As a professional student and an academic, August/September have always been the start of the year in many sense. Here in The Netherlands, the new academic year has already began today Monday 2nd September, 2019. This is new for me after 6 years of being used to the UK where the academic year starts at the end of September. As the teaching preps begin in earnest, I look forward with excitement and anticipation to the start of my academic adventure in the Netherlands. I’m left pondering though, on how my teaching skills and experience developed in Ghana and the UK will translate to the Dutch context.
In February, 2019, I was awarded a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at Sheffield Hallam University after a year of part-time study. It was a thoroughly enjoyable reflective learning experience and gave me tools to enhance my teaching practice. Completing this study also qualified me to achieve the status of Fellow of The Higher Education Academy in recognition of my attainment against the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and learning support in higher education.
Certainly, many of the principles and tools have universal application but also certainly there are cultural factors that might confound the application of some of these in the Dutch context. I am in this sense, very keen to get started with teaching in order to better understand, observe and (re)learn effective blended teaching approaches that translate across borders.
Poised to begin this new teaching journey, I keep re-reading the reflective “Self-appraisal and professional development plan” I had to write as my last piece of assessed work on the Postgraduate Certificate course. I share the table of contents, introduction and conclusion sections here (let me know if you would like to read the full 4375 words reflective essay, excluding references)…as a reminder to myself:
Self-appraisal and professional development plan
Table of contents
Introducing the dream
I caught the teaching bug during my undergraduate days in Ghana when over two consecutive summer vacation in my second and third year (of a 4-year degree programme) I volunteered to teach Geography at my former secondary school. After a shifting career ambition of becoming a TV News broadcaster and then dreaming of becoming an architect, I finally settled on the romantic idea of becoming an academic. A little over ten years later and having just seen this dream coming true, I find myself looking back to see if my romantic ideas match up with reality – especially in the context of what I have encountered through the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE) course. In this self-appraisal report, I seek to reflexively reflect on my professional development and teaching practices as an academic vis-à-vis an interrogation of my own professional values. This self-appraisal is carried out in relation to the wider changing context of learning and teaching in higher education (HE) in the UK and set against the Higher Education Academy UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF).
I begin this reflexive piece by situating myself and the origins and development of my professional values. I show my starting points and how over the past 12 months on the LTHE, I have continued to develop my teaching practice. The next section considers how the contextual factors – national policy agenda and university level agendas – of HE ultimately interacts with my professional values and on (my) teaching in the classroom. In the third section, I reflect on the impact of learner diversity on the design and delivery of my teaching session. I focus on the innovation I developed for my teaching observation and how it sought to address learner diversities. The first three sections then allow me to conclude my discussion by opening unto my priorities for future professional development in relation to the UKPSF.
Who I am and used to be: Me, myself and I
In Ghana where I completed my undergraduate degree, going to university was a time of great excitement. University was a place of self-motivation and full of students with great enthusiasm for learning. With no fancy PowerPoint presentations or virtual learning environments at that time, teaching was basically in the form of a lecturer in front of the class talking, explaining and dictating notes while the students scribbled away their own notes and understanding of the materials being presented. It took the self-drive of students to follow up with extra reading in the library. It was here that my romantic idea of being an academic took root. The starting point of my professional values stem from this period when I came to see teaching primarily as giving a lecture. I did not really have any experience of a seminar as even tutorial sessions with teaching assistants was another lecture. Thus, to me being a teacher was about pouring out my store of knowledge to eager undifferentiated students who are all beholden of me and are conditioned to (rote) learning on their own as evidenced by external behavioural changes (Watson, 1913; Skinner, 1973; Pavlov, 1928). I came to see the content model of curriculum development as the way to structure teaching. Certainly, there are strengths to this approach of teaching as there are downsides. Imagine my delightful surprise then, when I first encountered the UK HE during my first MSc degree programme at King’s College London in 2009. What I experienced was the ease and availability of learning material, interactive lectures and seminars, and outstanding teaching support. In sum, I came to see the HE environment in the UK as one that puts everything on an easy platter for students. Students only had to open their mouths to eat, often with the HE environment ready to spoon-feed them.
When I transitioned after my PhD into a lecturing role, I initially found it difficult to fully comprehend why some students within HE in the UK were not fully engaged with their learning experiences and not keen on taking advantage of all the opportunities on offer. Given my undergraduate and postgraduate experience in Ghana and the UK respectively, I found it difficult to get my head around why some students in the UK HE environment had to be wooed, cajoled even begged to attend class and drop-in sessions, to engage in learning, interact in the classroom and to take advantage of all the opportunities in the university outside of the classroom. I still struggle with this situation but now I am a bit wiser and more understanding. My 3 years of teaching experience in the UK HE and the past year on the LTHE course have made me more introspective. I have learnt to be a reflexive and reflective teacher (Hickson, 2011; Thompson and Pascal, 2012; Brookfield, 2017). I have now come to redefine a more nuanced foundation of my own professional values in teaching.
Upon much reflection and reflexivity [V3], I have come to see my own professional values and approach to teaching as one that is a blend of humanistic orientations and social constructivism underpinned by emancipatory goals (Vygotsky, 1962, 1980; Freire, 1972). Indeed, through completing the Teaching Perspectives Inventory, I have developed a better view of the relationship between my teaching beliefs, intentions and actions [V3]. The TPI Profile Sheet from this inventory provides some basis for how I am conceiving of my professional values.
Figure 1 – Summary of Teaching Perspective Inventory
I believe that a key purpose of teaching is to inspire students to take a deep approach to learning – just as my undergraduate lecturers inspired me (Marton & Säljö, 1976; Biggs, 1999; Entwistle, 1991). Through the LTHE course [A5; K5; K6; V3], I now see that inspiring students through teaching ought to go together with providing them with the tools that enhances individual learning abilities [V1; A2; A4; K2; K3]. Consequently, my approach to teaching is one that encourages students to be intrinsically curious about our subject area [A1; K1], engage them in active learning through group activities (Joyce-Gibbons, 2017) [A4; K2; K3], and develop in them the freedom to learn [V1; V2] (Rogers and Freiburg, 1993; Smith, 1999). I am an active researcher and fortunately, the PG module I teach on is directly related to my research area of tourism policy and planning. My learning materials are underlined by state-of-the-art research in the field including my own research [K1]. This means that students can benefit from research-led and informed teaching. These set of professional values are in no way settled in stone but are rather the seedlings of an ongoing developmental process. I intend to nurture and water these seedlings unto maturity through continuing professional development in my teaching pedagogy in my subject and disciplinary area [A5; K6; V3] set in the context of ongoing policy changes in HE.
The new me in 2019 and beyond…
Over the past 12 months of engaging with the LTHE course, I have changed – mostly for the better – and my resolve strengthened that being an academic remain the dream vocation for me. While I have found the romance of this vocation from the outside to be different from the messy reality once inside, I keep seeing glimpses of beauty and romantic sparks that need nurturing. I have made huge professional strides in terms of my teaching practice and find myself in a totally different place now than when I first began. My awareness of the key issues and agendas in HE has improved and has made me more understanding of the predicament of my students [V1; V2]. Importantly, I am better placed to contextualise the external macro and meso level policy changes that is driving real changes in my teaching at the micro level of the classroom [V3; V4] while holding onto my value that teaching should be inspirational for both the teacher and the student. With a revamped toolkit of teaching and learning approaches under my belt, I feel confident that I can enhance the learning experience of my students while enjoying the process myself [A1; A2; A3; A4] whether using the traditional chalk and board or the deft deployment of appropriate learning technologies [K4].
In the current ever changing messy reality of teaching in HE, I continue to strive to find a balance between my professional values and the conception of the purpose of teaching in HE within my subject group specifically and within SHU in general. It is sometimes a tough balancing act, but a key guiding light remain my desire to use my teaching to inspire students on a journey of lifelong learning. This desire has already seen some results with my nomination for the SHU Inspirational Teaching Awards 2018 and I seek to build on it through the following set of professional development plan for 2019 and beyond….