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Leadership in teaching: a concept in the making?

The concept of leadership in teaching is not easy to pin down. Drawing from the LOTUS project, EUA expert Thérèse Zhang explores two definitions and highlights the roles that leaders in teaching could play at higher education institutions.

When thinking about teaching at higher education institutions, one stereotyped, classic perception remains the lonesome academic, master and commander in the classroom, mostly making teaching his or her own individual matter. Nowadays, this cliché clashes with other realities: student-centred learning has become fundamental in learning approaches; team teaching and pedagogical coordination within departments are more and more widespread; curriculum design can be addressed by a committee at universities; and higher education institutions increasingly grant attention to learning and teaching through institutional and faculty-level strategies and policies. In this context, it is worth exploring how individual teachers, in a learning ecosystem within their institution, can lead the enhancement of learning and teaching.

The concept of leadership in teaching is not easy to grasp. Across the European Higher Education Area, leadership in teaching typically refers to two types of practices. Firstly, it is associated with a formal role at the level of the institution, a faculty, or a study programme. Such roles are vice-rectors for education, deans, or directors of study programmes. Responsibilities range from academic affairs at large, to curriculum design, and community building and awareness raising among colleagues on teaching innovation. Such roles are also typically filled by academics. In other words, leadership in teaching seems to refer to a primus inter pares practice among academics.

Secondly, leadership in teaching can be associated with communities of practice, or groups of motivated teachers who want to learn more about pedagogies, and take an active part in initiatives or training on teaching organised at their institution. This type of leadership in teaching is less about taking a defined position or responsibility in enhancing learning and teaching. Instead, it is more about contributing to changing mindsets, promoting professional development on pedagogy, getting involved in scholarship in learning and teaching, innovating teaching practices, or simply exchanging about how to teach.

The two approaches are complementary. Several rounds of peer learning groups with members from different European higher education institutions, organised by EUA since 2017, have also led to the conclusion that the interplay between institutional leadership inputs and participatory approaches, including grassroot, peer support for teachers, is key to enhancing learning and teaching. In several countries, higher education institutions and/or national structures supporting learning and teaching organise both training courses for individuals with specific responsibilities for the education offer, as well as activities for building communities of practice among teachers.

However, one main challenge to being a leader in teaching is that, in several countries, it is not associated with any exciting perspective to innovate teaching, but with a responsibility bound to additional workload. Study programme directors, for instance, may become so by virtue of seniority, and are bound to take charge of all administrative duties related to curriculum management. In such a context, it can be challenging to build alternative models for leadership in teaching. Moreover, taking over such leadership roles and responsibilities in teaching may not help career progression, which is still mainly driven by research achievement. This may result in positions with responsibility in the education offer being perceived as not attractive enough for advancing careers and not exciting enough for those interested in pedagogy, while creating work overload.

Under the LOTUS project, leadership in teaching is understood as both an (individual) agency to develop strong strategic oversight, coordination and implementation for learning and teaching, and as a collective, institutional capacity to address organisational development and gear it towards enhancement. Both the individual and collective dimensions matter. Therefore, examining the range of responsibilities and roles for leaders in teaching is crucial in identifying where improvement can take place, both for supporting individual behaviours and competences as teachers, and for enhancing policies and support structures at higher education institutions. At the institutional level, this would mean reviewing capacity and fitness for purpose in areas such as decision-making processes and structures, management approaches, human resource policies, communication channels and strategies, and expertise and capacity for responding to training needs in pedagogy. Addressing these areas will contribute to create a shared leadership approach, in order to achieve together commonly defined goals, as explicated in Oliver Vettori’s earlier article.

This Expert Voice article is part of a series dedicated to leadership in teaching, a concept explored in the EUA-led project “Leadership and Organisation in Teaching and Learning at European Universities” (LOTUS).

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Thérèse Zhang

Thérèse Zhang is the Deputy Director of EUA’s Higher Education Policy Unit. She currently works on topics related to higher education learning and teaching, including developments in the Bologna Process, lifelong learning, digitalisation and internationalisation. She also represents EUA in the European Qualifications Framework Advisory Group, organised by the European Commission.

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