The Scholarship of Educational Leadership – some reflections

It all seems a little utopianistic trying to frame my own personal experiences and observations within a literature of the ideal avenues or traits for educational leadership. It seemed apt to write this piece now as The Times Higher Education university rating came out last week with Oxford University in the UK making the top spot for the first time. With a methodology which encompasses teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, it does appear to cover all the ‘bases’ necessary to assess how a university is performing. I would question though, in the vein of the theme of SoEL in university contexts, how can we measure good leadership and more specifically in my interests how are we assessing the scholarship of teaching and learning?

I draw in my discussion on three pieces but which in my view together frame my thinking and reservations on the possibility of an ever strengthening Scholarship of Educational Leadership (SoEL).

The first is an article focusing on what is needed in terms of leadership for the future of student learning in higher education (Quinlan 2014); the second is a short piece on how we might best map advocacy and outreach in teaching through their presentation of a matrix (Huber & Robinson 2016); I choose the third piece because I was intrigued by the use of the terms culture of innovation in the report title, there is much discussion currently on technological or scientific innovation so I thought it an interested perspective and way to look at leadership in higher education (Setser & Morris 2015).

I face a growing dilemma on a daily basis given my role within UBC’s new international student program and how the university has progressively embraced the marketization of higher education (Quinlan 2014). Despite the creation of the educational leadership stream at UBC there is still a premise that research (not that on teaching and learning) is the keystone of the academy. I do not dispute this; indeed I battle for the ability to continue my own research endeavours despite my role as a faculty member with the educational leadership stream. Entwined in this is the lack of recognition of educational leadership in higher education research, while in contradiction faculty are expected to be the best teachers and win awards based on their innovation and teaching and learning techniques. Quinlan advocates for a holistic approach, and a reality where students develop their values, sense of self, identity and purpose (Colby et al. 2003) rather than simple focusing on instrumental and economic goals such as employability skills. In order to achieve this teaching must be treated seriously (Huber & Robinson 2014), and a big piece of this is through relationships with the wider community. Ultimately, who are we serving as academics?

I truly believe that in order to remain relevant as institutions and practitioners of what we preach we must be engaged with community partners. Indeed many of our students may be the community partners of tomorrow and by engaging with people beyond the walls of the academy we get a better sense of what it is out students really need to face the world in its entirety rather than just trained to complete certain tasks. As a scalar exercise this step in developing a SoEL practice is a powerful one in my opinion. Beginning with small immediate networks developed through working with faculty at other institutions and their outreach and advocacy within their specific communities will allow these networks to grow. In doing so as academics we are being the transformative leaders that Quinlan presents as a necessity in creating a holistic teaching and learning experience for students.

I challenge Quinlan though and indeed she accepts the contradiction that what is really needed within academic institutions is instructional leadership as a more effective tool than transformative leadership. By focusing on the traits that she thinks are necessary for good leadership in higher education, she determines that there are three key components. These are: the need to create organizational conditions for successful educational change, the need for leaders to be self-reflexive and the need for instructional leadership or direct involvement in curriculum. These three components, although all necessary I would argue need to be thought of in a more scalar chronological relationship. There needs to be acknowledgment and appreciation from the most fundamental level of the importance of curriculum development and what is working and not working for students in teaching and learning. As Huber & Robinson (2014) advocate, there needs to be more people writing about what they have done in their teaching and learning designs, what has been successful and what requires more support. Once again we are back to the issue here of a lack of broader institutional support for these educational leadership activities. Conversation is losing out to a society which is interested in the end goal of getting a high-paying job or having the most research funding for the university, and are hence ignoring the process of getting to that end goal. Although idealistic this is what the Educuase report on Cultural Innovation focuses on – there needs to be a shift in labour economics in how people work and this change needs to come from within education at all levels. At present there is a culture of improvement or just fixing problems as they arise, but the report argues for a culture of innovation which entails building new ways of approaching higher education. The real change will occur when there is institutional support for the scholarship of teaching and learning at all levels. This includes offering national grants as well as institutional support from within universities and departments.

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Bringing the world to a classroom

It was tasked to me this year as part of a role as faculty fellow on the welcome program for international students at UBC, to expose their minds to life in the academy. I did not wish to spend seven days giving them tips on how to study, take notes or use the library. Rather, I wanted to expose them to these aspects of learning and others through a content based approach.

Many of our international students at UBC have come from international schools in their native lands but this does not mean that they have been exposed to a wide array of cultures. Additionally through my teaching on the international program for first year students I have witnessed miscommunication and hurt due to lack of understanding: not linguistic misunderstanding but rather cultural. This experience coupled with my desire to enable students to acculturate into a welcoming common learning environment, led me to embark on designing a syllabus that focused on multiculturalism, globalization and identity. It might seem an accessible endeavour given my research interests and disciplinary approach, but designing a 7-day syllabus was certainly a challenge. I wanted to introduce discussion, group work and reflection but not make it seem tedious and pedantic to students. I wanted to have them realize that the world was right were they were but also have them marvel at its vastness and diversity.

I had a group of 33 students who were from 16 different countries a phenomenon in itself when we think about the vastness of the places they have come from for the single aim of gaining a good education. With a premise of engagement and critical thinking the first hurdle always faced in this instance of a diverse group of students, is cultural norms around speaking publicly or indeed in offering one’s opinion at all. It is a slow process for many students and one that they must be gently coerced into through their engagement in classroom activities. I decided to adopt a scalar approach where I had students begin by thinking about themselves, their routines, their worlds, before asking them to think about how their lives are connected a a global sense of being. Each day was based around a series of short activities framed by images, videos or audio that addressed an aspect of individual identity. Additionally each day students worked in groups of 4 on a project that showcased the multicultural nature of their group. They were given the creative freedom to produce a final project from a range of options including a video, a google tour map (you’ll remember from previous posts how much I like this tool), a poster or a power-point presentation. One of my groups actually made their presentation into a talk-show format for our last day presentations. At the end of class each day I asked them to reflect in their individual journals on what the activities had triggered for them. On the final day they reflected on their group work and project; some excerpts are below used with the students permission.

“I had a lot of fun doing this project and exploring the idea of what a home is. I realized that home doesn’t always have to be a physical place, rather it can be an aspect of yourself that reminds you of home, or even an object. This also brings to mind the fact that by reminding of ourselves of aspects of our home in this foreign country, we do not forget our roots and truly show the meaning of multiculturalism, since we want to create a more diverse society at UBC. With this movie I hope that I can show some aspects of this multiculturalism to the people watching it and also keep it as a personal memento of something that we did in our first weeks at Jumpstart and something that we can show in the future. ”

“Overall I found the week to be both enjoyable challenging but also quite
intellectually stimulating. This was because for the first time I was working on a project with individuals with whom I could share ideas with the intention of having them critiqued and refined into a more coherent thought. What I feel I learned most from working with my classmates was that despite the obvious presence of our diverse backgrounds there was something we all shared in common. All of us from every corner of the globe had chosen UBC out of a multitude of universities, we then had to be chosen, sorted though if you will, and eventually we all ended up here together, diverse yet at the same time united.”

The experience was really rewarding for me and I sense that the students benefited from it immensely as well. Over the course if the 7 days I witnessed an excitement growing among the students as they realized how much of their realities they could apply in an academic setting in order to grasp larger social science questions. The moment when a student pushes aside the belief that they are expected to memorize ‘facts’ from a book or regurgitate every word their professor says. Their opinions and thoughts matter – they must question their reality in order to understand it. Now I would be naive to think that a 7 day 3 daily hour course could accomplish this but it is a step. It has also triggered a research interest in me to explore cultural approaches to active learning, and how this affects students ability and indeed confidence to be a critical thinker.

Below I include my syllabus for the 7-day program as well as my daily slides where appropriate. Please feel free to use these adapting them to your purpose. The material I incorporate is all available open access online but please remember to cite creative commons and share the sources with others. As always do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

  1.  Syllabus
  2. Name Game overview
  3. Day One PowerPoint
  4. Day One Canada Quiz – a good ice breaker
  5. Day Two PowerPoint
  6. Day Three PowerPoint
  7. Day Four Immigration-data-worksheet
  8. Day Four Immigration-stories-from-Ellis-island
  9. Day Five PowerPoint
  10. Day Six First Nations Worksheet to accompany videos