Building teaching communities

New incentives and arenas for communication enable teachers to share their knowledge and experience of teaching in new ways. Although bioCEED and CEMPE have different starting points of departure, both Centres for Excellence in Education focus on teacher culture and have clear common traits.

This article was first published in NOKUT’s SFU Magazine.

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Systematic work on teacher culture

– A culture of quality does not emerge in individuals, but in a strong community where individuals share and evolve together. This has been a fundamental aspect of bioCEED’s work on developing teacher culture, centre director of bioCEED Vigdis Vandvik explains.

Many of the tools for building a teaching community already exist in the academic community – academic arenas for meetings and cooperation are not new in this environment.  What is new, is that both bioCEED and CEMPE are now working more systematically to build and strengthen new teaching communities and that both centres have found a means of motivating many teachers to take part in this culture change.

– What is unique for CEMPE is that the culture change is both about creating openness in relation to teaching and encouraging more systematic research and development work in relation to our own teaching, says centre director of CEMPE Jon Helge Sætre.

 

“What is unique for CEMPE is that the culture change is both about creating openness in relation to teaching and encouraging more systematic research and development work in relation to our own teaching” (Jon Helge Sætre)

Culture for good teaching

The Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH) has always had a culture of providing good teaching. Much of today’s instrument tuition is based on the ‘master-apprentice’ principle, which includes individual lessons and close follow-up of the student. Teaching is also a high priority for teachers of other theoretical and practical subjects.

This might be related to NMH’s background as a music conservatory, in that it has historically been a ‘school of music’ with teachers and students united in a practice-based fellowship. This close relationship between student and teacher may have overshadowed the need for sharing knowledge and the experience of teaching with colleagues.

Bottom-up

Committed teachers are a sound point of departure for realising CEMPE’s vision of developing knowledge that can improve the quality of higher music education. When such a highly-qualified staff is gathered at NMH, one of the most important things for CEMPE has been to build new teacher cultures from the bottom up.

– We have always wanted a bottom-up culture at the centre. We have organised this by letting the teachers themselves suggest relevant development projects in the framework of CEMPE’s main focus areas. In this way, CEMPE’s project portfolio has been developed using the teachers’ fields of interest and initiatives, explains centre director Jon Helge Sætre.

Creating arenas for sharing knowledge

One of CEMPE’s contributions is to gather great teaching competencies and thus enable teachers to share and discuss their experiences from their own teaching. – CEMPE has organised the teachers into teams so that they have the opportunity to talk and discuss. We see that this provides good and long-awaited arenas for sharing knowledge about, and experiences from, teaching, says Jon Helge Sætre.

Isabelle Perrin i samtale med Jon Helge Sætre
Isabelle Perrin and Jon Helge Sætre
Photo: Aslaug Slette

The challenge has been that teachers have mainly stayed in their own offices and classrooms, so that teaching and reflecting on teaching have been a ‘lone practice’, in the same way as described by bioCEED. It appears that CEMPE’s working methods help to create new teaching communities for the staff.

For inspiration, get to know your colleagues

Julius Pranevicius, Professor of Horn, is one of the teachers who has taken part in several CEMPE projects. He describes his experiences of participating in a teacher team:

Julius Pranevicius
Julius Pranevicius

– Taking part in the CEMPE project has been particularly educational and a very important arena for getting to know my colleagues through group discussions on teaching, instrumental practising and other topics that we rarely talk about in the “corridors”. I was very inspired by the working methods and approaches that my colleagues presented at the group meetings. The fact that my colleagues were so open and inquisitive gave me the confidence to further develop some of the ideas that emerged during my first year on the CEMPE project, says Julius Pranevicius.

Strategic focus during working hours

Being creative and self-critical towards your own teaching practice takes time. Teachers at NMH normally use their own research and development time to work on artistic development or more traditional research projects. – One of the reasons we’ve succeeded in sparking new interest in the teaching culture itself, is that CEMPE earmarks working hours to reflect on, try out and think innovatively about old and new forms of teaching, claims centre director Sætre.

 

“One of the reasons we’ve succeeded in sparking new interest in the teaching culture itself, is that CEMPE earmarks working hours to reflect on, try out and think innovatively about old and new forms of teaching” (Sætre)

When extra working hours are earmarked for educational development work, CEMPE also requires documentation of the work on reflection and development. This strategic focus therefore goes hand in hand with NMH’s Professional development course in higher education, in university college education, in which teachers that need teaching qualifications receive collegial supervision and write reflection papers on their own teaching.

The two academic cultures

‘Teachers in higher education typically have two very different roles, the teacher and the researcher, and these roles fall under two different academic cultures,’ says Vandvik from bioCEED.

Whereas researcher culture is characterised by scientific methodology and continuous development, teacher culture is more concerned with preserving methods and experience-based practice. As researchers, we share, assess, criticise, debate and document work and results, but the same can rarely be said for teachers. Researcher
culture has a strong and demanding collegiate spirit, while teaching culture is characterised by allocating tasks and ‘lone practice’.

– One way of building a quality culture in teaching is to merge the two roles, by taking the best aspects of the collegial researcher culture and integrating them in the teaching culture, according to Vandvik.

“One way of building a quality culture in teaching is to merge the two roles, by taking the best aspects of the collegial researcher culture and integrating them in the teaching culture” (Vigdis Vandvik)

A collegial teacher culture

bioCEED has created arenas for meetings in which learning and teaching are the topics. Seminars, workshops, learning forums and annual teacher retreats are examples of collegial activities organised by the centre, which mainly focus on topics that can be directly applied to the teaching practice of each individual participant.

In cooperation with the academic development unit Genombrottet at Lund University, bioCEED offers the Collegial Project Course for teachers. The course encourages participants to have a research-based approach to their own teaching practice, through familiarising themselves with relevant literature and studying, developing and documenting their teaching practice. To strengthen cooperation and collegiate spirit, the participants carry out a group project that is assessed by both the course leader and fellow students (peer assessment). Pernille Bronken Eidesen, associate professor in Arctic Biology at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and participant on the course, confirms its positive effects:

– I was motivated to work on further developing my own courses and gained new ideas for improving learning activities. I gained an awareness of the interaction between course content, learning activities and the form of assessment, particularly the importance of continuous assessment. I am now aware of the importance of a well-considered course description, and how this can serve as a tool. I used to think that writing course descriptions was more an administrative requirement than something I could actually use.

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Photo: Inger Lise Næss

The collegial activities have provided us with a common language for reflecting on and discussing teaching and learning, but have also inspired the teaching staff to become involved in the debate on teaching outside their own academic environment. Centre director Vigdis Vandvik feels that this new common language has given a new dimension to the discussions on teaching and learning in the academic environment:

– Even when teachers want to disprove or criticise ideas and projects, they do this by referring to pedagogic literature. We discuss things in a different way now and it’s no longer enough to have an opinion, you have to have an informed opinion, she says.

A research-based teacher culture

Biology teachers and students in Bergen and on Svalbard are well aware that they are part of a SFU – bioCEED’s research and development projects use the biology programme as their ‘field area’ and teachers and students as objects for study. – We also see a growing interest among teachers to develop and research their own teaching practice, and several projects have been initiated as a result of this,’ says Vandvik.

Nearly half of the permanent research and teaching staff at bioCEED’s biological host departments are now involved in R&D projects in the field of education. Luckily, it appears that the students are comfortable with their role as guinea pigs. – Being guinea pigs for new and more active teaching methods is fun. We look forward to our lectures,
says one student.

“Being guinea pigs for new and more active teaching methods is fun. We look forward to our lectures” (Student)

– In the work practice course subjects initiated by bioCEED, students get to participate in active researchers’ day-to-day work. The teaching really brings the subject to life. We see that the course changes from year to year in response to student feedback,’ she continues.

Appreciation of quality

As a centre, bioCEED represents teaching development in the academic environment and its commitment at the local level has strengthened the work on culture building and is a key to developing a collegial and research-based teacher culture. However, if a permanent quality culture is to be achieved, changes must also take place at the institutional level, the centre argues.

In the survey conducted by bioCEED among higher education biology teachers, the results clearly showed that teachers want a greater focus on and appreciation of teaching, as illustrated by the following comment from a survey participant: – I have always been concerned with the quality of teaching, and believe that I have succeeded in achieving this. But quality is little valued and barely noticed. I miss a stronger focus on quality in relation to teaching and an appreciation of measures to improve quality.

– If teaching is seen as a second-rate activity in relation to research, and effort and quality are not merited and valued in teaching, we won’t be able to develop a permanent quality culture,’ says centre director Vandvik.

In addition to contributing resources, support and expertise to individual teachers who wish to develop their teaching practice, bioCEED works closely with the institution leadership at the University of Bergen to initiate a merit scheme for excellent teaching. The scheme awards the title of Framifrå undervisar (Excellent teaching practitioner) to teachers who have worked systematically on their developing teaching and have contributed to build a collegial and professional teaching culture. The scheme is intended to reward teachers and contribute to teaching quality being valued.

Emphasis given to collegial and cultural factors

Although the centres have different points of departure – bioCEED with a strong research culture, and CEMPE with a strong, but, in part, personal teaching culture – both have chosen to support strong learning communities. This is also shown in the international research project on Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, in which bioCEED and
CEMPE are both participating. The preliminary results categorise CEMPE and bioCEED as ‘organic centres’, where teacher cooperation across the institution and a bottom-up culture are key characteristics. CETLFUNK also ties these characteristics to a strong learning community, or, as they call it, ‘Faculty Learning Communities’.

– We are now seeing a gradual change throughout the sector, both nationally and internationally, towards emphasising the collegial and cultural aspects of teaching and learning to achieve a higher quality of teaching, says Sætre from CEMPE and Vandvik from bioCEED.

During such processes of transition, the local academic environment is the key to cultural development, but a change of perspective of this kind also requires that the institutions facilitate development and quality by stimulating a collegial culture and practice in teaching and learning. The two centre directors conclude that Centres for Excellence in Education, such as bioCEED and CEMPE, can be models for developing the necessary institutional strategies for a quality culture, where teaching is continuously developed and efforts to achieve quality are valued.

Last updated: 16. February 2017