Divorce is all in academic minds (1)

November 3, 2000

I agree with Stephen Rowland that teaching and research can and should be "married" (Talking Shop, THES , October ). Not least because a divorce between them is a divorce between students' learning (which teaching is supposed to promote) and teachers' learning (the ostensible result of research).

Unfortunately, the divorce is already in effect, and has been so for decades, if not centuries. If we compare the modes of thinking that academics propound to undergraduates in their teaching with those that they adopt in their professional roles - their research and their discussion and debate with their peers - we find an extraordinary discrepancy: n A historian inquiring into the causes of an event or development works backwards in time. But the results are delivered to students as a narrative going forward in time

* A physicist starts with puzzling observations and asks: why is this the way it is? Succeeding generations of students then carry out experiments, not to address the puzzle but to demonstrate the truth of the law or theory formulated to explain it

* Economists present their subject to students as an analytical one, making use of graphs and equations, but their own debates reveal economics is rooted in argument, not pure analysis

* Medical students are taught anatomy in lectures and by using textbooks as a matter of memorising the names of parts: they are not taught to detect the logic in the minds of surgeons who did the original naming or the logic behind the names

* The chemistry teacher whom I heard describe his subject as factual clearly has no notion of teaching his students how chemists think and approach problems

* Law students find themselves being taught "the law" rather than how to reason as a lawyer

* A student opening a standard text on public or social policy will find such a general, abstract definition that it is useless for investigation because it does not enable you to recognise a policy when you see it.

These generalisations do not apply to every teacher and every course. But there is a common pattern: they are carrying the divorce between teaching and research around in their own heads.

For my money, a marriage between teaching and research will come about only when academics start letting students in on their professional secrets, when they start teaching their students explicitly how to think and how to use their senses, their powers and their imaginations as they themselves do, be they physicists, historians or whatever.

Presenting knowledge as contestable, as Rowland urges, would be part and parcel of this. However, the dominant concept of higher education as a commodity that is "delivered" - see for example Roger Waterhouse (Soapbox, THES , October ) - is putting off this revolution rather than bringing it closer. How sad to find this anti-intellectual stance among our vice-chancellors.

Peter Levin
Consultant in teaching methods
London School of Economics

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