Brewing ideas about research informed teaching

Angela Brew is a fascinating thinker about RIT. In her 1999 article on the changing relationship between research and teaching, she loads her Musket, aims and takes a pop at positivism. She sketches ideas briefly about knowledge-in-crisis, and then takes a deep dive into what happens when people do research – taking us outside the sanitised world of outputs to the process of doing research. In her view the doubts and difficulties are erased in the outputs. Hello blemish remover, bye bye spots!  In her view research is much more troubling and less neat, captured in my experience as being like a grappling iron in search of a hold amidst the murky waters of doubts, in the swirl of  currents. This is because research is an exercise of bringing order out of chaos, and whatever the provenance of the research, it relies on making meaning. It is a messy and risky process. The trouble with measuring the relationship between research and teaching is that the measures are product-oriented, drawing on a view of research as the output, and ignoring the rocky paths and u-turns on the way to the output.

Brew’s central argument is that those who view knowledge as objective and out there, separate from the human beings, subjectivities and processes which constitute the research, are those who find greatest difficulty with the idea of research informed teaching. This is because the space and vocabulary of RIT is firmly located in the idea of knowledge as negotiated. A pluralistic view of knowledge allows for a more symbiotic view of research; indeed it makes reaching and teaching  indivisible. What you and I do in teaching students involves research – even if it is not a published output – and the journey that we share with out students in communicating, negotiating and refining our understandings of knowledge are at the heart of RIT.  Parallels between objectivist, positivist views of research and hierarchical, traditional models of teaching by transmission,  constitute one side of the coin. The flip-side takes the view that people with all their complex decisions and relationships to each other, the world and knowledge, undertake research. In teaching, it invites students into the ‘secret garden’ to enable them to jointly discover and evaluate knowledge in all its rich and messy promise and possibility. Heads or tails anyone? coinAngela Brew (1999) Research and teaching: Changing relationships in a changing context, Studies in Higher Education, 24:3, 291-301, DOI:10.1080/03075079912331379905



What have signature pedagogies got to do with personal theories of teaching?

Lee Shulman gave us the idea of signature pedagogies: those pervasive and distinctive ways of teaching the professions. He articulated the differences between assumptions about knowledge, learning, attitudes and dispositions which characterise particular professions, and how these are taught.  Typically, students in a law class do case law and are the recipients of a ‘sniper pedagogy’, where questions are fired rapidly and on the spot at a student, not unlike in the setting of a law court. Shulman is at pains to describe the differences between learning to be a cleric, an engineer, a lawyer and a designer. Shulman describes changing approaches to medicine like laparascopic surgeries which imply a different type of signature pedagogy from the bed-round since modern day patients move out of hospital so fast. Similarly, the traditional and dangerous pedagogic approach of surgeons “watch one, do one, teach one” is changing with technology enabled simulations. So I wonder how my discipline, education, is responding to changes in technology and the shape of higher education?

Shulman critiques pedagogic inertia, where lecturers adopt a way of teaching after an ‘apprenticeship of observation’ (Lortie 1975) without questioning its efficacy or up-to-dateness. ‘Monkey see, monkey do’ teaching is often the only frame of reference university lecturers have, unless they do not encounter alternatives through courses like the PGCLTHE. This results in conservative practice which most often privileges head knowledge and the transfer of knowledge.  It is a passive business, reliant on lecturers’ ability to simplify, package and scatter knowledge, similar to Fox’s (1983) description of the ‘transfer’ metaphor of teaching.

I love Shulman’s idea of ‘compromised pedagogy’ being that which inadequately represents all the dimensions of practice–the intellectual, the technical, and the moral. This is not a million miles away from Ron Barnett’s conception of curriculum as being about students ‘knowing’, ‘acting’ and ‘being’. When thinking about personal theories of teaching, Fox would argue that ‘transfer’ and ‘travelling’ focus on disciplinary knowledge, while ‘shaping’ and ‘growing’ theories focus on the students’ formation. In the end, I go back to Shulman who talks about balancing these dimensions.


Shulman, L. (2005) Signature Pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus.

Dennis Fox (1983) Personal theories of teaching, Studies in Higher Education, 8:2, 151-163, DOI: 10.1080/03075078312331379014

Turn left for IKEA; right for PGCLTHE

meatballsYou want to buy a beige lampshade. You hop on the wide-step escalators to the fourth floor entrance of IKEA.  There is only one way in, and beige lampshades are a curling set of turns two floors down, around “everything-you-never-wanted-but-now-you-desperately-need” of household paraphernalia. You feel waves of claustrophobia as you approach the warehouse to pile up your trolley. You realise that you’ve clean forgotten the beige lampshade but you have a bathroom cabinet, faux African art pieces, dusters and a filing cabinet. This brings to mind the exhausted finale – those £4.99 Swedish meatballs.

Torgny Roxa and Katarina Martensson’s article uses IKEA as a fascinating touchstone for thinking about the PGCLTHE. They have taught new lecturers on the PGCert for decades at Lund University. They hadn’t thought about it much until a social anthropologist, Friberg, decided to lurk in their classes and trawl through policy  and programme documents.  He wrote a report which Torgny and Katarina had to negotiate with their team: “It is an understatement to say that Friberg’s report landed uncomfortably among us”.

So what was Friberg’s beef? Basically he argued that PGCLTHE’s are used as a machinery to make new lecturers conform to a consumerist and mechanical view of higher education. In his view, the whole shebang is about control, taking away the space and freedom of academics to play as teachers within their own discipline. It entraps lecturers in “a web of consistency” (Biggs and Tang 2007), using the language of  learning outcomes, student centredness, and constructive alignment as “cogs in a great machinery… with very little room for academic teachers to manoeuvre”.

So here I stand, my foot on the starting blocks, about to do my third full run of teaching on a PGCLTHE; my first run at Southampton Solent. How does this argument stack up for me? To be honest, there are some courses which do just bang on about the mechanics of constructive alignment, and many academic developers buy an outcomes-based model of education hook, line and sinker – as if it were inevitably going to land a large trout. But, like Torgny and Katarina, I believe that a good PGCLTHE begins to find the cracks and contradictions, and challenge dominant discourses. This is the privilege and freedom of being an academic, that you don’t take things on trust. You test, challenge and critique them to “fuel an alternative discourse about academic teaching and student learning”. How do we do that? Through a rich engagement with the scholarship of learning and teaching, through sustained conversations, and by having the courage to take risks and ask awkward questions of institutional mantras.

ikeaSo, if you “leave the course like happy customers leaving IKEA, with a lot more things bought than you came for” you will have been indoctrinated, entrapped in John Biggs “web of consistency”. I hope that you do get more than you bargain for, but that it is much more transformative for you and your students than a beige lampshade, or faux African art, and much tastier than IKEA meatballs.

Torgny Roxå & Katarina Mårtensson (2016): Agency and structure in academic development practices: are we liberating academic teachers or are we part of a machinery supressing them?, International Journal for Academic Development
















10 minute download on outcomes

I found Hussey and Smith’s three articles brilliant and wide-ranging. I liked the sense of their argument refining and developing over a five year period (at least five years if one takes into account the mills of publishing grinding at a glacial speed). The first article had more invective than the second. Both were swingeing critiques of new managerialism and its use of learning outcomes as a blunt instrument. But midway through the second article, they drew breath, and rebalanced the argument, looking learning outcomes fully in the eye.  “We’ll have you” they said. But on our own terms. Not as this grotesque, manipulative, distorting artifice that you are. I’ll have you as something with some credibility and power. So to 2008. Their conceptual paper is a call to restoration. How can we do these things in a meaningful way, at what level, with what language, and to what effect? Mapped onto the worrying teacher-pleasing articles from Leicester which use empirical data to wave the learning outcomes flag, it looks like they are here to stay. In a world where students are consumers, their article argues that students value their potential for accountability, transparency and benchmarking. Educationally, I’m still not sure that they should have the final word.

So what does inquiry-based learning look like?

Having read zillions of case studies in the Healey, Jenkins and Zetter HEA report on linking research and teaching in the disciplines, and Tony Harland’s tour of Vygotsky through the lens of Zoology students over three years, I’ve come away feeling there are lots of tips and tricks about how academics develop canny ways of getting students to engage in research-like activities. I’m struck by the preponderance of scientific disciplines in the case studies, and the relative absence of arts, humanities and social science nuggets. I’m of a mind to count up how many case studies are from scientific disciplines, and how many from across the water. The HEA report presents some conceptual underpinnings but overall I find myself unpacking a descriptive portmanteau, for which I’m grateful (lots of ideas here!) but I’m not sure I understand the connections with the conceptual foundations that underpin it.  I like the four quadrant diagram but I’m not convinced of its accuracy. Why would the bottom right quadrant which engages students in research processes encourage them to be audience rather than participants, I ask myself? It’s all very good, and has provided me with food for thought. I have a sneaky feeling that the research-informed teaching ride has partly been to tantalise research-driven academics to think more about their teaching. It may rescue it from the scrap heap of its Cinderella status by keeping it in the good company of research. Personally I love both research and teaching, and find it hard to see why there is a great divide. Ten years on in British academia from the research informed teaching (RIT) movement and the excitement of funding, conferences and publications, it feels as though teaching has got more of a foot in the door, but I suspect this may be less to do with RIT than the £9,000 our students are stumping up. My epiphany came through Tony Harland’s Learning Lunch in October, on the long slow ascent away from a ‘facts first’ approach with his Ecology students in Otago. He described a process which has gradually and painstakingly turned ‘epistemic ascent’ on its head. It hadn’t been easy. It had taken 12 years and a lot of persuasion to shift the curriculum from ‘facts first’ to research first, and it was working. Brew’s article trips into fascinating conceptual territory. She talks about research helping us answer life’s questions, which I like. But she argues that there are two ways in which people view research and knowledge. Her metaphors are a ‘trading view’ of research (and by inference) knowledge as external, atomistic, synthetic,  and linked to an outcome or a product. The second metaphor is the journey, which is holistic, analytical, marked by interior processes, and its intention is to understand phenomena more deeply. The former conception implies an external body of knowledge, a ‘facts first’ approach and a transmission model of teaching The latter implies a more generative, interpretive, negotiated curriculum, and a style of pedagogy which is negotiated. So I’m surprised and puzzled that so many research based case studies are scientific. Are they technical rational? Give them the pipettes and Bunsen burners and call it research based pedagogy? What does it look like in the arts, in education studies, dance, performing arts and philosophy?

Aha moments

SubversiveSo here I am, tired and smiling after another fascinating session of airing perspectives and experiences on the MA Curriculum module. The first hour starts chattily and then near silence descends as people comment on and write their blogs. There is a murmur of conversation between Laura and David, discovering how the word ‘articulation’ can lead down two very different pathways. The session looks at the fascinating array of perspectives in the first blog posts. I am almost tempted to tell people to go home – job done. But it’s never done. The ‘aha’ moment comes for me when people write jottings about their hopes for what students will learn and be capable of doing post-module. Translating these statements into the words of rational curriculum planning (Jenny Moon’s statements based on the SOLO taxonomy) reveals the disjuncture between the language of the planned curriculum and what we hope for our students. We want our students to learn deeply, to enjoy the experience, to be passionate about the discipline. The clinical language of learning outcomes – measurable, anodyne, joyless, constrained – just doesn’t cut the mustard. Is it gendered? Is it the language of the left brain, without the squiggles and quirks of humanity and emotion, without the immensity of what we know happens when hearts, minds and knowledge collide in classrooms. I am a great admirer of the theologian Eugene Peterson. He talks about the difference between knowing and information, the difference between the language of intimacy and the transfer of information. Knowing is chewing on stuff, engaging with it deeply. It is seeing the other, and relating to him or her. Then we look at different models and the Barnett model seems to resonate most – knowing, acting, being, but most of our courses have some trouble with ‘being’ Some colleagues are imprisoned in learning outcomes that are wrong, pig-headed, so specific as to be nuts, or dull. Do they re-validate or teach subversively? I say mine are different from what I planned. They challenge me to revalidate, to make a case. So I’m drinking a coke, eating crisps, writing a blog, and thinking about this one. Until next week.

Where are these deliberative spaces?

Alexis has reminded me that my tapping fingers have not blogged for ten days or more. Rebecca responded to my question “How’s it going with the blogging?” with an answer about time, the back to back tutorials, lectures, seminars, preparations, then tea and Iris, and that shattered haze at 21:30 when all your body craves is to flop into bed, but tomorrow’s lectures and preparations beckon. There was so much in my head after last week’s session and it has probably frittered away, but let me claw it back. The things that struck me last week were: how different the diamond nines looked in the two groups, fuzzy pedagogy at the top of one, and alignment and disciplinary pedagogy prioritised in the other. It illustrates what diverse conceptions we have of pedagogy. Then commenting on the blogs, Michael has called to value diverse curricula in his blog; Alexis has underlined the interaction of pedagogy and curriculum and the necessary messiness of that. It is all  so complex. I love the phrase ‘a fine balance’ in the Hussey and Smith article, and the argument that a prescriptive regime of learning outcomes (Biggs’ ‘web of consistency’) puts teachers in a tight corner.  At the same time I appreciate that they are not just jettisoning the whole learning outcomes movement because there is something student-facing about it – it asks the question what will students get out of this, what will they walk away with from this module and programme? I’m really looking forward to this afternoon’s session because we play with five models or approaches to curriculum development. In my view the ones that are more difficult to diagrammatise (word) may be the more interesting and complex ones, and yet the more elusive. What was that about intangible, subjective, and experiential, Laura? But I also loved the call to evidence by Emma – show me your method of transformational learning, Parker? Unhelpfully, I told her it was being SPARKY!  For years I’ve been banging on about the structure of degree programmes (modules) being so problematic, and Pip’s blog drew me up short – choosing and curating your own knowledge is a vital and authentic way of learning. 2pm done Alexis!