You might think it’s just a coffee chat or a corridor conversation, but if you’re talking about learning and teaching, or supporting a colleague in their teaching, sharing tips or discussing ideas for engaging and enhancing student learning then you are influencing learning and teaching – and you are having a positive impact on the practices of others.
At a recent meeting of the Teaching & Leadership Community of Practice we discussed the concept of distributed leadership in higher education, and the idea that teaching staff, along with professional staff and students at all levels of the institution, contribute to the leadership of learning and teaching, whether they have a formal leadership role or not.
Distributed leadership is defined as an approach that is a flexible, multi-level and an iterative reflective process in which individuals who trust and respect each other’s expertise collaborate to take responsibility for leading action for change while growing the capacity of the group.(Harvey & Jones, 2022, p. 74)
The 6E tenets of distributed leadership:
1. Engage formal and informal leaders, academic and professional colleagues, students and stakeholders/ partners
2. Enable a culture of respect, trust and collaborative relationships
3. Enact through processes, support and systems that develop leadership capabilities
4. Encourage shared decision-making, recognition of contributions, professional and social learning and networking
5. Evaluate evidence and examples of leadership of learning and teaching
6. Support emergent leaders and leadership
(Adapted from Jones & Harvey, 2017 & 2022)
So what does leadership of L&T look like without positional authority – and how do you recognise and evidence it?
Below are some of the ways that distributed leadership happens.
Perhaps you are already doing some of these things but never thought about them as being leadership? Well, according to research, they are.
Building and maintaining collaborative and collegial relationships with colleagues
Some of the ways you might do this:
- Translating professional values (such as scholarship, collegiality, integrity, respect for expertise and experience, equity and inclusion, collaboration) into everyday work and practice at all levels.
- Having regular and genuine conversations about teaching. There’s nothing like talking to other teachers about the small successes and the challenges of teaching, and you never know when or where inspiration will strike.
- Taking advantage of opportunities to lead and engage discussions on teaching in forums such as:
- Community of practice meetings;
- Staff inductions;
- Meetings with course directors, ASQC or Senate members;
- Taking on leadership roles and then providing information for others about what happens in those sessions;
- Conversations with colleagues about their career progression goals and pathways.
- Embedding the idea of co-design into your work: collaborating with colleagues, organising (and leading) meetings where everyone’s input is sought and considered.
- Taking the initiative on learning and teaching projects, writing articles (including posts for TECHE), contributing ideas and sharing experiences from your practitioner perspective
- Recognising people’s particular strengths and expertise in different aspects of teaching and finding ways for them to share that expertise more broadly.
Including and working with professional staff as part of the teaching team and ensuring their contributions to learning and teaching are valued and recognised
- University teaching means being part of a large and very diverse teaching and learning support team that includes professional staff from across the University. Professional staff colleagues, such as research librarians, learning designers, governance, curriculum and planning, student centre staff, exams staff, the timetabling team, Accessibility, and Student Wellbeing all have valuable expertise and resources to support students, and as such, play a vital role in enhancing teaching and learning.
- To foster collaboration and knowledge exchange in learning and teaching, include professional learning and student support staff in relevant working groups, committees, projects and initiatives, and actively seek their input and feedback on learning and teaching initiatives on a regular basis.
- Acknowledge professional staff members’ role in the teaching team team’s success: list their names as co-applicants for awards and grants, express gratitude through emails, and highlight their work in public venues, occasions and presentations.
- Acknowledge the significant and often unseen efforts of various university units and teams that facilitate and enhance learning and teaching, such as library services, learning design, governance, curriculum and planning, student support services, examination administration, timetabling, accessibility and wellbeing initiatives, which all contribute to student experience and success.
Encouraging formal leaders to contribute to a reflective approach for learning and teaching
How can staff support those in formal leadership roles to contribute to a reflective approach for learning and teaching?
Where possible, and certainly whenever invited or requested:
- Leverage the power of suggestion by providing evidence-based recommendations, options, and suggestions for reflective approaches to decision making around learning and teaching.
- Share your experiences and outcomes of implementing different strategies or practices around reflection for enhancing professional practice.
- Advise leaders of the potential impacts and implications of decisions.
- Engage in constructive dialogue and reflective feedback with leaders on strategic goals, actions, and outcomes.
- Ask questions to stimulate reflection and learning among leaders.
- ‘Manage up’ by communicating clearly, proactively, and respectfully with leaders.
Developing the engagement of external stakeholders and partners in your learning and teaching
- Consider external stakeholders part of the teaching team (and part of student learning!) and work with them accordingly. Examples of external stakeholders and partners in teaching might include guest lecturers, accreditation facilitators, placement host supervisors and employers.
- Industry can provide a benchmark for what’s happening outside the university and provides students with experience of being part of a profession and in the professional workplace.
- Industry stakeholders can also help those of us who have worked in universities long-term, to update our professional knowledge and currency; knowledge that we can then share with students
- Think about how you might prepare external stakeholders beforehand to ensure both students and staff get the most out of it. Provide opportunities for external stakeholders to debrief on their experience of working with students.
- Do your guest lecturers want to return? Even the busiest industry executives enjoy meeting and working with students – so if they don’t want to come back to your class, find out why.
Involving students in learning and teaching initiatives
Leading in learning and teaching means including students, not just in decisions about what they learn but also in how they learn. This may entail some readjustment in thinking about students in your classes ‘just’ as students to thinking about them as:
- Fellow (adult, professional) learners
- Future / emergent professionals
- Current professionals
- Future peers
Ways to include students as partners in learning:
- Ask students about their learning and your teaching and keep them involved. Solicit and reflect on their feedback, and often (Minute papers are a useful tool for this).
- Talk to students about educational concepts and approaches, such as Blooms Taxonomy or the use of rubrics, so they understand why learning is designed the way it is, why they are being asked to do things and think about things in a particular way; what they are supposed to be getting out of assessment; and how they are expected to develop and improve over the duration of the course.
- Consider how many students, including postgraduate and HDR, already have experience in industry, and the kind of feedback they then might have on teaching and learning about professional standards and workplace activities.
- Above all, think about students as active adult learners, higher-level thinkers, and engaged creators – and adjust your teaching and learning approaches to meet their needs as such.
- Jones, S., & Harvey, M. (2017). A distributed leadership change process model for higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 39(2), 126-139.
- Student Voice Australia – a network partnering with students to foster and embed a culture of student engagement in institutional decision making.
- Exploring leadership in higher ed – Challenges, tensions, constraints and useful frameworks.
- Find out more about the Teaching & Leadership Community of Practice and join us!