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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #2 Pedagogical Competence

December 27, 2011

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The second area on STLHE’s list is: Pedagogical Competence.

One of the courses in the first semester of my undergraduate degree was Political Science and the topic was an overview of Canadian political structures. The professor was undoubtedly brilliant and also, undoubtedly, hired for his research skills and not his communication prowess. To keep ourselves entertained, the students would tally which word was said more: ‘um’ or ‘uh’. Throughout am hour and a half lecture, the tally would almost invariably cross into the triple digits. I never took another political science class again.

But pedagogical competence is more than simply good verbal communication or public speaking skills which come in handy primarily for lecturing. Pedagogical competence includes awareness of “alternative instructional methods or technologies”. Pedagogical competence requires that instructors actively think about and interrogate their own practices in the classroom, being aware of the possible strategies for engagement, and actively choosing the methods that best fit their goals and topics. How many times have you attended a lecture on engaged learning, transformative processes or alternative schooling methods? Often our intentions don’t match the practices.

Part of being pedagogically competent is actively taking “steps to stay current regarding teaching strategies”. Emphasis is placed on the changing nature of knowledge within a field and instructors attend conferences, read journals, etc… to keep relevant. But little attention is paid to the teaching techniques which, for most instructors, have stayed fairly constant. There are many great new studies, techniques and literature around pedagogical strategies but how often is is accessed or used by your average instructor?

A great way to engage in the discussions and materials around pedagogy are through blogs, such as this one. The knowledge is often relevant and up to date and it allows instructors and educators to engage in online dialogues and communities. The beauty of online communities is the ability to find ideas and inspiration from beyond the walls of your own institution and colleagues, to bring something new into your network. It also operates similar to the abstract of a journal article – skim the post and, if interested, many link to longer, more in-depth articles.

Obviously, the solution is not as simple as mandating that instructors engage in pedagogical scholarship. Faculty are busy and teaching often factors low on the priority scale, both personally and institutionally. I’ve had numerous conversations with people involved in hiring process and almost invariably, research trumps teaching. There is little incentive for instructors to take the time to be pedagogically responsible. How do we change this?

There is also a caution within a push for pedagogical competence. How do you measure competence? Often we teach pedagogy and require competence as part of the push for the professionalization of education, creating standards to satisfy the neoliberal need for measurable, quantifiable benchmarks by which to measure value. This is also connected to something that the STLHE mentions in their statement, the need to choose pedagogical strategies “according to research evidence”. What counts as evidence? Are an instructor’s opinions, insights and experiences valid enough? As Riyad Shahjahan outlines in his paper, “Decolonizing the evidence-based education and policy movement“, both the professionalization of teaching and the need for “evidence” are tied into neoliberal calls for ‘accountability’ which plays a major role in perpetuating and enforcing inequitable social hierarchies.

Still, when higher education instructors are pedagogically responsible in ways that serve their students’ needs, it is a powerful way of modelling critical engagement for the students. It shows an enthusiasm not only for the topic but for teaching, a willingness to continually challenge traditional paradigms and create new ways of learning. If instructors are willing to try new methods, engage with new techniques and technologies, and take their teaching/learning seriously, how much more will the students be willing to do the same?

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 4: Student Development

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students

Part 6: Confidentiality

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