What makes good teaching?

But… but… he’s… he’s teaching himself. That’s not even on the NSS

Think about the teaching you have received over your life; especially the teaching that made a difference.

You might remember a teacher or lecturer who was incredibly enthused by their subject, who shared that passion to you through your time together, dazzling and enticing you to learn more.

Or maybe you remember someone who presented their material very clearly and systematic, who flagged the key points and was an excellent communicator.

Or was there someone who was a really good laugh, who made you want to be in class for the LOLZ?

I’ve had all of those.

But I’m not sure that those people where necessarily the ones that I learnt the most from.

I can recall long, dry lectures on Saturday morning about subjects I struggled to care about, but which were informed by a level of understanding that I now appreciate was far beyond that of any other teacher I have encountered.

I can think of engaging student-led activities, set up by an instructor who then left us to it.

And I can look back to being set what seemed like loads of coursework, that turned out to set me up really well for the rest of my studies in that subject.

In short, I would say that on balance I got much more from those who taught ‘badly’ from those who taught ‘well’, if you’re using those labels to mean ‘did they make a good impression on me at the time’.

In an age where we’re obsessing about student satisfaction, that’s an essential lesson to keep in mind. If we always take the path of keeping students happy, then we lose the pedagogic value of challenging and pushing those students to become critical learners.

No education is ever complete, and nor should it be. Our aim should be to help individuals discover, know and express themselves; to be confident to go out into the world and engage with it.

You don’t get that if you just spend your time asking how you can make them happier.

Importantly, this is not to excuse bad teaching, but it does require us to understand that ‘bad teaching’ is teaching that fails to generate learning.

And this is the second key message.

No teaching can be considered to work if those being taught don’t learn.

To take an obvious example, we might all know someone who is incredibly committed to their area of research, and is highly enthusiastic about it, but who can never quite seem to step out of it enough to bring students into it.

Put rather differently, all the valuable teaching experiences I have listed above are valuable because of me, the learner. There’s no common theme to what they did beyond their judgement that their’s was the best way to help me make sense of it all.

And they were all right. Even though they did radically different things.

In short, what works, works. To try and pre-determine what the ‘best’ pathway to achieving learning might be – our passion, for example – is both stupid and counter-productive.

I look at my colleagues who I teach with and I see diversity.

Diversity of approaches, diversity of styles, diversity of priorities. And that’s excellent, because that very diversity is of value to our students, who get to encounter the multiplicity of understandings of our world that are out there.

And, crucially, it gives them licence to start expressing their own understanding, which is what it’s all about.

If you want a university of TED-talk speakers, then go and study on YouTube: there are many great presentations and presenters there. But don’t expect to derive the same variety, the same value or the same learning as you would in the richness of a higher education degree.

Teaching is about learning and one of the greatest lessons we can share is that things are not always as we see them or as we want them to be.