Reflection and moving on – herding cats and losing weight

For the last couple of weeks I have been focused on developing and giving a presentation titled Herding cats and losing weight: How to improve learning and teaching. The abstract, slides and video of the talk are all available on the presentation page. The following is an attempt to reflect on the talk, how it went and some recent readings/events which may influence how it goes moving forward.

What was the point

The basic point of the presentation was to argue that universities seem to be focusing their efforts on improving the quality of learning and teaching on approaches that are like “herding cats”. I argued that such approaches are destined to fail to make any widespread, significant change and are more likely to result in slavish faddism, task corruption and wasted time and effort. Instead, I suggested that universities needed to borrow more from what we know about losing weight in order to make long term change that is more sustainable.

I used the following quote as an eventual basis for what I was suggesting

Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do, developing the courage to recognise faults, and struggling to improve (Common, 1989)

My argument was that management should forget about focusing on the next great fad – blended learning, authentic learning, open source learning management systems, e-portfolios, OERs etc….. – the introduction of that fad and the herding of academics to use that fad appropriately. Instead they should focus on creating an environment that encourages, enables and (in a small “r” kind of way) requires academics to become master teachers.

How did it go?

There were probably up to 20 people at the talk. Discussion afterwards, both f-t-f and online, was encouraging. People mentioned words and phrases such as: scholarly, confronting etc. However, if I were to be practising what I preached, then I would reject such comments as being more like smile sheets or happiness indicators. Somewhat like this quote I used in the talk

Participants’ reactions to instructional development do not contribute to a clear picture of its real impact (Weimer & Lenze, 1998)

As expected, the people the talk was aimed at, were not there. Quite understandably, they probably couldn’t be there. But given the nature of the talk, without them engaging, there is little that can be done at a significant level. That does not mean it’s time to give up. It just means that the work will be harder and have less chance of success.

Perhaps more of a worry for me, is the observation that I’m not sure that some of the participants really understood exactly what I meant. Exactly how different I think this suggestion is from what is going on at the moment. There were a couple of folk who talked with me after the presentation who seemed not to get it. That the basic premises they were making went against what I was arguing.

A little while after the presentation, I was chatting to another colleague who was complaining about the lack of engagement from other staff members in terms of innovation around learning and teaching. There was a long list of activities and resources development by this colleague, followed by a long period of other colleagues not using or engaging with those activities and resources.

This is exactly the point I was trying to make. It doesn’t matter what I do, if what I do doesn’t connect or help academics staff to become master teachers. This isn’t to imply that I should find a better thing to do, or do that thing better, or punish the academics for not doing the thing I had identified. Instead, I should work on developing an in-depth understanding of what they are doing and work out a small change I can suggest and help make to what they do or to the environment in which they work. A change that doesn’t take a lot of effort, but gives them or the organisation more experience and encourages a slight change in conceptions.

More herding cats?

The University I work for has recently seen the commencement of a new Vice-Chancellor. I think there is almost universal agreement at the coal face about him being a much needed breath of fresh air. He’s even started keeping a blog that is hosted by an external provider, not by on-campus IT!.

The blog is a great way to get some insight into what the VC is thinking. For both good and bad reasons. In his most recent post I’m a little fearful that I may potentially be seeing an emphasis on more herding of cats. Here’s where I start to get a little bit fearful (my emphasis)

We need to start to track down the “blended” leaders and make them professional academic managers. These should be our Heads of School. They should be given autonomy to become empire builders and be allowed to grow their schools to teach more students and undertake more research. They should be developed so that they can safeguard the welfare of the school staff and develop them into the leaders they want to be. I think they should be seen as senior managers within the university and placed on management contracts.

In my talk I draw on Robert Birnbaum’s book Management fads in higher education: where they come from, what they do, why they fail. In particular I drew on the chapter that identified 6 biases of mangers:

  1. Role bias – Managers take charge.
  2. Cognitive bias – Managers as intuitive scientists.
  3. Normative bias – Managers act appropriately.
  4. Self-efficacy bias – The illusion of control.
  5. Commitment bias – The trapped manager.
  6. Expectancy bias – The placebo effect.

It’s my position that management contracts – especially contracts that last for 5 years at which stage the manager is out of a job unless they can impress someone – are a major contributing factor to the over-emphasis on “herding cats” within universities and their attempts to improve learning and teaching. It’s one of the major factors for the role bias – that the manager has to take control.

If you only have a few years to make an impression, you have to be seen to do something. Something that has a pay off. Real improvement in L&T is not something that can be achieved this quickly. Remember, I mean improvement by more than 50% of the institution. Hence the bias towards herding cats and hence the problem that the vast majority of teaching at universities tends not to improve.

Dan Pink to the rescue?

One of the drawbacks of the written word is that my fears could be driven by a misunderstanding of what the VC thinks. He may having something entirely different in mind. The benefit of the doubt in this case is increased somewhat by the fact that his blog post links to this one on the Atlassian site that talks about this TED talk by Dan Pink.

Recommending this talk shows some promise. Saying he’s taken by the ideas shows more. Though it will be interesting to see how and if those ideas are applied to learning and teaching at this institution. Especially given that those ideas apply very much to the points I was trying to make in the talk.

The Atlassian blog post summarises Pink’s new “operating system” for businesses as:

  1. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives (like Atlassian’s FedEx days or 20% time).
  2. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose: yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

In the context of my talk and the aim of improving learning and teaching, I’d suggest some of the following ideas:

  1. Autonomy.
    Have a system/processes that encourage academics to believe that they are in charge of their learning and teaching. That they are not driven by management and its checklists and minimum standards.

    This is not to suggest that they should be left to do their own thing. There should be some “controls”. But it should be in the form of evaluations and scholarly activity not a knee-jerk reaction driven by the need to have good pass rates and satisfied students. This last sentence is driven by the following quote I used in the presentation

    Well-organised subjects, with high pass rates and light to reasonable workloads, are likely to score well with students even though they may not have encouraged or even required deep learning. Yet these are the current measures used to gauge quality in learning and teaching and to allocate funding to institutions. (Tutty, Sheard et al, 2008)

  2. Mastery.
    Have a system/processes that help academics develop mastery of TPACK in a contextualised, informed way that respects their reality and seeks only to build on it. Not to destroy it.

    This is based on the well-known criticisms of widespread forms of staff development that infect higher education and do little to change conceptions or respond to the reality of academics lives. It draws on the resonance I have with the Theatre Sports maxim “Don’t ignore another’s reality, only build on it”. Rather than replace – and subsequently give the impression that you don’t value – a person’s reality you seek to work with them to improve their reality. To build on it.

  3. Purpose.
    Have a system that drives to continually improve learning and teaching. Not to achieve the latest fad or buzz-word (e.g. blended learning, authentic learning, e-portfolios….), but is forever seeking ways to improve on what they do now and move forward. The purpose is to get better. To further contribution to the knowledge of what works.

The problem I was trying to get at in the talk, is that most of the environment, systems and processes within universities are actively working against academics generating a feeling that they have autonomy, mastery and purpose around learning and teaching.


I was going to use the candle problem in some up coming presentations. If the problem has gotten publicity through Pink’s presentation, it will have ruined the effect. Bugger.


Common, D. (1989). “Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings.” The Review of Higher Education 12(4): 375-387.

Tutty, J., J. Sheard, et al. (2008). “Teaching in the current higher education environment: perceptions of IT academics.” Computer Science Education 18(3): 171-185.

Weimer, M. (2007). “Intriguing connections but not with the past.” International Journal for Academic Development 12(1): 5-8.

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