Research-led teaching and learning: In search of meaning

puzzle pieces

Questions about the relationship between research and teaching in higher education are not new. Yet, they are unlikely to find wholesome answers in isolation of the wider context of the function of higher education. As Mary Malcolm notes in ‘A critical evaluation of recent progress in understanding the role of the research-teaching link in higher education’, ‘progress in answering the fundamental questions posed by researchers in the early 1990s and earlier has been limited’. Nevertheless, the accumulated literature on the topic -in the author’s view- ‘provides an enriched base on which earlier questions of principle and policy might be usefully considered.’

The phrase ‘research-led teaching’ appears central to shaping emerging teaching narratives. However, it also raises legitimate questions about the kind of research, the kind of leadership, and the kind of teaching we mean. A corollary of this is the implication that, somehow, something is missing in teaching that is not research-led.

The idea of ‘research-led learning’ raises questions of its own too. For instance, does not all learning happen through an act of inquiry by the learner into what they believe to be learning? Otherwise, it is merely the memorisation of facts, numbers, words, and assertions. Moreover, whatever we take memorisation to be, it can be no more than a primitive form of learning. It follows that any form of learning requires an inquiring mind-set of the kind we typically associate with research as an activity. As Sarah Cunningham-Burley puts it, ‘it is learning that most obviously links research and teaching: inquiry is central to both.’

Yet, we tend to feel intuitively that there is more to teaching at a research-rich university, even though it seems challenging to articulate that which we recognise. Moreover, if contemporary research is to inform the teaching that we do, are we not running the risk of appearing to be teaching students current research opinion as if it were fact, preliminary research findings as if they were theories, and recent publications as gospel?

The presupposition that a direct relationship exists between the activities of research and teaching is one cause of the difficulty in the discourse. By direct relationship, I mean the basic idea that researchers generate knowledge, which teachers then impart. What follows from that seems to me that teaching must stand to benefit greatly from its close proximity to the source of knowledge. Better still, surely teaching will be better if done directly by those who generate the knowledge, that is, the researchers. Research and teaching thus conceived are unlikely to develop a healthy relationship, for teaching is left feeling somewhat subservient to research as a human activity. Conversely, teaching having primacy over research would not lead to a relationship that is any healthier either.

Perhaps the way forward from the impasse is to turn attention to fundamental questions about what knowledge means, how we come to know anything, the ownership of knowledge, and the end of knowledge. Exploring fundamental questions about knowledge is likely to be fruitful in the emerging teaching narrative in research-rich environments, if for no other reason than because they are more likely to keep the learner (student) central in any discussion. Perhaps it is not surprising that the debate on research-led teaching and learning still has some distance to go, before it turns round to the inescapable view of the home straight: the meaning of knowledge.

Next steps:

Read Mary Malcom’s paper (cited in this post): “A critical evaluation of recent progress in understanding the role of the research-teaching link in higher education”, Higher Education 67 (2014): 289-301.

Read Sarah Cunningham-Burley’s post on Research-led teaching and the research/teaching nexus.

Read Jeni Harden’s post on Social Science in Medical Education: Reflections on research led teaching.

Read Angus Bancroft’s post on Researching with Students.

Medhat Khattar

Medhat Khattar is a Teaching Fellow in clinical microbiology and infectious diseases in Biomedical Sciences. When not teaching microbiology, Medhat explores what political theory has to offer. He holds an MA in political philosophy (York), and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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