Recognizing and Rewarding Exemplary Teaching (Not Just Excellent Teaching)

An important and problematic concept.


August 21, 2016

We have seen considerable discussion in recent Inside Higher Ed articles about “Teaching Excellence”, whether at the individual or institutional levels. We know this concept can be problematic: a focus on Excellent Teaching can have negative side effects in promoting an individualistic and competitive environment.

I think we need to consider a shift in focus, from Excellent Teaching to Exemplary Teaching again, at both the individual and institutional levels.  A focus on Exemplary Teaching could promote a collective outcome of surpassing past accomplishments in teaching and learning, by fostering professional teaching at the individual level and co-opetition at the institutional level (i.e., “cooperation in creating value, competition in dividing it up”).

Of course, our first goal for either Exemplary Teaching or Excellent Teaching should be high quality outcomes for students, both in discipline-oriented capability and professional identity and as well in more transferable outcomes such as capability for collaboration and teamwork, quantitative reasoning or creative and critical thinking. But beyond these “products” of teaching, the “process” of teaching also has significant impacts. Parker Palmer’s description of this in The Courage to Teach has been particularly memorable for me: how we teach is a key part of what we teach. Exemplary Teaching includes both aspects: both high-performance results and a model process from which others can learn

How does Exemplary Teaching go beyond Excellent Teaching?
In thinking about process differences between Exemplary Teaching and Excellent Teaching, I find it helpful to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns. For Excellent Teaching, the natural verb form is Excelling at teaching, which can be understood in two ways:

  • as Surpassing Ourselves, by going beyond our past accomplishments and continually engaging at the ‘growing edge’ of our expertise. Whether viewed at the individual or institutional level, efforts toward this goal should lead to desirable outcomes – and it has been argued that purposeful effort to surpass ourselves is a defining characteristic of expert work.
  • however, if our thinking about excelling in teaching is primarily about Surpassing Others ‒ either at the level of individual teachers or as institutions ‒  efforts toward this goal can lead to undesirable outcomes, as the example below of institutional awards programs for teaching illustrates.

We get a different set of implications from if we focus on Exemplary Teaching. The reframing into a verb form then becomes Serving as an exemplar for teaching. At the individual level, this focus implies that we want to encourage, support and recognize Exemplary Teaching as a model for colleagues…within our institution and in wider professional communities of higher education teachers, through resources and practices which can be shared, adapted and extended.

The process of Exemplary Teaching can also serve as a model for students. For example, the ways that teachers engage with knowledge to improve their teaching can demonstrate the ways students will engage with knowledge in their own professional careers (and in their other roles as community members and global citizens). This of course requires that we share with the students the processes through which we identify, adapt, mobilize and enhance knowledge in our professional work as teachers. Many of the emerging programs to engage Students as Partners in Teaching and Learning illustrate how this can be done.

Recognizing Exemplary Teaching at the Individual Level
Here is a practical example of the potential benefits from shifting our focus to Exemplary Teaching.  A senior executive at a Canadian university recently asked me for guidance on establishing a new awards program that would better reward excellent teaching. The motivation was partly to signal the importance of teaching and learning at the institution, and partly to foster enhancements in the quality of the student learning experience.

In my response, I pointed out that there are two known weaknesses when such programs are framed as rewarding excellent teaching:

  • Programs to recognize and reward excellence in teaching can be interpreted negatively by those whose teaching is not singled out for an award, whether at the individual or departmental level.
  • Beyond the impacts on individuals, evaluations of the organizational impacts from such programs have shown mixed results in terms of their contribution to advancing the quality of institutional teaching and learning.

Based on this research evidence, I suggested instead that the focus for any new program be on recognizing exemplary teaching. Such a reframing, properly explained and communicated, should provide a sharper focus which can avoid the implied competition in rewarding those who excel and should lead to more consistent organizational outcomes. The explanation and communication might include the following points:

  • For the specific areas where we seek to advance teaching and learning in our current Academic Plan, we have identified the following exemplary practices as priorities for scaling up across our institutions – and recognized the following practitioners as exemplars who can serve as models and coaches for others seeking to move forward on these Academic Plan goals…
  • All of the teachers recognized this year want to share with us in acknowledging the many other teachers here whose students also achieve outstanding results. Some of you are exemplars in other areas, which fall outside the priorities we agreed on in the consultative process for our current Academic Plan. And some of you engage in top-quality teaching in ways which are ‘uniquely you’ ‒ that’s a key part of our institutional demonstration of the diversity of ways to  achieve high performance that we want our students to discover (but the distinctive properties that make your teaching so very effective would be hard for our other teachers to replicate or adapt J).
  • Recognition through this award also implies a responsibility. We are pleased that all of those recognized as Exemplary Teachers in 2017 have agreed to join our Teaching Fellows team (on partial re-assigned time). In that role, they will be helping colleagues to adapt, implement and extend the quality of our student learning experiences in their specific areas of exemplary teaching.
  • We will also be supporting each of this year’s honorees with a Travel Grant to showcase their exemplary practices beyond our own institution, and to bring back from those interactions enhanced expertise and resources from which all of us can benefit. [Note that framing the grant this way distinguishes between recognition and reward. The goal is to support continued surpassing of past accomplishments, both individually and ‒ most importantly ‒ for the institution as a whole.]

Recognizing Exemplary Teaching at the Institutional and Sector Level
As noted at the beginning of this article, government efforts to recognize and reward teaching quality at the institutional level have tended to focus on Excellent Teaching (however vaguely defined) rather than Exemplary Teaching. But the same principles outlined above for extending impact and encouraging collaboration by recognizing Exemplary Teaching by individual teachers should apply as well at the sector or network levels.

We’re still in early stages of exploring the idea “complementary differentiation” within a higher education sector, where the institutional strengths in teaching and learning are systematically encouraged, supported and recognized as catalysts for much broader benefits across a region or system. Where institutions demonstrate outstanding collective capability in developing signature learning outcomes – and in the requisite learning experiences and learning infrastructures which enable them – how can those accomplishments be leveraged at other institutions to improve student learning at scale?

And how can such contributions by institutions be encouraged, supported and recognized in “performance funding” formulas that look at impact beyond the institution’s own students to sector or region-wide outcomes? If your system or network is engaged in a similar quest, do help us to expand the community discussion through your comments below.

Thomas Carey is an Executive-in-Residence for Teaching and Learning Innovation within two higher education systems in Canada (in British Columbia and Ontario), a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Scholar in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation at the University of Queensland.


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