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A positive learning and teaching climate through the continuous development of teaching competences

The continuous development of teaching competences needs commitment at all levels. It is a systematic process that requires a framework for teaching performance, a professionalisation body, preferably an all-embracing innovation network, and an informal teaching community. Gerhard van de Bunt and Silvester Draaijer from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam discuss why success can only be guaranteed if higher education institutions take the student voice and student feedback very seriously. It is about trust and confidence, not about control and checking.

The continuous development of teaching competences is not merely a question of offering training and workshops and urging staff to attend; nor is it solely the teacher’s responsibility. It depends on the golden triangle of “student – teacher – organisation”. Teachers and students have a responsibility towards each other, differentiated by the program type, and need a safe environment provided by the organisation. All levels are responsible for this including the institution, the faculty, the department, the program and course level, as well as the national level.

In the ongoing discussion about continuing professional development, it is the tone and feel that matter; they should not exhale “we control”, rather “we trust”. All levels should advocate the strengthening of a positive learning and teaching climate. In this respect, positive means that all parties (we all are learners) are engaged with each other, create a positive feedback culture, are learning and learner oriented and continuously aim to do better. For instance, national quality assurance systems should enhance the quality assurance and quality enhancement cycle at the institutional and program level, and the learning process should not only be analysed at accreditation moments, but also between accreditation time points. Openness, team work, pro-activity and taking responsibility should take precedence over defence, reactivity and avoiding responsibility, in order to provide a cycle of constructive feedback.

Of utmost importance in this respect is the identification of motivators and sustainable reward mechanisms that higher education institutions could embrace to show and to substantiate taking continuing professional development seriously. This requires a framework that clearly demonstrates the standing that is attached to pursuing a career in education; educating people is the core business of each higher education institution, including educating one’s own staff. For staff this entails being critical towards themselves, reflecting upon their own teaching, and – as in research – organising peer-feedback and building an educational curriculum vitae – a portfolio that demonstrates the growth of their learning and teaching skills. At Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, we designed the Framework for Teaching Performances “allowing for the performance level in one area [education or research] to be compensated by the performance level in the other.” At the national level this is also stressed; Dutch Universities and several national research administrations will team up in 2019 to work on a new approach to recognising and rewarding academics in three domains by making it possible to differentiate between career paths – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and/or leadership.

A framework alone is not enough. Importance should also be attached to the quality of teaching itself. Formative and summative feedback of students and colleagues (as part of the teaching framework in practice), complemented by the higher education institution’s support of centres of excellence, teaching innovation funds and engagement mechanisms, give a boost to the development of a positive climate of learning and teaching. At VU we host LEARN! Academy that sustainably facilitates teachers in meeting the educational challenges they face. We also organise the University and Senior Teaching Qualification programs – the former is mandatory for all staff – and the Educational Leadership program. Right now, VU aims at starting the VU Network for Teaching & Learning, to stimulate and coordinate educational innovation projects and ambitions at VU, to professionalise staff, to stimulate innovation, to share knowledge online and, very importantly, also offline. It will also celebrate teaching by offering rewards, low profile grants, and an education café where people can eat, meet and work. Crucially, the network combines IT, the LEARN! Academy, the library, the audiovisual center, student affairs, and most importantly the teaching staff by working close together with the teaching community KnowVU – the Knowledge Network Education VU. KnowVU acts as an independent, yet subsidised, actor and interprets the voice of the (innovative) teaching staff. KnowVU brings together staff from all faculties, with all kinds of backgrounds, applying multiple disciplinary and didactic perspectives.

Students play a significant role in this process as they are also expected to contribute to a positive learning and teaching culture. This manifests itself in appreciating and valuing education, by being active and engaged, and by providing constructive feedback to their fellow students and their teachers.

To summarise, the continuous development of teaching competences needs commitment at all levels – from national and institutional to the individual teacher and student. Higher education institutions should consider professional development as a systematic process with which academics engage throughout their careers. This process needs and cannot do without the student voice and student feedback. Education should be about taking care of each other; staff and students co-create learning, while teachers listen and learn from other teachers.

Both authors were members of the EUA Thematic Peer Group on “Continuous Development of Teaching Competences”. The opinions set out in this testimonial do not necessarily reflect those of Vrije Universiteit.

The EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Groups gather a selected group of EUA member universities each year to discuss and explore practices and lessons learnt in organising and implementing learning and teaching at the institutional level. Their work feeds into the European Learning & Teaching Forum.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Gerhard van de Bunt

Gerhard van de Bunt is associate professor in Sociology and chair of Knowledge Network on Education VU (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). He is also program director of the master Social Sciences and Humanities Education, and Quartermaster of Innovation of Education.

Silvester Draaijer

Silvester Draaijer is senior policy advisor Educational Innovation and ICT at the VU (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). He is also Quartermaster of Innovation of Education.

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