I think that teaching is often overlooked when rewards are dealt out because of this. We do have to consider what we mean by good at teaching however and to aid discussion, I’ve constructed a phase diagram type chart. It’s rare that how I see things can be represented by a simple visualisation.

phase diagram of teaching
Exhibit A: The Phase Diagram of Teaching. Teaching vs Time, with a green common line, a red steep gradient line and a blue incrementally increasing line. There is also a black line at the arbitrary point of divergence of red and blue. The axes have no scale deliberately. [students, this is an informative figure caption]
When someone starts teaching in higher education they are around the green line. Precise gradients may vary but generally we hope they are positive. The green line doesn’t start at the origin to account for prior experiences. It is a small allowance because saying that because someone has experienced teaching and thus can teach would be a bit like saying because someone has visited a health care professional, that they are capable of treating heath problems. It’s a frame of reference and that shouldn’t be mistaken for genuine knowledge or ability. Simply considering time spent in academia similarly does not qualify one to teach, time spent teaching and thinking about teaching does. So why the two lines after a certain time frame? Well this is where things get tricky. The blue line represents academics who, having survived the initial years of teaching, maintain their teaching standard. They stay on top of most new developments once they become strongly embedded in mainstream teaching (currently I’d say those were online lecture resources, personal voting systems, peer assessment and probably lecture recordings), and incorporate the relevant ones into their classes.  To not do so would be to enter into a decline  in my opinion. It would be like still using OHPs to the powerpoint generation – there may be a place for them but unless well considered, it would not generally be appropriate anymore. Largely though, the blue line is about doing the same thing each year with minor revision and being satisfied (and hopefully receiving good feedback and good results).  It’s also about competently creating new courses as required and contributing well to the teaching side of departmental life. It is possible to achieve excellence through this route, but it is not what would be considered innovative or a route that contributes to pedagogical knowledge. The red line represents the early adopters, innovators and those willing to experiment and develop greater understanding of how students learn and adapt their teaching methods accordingly. Currently the topics in vogue seem to be lecture flipping, peer assisted learning, and probably those investigating mis-concepts and approaches to problem solving and employability (yes, largely I’m thinking about specific individuals within the ChemEd community as I single out those aspects). Make no mistake, these teachers are not just doing the same thing year on year and expecting results. They are actively challenging what a lecture is, feeling really quite dissatisfied with the conventional methods and seeking to find different and better ways to engage students in their studies. These teachers are also highly interested in students and concerned for their development. That’s a driving force in the dissatisfaction and urge to teach better and in more engaging ways. We joke sometimes about the student experience but it is at the heart of teaching innovation. There is an indeterminate period of time before the divergence. For some it may be as soon as they find their feet with the conventional methods, for others (and I have noticed this as  abit of a trend), there seems to be a point when dissatisfaction with teaching methods leads to a change in habit and approach. No time scale though, and I don’t discount the idea that all processes are equilibria and can revert given appropriate circumstances. It is but one depiction that makes sense to me. The research analogy for my phase diagram is that the blue line is the iterative or incremental research in the field. The red line is the innovative and exciting forefront of the field, high impact stuff. The research analogy is also useful in one critical way: when undertaking a new research project, most researchers would conduct a survey of literature to understand the current state of the field. There is an implicit understanding that new to me is not necessarily new to the research community. There is also an implicit understanding that literature is a useful source of knowledge to conduct research within the new area and that the researcher’s current tools may be insufficient. This does not translate that often into teaching practices where sometimes it seems like the ability to read the course textbook and write powerpoint slides are considered the only necessary skills for all teaching. I personally do not believe there is anything wrong with life on the blue line, teaching is a necessary part of the job and everyone has different priorities in how they allocate their time.  I would like academics to realise that there are limits on their interest in teaching and that is different to those of us who aspire to the red line. We aren’t doing the same things. Our approach to teaching is not just to do a few exciting things one year to win the departmental teaching award or gain popularity with the students, it is a deeper interest in developing effective practice. There is, however, no excuse for those who fall below the blue line and run the risk of failing to provide adequate teaching. And where does university officialdom fit into this? More chairs in learning and teaching, more recognition for those who are doing a damn sight more than churning out the same old powerpoint and exam questions year on year. Acknowledge and define the different approaches and reward accordingly through promotion structures and other means. Define the twin definitions of teaching excellence: those who do an excellent job within traditional means and those who do an excellent job of innovating.  Support the innovative teaching staff in the same way that research and enterprise innovation is rewarded. After all, if you consider tuition fees, teaching staff are responsible for fairly large income generation!

7 thoughts on “The Phase Diagram of Teaching

  1. Wow, so to stay on the blue line colleague have to adopt online lecture resources, personal voting systems, peer assessment and probably lecture recordings? I think you need another line on the phase diagram…

  2. That’s probably quite harsh on reflection! I meant to illustrate that to stay on the slight upward gradient of the blue bit that you would have to stay current with techniques…so putting stuff on a VLE currently (although I think lecture recordings will become far more ‘normal’ in the next few years). I’d imagine really that you end up with a spectrum rather than the single lines I’ve drawn (beyond my excel skills!).

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