Practising preachers

August 29, 2003

Teachers who are research active tend to teach better, find Hannah Barker and Monica McLean.

Do you have to be an active researcher to be a good university teacher? Not according to the government. One of the recent white paper's more controversial proclamations was that research funding should favour a few research-intensive universities while the rest are encouraged to concentrate on "other parts of their mission". This provoked a predictably hostile response.

Yet those who argue that research and teaching should go hand in hand find themselves accused of defending the "personal luxury" of doing research.

This sort of message emanates not only from the government and hard-nosed deans. At a recent conference on teaching and learning in history, it was claimed that educational research suggested a "zero-correlation" between teaching and research, and that teachers needed only "to be aware of current research findings" in order to excel. Is this really true?

Some education publications say the desire to link teaching and research is an "enduring myth" of the university sector. Yet such findings, and the research that underpins them, rely on questionable measures of evaluating teaching and of quantifying research. Moreover, they tend to refer to US universities, many of which have more of a distinction between research and teaching.

Our own research into history teaching in British higher education takes a very different view. Our project involved interviewing history lecturers at a variety of universities about undergraduate "progression". Everyone we interviewed understood it as honing "skills" that included basic writing, oral and group-work skills, as well as the higher cognitive skills of understanding the nature of evidence, argumentation, analysis and synthesis. However, we quickly realised that the value and emphases put on capacities and skills differed for individual academics and in different institutional settings, and that some held more sophisticated conceptions of progression than others.

Our findings led us to construct two models of progression: "acquiring transferable skills" and "becoming a practising historian". We believe the latter model encompasses more desirable educational goals. Importantly, in the context of current political debates, it is an approach that was most emphasised among research-active teachers who operated in a research culture. Those who focused on "acquiring transferable skills" tended to construe student progression as developing the skills of a "general arts" student: good note-taking; clear written and oral communication; group work and interpersonal skills; and the development of a generally critical stance towards evidence. Although much of the same ground was covered by those who advocated "learning to become a practising historian", this model also construed progression as developing the capacities to select, analyse, integrate and interpret large amounts of textual material; to construct and adjudicate between arguments; and to form autonomous, well-informed, critical opinions on historians' debates and questions. This model valued creativity, originality and non-conformity highly.

The critical difference centred on whether the teacher wanted students to perceive learning the discipline as good in itself or as a vehicle for learning useful skills. The two need not be incompatible but, in practice, the former may be endangered. Treating history as a means by which to acquire employment-related skills strips it of its distinctiveness and its interest for students and teachers alike. At its worst, versions of this model impoverish the idea of a university education, reducing it to mere training.

In contrast, those who sought to encourage students to become historians promoted a more complex and demanding approach to learning, giving them the opportunity to become self-reflexive, critical, creative and autonomous: the sorts of things that a university education should be about.

If becoming a historian is a proper goal for a student of history, and if being involved in research motivates and contributes to students'

intellectual development, we think that, by and large, practising historians should teach university history.

This is not the same as claiming that teachers who are not research active cannot teach history well, but we believe that they are less likely to do so. While we do not think that research performance should act as a surrogate for teaching performance, our data support the view that the connection between research and teaching in history centres on the doing of history by students and teachers. In other words, you should practise what you teach.

Hannah Barker is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Manchester and Monica McLean is a lecturer in learning and teaching at the Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.

Both write in a personal capacity.

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