Teaching Excellence: Some Thoughts

Every year, my school, the newly named Beedie School of Business, recognizes up to two instructors with the TD Canada Trust Distinguished Teaching Award. At the end of 2010, I was delighted and honored to be one of the recipients. In the spirit of learning and continuous improvement, I was asked by the Office of the Vice President Academic at my University to respond to some questions on what makes a good teacher. In this posting, I'd like to share with you what I came up with.

  • What makes a great teacher?
A great teacher is someone who has passion for their discipline and respect for the students. They understand that a classroom of students is a wealth of knowledge and experience, to be harnessed and shared to enhance the learning experience of all. They also understand that like their own discipline, teaching is a continually evolving professional skill. If you take the effort to reflect and learn you can continually develop as a professional teacher.

  • What is my teaching philosophy or approach to teaching?
My approach to teaching involves helping students to develop and critically evaluate business processes that suit the needs and issues of different organizational, industrial and national circumstances. This contingency approach, has three related components. The first is inspiration, in that I seek to make every student healthily obsessed with my course topics. The second component is engagement. I require students to engage with business reality, and to frame, explore and resolve real problems in real companies. The third component is systems thinking. Nothing exists in isolation, and there is not one single right or wrong approach – it depends!!! To help students understand what a solution might depend on and how this affects the logic, tension, and effectiveness of the solution, I use a systems design approach that requires students to recognize their roles as both a “system designer” and as someone who is a part of the system. They must think systemically and dynamically, so as to make sense of the relationship “mess” between solutions, problems and root-causes.

  • What would I have liked to have known at the beginning of my teaching career?
That I don’t need to do most of the talking. It has taken me some time to appreciate and learn the art of facilitating classroom discussion.

  • What does innovative teaching mean to me?
Very simply, this means rethinking and re-creating both the content and delivery of teaching material to suit the needs of students and society. To do this requires making time to reflect on what needs to change, and then having the time and support to make the changes.

  • A teaching strategy that works well for me.
I use what I call the “service journey”. Each course and each class within the course will have learning goals, but the course and classes are each designed to be a journey. During these journeys I orchestrate different levels of classroom energy, engagement and reflection, which I think will best attain the specified goals.


  1. Great summary, Ian, thank you. I liked your point about Systems Thinking, and the importance to understand things in context.

    If I may, I would like to add one point: that a great teacher aims to help students think independently about how things work, and why things happen the way they do.The content that we teach becomes outdated, but the ability to think independently should stay with the students forever.

  2. Professor McCarthy:

    Congratulations! I could not agree more with everything you said. Teaching is an art and not a science. It appears you understand that art and that you mastered it. In my experiences studying business and accounting at both the undergraduate and graduate levels here at "third tier" U.S. universities, professors do little to make students think within the confines of real business scenarios. Little to zero effort is done to connect textbook theories to past or current business news. The world of academia needs more professors with teaching philosophies similar to yours. Keep up the wonderful and noble work!

  3. Thanks ever so much for this feedback. As you can tell, I agree with what you both say about facilitating critical thinking to both understand and shape reality.

  4. Congratulations Ian on your well-deserved teaching award and for your excellent new blog. Your comments on teaching excellence and innovation show both great passion and insight regarding the craft of teaching. Underlying your comments is a clear understanding that good teachers show a lot of respect for their students and consequently focus on their somewhat unique and evolving needs rather than simply delivering content. Effective teachers also do a great job making the complex seem simple, not vice versa. These are tremendously important messages for teachers at all levels of education.