Institute for Teaching and Learning homepage

University of Sydney homepage
Issue 26, November 2007  

Submit an article

articles regulars other issues

Quality teaching for diversity: Engaging & sustaining
learning through productive pedagogies
Michael Anderson, Robyn Ewing & Robyn Gibson
Faculty of Education and Social Work
Robyn Ewing, Michael Anderson & Robyn Gibson 

In research-intensive universities, there may be a temptation for some academics to set their teaching to 'auto-pilot'. This is a potentially damaging side-effect of our rightful emphasis on research, since there is evidence that the most decisive factor in student learning is the teacher. Hattie (2003), who undertook a meta-study of the research in the area of student learning, found that 'excellence in teaching is the single most powerful influence on student achievement' (p. 4). In light of this evidence, and given the changing nature of our diverse student population, we are faced with the urgent and constant need for reforming and thereby enhancing our teaching practices. But the question remains: how might we evaluate and improve our practice in a systematic and evidence-based manner?

We in universities are not alone in seeking the constant enhancement of teaching practice. Over the last decade, our colleagues in school education have been attempting to define quality pedagogy in order to evaluate and improve teacher effectiveness. One outcome of this process is an evidence-based framework that allows teachers to examine their teaching against a valid set of measures through peer rating. Whilst we acknowledge the key differences between our role as tertiary educators and the role of those in primary and secondary schools, much could be gained from a more open dialogue about the goals we both strive to achieve; namely, the ongoing improvement of student learning outcomes. This article focuses on the NSW Quality Teaching (QT) model, exploring its potential as an effective pedagogical tool in the Higher Education context. Examples of QT projects currently underway in the Faculty of Education and Social Work are used as exemplars to demonstrate this model's applicability to tertiary students.

What is Quality Teaching?
Quality teaching has been a strong focus of professional development programs in school education for at least ten years. The term has appeared under various guises including (but not limited to) Authentic Pedagogies, Productive Pedagogies and the NSW Quality Teaching Framework. In a university setting such an approach supports the valuing of diversity in two distinct ways. It acknowledges students' own diverse backgrounds as a learning resource and recognises that meeting the learning needs of all students requires a range of pedagogical approaches. Quality Teaching in NSW Public Schools (NSW DET, 2003) identified three dimensions as the central pillars of the model. They are i) intellectual quality; ii) quality learning environment, and iii) significance. Table 1 elaborates on the elements of each dimension.

There is much in common between the aims of this pedagogical model and the set of pedagogic aspirations outlined in the University's overarching Graduate Attributes, namely: scholarship, lifelong learning and global citizenship. For example, scholarship maps very closely to the intellectual quality dimension of the NSW QT model while global citizenship relates to the significance dimension. Furthermore, global citizenship implies an understanding and recognition of the rich diversity of our student population, seeking to support their engagement with a global community. In this sense, such a pedagogic model engages learners in teaching and assessment practices that support diverse approaches and maintains a commitment to intellectual rigour in a quality leaning environment. But how applicable is QT to a university context?

Teaching for Diversity
One of the most potent ways to identify, acknowledge and integrate the diverse perspectives and approaches of students is to recognise their diversity as a resource, not as a deficit. Viewed thus, students' differing gender, socio-cultural, religious or even socio-economic make-up all contribute to a vibrant intellectual culture. If we, as teachers, believe this is a valid starting point, we can work to connect our students and ourselves to that diversity through a systematic and deliberate pedagogic approach. That said, these connections are not always easy and the possibility that students will rely on stereotypical understandings of difference is still a consideration.

The QT model accepts and embraces the diversity of student experience as a learning and teaching resource. The model also engages with diversity by recognising that students learn in different ways (Kolb, 1984). However, certain preconditions support a learning environment that provides a diverse series of pedagogies to meet the varying needs of all learners.

Authentic Negotiated Assessment
Authentic assessment is a key feature of the productive pedagogies model. This approach seeks to align curriculum, pedagogy and assessment and argues that assessment should be more demanding on students (Hayes, 2005). Alignment allows for the content and form of assessment to recognise pedagogy and the curriculum.

A feature of the 'supercomplexity' that Barnett (2000) identifies in contemporary tertiary teaching relates to the diversity apparent in our students' learning needs. The challenge for tertiary educators is not to despair of this but rather develop assessment strategies that are authentic, and value this diversity. For instance, in one QT project in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, negotiated assessment approaches are being trialled where final year students negotiate the type of assessment most appropriate to their learning styles.

In a QT model, negotiated assessment can support student connectedness by allowing assessments to fit student's needs and aspirations. Such approaches allow students to apply their own diverse skills and understandings to learning.

We describe below how some of these aspirations are being pursued in the QT Project in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at this University.

Quality Teaching in Higher Education Project
This project, funded by a Faculty TIF grant, focused on how quality teaching models implemented in other educational settings might be adapted to support the enhancement of quality learning and teaching in university contexts. The continuing program is founded on the notion that the scholarship of teaching involves deliberate, ongoing, critical reflection into a teacher's own practice (Schon 1983). An additional feature of the QT project allowed teaching practice to be evaluated using a validated evidence-based instrument. This evaluation could then be critiqued and reviewed by colleagues with individual educators reforming their own teaching practice as a result.

In Phase 1 of the project, members of Faculty undertook some preliminary peer assessment based on four identified elements of the NSW QT model. These were: a) Substantive communication; b) Higher-order thinking; c) Problematic knowledge; and d) Engagement.

In Phase 2, the approach and processes were expanded to encompass all interested members of the Faculty. Currently, there are more than 20 members critiquing and evaluating each other's teaching practice using these elements.

Coming from disparate fields, we focus on interdisciplinary approaches. A colleague in School Counselling was interested in using drama-based simulations in her teaching. We used applied theatre approaches with her students, evaluated its effectiveness against the QT model, and obtained encouraging results. Another team in Creative Arts utilised innovative arts-based strategies, with student focus groups discussing their relevance for beginning teachers' own practice. Results revealed how creative teaching can engage and empower individuals who learn in different ways, who may have previously been excluded from traditional learning (Simon & Hicks, 2006).

Although we are still examining potential benefits and pitfalls of the QT model in Higher Education, the approach has exciting potential. This model offers tertiary educators a rigorous, systematic and evidence-based approach to engage with evaluative discussions to enhance pedagogy. It recognises the diversity of our students as a major resource and assists teachers to implement strategies in response to that diversity.

The current project within the Faculty of Education and Social Work is the beginning of an active engagement with this QT model. The next step is to open a dialogue to include the whole university community. The QT model provides a methodology for rigorous professional conversations between colleagues about the urgency of enhancing the effectiveness of our teaching and provides a way for peers to support each other with a shared system of values derived from research. Most importantly it allows tertiary educators the opportunity to concentrate on the most important factor in student achievement - our teaching.

Barnett, R. (2000). Realizing the university in an age of supercomplexity. Buckingham: SRHE & OUP.

Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Background paper to presentation at ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, October 19-21.

Hayes, D., Mills, M., Christie, P. & Lingard, B. (2005). Teachers and schooling making a difference: Productive pedagogies, assessment and performance. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

NSW Department of Education & Training (2003). Quality teaching in NSW public schools. Sydney: NSW DET.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner.New York: Basic Books.

Simon, H. & Hicks, J. (2006). Opening doors: Using the creative arts in learning and teaching. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 5 (1), 77-90.

In the Faculty of Education & Social Work: Dr Michael Anderson is a Senior Lecturer (Drama) Associate Professor Robyn Ewing is Acting Dean Dr Robyn Gibson is a Senior Lecturer (Visual Arts)

^ top