The Dr. is in the Room

A few years ago Quintin McKellar mentioned the long established link between research expertise and teaching, stating that “Although the evidence for the contribution of research activity to teaching excellence is thin, what exists is largely positive…”. In searching through the evidence, the teaching referred to appears to be the kind of teaching done in an apprenticeship/master (Ph.D.) relationship rather than what is normally thought of as undergraduate teaching (lecturing). The skill set required for excellence in research is not related at all to the skill set needed to be a good teacher. Although there are a few who possess both skill sets, a person usually focuses on mastering either one or the other. Because the rewards lie in mastering the activities associated with research, there are few who even work at mastering their teaching, and even fewer (like almost none) who base their mastery of teaching on The Science of Learning. This focus on one to the exclusion of the other is borne out by Bok’s figure of 95% of active faculty members at universities will not engage in any form of teacher development in a given year. As a friend and pro-vice chancellor of researcher said to me one day, “Anyone can teach.” To which I answered, “You mean, anyone can read PowerPoint slides.”

An expert researcher is expert at creating information, knowledge, and understanding – content in higher education parlance. Given that information and knowledge are readily available all around us, and given that research leads to hyper-specialization in knowledge fields, can we still argue that knowledge generators are the best teachers?

I look at my colleagues – many of whom are top researchers in their fields – and I see a passion about something that is so specialized and esoteric that I wonder how anyone could think that he or she would sound inspirational to students looking for a basic degree. The hyper-specialized research that defines the research done in today’s world ends up being exciting to 12 (or maybe 15) other researchers in the entire world. Why would a group of unsuspecting undergraduates suddenly find this sliver of hyper specialized knowledge enthralling?

For the most part. Higher education lecturers with strong research backgrounds aren’t interested in teaching – they do it as a part of their job, but their passion is in asking the questions and seeking the answers. They almost always teach according to the time honored tradition of the profession – by lecturing. Even when they are faced with a group of six students in their classes, I have known professors who still stand in the front reading their PowerPoint slides out to the group – punctuated with the occasional anecdote.

During my conversations with numerous higher education professionals, they tend to be deeply skeptical about something that doesn’t involve PowerPoint slides, essays, and formal exams. During one particular conversation with some departmental colleagues, I asked them about their understanding of the principles of psychology (they were all PhDs in psychology) that would underlie how people learn. They were somewhat offended that I would even ask, and when I pressed them on applying the principles they understood so well to their teaching, I had an amazing brush off – as though I hadn’t even asked.

Anyway, I believe that the use of hyper-specialists to deliver teaching has had its day. They want to research – we need good and dedicated teachers who want to teach, who want to know about how people learn, who want to lift and inspire their learners with a love of learning. I believe that the time has come to separate teaching and research as both activities and as institutions. If a complete break was made, with funding for purpose going to each stream, at least we wouldn’t be pretending that students were paying tuition for the brilliant learning experience that they are (not) getting when they are really paying for a University’s research infrastructure (usually with massive loans and debt).

Even more infuriating to me than the researchers who don’t care because of other, more important activities, are the teachers who are not excellent researchers. Some of them just teach and that is it – reading PowerPoints is their job, and that is all they want to do (I have no time for them and refuse to call them professionals). Others spend precious time playing politics, volunteering for committees, and making rules, hoping to become administrators in an effort to make their mark with all the rules and regulations that they can think up, wielding their power imposing these rules and regulations on others.

I have personally played most of the above games, researching and publishing with the best (top journals, including Nature), administrating in a top department and University, and teaching – but eventually ended up becoming a scholar of learning, researching and basing my teaching practice on The Science of Learning. I know the allure of all three. All three are enjoyable and fulfilling. However, we must stop pretending that just because someone has a Ph.D. that they have the skill set required for all three activities, nor should we pretend that he or she does.

We need to expect that researchers are researchers and let them do their jobs, that administrators be administrators and let them do their job (light touch and not overbearing as is the present practice), and let teachers be teachers – in a highly professional manner, basing their practice on The Science of Learning and not on the art of teaching.

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