Healthy marriage is on the rocks

October 27, 2000

Teaching and research are the perfect pair, not foes, Stephen Rowland insists.

The argument for a divorce between teaching and research comes in various forms, but its logic boils down to this: some academics are good at teaching; some are good at research. They are not necessarily the same people. It might be more efficient, therefore, to encourage good teachers to teach and good researchers to research, rather than expect everyone to do both.

According to this view, the basis of the old marriage between teaching and research is no more than a myth: the myth that teaching and research are mutually supportive activities. The argument, like many driven by the engine of "efficiency", looks rational enough. But it is wrong. It is based on a dangerously impoverished notion of higher education.

There are claims and counter-claims about whether the best university teachers are also good researchers, whether students benefit from their teachers' involvement in research, or whether research improves the quality of teaching. Empirical evidence - often involving questionnaires and interviews with students and academic staff - is inconclusive. It tells us little more than the common experience: that some of the most inspiring teachers are able researchers, but not all; that some prominent researchers are good teachers, but not all.

The research is inconclusive because it is based on the questionable assumption that teaching and research are, in significant ways, different activities: that research is the production of new knowledge, and teaching is the delivery of old knowledge.

This image of researchers producing and teachers delivering intellectual goods accords well with a market view of learning, in which the student is the customer or consumer of these goods.

But academic work is not like that for university teachers, researchers or students. Researchers must be able to communicate their ideas (teach) and learn from their experience (as students); otherwise they fail as researchers. Teachers must be able to set a context with their students in which significant questions can be explored (research) and learn from these contexts (as students); otherwise they will fail as teachers. Students who are unable to investigate significant questions and communicate their findings - which are important aspects of teaching and research - will fail as students.

The ability to inquire, to engage others in one's inquiries and to learn from them are the characteristics of the good teacher, the good researcher and the good student. Academic work cannot be packaged into processes of production, delivery and consumption. Knowledge is not marketable for the simple reason that those who learn it do not take it away from those who teach it.

Teaching, research and learning are not different activities like lecturing, writing and reading. Teaching is often associated with giving lectures and research with writing journal articles. But this association derives from a particular and somewhat impoverished notion of knowledge. One might equally associate giving lectures with (dissemination of) research and writing papers with (preparing material for) teaching.

The roles of teacher and researcher are not to be distinguished by the nature of the performance involved, but by the audience. Academics talking about their investigations to colleagues at a conference are engaged in research activity. Giving the same talk to students is thought of as teaching. In both instances, the academic is teaching the audience, and they are (hopefully) learning.

The other distinction commonly drawn is that research is the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, whereas teaching concerns already established knowledge. But if students are to be taught to think critically, knowledge should always be presented to them as being contestable. This means encouraging students to question even the most fundamental notions that are put to them by their teachers. This is not a licence for students to accept or reject ideas as they please, but a requirement for rigorous debate from the earliest stages of understanding.

In many disciplines, fundamental ideas have been overturned recently. In a world where knowledge is changing at an increasingly rapid rate, we do our students a grave disservice by pretending that their subject matter forms an immutable body of knowledge. Students should be critically engaged, not expected to submit passively to the authority of received notions. This means presenting students with knowledge as if it were new and provisional, approaching it in the spirit of the researcher who is concerned to test it and contest it with the students. In this way, students are treated as, and so learn to become, say, chemists, historians or accountants, rather than merely learn about the subject matter as students.

This is what it means to love one's subject. This is the pedagogical approach that draws together learners (be they teachers, students or researchers) before a subject matter that is beyond them.

Since this love of subject matter and of knowledge is central to the identity of all who work in academia, marriage seems an entirely appropriate metaphor for the relationship between teaching and research. A historian is not to be divided in two - a teacher of history and/or a researcher of history. A historian is someone who necessarily loves history, professes it, is inspired by it, has a passion for finding out about it, for engaging with others in it, for exploring and celebrating its insights and questioning the assumptions that are made of it. In the right context, how can such a person fail to enjoy teaching and research?

The question for teaching, and for research, then becomes one of devising contexts for working with our students and our colleagues that express and give substance to this love. Looked at in this way, the history teacher who is a good researcher but is a bad teacher, or the teacher of economics who is excellent with students but does no research, raises interesting questions. How can history classes be made into events where the teacher's love of history finds expression: where teacher and students can be engaged in exploration, celebration and questioning? How can the economist find more opportunities to engage with and be inspired by the work of other economists? How can the knowledge of students and teachers, as well as of researchers, be given more adequate recognition? By attempting to answer such questions - thereby feeding the love that drives their work - academics can directly improve the quality of teaching and research and draw them into a more integrated relationship to the benefit of their students.

The current obsession with measuring outputs, and the reduction of academic work into separate functions of teaching and research (and administration and management) starves this love. It is anti-intellectual. It impoverishes higher education by failing to value the integrating quest for knowledge. Fragmented into their different functions, staff and students risk losing sight of any purpose to higher education beyond its immediate cash value in the jobs market. And the value even of that will be limited if students are no longer motivated by a love of knowledge to continue learning throughout their lives.

For the sake of society as a whole, the marriage of teaching and research must not end in divorce.

Stephen Rowland is director of the Higher Education Research and Development Unit, University College London. The article is from a paper presented to the Sixth European Conference on Educational Research in Edinburgh last month.

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