Pedagogic formula

August 18, 2011

Alan Ryan is a wise man, but his teaching formula has the wrong pig by the tail ("Too much information", 11 August). Try this: Teaching = Research minus Scholarship. If lectures and small-group classes - taught by lecturers - are linked, even first-year undergraduates can be taken beyond the "frontiers of knowledge" in subjects such as history.

To discover, transcribe and translate a document with wide implications, even outside one's specialist field, does not take long and can be taken straight into undergraduate teaching; but to do all one needs to for publication - laborious checking, etc - is much more time-consuming: that is Scholarship.

Similarly, undergraduates take in new ideas (well explained) faster than older people, who tend to run a mental programme to find a "match" and feel puzzled if they can't. Smart undergrads listen and think critically.

US liberal-arts colleges are great but second best, because their students don't get that sense of research excitement. Ivy League universities are great but second best because professors' ideas are explained in seminars by graduate students with other things on their minds. Oxbridge is great but doesn't link lectures closely enough with small-group teaching by lecturers.

Granted: Ryan is right about the natural sciences. Granted: the teaching-research correlation can be cancelled by character (eg, self-absorption on the teacher's part, or even a very soft voice). As for the rest: for once, we shouldn't listen to Ryan, who has been in the wrong places for the right kind of experience.

D.L. d'Avray, University College London

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