Philosophy informing Teaching Excellence

Philosophy in Teaching Excellence

In 2018 Paula Shaw, Academic Manager at University of Derby Online, was named a National Teaching Fellow by Advanced HE in recognition of her outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession.

In January 2019 members of the University were invited to hear her NTF inaugural lecture followed by a panel discussion with the University’s other National Teaching Fellows. The event was a wonderfully engaging exploration of excellence in teaching and learning, and demonstrated how a focused Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning can support and enable talented individuals to showcase their passion and impact. Vice Chancellor Professor Katheryn Mitchell’s opening comments were that ‘this is an award that is significantly competitive, fantastic for Paula and for the University’.

Here Paula discusses the teaching philosophy that helped her to achieve the title of NTF….

For me teaching is a vocation. With 34 years in this profession I feel a strong sense of suitability for teaching and count myself very lucky to be able to say that I’ve been able to make it my life’s work. I have always taken an interest in philosophy but working through the various stages of Fellowship has helped me to question my philosophical foundations and ask ‘beyond teaching, what is excellence?’


First, I tend to be drawn to the ideas of the Enlightenment movement; this feels extremely relevant in this progressive 4th industrial ‘Technological’ revolution. Asking questions such as ‘What is consciousness?’ and ‘What is progress?’ seem very relevant today, particularly in my environment of online learning, where progress has significantly enabled people all over the world to take educational advantages that they couldn’t have dreamt about only 5 years ago. Online learning has opened doors for thousands of individuals who perhaps thought they had missed out on the opportunity to gain a Degree. If we are to design impactful learning for younger generations however, we need to unpack the essences of consciousness and use technology to help us connect in more flexible, accessible and meaningful ways. For example, traditionally we have tended to use lectures to convey the theory and thoughts of the lecturer; in my context e-learning materials communicate the academic expertise to an audience in a variety of ways, that are perhaps more ‘edu-taining’.

However, we have to create spaces to unpack the theory, discuss, debate and shape our perceptions, ‘humanising’ online learning. We use networking tools such as forums and collaboration tools because this is how students work with their tutor and other students to make sense of their learning. Traditionally, the journey from lecture to workplace is lengthy. I would argue that – particularly for our part time online students who are already in the work place – we have narrowed that gap, as our students can work between the learning space and the workplace continually interchanging between them, applying, understanding and discovering new things.

For some this might seem like a new enlightenment but in 2004 Franz Johansson brought out a book called ‘the Medici Effect’, in which he talked about the coming together of science, liberal arts, culture and diversity. It is where they intersect that creativity is born. This has been a slow burning concept as it is only recently that Horizon reports have spoken about interdisciplinary degrees and the drawing together of students, academics and employers into a single space where they can work on problems for the future. I would argue that the online space is ideal for doing this because it’s not confined by regional or national boundaries. However, I would also argue that we still don’t have the full interdisciplinary empathy or a full understanding of generational differences yet to make this happen successfully.

Another example of consciousness is ‘unhappy consciousness’ and nagging doubt. This is where truth, science and facts are only partially developed, then mixed with politics and ideologies, fuelled by biases and the media until populism and society demand action. Scientists and academics sometimes struggle to be heard above the media hype and some are even drawn in by it. It is this example and others that encouraged the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to claim that the Doomsday clock is now set at 2 minutes to midnight as we edge closer to extinction.

We think of post truth and fake news as a modern concept, however in 1807 the philosopher Hegel wrote a book, ‘Phänomenologie des Geistes’ (The Phenomenology of Spirit), in which he imagined a world collective intellect; a ‘Common sense’ but he also said that this common sense was filled with errors. So, what is the antidote to this post truth society, this common sense of errors?


If we were to listen to Psychologist and Enlightenment thinker Steven Pinker, he would say the answer is sound, logical reasoning because reason would tell us that the Doomsday clock must be broken, it is a measure of perception and not science, as the minute hand has moved backwards and forwards through the decades.

So let me crystallise these thoughts: here you are standing on this precipice. Surrounded by this common sense of errors and it’s rooting you to the spot. An idea that the existential philosopher Camus developed in the 1940’s and 50’s with his books that explore the absurdity of life. At best it feels pointless to fight it, and at worst it sends us spiralling down through nagging doubt and scepticism to futility and uselessness. The answer, according to Pinker, is building that bridge of reason. This will take us, through hard work and grit, to what we want to be.

I agree with Pinker. I believe that reason is a big part of that answer, but I still have a nagging doubt. That is because I have spent 20 years reasoning with people about the benefits of technology enhanced learning.

Nagging doubt

Even now, in 2019, a time of technological advancements we still get questions as to whether a course can be successfully delivered online, and whether it is equivalent to campus based courses. I would argue that when people ask this question they are thinking about e-learning and not the rich diversity of network learning that we painstakingly weave into our modules to ensure that students have a richly rewarding experience.

We, as an institute, have 20 years of experience and thought leadership in the online learning arena, and in many ways we are still emerging. With advancements like big data, Artificial Intelligence, and robotics we need to be focused on harnessing them. These things do not come without concerns like “what will humans do all day when the robots take their jobs?” There are, however, human traits – it’s not all doom and gloom – this should all be for the benefit of human kind. We still have imagination, emotion but in particular we need to retain our ethics because the technology isn’t bad, it’s more of a question of who is controlling it and for whose benefit?

The leap of faith

And so, we build a bridge of reasoning and alongside it there is one last piece of the jigsaw; the leap of faith. It is the phenomenology philosopher Kierkegaard who really struggled with his passion for science and his religious beliefs, in the end he said ‘sometimes you have just got to take a leap of faith’ and if you need to bring anyone along with you, you ‘must seduce the readers and not convince them rationally’.

With all of these things combined you have teaching excellence. We as excellent teachers stand on the other side of the precipice pulling people along with our absolute sound reasoning, our passion and desire to help them make that leap of faith. Where some of our learners have fallen into spiralling doubt or uselessness we need to give them that ladder up to re-join us. But in order to do so we must join forces with technology and look to the future rather than accepting the status quo.

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