Make Education Better: Taking a development approach for yourself, your colleagues or at your institution

Make Education Better is a very simple three-word slogan, yet the intention and the necessity of it has perplexed many academics, institutions and management for as long as I can remember. In an era of ubiquitous satisfaction surveys, complex learning analytics, competitive recruitment and retention strategies and a shifting importance of a University education, developing and implementing ways to make education better seem almost too simple, too naïve or perhaps even a bit old fashioned. Machine learning algorithms must be able to predict the teaching and learning factors that ensure student success? AI must be able to deliver that teaching and learning in more personalized, micro credentialed and reliable ways, without all the inconstancies of the human experience? Right?

Make Education Better (or as my colleague Santanu Vasant calls it in his wonderful attempt to make fetch happen #makeEDUbetter) has been my mantra as a practitioner, a developer and now a senior manager. How do I make my own practice better and how do I help others to make theirs better as well? This blog post will offer some approaches that you can take, some approaches you can share with colleagues and some a approaches that you can bring forward at a faculty or institutional level to make education better through taking a development approach. Most institutions place the responsibility and the motivation for making education better solely on the shoulders of teachers. Whether it is fear of failure, prestige from rankings or the labeling of students as customers (with all the requisite customer service rhetoric), institutions find it difficult to articulate and deploy a strategic approach to hoe they encourage, support, reward and recognise staff to develop as teachers. And perhaps most importantly, institutions, management and faculties are not passive receivers of the results of better education, they are active players in providing the right atmospherics, environment and culture for it to flourish.

I am not offering a recipe book here, with precise list of ingredients and instructions that will result in that perfectly fluffy sponge cake every time. It takes application, customisation and the realization that the process is continuous. For each group of new students and new staff, we begin again, thinking about their skills, their desires and their needs for the thing we are doing with them. Making education better is not easy and it is not cheap. Better education comes at a cost. It is an investment in the future of the product, or the social good, or the experience or whatever your political framework defines it as (what you call it doesn’t matter really, which is why get waste so much time debating it).

Support people to make education better

Doing things better takes support, its mentoring, it takes training and development and it takes a willingness to share and learn. Provide and lead training and development in teaching and learning and offer staff opportunities to pilot and implement the newly acquired skills. Support, nurture and evaluate innovation through financial, pedagogical and development mechanisms. Engage people in critical reflection and sharing practice through programs like Advance HE fellowships, PG certs or other forms of professional recognition

How do I do this at a personal level?

Go do a training or professional development session at your University. Share it with a colleague. Try out something in your class, however small and evaluate it. Involve your students in the pilot, let them know that you are hearing their feedback and have made some changes in response.

How do I do this at a program team or discipline level?

Tell your institution what areas you want to develop collectively. Evidence those areas with data from your students, have they told you how you can make their education better (or those who are coming after them)? Next time you review your unit, or course or program, how can make changes to the way it is taught, how you engage with examples and how you involve students as co-designers? What skills and support do you need to make that happen? Make sure everyone on the team, including the students know they are not alone

How do I do this at a faculty/institutional level?

Develop a comprehensive, agile and multi-format program of academic and professional staff development. Hear what the students are telling you, find more way to listen to it and embed their ideas, perspectives and suggestions into their experience. Support staff to challenge assumptions, understand the complexities of education and make it happen in the classroom and outside where students learn. Link all of this to reward, recognition and promotion. Make innovation part of the way you do teaching and learning by having resources, analytics and experimentation as part of review, redesign and deployment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

Build a community and culture of better education

No-one at your place is alone. Teaching is a social activity, both inside and outside the classroom. Build a culture of peer evaluation and feedback by seeding it at promotion, mentoring and reward levels, but also make it normal not pejorative. Create mechanisms and platforms for staff to share practice through case studies, FAQs, vignettes, critical reflections, you name it, you can use it. Support and develop staff to engage in critical, reflective and evaluative research on their own practice. Implement and make real and authentic the process of curriculum review and validation (stop it being a tick box exercise). Be a part of engaged program team, making changes and hearing the voice of students.

How do I do this at a personal level?

Go watch a colleague teach and have a chat about what you experienced and saw. Read and share some pedagogical research with your colleagues (or students). Create a teaching blog or twitter account where you engage with others teaching what you teach (or how) and share your own critical reflections.

How do I do this at a program team or discipline level?

Run a program design workshop, hearing and responding to the voice of colleagues, students, industry and other programs. Launch a mentoring program in your discipline/team for new staff. Set up a discipline twitter account and encourage students and staff to follow it. Have a brown bag lunch discussing topics that arose from your satisfaction surveys.

How do I do this at a faculty/institutional level?

Value teaching and learning in reward and promotion by embedding peer review, practice sharing, mentoring or other activities in the evidence base for these processes. Run a faculty wide event like a teaching and learning conference where staff and students can share their practice with others. Appoint teaching and learning leaders to engage with colleagues and spark discussions at meetings. Build a website full of cases, =videos, FAQs or other ways to celebrate and share the practices of your teachers.

Reward and recognise people who do better education

Don’t just punish poor teaching and expect that the rest of the teachers are simply doing their job. Reward and recognise more than just the best education, find ways to support development, transition, innovation and reflection. Recognise innovation, recognise failure and recognise success, and make that recognition but extrinsic and intrinsic: none of us do education to get rich, many of us do it because we can make a difference. Reward and recognise improvement, don’t punish failure. Have multiple pathways to reward and recognition.

How do I do this at a personal level?

Put yourself forward for an award, or a grant or to run a session on your teaching. Open your doors to others. Recognise others who are doing good teaching, tell your peers about them. Ask someone about their teaching, listen to the philosophy and if someone asks yours, take the opportunity to tell your story. You will be amazed at how powerful that is. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

How do I do this at a program team or discipline level?

Have a program team debrief at the end of the semester, share and draw out the feedback you have all received from students. Initiate a program level student nominated teaching awards, or make a staff led one happen (or both). Build case studies about what is it like to study on your program and share them on your VLE/LMS for future students to see. Make each of you human and visible to students. They will engage with you on a human level.

How do I do this at a faculty/institutional level?

Develop a multi-layered reward and recognition program and resource that appropriately. Design and validate methods of evidencing reward and recognition that extend past simply metrics of student satisfaction such as unit or program surveys. Build an inclusive reward and recognition committee to design and implement a program. Embed reward and recognition into the design of innovation programs, course reviews, validations or approvals.

None of this is easy. Relying on teaching minima to manage the process of making education better is easy. You fall below the line, you have a program of remedial action. You are above the line, then you are competent and need no scrutiny. Developing a holistic and integrated plan to male education better is a complex, human, sometimes impossible conundrum. It relies on the effective partnership of reflection and engagement between you, your colleagues and students and the institution, effecting different types of critical reflection. It requires people in your institution (not all of them, not most of them, but some of them) to agree that criticality is not unevidenced or arrogant criticism. It is not divisive rhetoric shared on social media or pejorative value shaming. Criticality is a pathway to improvement, a pathway to collaboration and a pathway to making education better. Real criticality is personal, sometimes vulnerable, always collegiate and based in evidence, expertise and experience. And this can be initiated by you from the bottom up, supported or encouraged in structures generated from the top down or from inside your teams, your colleagues or your authentic voice from the middle out.

It is glib to say that we all have a responsibility to make education better. But you know what, we do. Cut to the chase, it is what we signed up to do and what we get paid to do. But that undervalues the importance of it. The humanness of the act of education, learning or teaching, assessing or supporting, taking or listening is a critical one. Even if you argue that all of this is a transaction or a means to an employed end, then lets reduce making education better to the simplest marketing adage.

I am selling quarter inch (6mm) drill bits. They are the best drill bits on the planet, ranked number 6 on the Times Higher Drill Bit Ranking. They have been awarded Gold DBEF (the drill bit excellence framework). But why should people buy my drill bits? Is it because of all that? No. They buy my drill bits because they need to hang a picture in their bedroom to cheer them up every morning. They buy my drill bits because they want to fix the creaking gate that has been annoying them for years. They buy my drill bits because they want to learn about how to hang doors. They don’t buy my drill bits. They are buying quarter inch holes. They are buying my drill bits to solve problems, make something or do something that only a quarter inch hole can do. And that is human, imagining the absence of something as a solution to a problem.

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