How do you judge whether someone is a good teacher?

Judging teaching is like diagnosing measles.

There are many things that can indicate measles, but no single indicator is proof of measles. A few spots doesn’t mean you have measles because there are plenty of other reasons why you might have spots. However, if you have spots and a temperature, and if the spots persist for longer than hives or insect bites, then you can be more confident of the diagnosis of measles.

Likewise, good scores on one evaluation questionnaire doesn’t mean you are a good teacher, because there are plenty of other reasons why students might have given good evaluation scores, and we don’t know whether the evaluations are equally good in your other courses (and neither does one bad questionnaire mean you are a bad teacher). However, if a teacher gets consistently good results from evaluation questionnaires from multiple courses, and over multiple years, and their peers also say they are a good teacher, and their students do well in their assessments, and in later careers, then you can be more confident that they are indeed a good teacher.

Posted in Evaluating Teaching

Disciplined learning, when students are reluctant to tackle the tasks we assign

Sometimes we ask students to do a series of tasks that are necessary for their learning, but which they would rather avoid. For example, we might assign readings for every class, or ask them to complete weekly reflections, or to post regularly on a discussion board. What do we do if our students resist doing these tasks, or if they simply don’t do them? How do we deal with their complaints: “I can’t see the point”, “it’s too hard”, “It’s too simplistic”, “I don’t like learning in that way” or “I don’t have time”.

We are asking for disciplined learning

What we are asking of our students is a disciplined approach to learning, similar to how someone learns to be a ballet dancer, a musician or a professional athlete. Disciplined learning is needed for particular kinds of learning which can only be achieved with regular training and exercise, such as being fit, being a dancer, being a musician, or being reflective. To achieve this kind of learning, students have to follow a disciplined process, supervised by a skilled coach/teacher, where they have to do things they would rather avoid.

Disciplined learning is not easy. It involves regular exercise and training for students, where we push the students beyond what they would do if they were left to their own device, like the personal trainer who shouts “just one more, you can do it!” Students might not want to do another stretch, or play another series of scales, or write another reflection, but if they don’t do these tasks regularly and frequently, week after week, they will not be able to achieve the learning objectives.

It is pointless and inappropriate for us to blame our students if they don’t do the tasks we set. There are many demands on their limited time and energy, so of course they are reluctant to squeeze in our regular learning tasks around their study, their work and their lives. Nevertheless, we know that regularly doing these tasks is necessary for their learning. There seem to be three ways we might help our students to regularly tackle these disciplined learning tasks.

1) Require students to do the tasks and support them

Make the tasks a requirement of the course. By this I mean, no exceptions to the requirements to do the task. Regular exercise and training only works if it is done regularly. If you miss the exercise you get no benefit, even if you have a good reason for missing it. So, the requirement is that students do the tasks on time, every week, no excuses. Another way of seeing this is that the tasks are the course. They are not an optional add-on to the real course which might be attending lectures, they are the course itself.

Even if you require students to do the tasks, there are various reasons why students might fail to complete the requirements, with common reasons being “I forgot” or “I ran out of time”. So, to support the students to complete the tasks you need to be like a personal trainer and monitor their performance, remind them to complete the tasks, and make them accountable for having done so. This is easiest if you specify exactly what is to be done and by when, so you, the student and the rest of the class can tell if the tasks have been completed or not. Ask students to let you know when they have completed their task, and you can also marshal the power of peer pressure and have them accountable to the rest of the class for completing their tasks. If they don’t complete the task in time, have them complete it during class time while the other students are doing something else.

However, I avoid giving grades for disciplined learning tasks. Assigning too many graded assessments is detrimental for student learning (Wass et al. 2015), and it means students are only doing the tasks for the grade. Intrinsic or personal motivation provides better encouragement. Instead of offering grades, I have something like a learning contract, where at the beginning of the course students agree to complete the tasks as a condition of doing the course.

I also avoid coercion or punishment for not doing the tasks. I think fostering personal motivation, where students choose to do the tasks, is a better way to foster learning. It is better if they voluntarily choose to complete the regular tasks, choose to be accountable for completing them, and choose to have someone act as their coach who will push them to do the tasks and help them overcome any forgetfulness or weakness of will.

2) Motivate students to do the tasks

Fostering student motivation is also essential for disciplined learning. The only feasible and ethical way to ensure students will do the tasks we assign, week after week, is if they are personally motivated to do them. So, how do you motivate students so they want to do tasks they were previously reluctant to do?

Students become motivated to complete the disciplined learning tasks when they are convinced that these tasks are important. If the students see the value of doing the tasks, see why they have been assigned these tasks, then they are more likely to voluntarily do them. So, as teachers, we need to show our students how completing the tasks is a milestone on the path to some important learning goal. We have to convince our students that the only way they can obtain something that they find valuable is via these tasks. For example, a teacher might explain how the tasks are exercises for an important learning goal, and invite past students to share how they use what they learned from these exercises. Another teacher might confront their students with problems that the students want to solve, but which they cannot solve unless they complete the tasks. A third way to show that the tasks are valuable is for you to do the tasks along with your students. This shows that you actually value the task in practice, which can be enough to motivate them to follow your lead.

However, even if our students see the value of doing the disciplined learning tasks, in a sense they still may not want to do these tasks. Even if someone knows that they can only be a great athlete by getting up before the sun to train, they still may not want to get up that early. Even if a student knows that they have to do the readings to get their dream career, they still may not want to do the readings. The problem is that we have a hierarchy of conflicting desires. On one level we can desire to avoid something, but this can be over-ridden by our higher-order desires for some bigger goal. For example, my desire to become an excellent teacher overcomes my desire to avoid writing regular reflective posts about my teaching. This hierarchy is important for understanding how we motivate students to undertake disciplined learning – we have to appeal to their higher-desires (this extends the idea of higher-order desires in Frankfurt 1971 and Cam 2016).

A third element of motivating our students is fostering confidence or self-efficacy about the tasks. Students will be more motivated if they feel they are doing well on these tasks, or at least improving (Bandura, 1982). So, teachers should use class time so students can practise doing the tasks, and they should give regular and frequent feedback to build the confidence and capacity of their students.

Build trust so students are more likely to do the tasks you set

A further way of ensuring your students tackle disciplined learning tasks, is to foster student trust. Students will be more motivated to do the tasks we assign, and more likely to complete them, if they respect their teacher, have confidence that their teacher is competent in this area of teaching, if they trust their teacher is working to support their learning, and if they trust that they will benefit from following the teacher’s instructions.

How do you build this trust and confidence in your students? One way is to show that you value your students. They are more willing to trust your methods, and go along with them, if they think you value them. Another way is to show your students your credentials as a teacher and as a subject expert. In the first class or two your students will be sizing you up, and you need to show them you care about their learning, and you know what you are doing (and even better if you do this before the first class using pre-course emails).

Doing the task with your students can also help build trust. When you do the same tasks as your students you can indicate where you struggle, and how you overcome these challenges (this is sometimes called ‘intellectual streaking’, Bearman and Molloy, 2017). This shows your students that you trust them enough to expose your mistakes and errors. It also gives your students a more accurate view of how difficult these tasks are, even for someone who is experienced. This can reassure your students that their own struggles are normal, which gives them confidence to persevere despite challenges.

Sometimes student-trust can replace student-motivation. If students really trust their teacher, they will be willing to do the tasks the teacher assigns, even if they cannot see the point of these tasks. This is the Karate Kid approach to teaching. Mr Miyagi, the karate teacher, tells his student to paint the fence all day using up-down strokes with the brush, and the next day using side-to-side strokes, and alternating right and left arms. This seems like a complete waste of time to the karate kid who rebels, but Mr Miyagi then shows him how the movements he used for painting translate to karate punches and blocks. The karate kid then realises that he can trust Mr Miyagi: If he does the weird tasks Mr Miyagi sets him, he will learn something important, even if he doesn’t understand why he is doing these tasks. He learns to trust the teaching.


Note: Some of these methods for encouraging disciplined learning will also be useful when your students resist learning the content you are teaching; They are useful methods when your students complain “Why are we learning this?” because they think the topic is boring, irrelevant or pointless.



Bandura, A (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2): 122–147.

Bearman, M, & Molloy, E (2017) Intellectual streaking: The value of teachers exposing minds (and hearts), Medical Teacher, 39(12), pp. 1284-1285,

Cam, P (2014) Fact, Value and Philosophy Education. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 1(1), pp. 1-10.

Frankfurt, H (1971) Freedom of the will and the concept of a person. Journal of Philosophy, 58(1), pp. 5-20.

Wass, R, Harland, T, McLean, A, Miller, E, Sim, KN (2015) Will press lever for food: behavioural conditioning of students through frequent high-stakes assessment. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), pp. 1324-1326.

Posted in Learning, Planning teaching, Students | 1 Comment

Heartening a disheartened teacher

Sometimes a teacher gets disheartened, jaded or discouraged when they struggle to improve their teaching without result. They might think “I’m just a bad teacher”, “I’ve already tried that”, “Nothing works for my students”, “It’s not my fault”, or “I just don’t have time and energy to improve.” They are stuck and can’t see a way forward.

How might you hearten the disheartened teacher? I present three inter-related strategies:

Continuum of progress as a teacher

Help them to see teaching as a continuum from worse to better teaching. Everyone is somewhere on this continuum and no one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; No matter how good they are they could do better, and no matter how bad they are, they could be worse (eg if they were drunk in class after zero preparation).

If they are disheartened because they thought “I’m not a good teacher, and that’s all there is to it”, they become locked into being a bad teacher with no possibility of change. But if they instead see teaching as a continuum, this opens up a growth mindset (Dweck 2015) or an enhancement approach to teaching (Golding and Adam 2016), where one’s ability at teaching is not fixed, and it is always possible to improve.

If they are disheartened because they think “I’ve already tried everything and nothing works” then they will dismiss any suggestions about how to enhance their teaching because they already do that. But if they instead see teaching as a continuum, they can shift their perspective from whether they do or do not, to instead whether they do enough, or whether they could do it better. They move from “I already speak clearly and slowly in lectures, and plan my teaching, so there is nothing I can do to improve,” and instead they wonder “How can I make my lectures clearer for my students? How can I plan my classes better than I currently do it?”

If a teacher sees teaching as a continuum it is easier to identify areas of teaching that are going well, and other areas which could be refined, enhanced or improved. This allows then to be confident about some aspects of their teaching (the literature sometimes calls this self-efficacy eg Bandura 1982), which gives them a firm place to stand while trying to improve their teaching. They can see that they are doing OK, which allows them the confidence to work on the more risky areas where they could improve.

In many institutions there is also a threshold on the continuum which teachers have to cross in order to be considered good-enough (eg the threshold might that 70% or more of their students agree or strongly agree that they are an effective teacher). But ‘good-enough’ is merely an arbitrary point on the continuum, which an institution says is the required standard. If you are below the threshold you are not a bad teacher, and you can always enhance your teaching and get over the threshold.

Progress by developing different teaching knowledge

An additional way to hearten a disheartened teacher is to show them that any teacher can improve by developing one or more kind of knowledge about teaching (Shulman 1987). All teachers know some things about teaching, but lack other knowledge. From this perspective a teacher can be heartened that they know some important things about teaching, and they can see a path for progressing their teaching by developing other knowledge.

For example, you can hearten a disheartened teacher by showing them that they already have the content knowledge for their subject – they know their subject. They also know general teaching methods such as how to explain things so someone can understand, how to organise a powerpoint slide-show, how to ask questions to probe student understanding, etc. However, they may only partially know other things. They might not have enough pedagogical content knowledge about how to teach their subject to their particular students. Although they know how to teach their subject to postgraduate students, and to first year students in one country, they don’t know what will work to teach this same content to second year students in a different country with different students.

Teachers can be heartened if they understand that diverse knowledge is needed for teaching, because it is obvious that lacking some knowledge doesn’t make someone a bad teacher, and because it indicates that access to improvement is by developing more knowledge. For example, the disheartened teacher can get new knowledge about their students, and use this to tailor their teaching so it will work for these particular students. In this way they develop more pedagogical content knowledge about what is the best way to explain this tricky concept to these students, and what tasks and activities these students will find engaging and intriguing rather than boring and irrelevant.

Teach the students you have

A similar way to hearten a disheartened teacher is to help them realise that different groups of students need to be taught in different ways, and so there is no such thing as being a good teacher in all situations, but only good teaching for these students. They can provide good teaching for some students, but not for others. So, they can improve by translating their methods which are successful in one context, for one group of students, to a different context and a different group of students.

If teachers are disheartened because they think that their students are to blame for poor teaching results (“students are not doing enough work” or “students don’t have the basic knowledge they need”), then they will not be able to see anything they can do to improve. However, if they instead see that teaching involves teaching the actual students in front of you, with all their particularities, then they will easily see ways they can improve.

Having poor results for one group of students doesn’t make you a bad teacher, it just means you lack some important teacher knowledge. To improve, you need to know:

  • Their expectations about learning and about their teachers
  • Their preferences and dislikes in relation to learning
  • Their background knowledge
  • Their interests

This knowledge is essential so a teacher can pitch their teaching for their actual students, rather than pitching it for the ideal student, the assumed student, or how the students should be. Once you know your particular students it is much easier to develop effective strategies for getting them to where you want them to be rather than wasting time with strategies that would only work with different students.


Shulman, L (1987) Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), pp. 1–22.

Bandura, A (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), pp. 122–147.

Golding, C and Adam, L (2016) Evaluate to improve: Useful approaches to student evaluation, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, (41)1, pp. 1-14.

Dweck, C (2014) How Can You Develop a Growth Mindset about Teaching? Educational Horizons, 93(2), p. 15

Posted in Mentoring

What methods should I use in my teaching?

How do I decide whether to teach using case studies or key readings, whether to offer a lecture or to use the allocated time for directed problem solving? Should I assign practice exercises, and should they be completed individually or in groups, with or without peer feedback? In other words, how do I decide what teaching methods to use?

A teaching method is anything a teacher might do to foster or support student learning. This includes methods for helping students understand the content, methods for building a supportive learning environment, as well as the tasks assigned to students. Teaching methods include, but are not limited to, class discussion, independent problem-solving, individual inquiry, virtual world simulations, powerpoint presentation, video presentation and student presentation. The range of possible teaching methods is limited only by your imagination.

Given the diverse possibilities, choosing an appropriate teaching method might seem arbitrary. Yet it can be a deliberate, considered judgement if you see your teaching methods as tools for the job of fostering student learning. Then it is obvious how you choose a teaching method: first be clear on what the job is, and then design a useful tool for this job.

Be clear on what the job is

To clarify the learning job you have to clarify: 1) the particular learning outcome you want, 2) the kind of outcome this is (is the outcome new knowledge, understanding, skill, value, behaviour, or way of being?), as well as 3) the learning process that will lead to this outcome; the process by which students get to the learning outcome. For example:

  1. You want your students to understand photosynthesis. More specifically, the outcome is students will be able to explain the concept of photosynthesis, using their own words, as well as being able to apply this conceptual knowledge to explain how photosynthesis occurs in particular cases.
  2. This learning outcome involves students having new conceptual knowledge, and also new skills in applying abstract conceptual knowledge to particular cases.
  3. How does someone learn conceptual knowledge? They need to be offered some information about the concept, perhaps from a lecture or in a book, but they also need a chance to assimilate this information into what they already know. How do they learn a skill? This involves an iterative process of attempting the action (in this case applying the concept of photosynthesis to explain different cases), then getting feedback, using the feedback to improve, then attempting the action again, etc.

To fully understand the job our teaching methods have to do, we have to think developmentally. We have to chart the whole learning path our students will need to take, starting from their initial understandings and skills (including their typical misunderstandings and mistakes), through various stages of their growing understanding and developing ability, until they reach the final outcomes.

Design the right tool for the job.

The second step is to think of what you and tour students can do that would foster this learning process, and what tools are useful for this job. For example, you might have decided that you want your students to be independent thinkers, and now you design methods that will enable your particular students to learn independence.

I sometimes I see this as choosing from a box of pre-existing tools, but a generic tool may not be effective in any particular teaching situation, so it is often more like designing a tool for the very specific job you have. You need creativity to design a teaching method that will lead to your particular learning outcome, in your particular context – it has to work for you and your students.

You don’t have to design your teaching methods on your own, especially if you are new to teaching or unfamiliar with many teaching methods. Talk to others to discover the methods they use, and to get advice about methods that might suit your context. Alternatively, or additionally, you might read some articles or books, attend a workshop, or do your own research.

When you design a teaching method, you also have to think about the hidden curriculum – how your unintended, unconscious methods can affect student learning. For example, if one learning outcome is that your students can make independent judgements, your chosen teaching method might be to ask students to grapple with open-ended problems without obvious answers. However, you also have to consider what they are learning from the other things you do when you teach – your hidden methods. For example, many teachers instinctively respond to student answers by telling their students whether they are correct or incorrect. Unfortunately what the students learn from this unintended, hidden method is that there are right answers, that the teacher has them, and that they should rely on the teacher to judge whether an answer is right or wrong. In this case the teacher’s hidden methods are unintentionally undermining their attempts to foster independent thinking.

Following from this, you also have to make sure you use the teaching method in a way that will let you complete the job. So, for example, even if powerpoint can be a useful tool to get your learning outcomes, there are multiple ways to use it, and some may be inappropriate for your intended learning outcome. Using powerpoint to summarise the main concepts in a few words might be useful to prompt your students to explain photosynthesis in their own words, but if you give too many details in the powerpoint, the students might find it hard to escape your way of explaining photosynthesis, and so be unable to articulate their own understanding of this concept.

Evaluate and improve

Even after going through this process of designing your teaching methods, you can’t be sure whether a teaching method will work until you try it with your particular students and evaluate its success. So, fully answering the question ‘what teaching method should I use?’ will probably take several years of creative design, testing, evaluating, improving and retesting. This at least involves an informal process of research into teaching, and might involve a formal research process.

Posted in Planning teaching

That’s a good question

Sometimes in a seminar, lecture or discussion, if we don’t know the topic we feel like we can’t really participate or engage. We might know nothing about postmodern accounts of learning, for example, or the learning styles of accounting students, so we feel like we can’t say anything useful, nor ask any questions. However, there are many ways to engage intelligently with a topic, even if it is unfamiliar. There are techniques for asking intelligent questions that do not require a deep understanding of the topic.

Some questions are about substantive aspects of a topic and can only be asked if you have some understanding of the topic. For example, how is Lyotard’s perspective related to Smetsky’s account of learning without a learner? But other questions simply ask for further thinking about a topic, whatever the substantive topic might be:

  1. What do you mean by x?
  2. Can you give me an example of x?
  3. Can you say more about x?
  4. Why do you think x?
  5. What would be your recommendations about x?

I sometimes call these thought-encouraging questions because they encourage further thinking about any topic: You simply replace the x with something that has been said. For similar reasons they are also called Socratic questions or critical thinking questions.

Thought-encouraging questions are useful for critical analysis or exploration of any topic. In fact, these are the questions I ask myself to assist me to dig deeper into a topic I don’t fully understand – they force me to reflect and clarify my ideas.

Asking a good thought-encouraging questions is simply an expression of puzzlement about what someone is saying; you ask the question that flows from your puzzlement:

  1. If I wonder about what they mean, then I might ask: “what do you mean by x?” OR “can you give an example of x?”
  2. If I’m puzzled by why they think this is true, or I wonder what their justification is then I might ask: “why do you think x?” OR “what evidence is there to support x?

Questions like these are useful tools for engaging in any seminar, lecture or discussion. However, you might also be reluctant to ask questions if you are concerned that only stupid or ignorant people ask questions. However, this is not only a limiting concern, but it is inaccurate. Only the intellectually sharp can ask probing question, and asking these questions is the sign of reflective engagement, not stupidity. I frequently ask these questions, especially when I don’t know much about the topic under discussion. I listen carefully to the speaker, and if I wonder what they meant, or how their idea would translate into practice, or what their reasons are, my first reaction is simply to ask them to explain further, and I express this as a thought-encouraging question. I think that they have not explained themselves, not that I must be stupid if I don’t know.

Posted in Higher education, Postgraduate education, Reflection and improvement

Building a shared conception of critical thinking

If every teacher and every paper in a multi-disciplinary course uses their own conception of critical thinking, students end up more confused than critical. So how do you build a shared understanding of critical thinking in a multi-disciplinary course?

Go concrete: Find agreement about what a critical thinker does. For example, they give reasons and explanations, they uncover and question assumptions, etc. It will be virtually impossible to get agreement if your discussion remains solely in the abstract realm of terms like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘reflection’. Instead look at what thinkers do – their thinking moves or thinking behaviours.

Agree on a developmental core: Find agreement about the developmental core for students learning to be critical thinkers, rather than trying to find agreement about the final, expert version of critical thinking. The critical thinking of a scientist is different from the critical thinking of a health professional. But the path to learn these expert kinds of critical thinking is similar, and there are developmental stages that all students need to go through. Find agreement on the critical thinking needed for a first year student, which will be the basis for eventually learning to be a doctor or an anatomist, or a physicist, etc.

A doctor has to judge likely diagnoses based on what they observe, and what they know about potential conditions. A scientist has to evaluate the evidence from multiple studies in order to make an informed conclusion. However, at the start of the developmental process, a six year old critical thinker merely has to learn to use the word ‘because’ appropriately in a sentence. A first year student at University is at a developmental stage between these two extremes. What is the developmental core of critical thinking that builds on using ‘because’, and which can equally lead to thinking like a doctor or thinking like a scientist?

For example, perhaps first year critical thinkers need to explain, justify and apply. Firstly they have to explain and justify their answers (rather than merely repeating the answer they memorised), and secondly, they need to apply what they learn in lectures so they can solve problems. If they learn these two aspects of critical thinking in their first year, they have the foundations for later learning the more specialised versions of critical thinking.

Stick to a small developmental core: If you stick to what critical thinkers do, and the developmental core of critical thinking, you are likely to find agreement about critical thinking even in a multi-disciplinary course. However, don’t try to include all aspects of expert critical thinking, but only the developmental core.

Having a few core thinking moves or thinking behaviours like justifying or applying is more useful than trying to include everything. Learning to be a critical thinker is like learning to be a great pianist. They both require lots and lots of practise doing ‘scales’ where students are asked, again and again and again, to explain, justify and apply. For example, for every answer you give, you might ask them “why is that the correct answer?” By regularly and frequently engaging in this thinking, students internalise it until it becomes second nature to them and they are critical thinkers. They will learn more by repeating this simply prompt than they will by frequently adding in new prompts and new aspects of thinking.

Assess critical thinking moves and behaviours: You can assess their thinking based on whether they do the core thinking. Do they give reasons or not? Do they apply their knowledge to solve novel problems?

Design assessment tasks that cannot be completed except by using the critical thinking moves. Students should be unable to give an answer by remembering the lecture or the text-book, or by googling. Tasks that involve evaluating and applying are useful for this purpose.

When you assess make sure you distinguish between assessing whether they have said the right thing (you agree with them) and whether they have done the thinking (they have given reasons to justify their answer). Just like assessing mathematics, you need to assess whether they have the right answer independently of whether they have demonstrated their working or their thinking. For example, they might have the right answer but have not given any reasons or explanations to back this up. Alternatively they could have the wrong answer but demonstrated excellent explanation and justification based on a false premise. The second example shows good critical thinking, but the first one does not, yet we are likely to only reward the first answer. When assessing critical thinking we have to put aside whether we agree or disagree with their answer and instead look for the thinking. For example, if they give us the wrong answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?” and if they give us the right answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?”

Posted in Planning teaching

Higher Education research and development … as a movie

I work in Higher Education as a researcher and academic developer, and I also love movies. So, obviously, I began to wonder what kind of movie best represents my work. I originally wrote this for HERDSA News to share my reflections with my colleagues in the same field.

What kind of movie encompasses our various activities: offering workshops for staff and students, teaching on a diploma in HE, developing institutional policies, researching, writing resources, and offering advice on academic practice? Here are some of my thoughts.

Are we in a mystery movie, perhaps? At least part of what we do is identify and solve the puzzles of scholarship and practice – how do you foster engagement in first year students? How can formative assessment best support learning? But higher education research and development is not a Psycho type thriller. Perhaps it’s more like the early Harry Potter movies before they got too sinister (though in our more paranoid moments we may suspect dark, market forces working in the background).

Are we the laconic gunslinger, like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of dollars? Or, because our work is very much a team effort, perhaps higher education research and development is more like The Magnificent Seven? Exciting, yes, but I think this is a damaging metaphor to adopt (and probably sexist). This makes us the good guys, but others have to be the bad guys. This metaphor would mean our colleagues are either villains to defeat or victims to protect, and neither of these are healthy relationships.

For the same reason we are not in a crime movie like The Untouchables. The lecturer that fails to engage their students is not Al Capone. We are not the higher education police. Nor are we in an adventure movie with some black and white story of good vs. evil. We are not Superman and this is not Star Wars. I don’t see us as cleaning up a corrupt town, policing crime, or fighting evil. In fact I don’t see anything wrong in higher education. There are things that can be improved, of course, but this doesn’t mean that we should see them as bad, evil and wrong. Our colleagues, our institutions, and their leaders are not the enemy, not criminals, and not evil.

Even if we’re not in a Western, it might still be important to see ourselves as higher education action heroes. This would certainly make our work meaningful and help us to keep going in the face of the inevitable slog, resistance, and the looong time it takes to make substantial changes. Yet I can’t see myself as Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, though perhaps I can identify with the hero in a teaching movie. Like Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, we make an inspiring difference (without demonising anyone).

What about a sports movie? Our work in higher education could be nicely framed as the struggle to transform a disorganised team into a winning team, like the Bad News Bears (OK, they didn’t actually win at the end, but they did improve beyond all expectations, and that might be enough). Perhaps we are like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, providing training and development for our colleagues, students and institutions? (Though I am dubious about portraying us as the master to our colleagues). The dull drudgery of some of our work—marking, transcribing, addressing the same issue again and again—could be nicely captured in a sports movie. Ideally it would all be portrayed in a montage of shots set to stirring music like Rocky training for his big boxing match (and hopefully unlike the soldiers slogging forward, constantly under fire in Saving Private Ryan where almost everyone is killed).

Higher education research and development might sometimes feel like a serious life work, but maybe we would be better to treat it more like a comedy (Back to the Future perhaps), or better still a musical like Singing in the Rain – There are problems to overcome, but let’s sing and dance while we deal with them.

Posted in Higher education