Teaching Groups as a bedrock of higher education innovation

I have been looking at teaching groups in relation to a broader project on enhancing institutional resilience in teaching and learning. As noted previously, resilience is about adaptability to thrive in fluidly changing contexts while maintaining the core purposes of the university – in this case, teaching. Strong teaching groups appear to be a particularly useful point of focus on which to build adaptive capabilities and academic development in teaching in higher education. Such teaching groups have much in common with academic micro-cultures (Roxa & Martensson 2014) but crucially, micro-cultures recruit with a view to the cultural fit of members within the collective and able to contribute to the saga, or developmental trajectory of the microculture. In contrast, teaching groups may be forced together to teach on particular programmes and so have little say over membership (Heinrich 2017).

Teaching groups are …

Heinrich describes teaching groups as

  • subsets of departments or spread across different organisational units (so not necessarily aligned with organisational structures)
  • community-likeness indicated by interactions between members and ‘atmosphere’ of the group – see perceived sense of community. The Teaching Groups (TGs) vary on a scale from individualistic to tight-knitedness with an average TG being somewhere in the mid-point. So for many academics, the development of their teaching could be better supported by better structured TGs.

Group structures

Three distinct structures of the TGS found by Heinrich are:

  1. tight-knit. Close and supportive with high levels of trust and a common goal. The tight-knit group constantly communicates about teaching and encourages active engagement with the scholarship of teaching and learning.
  2. centred around core 1 or 2 members. Peripheral members tend to communicate very little or not on teaching issues (weak teaching culture?).
  3. loose arrangement of individuals with limited group communications.

Groups in 2 and 3. Demonstrate very little communication on teaching and learning and while individuals may be committed to their teaching, their is little sense of collective endeavour.

…and so?

This structural aspect of teaching groups are key components of the strong academic micro-cultures that, in turn, underpin pedagogical resilience. Winstone (2017) describes resilience in relation to teaching as a striving for ongoing improvement. Pedagogical resilience is generated in the internal trust relations, collegiality, and strong sense of collective responsibility and enterprise of the tightly-knit teaching group.

Pedagogical resilience and innovation is an outcome of a commitment to teaching improvement and excellence that enables individuals and academic micro-cultures to adapt and translate change initiatives to align with their own goals. In such contexts, change is not seen as imposed from outside a particular academic micro-culture. So these tightly-knit TGs protect and amplify the sense of academic agency needed for innovations in teaching practices to emerge.


Heinrich, E. (2017). Teaching groups as midlevel sociocultural contexts for developing teaching and learning: a case study and comparison to microcultures. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(4). – https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2016.1208641

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2014). Higher education commons – a framework for comparison of midlevel units in higher education organizations. European Journal of Higher Education, 4(4), 303–316. doi:10.1080/21568235.2014.924861

Winstone, N.E. (2017) “The ‘3Rs’ of pedagogic frailty” in I.M. Kinchin & N.E. Winstone (eds) Pedagogic Frailty and Resilience in the University. Springer. pp. 33-48.

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