In order to answer the question "What is excellent teaching?" it would be appropriate to begin by asking a more fundamental question, namely, "What is teaching?" It is only after we have come to an agreement on what teaching is that we can explore the issue of teaching excellence.
Consider the following characterizations of teaching at the university level:
- Teaching is the activity of lecturing to the students.
- Teaching is the activity of transferring a body of knowledge to the students.
- Teaching is the activity of causing students to learn something. (That is, teaching is the activity of facilitating learning. )
If we define teaching as lecturing, excellence in teaching is excellence in lecturing. The quality of teaching will then depend on the quality of the knowledge presented and the way it is communicated.
Transfer of knowledge can take place through lectures, and equally well through appropriate printed, videotaped, or electronic teaching materials. Hence the second characterization of teaching includes the first, but goes beyond it in scope. If we define teaching as transferring knowledge, excellence in teaching is excellent dissemination of knowledge. The quality of teaching will then depend on the quality of the knowledge transmitted, and the way it is transmitted through syllabus design, readings, handouts, and lectures.
The third characterization of teaching includes and goes beyond the second. Defining teaching as facilitating learning implies that while considerations of knowledge transfer are no doubt important, they are valuable only in relation to the quality of learning that they trigger. If the teaching activities do not result in learning, there has been no teaching. Likewise, if the learning is lacking in quality, the teaching is unseccessful to that extent. Finally, there are modes other than that of knowledge transfer which can play a more effective role in the triggering of learning. Hence, an excellent teacher needs to go beyond excellent lecturing or excellent knowledge dissemination.
When spelt out like this, most educators would agree that the best choice among the three characterizations of teaching is the third one. Now, central to the definition of teaching as facilitating learning is the shift of focus from the teaching process to the learning process, to what happens in the mind of the learner. If so, the ultimate measure of excellence in teaching is the quality of learning that it leads to. Let us explore carefully the consequences of shifting the focus to learning.