Doing Teaching Right

Academic staff at research universities often have an ambiguous relationship with teaching.  And, there are a lot of myths floating around than animate the background assumptions made by journalists and government panels alike about how seriously teaching is taken.  So, lets get one thing straight: its worth doing teaching well.

But, most academics at places like Imperial are primarily researchers running small research enterprises, who collaborate to deliver a teaching programme and a research environment that nurtures the values of the academy.  In many ways, the partnership model of a professional service firm is quite apt, and the drivers are similar.  So, there are three legs to the stool that is an academic’s professional contribution – research, teaching and administration. Probably the admin term is excessively negative, rather we should think of it as all those internal activities that promote the cooperative enterprise of an academic department.

Now, the balance between research and teaching will vary between persons, subjects, universities and countries. In my own field, Materials Science, we are very research intensive, so much so that it’s not particularly unusual to have more research students than undergraduates. That means that in the UK, maybe 20% of staff are bought out, formally, for research. Put another way, most Departments would be only 40-60% of the size if they were only doing teaching.  Now, go to a teaching university, and the research output will be nearly nil.

We take it as axiomatic that teaching at the undergraduate level is best done by active researchers. This is probably an increasingly contested point, so let me illustrate it with an anecdote.  I have been acquainted with people who became research inactive over a period of years and gradually lost confidence in their ability to teach even simple first year material that is over 50 years old.  Now, its not because they didn’t at one stage have total command of that material, or because they fell off the research frontier.  Indeed, its quite possible for someone at a teaching university to teach this material without doing any research at all.  But the research gives one a feel for the subject, it means one is thinking about it constantly, living and breathing it; and this makes the able researcher at the top of their game potentially a great communicator of it.

But, why is it different from school? Well, to some extent, its different by degree more than anything else.  But its striking that Feynman told his students that we don’t know how we go about solving problems, and this is the thing that characterises university level education – answering unseen questions, as a preparation for formulating unknown questions in future life, be it in research or in the workplace. Because we don’t know how we solve problems, we teach it the same way the ancient Egyptians did, by example.  So you want to be taught be the best puzzle-solvers, the best question posers, and not by someone who simply wants to work in an education factory.

I also saw a comment by a guy called Steve Fuller the other day talking about knowledge generation, which is the primary function of a university. He was saying that when we do research and disseminate it by writing journal articles, then this isn’t when it gets turned into the public good of knowledge. Rather, he suggested, when we turn it into lectures and textbooks – when we codify, assemble, synthesize, summarise and review it – only then, when we teach, do we turn research into the public good of knowledge. Which is interesting, because nowhere in the research assessment exercises or student evaluation surveys or league tables do we value that activity. But also, its one of the most compelling arguments I’ve yet heard for why research and teaching should be done by the same people.

But this gets to the heart of what teaching is about. We have to be ambitious for our students: ambitious in terms of what we think they can understand, ambitious in what we hope for them in future after graduation. Ambitious that they should be able to do more after graduation than we could or our forefathers could.  And if we are ambitious, we want to present the concepts as clearly as we can, to eliminate the extraneous facts, to inspire, to think up a ton of interesting and fun problems to tease out the implications of the concepts and the results that flow from them.  If we don’t do these things, we won’t maximise our students chances of finding the limits of their potential.  We will betray and undermine our hopes and ideals, we will be like second hand car salesmen trying to sell an acceptable but compromised car. And what would be the point of that?

This means we can’t treat education as second best, as a chore that we have to do, or simply something to be done by recycling the last person’s lectures. Rather we should always be seeking to do better, to really get to the nub of a subject and find the most useful ideas we can discuss, and then communicate them clearly.

Often students want to learn to solve problems, to rote-learn ‘the material’, to figure out how to parrot it back in an exam to get the best credential possible. But its about the ideas, not about the formulae or the material. Which is why thinking of interesting problems that require some original thinking is important.

Which is why re-imagining the lecture is important.

With that, I’m off write one…

About dyedavid

Professor of Metallurgy at Imperial College, London, UK. Specialising in mechanical behaviour of aero-engine and nuclear metals; Ni superalloys, Ti and Zr alloys. Also shape memory and magnetic shape memory and twinning. Interested in atomistic modelling to develop insight into materials behaviour and the effect of alloying
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