Dilly Fung is Professor of Higher Education Development, Director of the Arena Centre for Research-based Education at UCL and a Principal Fellow of the HEA. Her open access book, A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education, has been downloaded more than 14000 times in 128 countries since its publication in June 2017.
Sometimes we mislead ourselves with our own words. The phrase ‘teaching excellence’, neatly occupying the first two thirds of the UK government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), has become the policy phrase of the moment. But changing the language just for a moment – say, to ‘good education’ – could help us think in a more nuanced, values-based and scholarly way about our higher education sector.
When we’re looking to provide the best possible higher education for students, and for society, just addressing teaching won’t take us very far. Teaching is something that teachers do – a set of activities, hopefully thoughtfully planned, characterised by meaningful engagement and designed to enable students to learn well. But by shining a hard spotlight on those who teach, this terminology underplays the importance of the myriad other policies, people and practices that affect student education. We saw this imbalance reflected in the bluntly misleading press references to so-called second rate teaching that accompanied the publication of the 2017 TEF results.
The vast majority of those who teach in higher education want to teach well, and they do. Student satisfaction with teaching as measured by the 2017 National Student Survey is typically well in excess of 80% - an approval rate most media outlets and politicians would relish. Of course, we need everyone who teaches and supports students’ learning to continue to develop their skills and approaches, and the successful rolling out of the Higher Education Academy’s fellowship scheme across the UK sector and beyond shows that this is happening increasingly. But focusing only on the act of teaching, as implied by the phrase ‘teaching excellence’, foregrounds just one part of a complex story. When we broaden the gaze to include the many dimensions of student experience that impact students’ learning and its relationship to society, we see that a whole ecosystem of cultural nuances and systemic practices come into play: we start to see ‘education’, in the round.
It may be excellent, but is it good?
Only when we look at all elements of the educational ecosystem that affect students’ learning opportunities can we logically start to think about what education looks like if it’s good. And we surely need to take a scholarly stand on what we mean by good before we can begin to define excellent. Good is a judgment that implies an ethical position; it’s more than ‘effective’ or ‘efficient’, it’s that which is morally right.
The challenge for the sector here is to step back and ask, what is higher education for today? What is this institution, this department trying to achieve? What are our values and intentions? Only then can any reasonable judgment be made about whether this is indeed being achieved.
What might characterise good education, then? There are numerous, sometimes contradictory attempts to do this in educational literature and in public policy statements. On one hand we might define ‘good’ by using a business model that focuses on pre-planned outputs and outcomes. Are we using resources efficiently to maximise success in these terms? Is education helping society to meet economic goals? Is everything aligned in the learning design to ensure that students necessarily achieve the planned learning outcomes? But as Cathy Davidson recently argued, an exclusive focus on fixed outcomes in education can stifle creativity and reduce knowledge to test scores. While the internal logic of the link between what we do in the sector and what outcomes follow is clearly important, my own starting point is to define ‘good’ by drawing on a more explicitly values-based approach. I appreciate the analysis by UNESCO, which argues that education should be ‘for the global common good’. Education is an endeavour that needs to be underpinned by goals associated with social justice, by challenging systemic inequalities of opportunity. We have to ask ourselves ethical questions about what we’re doing, and not just whether the teaching-related ‘metrics’ look good.
The Connected Curriculum: a values-based framing of ‘good’
Many institutions are, of course, taking up the challenge of characterising good education in their context. The Connected Curriculum approach explored in my recent open access monograph, A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education, is one such approach; it’s been built into UCL’s institutional Education Strategy 2016-2021. Highlighted through this framing are six key principles, which address both questions of learning design and underpinning values.
The Connected Curriculum framework (Fung 2017, 5)
The Connected Curriculum is a simple way of shaping some shared conversations about values and practices. It emphasises vital links between education and research, stressing the importance of students’ engaging actively in research and enquiry throughout their studies so that they develop not only intellectual depth but also the wide range of professional skills and attributes associated with research. It also highlights the importance of building human connections between all members of the scholarly community, the benefits of forging interdisciplinary connections, and the value of empowering students to design and produce outward-facing communications for local and wider audiences and partners.
The aim here is to situate students not as passive recipients but as agents; not as predominantly inward-looking participants but as outward-looking critical investigators. Clever learning design and great supporting services are certainly important, but are we also creating inclusive, even liberated scholarly communities in which all students are empowered to develop in ways that are meaningful to them, to speak out and be heard?
Of course, you may not share a commitment to the Connected Curriculum principles. You may well characterise ‘good’ in your context differently. But that’s exactly my point here. It’s only when a shared framing has been developed, one which fairly characterises the values and principles of a given community in a specific context at a particular time, that it’s possible to build together on existing practices to improve it. Only then can a community move towards those valued practices and, where needed, make some kind of judgment about how well it’s achieving those goals.
And of course ‘good’ can never be a fixed thing in a living, breathing community. There needs to be a vision, a plan, a direction of travel for improvement, but there must always be a willingness to doubt what we think we know, both about the journey and the destination. This is surely a principle fundamental to all scholarship, a term which, as I argue in a recent article, ‘signifies the principled space that connects integrity, research, teaching, learning, personal development and contribution to the world’.
Scholarly analysis reminds us that defining good education is a political act. Key questions, too often avoided, include: For whom is this practice ‘good’? Who gains and who loses in this framing? Who is silenced here and who empowered to speak? How does this new practice square with different kinds of values? A scholarly, dialogic approach keeps all such questions on the table, even as an institution takes deliberate steps to move forward with its practices.
With so many recent attacks in the media on higher education in the UK, we shouldn’t lose sight of the wood for the trees. Academics, professional experts, students and those outside higher education who have a stake in its success should all be invited to bring open minds to an inclusive table. We need to create bigger and better spaces in which critical dialogue is fostered about what higher education is and might be, then take principled steps to effect change.
Let’s keep critiquing the notion of teaching excellence by discussing good education. Our reputation as scholars who are working for good in the world depends upon it.
For further information about the HEA Fellowship scheme please click here.