Good practice needs to be shared and better understood, writes Mick Healey.
If teaching is to match research in rigour, it must be open to critical scrutiny.
As I write this I am in the middle of completing my application for membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching.
I have also completed several references for colleagues in support of their applications. These experiences have led me to think about how to inject scholarship into teaching for staff who will be satisfied by meeting the basic ILT membership requirements and those who wish to develop their pedagogic skills and understanding beyond the ILT threshold. My main conviction is that if the scholarship of teaching is to match that of research, there needs to be comparability of rigour, standards and esteem.
The key to developing a scholarly approach is to link the process explicitly to disciplines. Most staff's primary allegiance is to their subject or profession. Their sense of themselves at a given institution is secondary. More-over, the combination of teaching methods and approaches varies between disciplines. The job of teachers is to help students learn the knowledge, skills and discourse of the subjects. To accomplish this we need not only be scholars of our disciplines, but also be at least aware of the key pedagogic issues involved in teaching them.
The launch of the 24 subject centres in the United Kingdom offers an opportunity to promote a scholarly approach to teaching in the disciplines.
As the geography adviser to
the subject centre for geography, earth and environmental sciences, let me outline what an
injection of scholarship into teaching might look like for my discipline.
Geography draws on the natural and social sciences and some aspects of the humanities. Therefore, most of the ways of injecting scholarship in geography are adaptable to other subjects. Geography has more than 20 years of experience in developing a discipline-based approach to education development and is recognised as one of the leading disciplines in pedagogic innovation. It already has several existing networks on which the new subject centre will build.
The baseline level of scholarship required of discipline-based staff for ILT membership involves them:
Being familiar with the latest ideas in their subject
Being aware of ideas on teaching that subject
Evaluating and reflecting on their students' learning.
To help staff meet the last
two criteria, the Geography
Discipline Network, a national consortium of higher education institutions, has published ten staff guides on good teaching, learning and assessment practices and has run 50 departmental workshops.
The main strength of these is the use of case studies to illustrate teaching principles. More than 150 case studies already appear on the GDN website. A further set of guides on key skills in geography is in press.
Subject centres will keep staff up to date with teaching developments so that they can maintain their professional standing with the ILT.
They will also give a disciplinary angle to training new lecturers. We are running a pilot residential workshop in May for new staff in geography, earth and environmental sciences.
Beyond the baseline
Developing the scholarship of teaching, however, involves more than keeping up to date and reflecting on one's teaching results. It also includes:
Contributing to the pedagogical development of the subject
Researching the learning and teaching of the discipline
Disseminating the outcomes.
These additional activities will particularly interest those staff who wish to make their careers, at least in part, through developing a scholarly approach to their teaching.
Seeking evidence of scholarship would be particularly apt when:
New lecturers are being appointed or promoted
New courses are being proposed or existing ones revalidated
Assessment methods are being discussed at a course committee.
It is also important to inject scholarship into other activities. For example, a condition of the award of a sabbatical could include the provision of a pedagogic impact statement.
Pedagogic research spans a range of activities from evaluating a learning session to a big education research project. In between is "action" research. Whereas all teachers should evaluate their own classes, relatively few will undertake "higher-order" pedagogic research.
The acceptance for the research assessment exercise 2001 that discipline-based pedagogic research "will be assessed by all subject panels on an equitable basis with other forms of research" should help raise its status. Supporting research and development will prove a challenge for the subject centres, particularly as they only have modest pump-priming resources.
Despite many unwarranted claims made about the impact of new technologies, they provide the opportunity to transform learning and teaching. Those based on the internet are stimulating much interest in geography and are enhancing existing courses and facilitating distance-learning courses. The virtual geography department project, for example, has helped staff to develop effective web-based learning materials.
As Allan Ellis argued in The Use and Misuse of Computers as long ago as 1974, "thinking about the computer's role in education does not mean thinking about computers, it means thinking about education". A good example of following this dictum was the development of the GeographyCal modules, designed as computer-based learning packages for introductory geography degree courses.
A further example is the virtual field course project, which is researching and developing information technology resources primarily to support traditional field courses. Both projects began from an educational need, and materials were created to meet principles both of good education practice and good software design.
The examples of pedagogic research and development in geography given above emanate from nationally funded projects (all of which may be accessed via the GDN pages: http://www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn). All of these projects have been extensively evaluated and their outputs published. They are available for critique and for future studies to build on. There are many more examples that have taken place "in-house" without significant funding, as can be seen by perusing recent issues of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education.
This raises the final key feature of injecting scholarship into teaching - communication. If teaching is to be scholarly it needs to be discussed and good practices need to be shared. At its simplest this involves peer observation and departmental seminars about teaching. More formal dissemination involves participation in workshops and conferences, contributing to national collections of teaching and learning resources, and publishing research findings in pedagogic and disciplinary journals.
If we apply the same kind of thought processes to our teaching as we do to our research, scholarly teaching will result. Good teaching, like good research, is multi-dimensional, difficult and contextual. It also needs to be public and hence open to critical review and evaluation. Significantly, the most important outcome would be to improve the quality of learning for our students.
Now where did I put that ILT form?
Mick Healey is professor of geography and director of the Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.