One of the speakers, Michael Burke, Head of the Academic Core
Department at RA, stressed that universities had to catch up in
terms of focusing on quality teaching versus research. Currently,
"teaching is extraordinarily undervalued, while research is
overvalued". Universities would often push their academic staff to
publish research papers instead of preparing classes properly.
Their institutions look for reputational gain by being more visible
in the research world while students are only second priority.
"Teaching? Only if you got time…"
By shifting their focus to students, universities could create
more sustainable prestige. Those students that are educated in an
excellent way will always be connected to their former school and
serve as ambassadors of their alma mater. Consequently, Burke calls
upon universities to draw lessons from the Veerman report and allocate more resources
towards excellent teaching.
Right now, a professor who asks to put greater emphasis on
teaching would hear "Teaching? Only if you got time…" as a response
from their faculties. This phenomenon is even more aggravated by
the fact that "university teachers are the only ones who aren't
taught how to teach". The regular training of professors does not
include any didactic or pedagogic education per se which, after
all, is mandatory for elementary and high school teachers.
This would result in a teaching attitude where professors facing
students ask themselves in every class: "How do I get my notes here
to your notes there - with as little brain interaction as
possible?" Such an approach, however, would degrade professors to
"talking textbooks". Instead, Burke calls for teaching to be
understood as "a conversation with students, not a
Orchestration of Learning Experiences
Terry Aladjem, lecturer at Harvard, concurred with this view and
emphasized that teachers should understand themselves as "creators
of learning experiences". By using 'reverse-engineering', teachers
should ask themselves "not what they want students to know, but
what they want them to do with that knowledge later on."
Accordingly, course syllabi would become less an enumeration of
topics deemed important by the academic world and more an
"orchestration of events to achieve the goal of true learning".
This philosophy already sets in at the level of course design.
In "syllabus workshops" Harvard would bring together both
representatives from the "teaching and learning community" in order
to let students have a say in what they are going to learn. René
Diekstra, lecturer at RA and Haagse Hogeschool, added that such
feedback from student to teacher is seen as most impactful
according to a wide range of studies. Essential for establishing
such a relationship between student and teacher is building an
"atmosphere of safety" where students are invited to "co-construct
the course together with the professor".
Putting it into Practice
All these aspects refer to a fundamentally different way of
teaching. Thieu Besslink, creator of the Learning Lab
at the University of Amsterdam, Free University and Amsterdam
University College, put this new philosophy into practice. During
the Day of Excellence, Besselink stressed that to make these new
approaches work universities had to give teachers more leeway in
trying out new concepts.
In his opening speech, Hans
Adriaansens, dean of RA, stressed a similar point that it is
finally also the responsibility of the universities themselves to
offer the right context for excellent teaching. "If you throw
Messi, Cruyff and me in a swimming pool, you will see that they
also won't be able to play better soccer than me because this is
not the right place where they can show their talent." It would
require a "supportive organizational context" for students and
teachers to excel.