What Is Good Teaching?

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Teaching and Good Teaching

A question prior to ‘What is good teaching?’ is ‘What is teaching?’ What, indeed. As teachers we may find this bald question strangely difficult to answer. It’s just what we do, in lectures, classes, seminars, workshops, tutorials, by telephone, in teaching texts, websites, online. In so far as the movement has helped us think of teaching as a means to an end rather than an end in itself the effect has been salutary, for teaching is, of course, a means to an end – a complex of activities, strategies, mechanisms, invitations, stimuli and rhetorical ploys designed to help students learn and to become better learners.

The Student Learning movement

Begun in the 1970s, the Student Learning movement’s origins are credited to the Swedish Göteborg school of academics and educational researchers – to work carried out by Ference Marton and his colleagues. In the context of the academic subject under study. And it claims that the approach a student adopts to study is closely related to the learning outcomes of it. The researchers came to distinguish between two significantly different approaches to study among their student subjects: a surface-level approach, in which the student focuses on the text (‘the sign’), relies mainly on memorisation and largely regurgitates what has been ‘learned’ in assignments and exams; and a deep-level approach, in which ‘what is signified’ is the focus for interpretation and greater understanding is the goal of study (Marton and Säljö,1976a: 7–8).

Academic-disciplinary core

Still, academic disciplines are the ‘core business’ of the university – despite being scorned, in some quarters, as producing a Balkanisation of knowledge. That is because the various disciplines of knowledge and inquiry we see today have been developed over time as the (increasingly differentiated) ways we distinguish between, and mediate, different aspects of human experience, activity and imagination.
Academics are those of us in society who make it their business to get ‘on the inside’ of the disciplines and fields: to understand how we come to know (the underlying theoretical issues, appropriate methods of inquiry and the principles and practices involved); to acquire substantive knowledge of the field, along with the ability to speak and write expertly in terms of the relevant discourses; to help extend the limits of our knowledge and understanding. So we believe that good teaching must also be a major focus of educational research and development in our universities.

Learning and education

There is a sense in which ‘learning’ does not depend upon teaching (good or otherwise), as the founders of the discipline of Philosophy of Education in Britain argued some time ago (Hirst and Peters, 1970). While of course we are learning things all the time, in a variety of contexts, the authors first demonstrate that indeed there is a logical relationship between learning and education – the particular form of learning we are talking about here. That is, in education, learning is understood:
  • to have particular objects (people are setting out to learn something);
  • to imply certain levels or standards of achievement; and
  • generally, to be worthwhile/non-trivial: involving the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills that are seen as desirable and important or useful (even though people may disagree about what precisely is desirable, etc.).


Accordingly, they identify three logically necessary conditions for central cases of ‘teaching’ activities:
  1. ‘they must be conducted with the intention of bringing about learning’;
  2. ‘they must indicate or exhibit what is to be learnt’;
  3. ‘they must do this in a way which is intelligible to, and within the capacities of, the learners’ (Hirst and Peters, 1970: 81).
‘Teaching’, then, takes both a direct object and an indirect object – educators teach subjects to students.

Signalling content

Let’s just grant the first condition – assume that as teachers we do intend to bring about learning, by whatever means. The second condition draws attention to the point underlined by the Göteborg researchers: that in education there must be a content to be learned. (It should be clear that our understanding of content is not of a ‘factual
nuggets’ kind, amenable to multiple-choice testing; nor is it restricted to propositional knowledge, but includes theories, processes, related activities and skills, open-ended pursuits, and so on.) Furthermore, whatever the content it must be made manifest to the students, otherwise the ‘teacher’ is being self-indulgent or is engaged (even if unintentionally) in some form of manipulation – and it is indeed hard to see how students can learn well if they are not aware, to some extent at least, what it is they are supposed to be learning.


As regards the third of the conditions, the extent to which teachers address the question of intelligibility is an important way of distinguishing good teaching from poor because the educational aims that teachers have rarely determine the precise content to be taught/ learned or the particular teaching methods to be used (as we demonstrate in the next chapter, under ‘Approaches to teaching academic writing’) – both of which of course profoundly affect the nature and extent of the students’ understanding. This is actually a liberating observation.
Educators are justified, then, in thinking widely and creatively about their teaching methods. Indeed they must, because for cases of ‘good teaching’ in higher education we would want to add two more conditions. First, that through their teaching educators should be aiming to engage and/or extend their students’ interest in and
enthusiasm for the subject. And second, in order to promote meaningful learning we would say teaching should be conducted in such a way that students are encouraged to think critically and independently about what they study: to ‘think for themselves’.1 In these connections, we would acknowledge the energising value (and, from the teacher’s point of view, the scholarly value) of teachers forging a close relationship between their discipline-based research and their teaching.

Disciplinary process

Good teaching demands two things:
  1. that students should be made aware of the central importance of these processes for their knowledge and understanding of Literature; and
  2. that these processes should be taught, explicitly, comprehensively and in ways that are intelligible, engaging and thought-provoking (as we try to demonstrate here and in the next chapter with respect to teaching close reading, theory and essay writing).
For now, the focus is on the nature of this kind of teaching and, specifically, on teaching three of the processes previously identified as fundamental to our students’ interests as students of Literature. That is, on students’ learning:
  1. how to read literary texts closely (understanding processes of textual analysis and interpretation);
  2. how to evaluate what they read (in the modern academy, associated with understanding the role of literary theory and the practice of criticism);
  3. how to communicate their knowledge, understandings, ideas and judgements in writing.
Ellie Chambers & Marshall Gregory. (2006). Teaching & learning english literature. London: Sage Publications.

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