Graham Gibbs, University of Oxford; Christopher Knapper, Queen's University Canada; Sergio Piccinin, University of Ottawa
Research Series 1.15, September 2009
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This study involved two departments in each of eleven world-class, research-intensive universities in eight countries. The departments were all chosen because they were demonstrably excellent at teaching. Detailed case studies were undertaken to identify the role, if any, of departmental leadership in creating and supporting the excellent teaching. Nineteen case studies were produced, covering a wide range of disciplines and context. Five of these are offered as source material in Appendix four.
Four conceptual frameworks were used to help analyse the case studies, examining whether change was planned or emergent, the form the organisational culture took1, the conception of leadership of teaching held by the head or chair2, and the form of dispersed leadership evident3.
LEADERSHIP ACTIVITIES IDENTIFIED
Nine clusters of leadership activity associated with the support of excellence in teaching were identified, with a number of variants of each:
Outstandingly good teaching across a whole department was found to be a somewhat elusive phenomenon and was clearly not the norm, even in the participating world class universities. The departments and the leaders studied here are therefore unusual, and the form leadership of teaching took in these departments might be different in important respects from that observed in studies of departmental leadership not based solely within excellent teaching departments.
THE ROLE OF LEADERSHIP
Excellence in teaching took many different forms, and in particular there were marked differences between departments that emphasised fine tuning of largely traditional methods under the autonomous control of individual academics, and departments where a radical innovation had been planned and implemented as a collaborative venture. Effective leadership of teaching was found to take markedly different forms in such different contexts.
In two cases there was little evidence of leadership playing a major role in creating teaching excellence, but in all other cases leadership appeared important and in many it was pivotal.
Leadership associated with excellent teaching was found to be multi-faceted. Several cases displayed examples from almost every ‘cluster’ of leadership activity. These cases tended to involve a comprehensive planned innovation to address an identified problem. A few cases displayed a form of ‘non-leadership’ involving maintenance of a culture that valued teaching and students but almost no overt leadership efforts to develop teaching.
Few or perhaps none of these individual ‘leadership of teaching’ activities can be considered essential for excellent teaching. Rather, effective leadership of teaching was seen to involve different combinations of these characteristics in different contexts.
The heads in the departments studied were unusually likely to have been respected for their outstanding teaching or to be teaching award winners at institutional or even national level. This must be an unusual phenomenon in research-intensive departments but it may be important for the development of teaching in such contexts. Where leaders did not have such personal credibility as excellent teachers they had enlisted the support of others who did have this credibility.
Dispersed leadership was evident in every department. Leaders never created excellent teaching on their own. However despite the common collegial culture, ‘cultural’ dispersal of leadership in which individuals spontaneously and autonomously take action to develop teaching was rare, while formal allocation of teaching development roles or duties to individuals was very common.
TERMS OF OFFICE
Heads of department in research-intensive universities are usually appointed or elected for a single term of office lasting three to five years. In quite a few of the cases excellence in teaching had been developed progressively over an extended period of time. The examples involving radical innovation had sometimes taken the equivalent of two or three terms of office of a departmental chair. In examples involving emergent change the pattern of leadership of teaching had sometimes been established decades before and the current head had been selected so as to maintain that pattern. There were no examples of a head being responsible for bringing about excellence in teaching within a single term of office. This is an important finding that has implications for the way departmental heads are appointed and their terms of office determined, and also for the timescales of institutional teaching development initiatives that heads are sometimes expected to respond to.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DEPARTMENTAL CONTEXT
Patterns were evident in the relationship between context and leadership. We assumed that large departments would tend to adopt more strategic and managerial approaches to achieving excellence but this was not found to be the case. Emergent change and planned change was just as common in small, medium and large departments. There were also no systematic differences found between departments in universities in the UK and Australia, Europe and North America. Their research-intensiveness was their dominant characteristic, not their national context, although national contexts generated different kinds of educational problems that leadership sought to tackle.
In contrast, the academic discipline was found to have a profound affect on the form of leadership of teaching and the form of educational change associated with excellence in teaching. Change was much more likely to be emergent than planned in Humanities and Social Science. No examples of emergent change were found in Science. An entrepreneurial organisational culture and approach to change was much more common in Professional subjects. Any advice about leadership of teaching should take into account these disciplinary characteristics and cultures or it is likely to risk being not just irrelevant but wrong. Heads should be very wary of generic conclusions about leadership of teaching.
Most departments were identified as having a predominantly collegial culture and this provided a context for the form leadership of teaching took. However a third of these departments also exhibited features of an entrepreneurial culture at the same time. Bureaucratic and corporate cultures were not common.
EXPERIENCE OF A PROBLEM
Experiencing a significant problem or challenge (such as a negative external review or even the threat of removal of professional accreditation) was found to be virtually essential if a process of planned change was to be adopted. Conversely every example of emergent change was associated with no experience of a problem. An entrepreneurial culture was common where there had been a problem and a collegial culture where there had been no problem. In at least two of the universities the ‘problem’ was university-wide rather than restricted to the department concerned. McNay’s characterisation of academic organisational cultures was very helpful in understanding what form of leadership and change was taking place, and the motor that drove cultures and leadership to change in style was the existence of a problem. The role of the leader appeared to be to ‘name’ the problem, face up to it, and to mobilise colleagues to see addressing the problem as an opportunity. Sometimes the problem had sat unattended to by previous heads for some years. The relatively well resourced university contexts, high research standing and high quality of students in these departments meant that severe problems were less prominent in many cases compared with departments in other kinds of universities. In such contexts the development of teaching could be seen to be value-driven rather than problem-driven.
INVOLVEMENT OF STUDENTS
Conceptions of leadership of teaching of the heads studied here were much more sophisticated than those reported by Ramsden4 with about 85% of the leaders studied expressing a "focus on teaching emphasising the students’ experience of studying in a continually changing and developing curriculum" compared with less than 10% of leaders in previous studies (that have sampled departments of varying degrees of teaching excellence). This finding provides strong support for the notion that such a conception of leadership is associated with teaching excellence.
1 McNay (1995)
2 Ramsden (1998)
3 McBeath et al (2004)
4 Ramsden (1998)