by MERLIN CROSSLEY
A student recently said to me – “I keep hearing about prizes for research, are there any prizes for teaching?”
“You bet” I replied, and I went on to explain our school, faculty and university awards, and to summarise all the good work done by those who support the Australian Awards for University Teaching. I referred the student to recent copies of Campus Morning Mail where the awardees were listed, and to the article on the achievements of John Biggs. I assured the student that teaching awards were important to the community, I respected them highly, and was glad we had them.
The student replied, “That’s good. Funny, I’d never heard of them.”
Sadly, I don’t think this student was alone. I think there are unique challenges around broadly celebrating excellence in teaching. Challenges that do not beset other human activities.
The two obvious issues are that it is hard for people (apart from the students) to witness the achievements of teachers, and because of this, it is difficult to get everyone to gasp in unison and say –“ wow – good call, that person certainly deserved the award!” In research when someone discovers penicillin you can see the impact.
How well awards work depends on the type of activity. You might have watched Ash Barty win the Australian Open. She didn’t drop a set. On the night of the final, she faltered and then fought back to dominate a very talented opponent. Everyone who wanted to tune in could see how she played. For any who doubted her talent, the scoreboard quantified her quality. She won fair and square.
In this case, the two key steps for granting community recognition were covered – everyone saw the achievement, and everyone could then scrutinise, and agree that it was worthy of the prize. Sport is relatively easy, as usually the best person wins, almost by definition. And it happens in plain sight.
Other things are harder. Think of the Man Booker Prize or UNSW Press’s Bragg Prize for science writing. Each year entries are considered by experienced judges. Typically, all those shortlisted are good so the winner is likely to be good. But sometimes excellent works are overlooked. It’s highly unlikely that everyone in the world will agree with the judging panel’s decision. So, writing prizes can be controversial.
But at least both steps in societal prize giving occur – everyone can read and scrutinise the entries, it’s just that everyone may not agree with the outcome.
The Archibald prize for portraiture can also be contentious. Tastes in painting vary wildly. It’s hard to be certain that the best entry has won. But again, at least, everyone can see the portraits. And one can add categories like the packing room favourite or the people’s choice to ensure that a few of the other excellent paintings are not entirely overlooked.
When it comes to teaching there are problems both with seeing the “product” and with agreeing about its quality!
And there is a third challenge – the people who can see the teaching are the students but it’s not clear that student satisfaction is always related to effective teaching – though happily the two do often go hand in hand.
So, we are faced with a bit of a conundrum if we want to have awards for good teaching.
Perhaps we just shouldn’t have awards for teaching. Some people say awards are elitist and divisive. But I feel that since we have awards for research, we should also have awards for teaching, if only to maintain a balance.
This means I’m very grateful to the group of people who have worked hard to maintain and lift the prominence of the Australian Awards for University Teaching. But I would like us to keep working on the challenges: agreeing on quality, societal endorsement, showcasing and celebration.
Of course, defining what is good teaching, like good art, will also be tricky. I don’t think we’ll ever solve the problem of quality. What is good teaching for one student might not be for another. Learning gain is worth measuring but sometimes the fruits of good teaching, like the impacts of research, unfold years after the event.
It’s also difficult to get societal endorsement, since not everyone can see the teachers in action and experience the transformations they provide to their students. But as the community of students and of expert teachers grows and becomes more connected via digital media the confidence that the awards are working will increase further. As I’ve become more aware of the achievements of my university’s teachers, I’ve come to appreciate their special talents and contributions more and more.
Importantly, the digital age gives us new opportunities to showcase the ‘product’. I expect that in the future there’ll be more online stories about the teaching award winners, they’ll be interviewed on podcasts, and references to their achievements will appear more often on university websites and even on their Wikipedia pages! Increasingly one will be able to see them teaching online in videos too. Ultimately, we’ll feel that we know them, and they will increasingly inspire others to do great teaching.
Perhaps there will also be more awards for the actual products of teaching, rather than for “being and having been a good teacher.”
At UNSW Professor Peter Heslin introduced a new award for people who presented two minute videos with top teaching tips. I’ve enjoyed watching the videos and felt I have got to know some of our most impressive teachers. I’ve also seen teachers from my and from other institutions presenting TedX type talks.
There’s a lot of talent out there and the more we celebrate great teachers, the more they will grow, prosper and inspire.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life