As I have been really thinking about the shape and future of HE, I have been thinking about the role of expertise in tomorrows teaching.
In this weeks Times Higher, Quintin McKellar mentions the long established link between research expertise and teaching, stating that “Although the evidence for the contribution of research activity to teaching excellence is thin, what exists is largely positive…”. Does this thinking belong to an age of information scarcity?
What I mean by this, is that an expert researcher is expert at creating information, knowledge, and understanding – content in HE parlance. Given that information and knowledge is readily available all around us, and given that the research game leads to hyper-specialisation in knowledge fields, can we still argue that knowledge generators are the best teachers?
I look at my colleagues – many of whom are top researchers in their fields – and I see a passion about something that is so specialised and esoteric that I wonder how inspirational they sound to students looking for a degree. HE lecturers with strong research backgrounds aren’t interested in teaching – they do it as a part of their job, but their passion is in asking the questions and seeking the answers. They teach according to the time honoured tradition of the profession – by lecturing. Even when they are faced with a group of six students in their classes, they still stand in the front reading their Powerpoint slides out to the group – punctuated with an occasional anecdote.
I was talking recently to the head of another department here at the University, and he said to me that – everyone can basically teach pretty well. He is wrong – dead wrong. Everyone can stand up and read lecture slides. We even get some teachers who can perform well while they are reading their slides (they might even have the information memorised) – but it is still the same basic delivery.
I have proposed a Masters course about applying the principles of psychology to education taking into account the emergence of information abundance thinking along the lines espoused by Roger Shank (so far approval in principle – hooray). As I sat with a few of my colleagues – all of whom are deeply skeptical about something that doesn’t involve powerpoint slides, essays and formal exams – I asked them about their understanding of the principles of psychology (they were all PhDs in psychology). They were somewhat offended that I would even ask, and when I pressed them on applying the principles they understood so well to their teaching, I had an amazing brush off – as though I hadn’t even asked.
Anyway, I believe that the use of hyper-specialists to deliver excellence in teaching has had its day. They want to research – we need good and dedicated teachers (not wannabe administrators that I find in so many teaching institutions).