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Never stop asking the question, ‘What is my role as a teacher?’

15 Jun 2020 | Doug Parkin Design and Delivery - Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project: Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, introduces the third of six Leadership Intelligence Reports from our Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project.

Within the Design and Delivery Leadership Intelligence Report there is a quote from the late American educational psychologist, Thomas Shuell (1986: 429):

“It is helpful to remember that what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does.”

The word ‘helpful’ makes this a nicely understated sentence, despite its importance. For anyone currently facing the challenge of course revision or re-design, responding to the imperative pressures of a rapidly changing educational landscape, the term ‘essential’ could be substituted.

Student-centred learning is a fundamental concept which underpins much modern educational practice. But it can be a fragile thing. If the goal of education is the growth of the individual, then students need to be trusted and empowered to be active participants in their own learning process. However, under pressure, course design can easily become obsessed with covering content and teachers can find themselves retreating to the safe ground of instruction. This is a long way away from the features of a truly student-centred approach which include enabling students to create personal meaning from the experiences made available to them, learning through doing, and structuring teaching to focus on active enquiry, groupwork and problem solving.

In developing the Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project I put forward a set of key principles to underpin the discussions and interactions. The first two were:

  • The challenge is about people first, not technology,
  • Good practice is good practice.

The importance of the first is as a clear reminder that technology is an enabler. It enables you, for example, to access and download this Leadership Intelligence Report from anywhere in the world with internet access. It enables students to engage online in everything from accessing information through to engaging in live discussions or even designing experiments using on-screen instruments. This is wonderful, even magical technology, and with every month that passes the wonders seem to grow. And yet we must go on remembering to put people first and to always focus our choices and decisions in course design around the experience of the learner. Furthermore, there is a plurality to the learner experience, not one ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ thing for all, but rather an experience that includes choice, flexibility, and personal tailoring. That is the central tenet of inclusive teaching practice.

The second principle in many ways is self-evident – good practice is good practice. If, for example we know that effective feedback ‘for’ learning needs to be timely, specific, based on examples and dialogic, then that does not change just because the teaching mode, platform or basis for communication alters.  The ‘feedforward’ idea is, after all, a simple one – to provide feedback that is actually useful for the learner’s learning. That is good practice. Something much more dynamically engaging and useful than baldly justifying a grade.

Going back to the core principles of outcome-based education may hold an important part of the answer for educational designers and developers during this period of rapid change. In the UK the Dearing Report from 1997 is seen as something of a landmark for this with Recommendation 21 exhorting institutions of higher education to “begin immediately to develop, for each programme they offer, a 'programme specification' which identifies potential stopping-off points and gives the intended outcomes of the programme in terms of:

  • the knowledge and understanding that a student will be expected to have upon completion;
  • key skills: communication, numeracy, the use of information technology and learning how to learn;
  • cognitive skills, such as an understanding of methodologies or ability in critical analysis;
  • subject specific skills, such as laboratory skills.”

There are limitations to outcome-based education, and questions regarding how it stands up as an educational philosophy, but nevertheless it serves a strong purpose in encouraging a clear focus on the learning outcomes as demonstrated by the student. So, rather than beginning from the standpoint of considering what we put into a course as some kind of ‘container of learning’, the encouragement is to focus instead on the learning that is intended for the student – the ‘intended learning outcomes’. The fit with the learning outcomes is a vital question to go on asking as courses are re-shaped, blended approaches explored and new technologies brought into play: ‘How will this support students to work towards and demonstrate that they have achieved the intended learning outcomes of the programme of study?’ Even though it is important to go on maintaining space and flexibility in the curriculum and keep it open to unintended but nevertheless desirable student outcomes, there are many advantages to outcome-based education:

“It emphasises relevance in the curriculum and accountability, and can provide a clear and unambiguous framework for curriculum planning which has an intuitive appeal. It encourages the teacher and the student to share responsibility for learning and it can guide student assessment and course evaluation.”

(Harden et al., 1999)

Whether technophobe or technophile there is something that matters much more in all of this than the choice of video conferencing software or virtual learning environment, and that is the role of the teacher. Never stop asking the question, ‘What is my role as a teacher?’ There is a lot that could be written on this, but in the limited space we have here I will highlight two things: building a strong learning relationship with students and asking great questions. The first is key to engagement and the second is about facilitating learning. The function of questions is to bring learning to life and to trigger cognitive, emotional and/or creative learner engagement. So, where in your revised course or module design will there be extended opportunities for questions and how will the discussions flow? Once seeded by the teacher as facilitator the questions and interactions can potentially move and pass across to be between the students as peers. This is the heart of great teaching design and delivery no matter what the mode or platform. Questions are the essence of discussion-based, discovery learning:

“The questions a teacher asks can make the difference between an antiquated wasteland and an exciting learning environment.”
(Carin and Sund, 1971: 23)

Read the full report: Design and Delivery - Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project.

The next report in the series will be on 'quality' and will be published next week.


Carin, A. A. and Sund, R. B. (1971). Developing Questioning Techniques: A Self-concept Approach. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Harden, R. M., Cosby, J. R. and Davis, M. H. (1999). AMEE Guide No. 14: Outcome-based education: Part 1 – an introduction to outcome-based education. Medical Teacher; 21: 7-14.

Shuell, T. J. (1986). Cognitive conceptions of learning. Review of Educational Research, 56, 411-436. 

The Dearing Report (1997). Higher Education in the learning society, Main Report. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1997.


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