Saturday, October 10, 2020

The problem with prizes

Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash

Most universities and schools have annual polls to find the best teacher of the year. This is a great honour of course and the idea is to reward good teaching and provide inspiration to other teachers. We have a great fascination for prize winners in all areas of society; from sporting awards to Oscars and Nobel prizes. Everyone loves a winner. The problem is that the focus is so often on individuals rather than the teams behind them and it is often unclear what the selection criteria are.

I started thinking about this after hearing a presentation at a Swedish online conference this week. The authors, Jeanna Wennerberg, Klara Bolander Laksov och Tore West, presented results from a study of nominations for best teacher awards at Stockholm University and examined in particular gender issues. The paper has not been published yet so I will not reveal too many details, but the study showed a clear bias in favour of male teachers (77% male 23% female). Interestingly, female students overwhelmingly nominated male teachers. The students' nominations were accompanied by criteria to justify the choice and there were clear trends there such as female teachers being seen to be better at building good relations with students and being more inclusive. However in general male teachers were seen as meeting a greater number of criteria for nomination. When we celebrate  a winner we need to consider what biases and preconceptions lie behind the nomination. What makes a great teacher?

I think most of us can admit that during our education we have had a teacher who we hated at the time. They worked us hard, challenged us, nagged and made us uncomfortable. They never gave us the right answers we needed for the exam but forced us to work things out for ourselves. But later on in life you realise that this teacher was the one who really taught you valuable lessons. They will never win any awards because their effect is only visible at a distance. How do we capture this in our best teacher awards or in course evaluation forms?

This backs up many other studies about student evaluations of teachers and raises many questions about the validity of these subjective and spontaneous assessments. Gender is one of several variables where unconscious bias and prejudices play an important role; accent/dialect, socio-economic background, nationality, ethnicity etc. How far do stereotyped ideals affect nominations and evaluations? 

Given that teaching today is becoming increasingly a team effort where several teachers design a course in close collaboration with educational technologists, librarians and media specialists, is a focus on the teacher as soloist still a valid strategy? Even if we see that teamwork is such an important factor and that the less visible members are just as important as the front figure we still revert to the urge to nominate individuals. It's similar in examination where we assess an individual's ability and seldom assess and reward a team.

I am not criticising the hard work of the teachers who do receive best teacher awards. They do a great job and deserve their award. But we do need to think a bit more deeply about how we define good teaching and how it is evaluated and judged. It's much more complex than a simple spot poll. Interestingly, the Nobel prize winners this year feature several research teams and the peace prize went to a collective, the UN World Food Programme

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