Murky Data? Swimming Around in the Pond of Teaching Excellence

Guest post Professor Christine Broughan, Centre for Global Learning: Education and Attainment

In 2015 I came across an advertisement to take part in an Ironman event which entails swimming, cycling and running a very long way. Egged on by a ‘friend’ and encouraged by a glass or two of fermented fruits, I foolishly signed up. I say foolish because at the time I hadn’t had a swimming lesson since school and I didn’t own a bike. With just under 12 months to prepare, I began by attending a weekly Swimfit class at the local pool. I told the teacher my goals and she took me under her wing, each week setting drills to turn my impressions of a lumberjack on a trampoline into something resembling what is known as ‘the front crawl’. On finishing each drill I’d wait keenly at the end of the lane for her feedback; she’d demonstrate, I’d nod accordingly and then proceed to repeat the same mistakes as I thrashed up and down the lane – she must have despaired. She used every approach in her teacher’s toolkit to try to correct my stroke. I really wanted to please her, to replicate what she had shown me, and sometimes in my head I was doing it right – but it never quite translated into the observable actions of my flailing arms and legs.
About 12 weeks into my training I had the opportunity to attend a swim camp which entailed five days of sea swimming. There were no drills, very little tuition, just me banging out the swimming miles. You have a lot of time to think when you spend your day swimming in the sea. My weekly swimming tutor was in my mind. I tried to replicate her instruction by concentrating on one part of my body at a time. About three hours into the swim on the last day I suddenly realised that I wasn’t thinking about the drills, in fact, I wasn’t thinking about anything – I was just swimming. I had achieved what some might call flow, where everything just falls into place. I had been transformed from ‘someone ‘who swims’ into ‘a swimmer’. The instructor on the boat was delighted; they had observed my exponential improvement and understandably linked it to their excellent teaching. But what about my weekly tutor, who was unable to witness the results of her outstanding commitment?
When I returned home I was keen to explain to my weekly tutor what had happened during the camp and how her input had laid the foundation for my transformational change. Had I been in the Michael Phelps category, the two tutors/instructors may have fought over claiming credit for my performance. But of course they didn’t. They were both overjoyed that they had been able to share their passion for their discipline with a middle-aged woman who was never going to win an Olympic medal. Their drive was to grow the community of people who can enjoy and benefit from swimming. It would seem unfair if one tutor’s organisation had been rewarded more highly than the other. It would also seem counterintuitive to set them up in competition with each other.
The point I’m making is that we should not measure teaching excellence on outcomes alone. Outcomes can be delayed, can be influenced by external factors not under our control (what if I had decided to withdraw from the Ironman due to other commitments, just got lazy or decided that Sudoku was better?). Furthermore, my weekly tutor was trying to prepare me for something, a 2.4 mile swim, which she would never see me do. In the same way, we, as academics are preparing our students not merely to graduate, but also to be transformed, to become good citizens and, hopefully, to gain meaningful employment.
And so, while I absolutely agree that rewarding and recognising teaching excellence is a good thing, I am incredibly mindful of how these individual stories can get lost in the data of dashboards and league tables by which we are judged. It is also sometimes impossible to disaggregate the impact of the university experience from other factors, such as prior learning, when measuring student performance. Our keynote at the HEA 2018 Surveys Conference will explore issues like this in order to round off the day by debating and situating the topic of teaching excellence in its wider context.



Coventry University